Volume 9/Issue 2
Finding Them and Keeping Them:
The Next Generation of [Public Radio] Talent
I should start off by saying that I have a pre-existing condition, a genetic code that I cannot avoid: I have always had the calling to teach. It’s in my blood.
My dad taught chemistry and biochemistry for nearly 40 years. Two of my aunts (his sisters) were public school teachers for about 30 years in New Orleans and Detroit. My uncle (one of my dad’s brother’s) has a graduate degree in math, and teaches at a community college in Dallas.
As for me, for 15 of my 21.5 years at NPR, my version of teaching was giving back. That’s an old-school term meaning that at one point in my life someone helped me, and after a period of time, I “gave it back” to someone else who needed help.
After some years as a radio producer/director at NPR, I decided to create a training program for young people who wanted to break into the industry. I dubbed it “Next Generation Radio.” The program’s philosophical foundation was the notion that the best teacher/student ratio is 1:1. Having that in mind, and not having a lot of money, I set about working with a team of people in non-profit media who also wanted to give back.
In 1994, I spoke with my good friend Traci Tong, (currently a producer for the public radio program “The World”) nearly everyday for six months, trying to figure out two things: How does one train young people in public radio journalism? And how is it done successfully in one week? The money was there thanks to Yoko Arthur who then worked for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Our launch pad was the first-ever “UNITY: Journalists of Color” conference held that year in Atlanta. We had 12 students; three each from the national associations of Asian, Black, Hispanic and Native American journalists. We had five mentors and one engineer. We started on a Sunday and finished on a Sunday. Somehow, we managed to produce two 30-minute programs in one week, on tape using razor blades and splicing tape. Today, one of those former students works for NPR in New York, another teaches journalism in Alaska. The seeds to pursue professional careers planted in them, the seeds to continue teach/mentor in radio in me.
There are two main reasons these programs worked. One, a relentless focus on the process of doing the work — finding an idea, developing a story, recording it, organizing story elements, writing, editing, and producing and mixing a piece. Two, the serious thought put into who should be a mentor on boot-camps outside NPR, and with Intern Edition, who should be the leader.
One of the most common questions I’ve gotten over the years is, “So, Doug, how did you know the participants were going to succeed?” Well, for the most part, I didn’t. I didn’t know they were going to be NPR’s Congressional Correspondent one day, or NPR’s Arts reporter. Check out this partial list.
NPR’s interns began doing their own show during the summer of 1999. They chose an Executive Producer and set forth with no road map, to try to put together a show. The first show was 90 minutes long and very egalitarian — everyone contributed. I volunteered to help because they were right outside my office, because I saw them flying in and out of edit booths with tons of questions no one was answering, and because they were openly frustrated. I thought the show was way too long but thought the idea of doing their own show was original enough that it should be kept alive. I thought there was no better way for them get an organized, qualitative experience (and improve their job candidacies) than by spending their time working in a structure and process much like that of any NPR show, with someone in charge (Executive Producer), an editor (Managing Editor), reporters who have producers, and the creation of a website to document their work.
NPR’s interns were chosen by department managers. Managers picked an applicant to be an intern in their department for a 10-12 week period. The interns could volunteer to participate in Intern Edition. I’d say 90 percent of each class participated.
I hired the leader. Leadership is about having a clear vision of the end of the process and creative/methodical ideas about how to get there. I’ve met a lot of smart, socially capable young people. I like to think the EPs I chose were more than that. I’ve always believed that if I could choose the right person, that person in turn would choose the right people. The most crucial decision was on me. If I didn’t get it right, it wouldn’t work. That was something I had to learn along the way.
Not all of the projects ran smoothly in the very early days. There were times when I picked the wrong student for an external project. I remember one who stuck the journalist organization with a $300 bill after she threw a party in her hotel room, raiding the mini-bar. During the past 15 years, we’ve had to send students home for bad behavior; during one project I had all my gear stolen. On another project, only ONE of four students finished their stories by the end of the week. I think in 1997, after a project in Chicago, I wrote a report to an NPR Human Resources staff member who was my mentor. I went on and on about all of the problems and said I wasn’t going to do it anymore. She wisely advised me to tear up the letter.
Fixing It: Structure
We started regular conversations about what was going wrong (and right) with the external boot-camps and how to fix it. By now, I had experienced mentors to work on the boot-camps and inside NPR working on Intern Edition. As a team, we decided to focus more on student expectations, professional responsibility and a refined work-flow. This is why everyone should have a mentor and it’s why today I maintain relationships with over 300 people who were, at one time, in a student radio-training project co-sponsored by NPR. Well, that’s 300+ whose names I have on a spreadsheet. There are several hundred additional graduates of our program connected to me via Facebook. Not a week goes by without two or three former intern/next gen students sending an e-mail asking if I have a few minutes to strategize.
