David Folkenflik, NPR, January 12, 2022
In the wake of a trio of departures, news stories and private messages shared among NPR staffers reflected the concern that Black and Latina stars are leaving the network in droves.
In November, Weekend Edition Sunday host Lulu Garcia-Navarro left to host a podcast for The New York Times opinion section. In December, Noel King departed Morning Edition and Up First for Vox. Last week, All Things Considered and Consider This host Audie Cornish decamped to be a host for CNN’s new streaming service.
“The hosts … are the reason that those shows are so successful, along with all the people working so hard every day on those shows,” John Lansing, NPR’s chief executive, says in an interview. “Losing anybody that we see as super-valuable is always a concern.”
Listeners and colleagues have posted laments on social media. All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro said on Twitter that NPR is “hemorrhaging hosts from marginalized backgrounds.” Much of the commentary reflects a belief that NPR has proven incapable of doing the right thing when race is a factor and is willfully or carelessly driving away its future stars, even as it aspires to attract more Black and Latino listeners.
NPR’s senior vice president for news, Nancy Barnes, wrote in a letter to staff on Tuesday that, taken together, the resignations have “created a hole in the heart of the organization.”
In addition, NPR and WBUR informed member stations last week that Tonya Mosley would leave her job as host of the network’s midday show, Here & Now, at the end of the month. She will be a special correspondent for the show through the end of her contract, which lapses in August. Mosley, who is Black, is pursuing her own podcast, called Truth Be Told, for which she had acquired the rights from public radio station KQED.
Interviews with 12 people with direct knowledge of recent developments, including NPR hosts and executives, suggest NPR indeed struggles to retain high-profile journalists of color. Hosts have complained to the network’s leadership of pay disparities along racial and gender lines. Some say the network does not keep its promises and makes contract negotiations unnecessarily contentious. And several hosts concluded they were made to be the public face of NPR but did not have the network’s full support.
Under Lansing, who is white, NPR has emphasized the need for diversity in its staffing, its story selection, and its audiences, and pursued initiatives to fulfill those needs. He has called the mission the network’s “North Star” since his arrival in fall 2019, months before people took to the streets to protest racial inequality, upending American corporate life. He has pitched it both as a moral imperative and fundamental to the network’s continued survival in weekly all-staff meetings.
Data shared by NPR’s corporate leadership suggest that the network has made strides in racial diversity. For the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, the turnover rate for employees of color at NPR was lower than it was for the entire staff. And 78% of all hires were people of color, up from roughly half over the previous two years. (The network did not break down those figures exclusively for editorial staffers. NPR’s staff is majority female, both in its newsroom and more broadly.)
Lansing says NPR must do more to ensure its journalists of color are treated with respect and have opportunities to explore their ambitions. He also says turnover is part of the reality in media, especially with other organizations moving aggressively into the audio space with podcasts and other on-demand digital offerings.
In May 2020, four NPR female hosts of color — Garcia-Navarro, King, All Things Considered host Ailsa Chang and Weekend All Things Considered host Michel Martin — sent a letter to Lansing seeking a more equitable pay arrangement in comparison to their male peers. Publicly available tax forms listing top-paid employees suggested female hosts were paid less than their male counterparts. In the case of Morning Edition‘s Steve Inskeep and Weekend Edition‘s Scott Simon, who are white, seniority and longevity elevated their pay.
The group met several times with Lansing and NPR’s chief human resources official, Carrie Storer. Inskeep, who is white and the network’s highest-paid host, separately urged executives to remedy the disparities as well, according to three people with knowledge.
According to NPR’s 2019 tax records, for example, Simon’s annual base pay was $75,000 more than that of Martin. He is white; she is Black. Both host two hours of programming each weekend.
Cornish, a former congressional reporter, had openly chafed against some of the strictures of the daily radio show and had taken on other projects while at NPR. She had shaped the development of Consider This, a podcast spun off from All Things Considered, which allows for a fuller exploration of a single issue in 12 to 15 minutes. And she often shone at live events and in less formal venues such as NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. Several years ago, she hosted a show for BuzzFeed’s video ventures.
Cornish, who is Black, wrote on Twitter last week that after 20 years in public radio, and 10 years as a host, she was ready to try something new. “I am leaving of my own accord with no malice or resentment,” Cornish wrote. “I have had a great run with a company full of people I respect and admire.”
But, she added, “I also understand that 4 hosts leaving in a year – three of them POC women– is a red flag.”
NPR executives point to recent hirings and promotions of journalists of color. NPR’s newest hosts — A Martínez and Leila Fadel on Morning Edition and Mosley and Scott Tong on Here & Now — come from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. Morning Edition‘s new executive producer, Erika Aguilar, is Latina. The network’s new chief culture editor, Nick Charles, is Black.
“We’re focused not only on those who choose to leave NPR, but also who is deciding to come,” NPR’s chief communications officer, Isabel Lara, who is Latina, said in a statement. “Ensuring that public media reflects the people of the United States is not a responsibility or initiative, but a necessity.”