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NPR’s unions share worries about job duties, audio quality

Published in Current, March 6, 2006
By Mike Janssen

A conflict over who should record and edit audio at NPR has grown to include reporters and producers as well as engineers.

The American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, NPR’s largest union with 375 members at the network, claims management violated AFTRA’s contract by assigning new technical duties to its members without consulting the bargaining unit. The union has taken its grievance to an arbitrator and to the National Labor Relations Board.

In addition, 170 AFTRA members voiced their concerns in a letter to NPR executives. A small group met with management Feb. 28 [2006].

NPR was already at odds with its technicians. Negotiations with the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians-Communications Workers of America reached an impasse late last year after the NABET contract expired in October.

At PBS, meanwhile, a majority of the staff’s NABET members approved a separate contract with the network Feb. 17. They had rejected an offer from management last fall but approved the same contract rather than press for more concessions.

NPR’s relations with the technicians’ union worsened. With no contract or pending negotiations, management shifted work duties, allowing AFTRA reporters and producers to mix audio and record tape syncs and phone interviews, tasks formerly handled by union technicians. For the first time, the network allows broadcast of mixed audio that has not been reviewed by an audio engineer.

Executives at NPR declined to comment for this story, but they have said these changes will streamline audio production and have long been common practice at most broadcast outlets. Employees worry, however, that the quality of NPR’s on-air sound could suffer, and reporters and producers fear that expanded technical duties could cut into time for journalism.

Richard HarrisSome AFTRA employees also say the new rules are straining their relationships with technical staffers. Management “is eroding their relationship with us by using us as a tool in their fight against NABET,” says Richard Harris, a science reporter and AFTRA negotiator.

Meanwhile, NABET’s members fear for their job security and are pressuring management to restart contract negotiations. The union represents roughly 85 NPR employees.

“We don’t want our jobs to be taken away by people who aren’t trained, as we are, to do the technical end of the business,” says Barbara Krieger, NABET v.p.

NABET’s campaign

NABET says the network began implementing the work changes Jan. 17, two weeks after declaring an impasse in contract negotiations with the union. The union has contested the impasse in an NLRB filing, alleging that NPR bargained in bad faith.

The union is pressing its case via other avenues as well. A quarter-page ad in the Washington Post March 2 carried the tagline “NPR: Don’t Let the Sound of Experience Fade Away.” The technicians also asked NPR affiliate stations for support and urged members of Congress to deny interviews to any NPR reporter unaccompanied by a NABET technician.

That was why Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) refused a Jan. 17 interview for NPR’s Day to Day, NABET says. Bayh’s office did not return several calls seeking confirmation.

NPR’s switch to digital production in the ’90s and the availability of desktop editing software made it possible for reporters to do more of the editing and sound mixing on their pieces. NPR audio engineers first ceded some exclusive duties in their 2002 union contract after three years of tough negotiations. The pact let producers mix some pieces after receiving training, but in most cases engineers retained the responsibility of reviewing their work before broadcast.

Now management has eliminated that requirement, though reviews are still optional, while removing all restrictions on mixing. Program hosts no longer need a NABET technician on hand to record a remote interview.

Technicians have lost as much as 80 percent of their exclusive responsibilities, says NABET’s Krieger. The union sought but did not receive assurance from management that no NABET jobs would be reduced or lost to attrition, she says.

Krieger says that about a half-dozen examples of substandard audio have aired due to the changes. She says one production assistant made a poor recording at a D.C.-area theater but declined to share other examples to protect employees.

NABET employees still have exclusive jurisdiction in technical facilities and on live remote transmissions and complicated remote recording jobs.

“They are my ears”

The journalists, meanwhile, are not fighting to expand their jobs. Three years ago AFTRA members expressed concern for NPR’s audio quality as they faced the first wave of changes, and this time they’re playing a larger role in the debate.

In its grievance to the arbitrator, AFTRA argued that NPR management lacks authority to reassign work to them from NABET members without consultation. AFTRA members are willing to accommodate new procedures when all employees benefit, Harris says. But “technical changes need to be mutually beneficial to all parties, and clearly that’s not the case now,” he says.

AFTRA’s separate complaint to the NLRB deals with the same job shifts on different grounds, contending that management should not reassign work from one union to another in the midst of a labor dispute.

Some AFTRA members will welcome the chance to mix their own pieces, but not all, says Bob Boilen, director of All Things Considered and host of the web-only All Songs Considered. Boilen, an AFTRA member, believes that engineers are essential to NPR’s quality. “They are my collaborators,” he says. “They are my ears.”

Boilen testified to engineers’ skills Feb. 10 when he addressed the NPR Board about the NABET controversy. He recalled the afternoon when he faced an upcoming four-minute hole in All Things Considered and took elements of an unfinished music commentary to an engineer who mixed it for him in six minutes. “There’s no way I would have been able to do that,” he told the Board.

Engineers should still review all audio before broadcast, Boilen says. Since that rule was lifted, some pieces that aired sounded bad enough to require remixing before airing in second feeds, he says.

Some NPR staffers also complain that the Dalet Digital Media Systems desktop software that reporters and producers use to mix audio is inadequate. It cannot compress or equalize audio, Boilen says, and AFTRA staffers have received too little Dalet training.

Flawn Williams speaking to NPR BoardNPR’s response, “rather than acknowledge problems and seek solutions, has been to turn a deaf ear and to force even more producers to make even more pieces with the Dalet system,” said longtime technician Flawn Williams at the NPR Board meeting.

AFTRA members are worried about more than sound quality. Harris points out that one-time producers such as Susan Stamberg and Melissa Block built their journalistic skills as producers before winning on-air positions. That stairway could be blocked if producers end up spending more time recording and mixing audio, he says.

Both Harris and Boilen say NPR execs seemed concerned and receptive at the Feb. 28 meeting with AFTRA members. NPR President Kevin Klose has reportedly said he wants to uphold the network’s high production standards.

Harris expects the arbitrator to rule on AFTRA’s grievance before March 31, when the union’s contract expires. Negotiations on a new contract are under way.

Harris photo copyright 2004 NPR by Steve Barrett. Williams photo courtesy of NABET.

Web page posted March 5, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee


NPR switches to digital production: Its new HQ was "the last great analog" radio facility, 1993. Out with the razor blades, 1997.

Custody of the "NPR sound" was at stake in 2002. NABET in the end agreed to sharing of technical duties with journalists.

Technicians' union at odds with PBS and NPR, 2006.


NABET Local 31 website.

Washington-Baltimore Local, AFTRA.

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