Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor
NPR announced another host departure last week, Audie Cornish has stepped down from All Things Considered. That's the fourth NPR radio host to leave in the past year, and three of those high-profile resignations are women of color.
This is troubling for a network whose executives have publicly declared their intention to have NPR look and sound more representative of the America it strives to serve.
These resignations come as NPR leaders are making their most significant effort to change the racial and ethnic composition of the company. In 2021, 78% of new hires were people of color. Internally, journalists are using a new system to track the diversity of their sources. All hiring committees must be racially and ethnically diverse, as must all job-candidate finalist pools.
And NPR did a wage-gap analysis that revealed white employees and men hold a disproportionate number of jobs with high salaries, said Carrie Storer, chief human resources officer. "To move the needle on that, you have to improve your hiring and promotion processes," she said.
Last year, under pressure from four female hosts, including two who eventually quit, NPR leadership adopted a new salary structure for hosts, NPR's Media Correspondent David Folkenflik reported.
All of this internal work is designed to foster a staff of journalists who can develop new content to reach a broader audience. Listeners to NPR on radio — its largest platform by far — are 78% white (compared with about 60% of the U.S. population.) The website attracts a bit more of a diverse audience, but it's still 73% white.
NPR podcast audiences are younger and more in line with the American public, 67% white. And although podcast audiences are smaller, NPR gets more sponsorship money for podcasts than for over-the-air shows. (Broadcast programs are still more lucrative because they receive fees from stations and other support.) Just last week, NPR debuted The Limits with Jay Williams, a new podcast in which the ESPN analyst and former basketball star interviews sports and entertainment legends.
But the most visible reflection of what NPR "looks like" remains the makeup of the hosts of their high-profile shows. Because the audiences are larger, the hosts of Morning Edition and All Things Considered become the voice of the network. They make public appearances, visit local stations and tweet to hundreds of thousands of followers. There are 11 show hosts across those two shows and their weekend counterparts. In the past, most hosts have either retired, like Robert Siegel did in 2018, or transitioned into other NPR projects like when Kelly McEvers left ATC in 2017 to host the Embedded podcast, or when Melissa Block left the same show in 2015 to become a special correspondent. In 2004, host Bob Edwards quit Morning Edition in protest after he was asked to take a new assignment.
To recap the latest resignations (none of these journalists would talk on the record):
- Cornish's departure was announced Jan. 4. Citing the "great resignation," she said on Twitter, "I love my job. I love the listeners of @NPR and the people who make it. Alongside that truth, I am ready to stretch my wings and try something new." A few days later, CNN announced that Cornish will anchor a show, host a podcast and serve as a correspondent for their new streaming platform. Cornish is Black.
- NPR announced on Nov. 30 that Noel King was leaving Morning Edition to become the host of Vox's daily news podcast, Today, Explained, a rival to NPR's daily deep-dive podcast Consider This. On the air, she told A Martínez, "You and I and Rachel and Steve always talk about how we wish we just had a little bit more time for context. And so this show is an opportunity to do that." King is Black.
- Lulu Garcia-Navarro announced to her followers on Twitter on Sept. 9, "Like much of the US, I need a break," and that she would leave her post as the host of Weekend Edition. On Sept. 30 she added that she would join The New York Times' opinion desk as a podcast host. "I am thrilled to open up a new chapter doing what I love: telling real stories about people and how they move in the world and why they think the way they do." Garcia-Navarro is Latina.
- David Greene stepped away from hosting Morning Edition just over a year ago. His last show was Dec. 29, 2020. When NPR announced his plans, he tweeted, "I love the place and will sorely miss so many colleagues. I will always be a storyteller. And my adventures ahead involve other passions as well." He recently announced a new book and has been pursuing personal audio projects. Greene is white.