Looking back, while we didn’t know a lot about project management, we worked hard to make a personal connection and then maintain that connection. Students on a project in the field, or at NPR as interns got to sit next to and query a working professional as they were struggling.
Inside NPR, and mostly during the Fall and Spring classes, I arranged to have an NPR journalist mentor an intern who was working on Intern Edition. I knew who in the building would make a good mentor. How? Many of the mentors had at one time been interns or next gen students. Or they had taught in a former life or had just walked up to me and said “I’d love to help.” They remembered what it was like when they were learning. I paired them up based on the student’s story pitch and then talked to a staff member who could work within the subject matter and be tough but encouraging. Rarely did any NPR staff say they did not have time.
The public job description for the Intern Edition EP (written by me with NPR’s HR division) really discouraged a boat-load of applicants. I did this on purpose. If you were not serious about leadership, then seriously, I didn’t have time. Hence, there were not a large number of applicants, but a nice pool of the right kind. All I had to do was guess correctly. No pressure there, right? My flow chart went like this: I chose the Intern Edtion Executive Producer. Then she/he chose a Managing Editor. Then EP and ME chose a Senior Web Producer and the lead web producer chose her/his team. (Interestingly, when it came to these leadership roles, men rarely applied. Another manifesto for another time.)
On the external next gen projects I had to change the structure from that of standard NPR internships: less emphasis on hierarchy, more on one-to-one relationships. Students would apply and I would choose them. I would choose five. Why five? It started out that that was all we could afford. But I learned that with so little time to teach and produce, keeping our boot-camps small was vital for everyone in getting the work done. Here again I had to pick the right people and in this case, it was choosing the right mentors more so than choosing the right students.
Our boot-camp Managing Editor was the most vital position. Over time, I learned that the ME must be a professional journalist who has worked on a daily deadline. Their day job could be editing a national show, editing/producing/managing newscasts, or years of broadcast editing or filing stories in any format on tight deadlines. The leadership team needed a clear, experienced understanding of public radio but a less rigid approach to ideas, who has them or where they come from. Students and mentors would be paired by me. This paring of students and mentors involved a lot of osmosis. I asked for very specific information on the application. This saved a lot of evaluation time.
The more directed the public applications for the boot-camps, the easier it was to choose people. If a student met the written application requests, I could then add elements of open-mindedness and risk-taking to the mix. That means I could choose someone who had a great idea and no experience and/or a lot of experience and not a great idea. My openness is based on my belief that everyone is smart and capable and just needs a little help.
During the boot-camps students would get evaluated by their mentor and be able to evaluate themselves as we went along. Real connections to real people. If I/we chose you, then you can say whatever you want and we’ll discuss it like nobody’s business. And this always happened. We had very healthy discussions about stories, ideas, methods and lately, the fate of journalism. For NPR interns, I got to know every one of them really well and told them they could talk to me anytime about pretty much anything. And they did, on the road or at my desk. This is important too. So many felt perfectly comfortable laying out their ups and downs to me. Not solely about stories, but about their lives. (Did I mention I got invited to SIX weddings last year? Each invite from a former intern or next gen student. Years ago, a former student started calling me “Padrino” [Godfather]. I didn’t object.)
One last thing about the boot-camps. We learned that we needed to operate them in much the same way a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.) unit is designed. No matter what city, no matter what place, and no matter what space or conditions, we were able to deploy, set-up, perform, evaluate, break down and move on quickly and efficiently. We used a hand-drawn, visible-for-all-to-see work-flow chart with headers of nearly every aspect of building a story. Left to right, it started with focus statements and moved on to head-shots, interviews, photos, edits, mixed piece, to done. When a student-mentor team completed a task, they got a check mark. There were times it got very competitive and we all enjoyed every minute of it.
Show on the Road
In 2008, I raised the bar on our process. On the next gen projects with WUNC in Chapel Hill, NC, The “UNITY: Journalists of Color”in Chicago and the College Media Conference in Kansas City we used Google documents and spreadsheets. These web-based applications meant we could document the developing workflow specific to our presumed conditions/infrastructure and keep conversations going. This template was established first for the mentors and students. By the time the team met for regular conference calls, those meetings were quick and focused. As the leader, I created and managed the information flow, ran the meetings and nagged the team to read the related documentation before getting on the phone.
