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NPR contract would end technicians’ hold on audio mixing

Originally published in Current, Aug. 5, 2002
By Mike Janssen

Union technicians at NPR will vote Aug. 12 on a proposed contract that would surrender their exclusive authority to mix audio — a landmark change they have fiercely opposed during years of negotiations.

The contract is the first to come to a vote since January, when the 80 or so unionized technicians overwhelmingly defeated a proposal that also sought to loosen jurisdictional rules governing mixing.

Negotiations resumed after that defeat, but if the contract goes down again, NPR management said it will not only loosen jurisdictional rules but also deny the retroactive pay increases that union members would win by approving the contract. Technicians last received pay raises in October 1999.

The technicians are represented by the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET), a sector of the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

The union won some concessions from NPR in the latest negotiations, including a so-called blackout provision barring nonunion employees from mixing stories close to airtime. They also secured larger pay raises, a bonus for signing the contract and higher base pay for electronic engineers and satellite maintenance technicians.

Despite these gains, NABET leaders refused to recommend approval of the contract. For the union to endorse a contract, it would have to offer more pay or provide more protection for mixing rights, said Paula Olson, the NABET-CWA staff representative for NPR's bargaining unit. "We did not achieve our minimum objectives but felt there should be a vote," she said.

Fears of obsolete jobs—and workers

Jurisdictional rights lie at the heart of the negotiations between NPR and the union, which began three years ago when technicians voted for representation by NABET. A 1989 in-house agreement granted them the exclusive mixing rights they enjoy today.

Since then, computer-based digital editing has replaced magnetic tape and grease pencils, and some believe it has eased the assembling of stories. Workstations using Dalet Digital Media Systems software have taken over NPR's news unit.

Despite the changes, technicians still control broadcast mixes. Some spend an estimated 65 percent of their time mixing audio, and they worry that if NPR gives that work to nonunion employees their jobs will become obsolete. They also fear that the quality of NPR's on-air sound will decline as less experienced mixers compose pieces on inferior equipment.

One broadcast recording technician at NPR, who asked not to be identified, said producers will be mixing stories using cheap computer speakers and will not be able to equalize sound because Dalet lacks that capability. The proposed contract empowers technicians to reject substandard three-source mixes by non-technicians, but not two-source mixes.

"NPR is not really either understanding or acknowledging what effect this really will have on the quality of our air sound," the technician said.

NPR executives say they want to impose the new rules for efficiency's sake and claim NPR is the country's only major broadcaster that has not relaxed jurisdictional rules governing mixing.

The proposed contract, which emerged from two days of negotiations with a private mediator, would immediately let producers in NPR's Newscast Unit mix from two audio sources. Producers on all shows, but not interns, could begin three-source mixing in December.

At first, only technicians will be allowed to mix three-source stories that need to air within three hours — the so-called blackout period. The blackout period drops by an hour every three months until August 2003, when it ends entirely.

The blackout period marks a compromise between management and the technicians, who prefer the status quo. "Prior to this contract, [mixing] was their exclusive responsibility," Olson said. "To be requested to share it obviously has a significant impact on their job security."

The contract does declare that no technicians will be laid off as a result of the jurisdictional changes, but the promise lasts only through Sept. 30, 2004, when the contract expires.

NABET did secure higher raises for the technicians. A proposed 2 percent raise in 2003 went up to 3 percent, and the contract includes a 1 percent signing bonus.

"Morale stinks"

An NPR official called the contract "a pretty balanced and reasonable synthesis of both sides" and said the bargaining unit should feel good about it.

It also comes with support from Richard Block, the private mediator, who wrote that "this was the best contract that could have been achieved, considering all the circumstances."

But the compromises have not swayed all technicians. Some still want exclusive mixing rights but have accepted that eventually they will have to share them, according to All Things Considered director Bob Boilen.

"Morale stinks. . . . For the most part, people are really unhappy," he said. "But they feel like, what are they going to do? This is the future. It's not the future they want. Radio's not going to sound any better, it's only going to sound more compromised, but there's nothing they can do." As a director, Boilen does not belong to the union.

Non-technicians have expressed reluctance to start mixing, and share with technicians the fear that looser jurisdictional rules will damage the technical quality of NPR's programs. "I've not spoken with a producer in the building that's happy with this," Boilen said. "We've got enough things for producers to handle without having a piece to mix. If I have to start worrying about my levels and [equalizations] on top of my content, something's got to give."

Boilen and the technician expect the contract to win approval despite its perceived flaws.

If NPR imposes the new jurisdictional rules despite a vote against the contract, expect "a lot of confrontation and conflict," Olson said. NABET plans to mobilize and contact NPR's board and organizations that support the network and has not ruled out a strike.

Later story
NPR technicians okay shared mixing duties

Originally published in Current, Aug. 19, 2002

Unionized technicians at NPR overwhelmingly approved a new labor contract that cedes their exclusive right to mix audio. Eighty-eight percent of the technicians who belong to the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET) favored the contract. Their approval ends more than three years of negotiations.

"The contract was a product of compromise on both sides," said Paula Olson, the NABET staff representative for NPR’s bargaining unit. While the union did not win all the concessions it wanted, "I can’t say that we’re disappointed with the results," Olson said. The union negotiated raises higher than those in an earlier proposal and won a temporary provision barring non-technicians from mixing audio close to deadline. That provision ends in August 2003.

New rules allow newscast producers to mix two-source pieces, and producers on all shows can start three-source mixing in December. Non-technicians must first receive training.

NPR Executive Vice President Ken Stern called the vote "a positive and long-awaited development."

NABET negotiators had wanted to keep jurisdiction over mixing, but NPR management wanted to fully exploit its digital production systems and said all other broadcasting outlets let producers mix. Management also intended to loosen jurisdiction even if the union rejected the contract, while denying the retroactive pay raises approval awarded. The union did not recommend approval of the contract.

--Mike Janssen

To Current's home page
Earlier news: Custody of "NPR sound" at stake in union battle, January 2002.
Outside link: NABET Local 31 website.

Web page posted Aug. 6, 2002, revised Aug. 26, 2002
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