The UNITY project had 170 people. With this approach, our first lead team conference call in January lasted 90 minutes. Our last meeting in late June was barely 20. In other words, the shorter call time was the result of enforcing the process, getting everyone used to it, and eventually that discipline paid off. In Kansas City, each team used this web-based template as it moved an idea through the process as it developed into a story. People are busy, and often mentors and students in the boot-camps are not in the same city or even time zone. In the end, each team produced a radio feature and an audio slideshow of their work. Again, we accomplished more in less time by focusing on process. These projects were rolling laboratories where a mistake was fine, but on a deadline. We worked with a wide range of students. I believe many of them are in the system now because we went to where they are instead of waiting for them to come to us.
Relationships and Risk
I want to stress two things that seem to run against each other but in my case, worked really well.
Number one: the importance of continuing to build upon already established relationships. For me, that means having former students become mentors once they start working professionally. A lot of money was spent developing people, making connections when they were young. The high level of commitment and passion for storytelling is there. To keep the commitment, you have to keep the conversation going. In any business, maintaining passion and commitment will provide a solid foundation for successful recruitment and then retention. People won’t stay if they lose their way. Businesses tend to blame the employee. Some of my most cherished recruits left public radio within five years of first landing. And the bleeding continues. I don’t chalk that up solely to generational impatience. They left because of “management” issues. Not leadership, but management. They quit the network but didn’t quit non-profit media. They found new places because they made connections with others within the system. That is an example of leaders continuing to do everything possible to make sure the passion doesn’t die at the hands of being too busy, not having any money, or a lack of creativity or vision. I can’t tell you how many hours a year I spend with former students. It isn’t in the job description. I go ahead and do it anyway.
Number two: a willingness to take risks on people you do not know and/or who didn’t come out of an already established pipeline. When I was in college, the public radio station on campus was, and still is, inside the journalism school. One day during my freshman year I literally wandered into the newsroom, expressing an interest in doing news. I talked to the News Director and he took me on. He was open to me trying out. I was very raw and didn’t know very much. That was in 1980 when I was 19. I didn’t start at NPR until 1987. In between, I interned on Capitol Hill in DC, worked in commercial radio, temped in a copy room at a law firm in Georgetown, and did time in retail too. But, if my old news director hadn’t invested so much time and effort in my development at the very beginning, I would not have the career I have. Yes, I can stubbornly focus, but one person at the very beginning made all the difference. And that is why the next gen program worked.
Some suggestions if you want to get started developing your own next generation of journalists: If you are on a college campus you have a pool of people who want to learn what you know. Appoint a leader from the staff and make shepherding an intern program part of their job, NOT in addition to their job, but part of their weekly 40 hours. I can tell you that if you don’t have a staff member with laser focus nurturing the people and the program, it’s going to fail. Second, be sure to choose someone who wants to do it. This may seem obvious, but I’ve heard a few horror stories. Or, if you are the leader, and passionate about it, carve it into your own duties. Seek advice by getting out of the station and talking with others.
If you already have someone in charge, think about what works best for the station, the school, the city, the licensee, the staff etc. What do you want out of a program geared toward recruitment and retention? Can you design a program that blends well with service to your community, school and public image? Again, one person with commitment and a willingness to experiment can make all the difference. That person will find others of like mind and then you will have a community and a talent pool and then you can find people. I can’t imagine a lack of talent these days. But, what are you doing to make sure you get the right people? You might not be able to send staff to conferences now, but can you create something locally? Oh, and find someone who in the face of being told no, finds another way, and then trust them.
Reading the headlines today, the news is always bad. I’ve gotten to where I’ve wanted to bury my head in the sand. But, I read two blogs that change that feeling daily. One is by management guru and author Tom Peters and the other by marketing guru and author Seth Godin. You’ll find various quotes from them at the bottom of my e-mails and I believe I have to some degree echoed a lot of what they say in this article. Especially the part about finding something that simply isn’t done in your field and going ahead and doing it anyway.
They say that that now is the time for reinvention. I agree, and I’m publicly trying to do that for my community. It’s time to look at systems, not just programs. Talent development must continue, not be eliminated. Find a way. Once you have the people you want, work to keep them. Don’t do things desperately, but methodically and deliberately. If you can’t help five, help one. I’m still on the circuit, continuing to train a new collection of people all over the country. I’m working with abut we remain committed to working within the non-profit, public media space. We are reinventing with a focus on talent development and skill-building using all forms of media innovation. That sounds pretty lofty, yes?
For me, each day is about continuing a conversation and building the community. If I were to score it, I’d say it’s a win everyday.
About Doug Mitchell
Doug Mitchell is currently a media/CMS trainer for AARP and a trainer/content developer for mojoco.org /New Media Institute/National Black Programming Consortium. He’s based in Washington DC.