In my on- and off-the-record conversations with more than a dozen people including executives, current NPR staff, former staff and media-watchers close to public radio, three issues emerged:
- Executives point to the increased demand for audio talent and particularly for Black and Latino journalists. Despite NPR's substantial size and national scope, it struggles to compete for this talent against commercial newsrooms that assign more resources to shows and projects, as well as pay higher salaries.
- Critics from both inside and outside the network cite NPR's historically slow progress on diversity. Although the current CEO John Lansing has made it a priority, the legacy lingers. As a result, some Black and brown journalists told me they doubt management's sincerity, particularly when disagreements over contracts, assignments or resources arise.
- There is a fatigue factor that is plaguing journalists everywhere — including NPR. Journalists who've worked on news shows say the increasing desire to make all issues seem urgent, the confrontational interviews in a polarized political climate and the relentless pandemic have made the job less appealing to accomplished journalists with many opportunities.
My reporting shows that all these factors have contributed to the host exodus, as well as other departures. Code Switch announced in June that Shereen Marisol Meraji was leaving the award-winning podcast she helped create and has executive produced to do a Nieman Fellowship and then join the faculty at UC Berkeley. In September, Short Wave, NPR's daily science podcast, said goodbye to host Maddie Sofia, the queer Ph.D. microbiologist who first piloted the show in 2019 as a way of exploring the mysteries of scientific discoveries.
When hosts leave, the public cares. At NPR, show hosts serve as familiar guides, walking us through the news. They make it easier to digest complicated and confusing information. They help us listen to viewpoints we might disagree with by asking the tough questions we want answered. Along with us, they experience and express the range of emotions — shock, anger, joy and delight — that might come with the day's stories.
For that reason, when a host departs, the audience speaks up. "Is it me, or are people dropping like flies at NPR," @elliottn28 tweeted in the wake of the Cornish news.
With each departure, hundreds of NPR fans expressed their sorrow at the loss.
"I will follow you wherever you go," Crystal Marie tweeted to Audie Cornish. "It meant so much to me when I first started as a young Black listener and continued as a career mom."
"No!!!!!!!!" Susan Lappin tweeted to Noel King. "I'm sure I'm not the only one who misses @nprgreene and now you."
"My daughters and I will miss hearing such an important Latina voice on the radio," jtluv tweeted to Lulu Garcia-Navarro, adding a Puerto Rican flag.
Fans weren't the only ones to take to Twitter. All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro encouraged journalists to ask why the network is "hemorrhaging hosts from marginalized backgrounds." Cornish offered more nuance with her own thread.
And although none of the current or former NPR employees would go on the record to say more about NPR's challenges with host retention, some have offered suggestions. After the Cornish announcement, Sofia retweeted Garcia-Navarro, who said, "People leave jobs for other opportunities if they are unhappy with the opportunities they have and the way they have been treated. I'm sad to see this happening but it is not unexpected."
Sam Sanders, the host of It's Been a Minute, has repeatedly tweeted concern about NPR's talent drain, listing other show creators and hosts who have left the NPR fold.
The general prescription for NPR to have greater success will require its leadership to:
- Put more people of color in reporting positions
- Get more sophisticated with contract negotiations
This is how NPR measures the diversity of hosts, correspondents, reporters and other bylined journalists. This is the category where NPR marks the least progress.
This is a common problem throughout journalism. As I listened to CEO John Lansing, Senior VP for News Nancy Barnes, Senior VP for Programming Anya Grundmann and VP for News Programming Sarah Gilbert explain their approach and the barriers they face, it occurred to me that NPR is trying very hard to do things the NPR-nice way, making the staffing decisions one person at a time, without looking across the entire organization.
"Specifically the reporting ranks can be a little bit more complicated because we have a lot of talented staff who've been here for a long time, 20, 30 years," Barnes said. "Some people don't retire until they're well into their 70s. We had one recently. And so if you want to diversify those ranks, you either need to speed up the retirements — and we don't just want to be pushing out talented people — or add greatly to the number of reporters, which is a huge financial investment at a time when we've been in a financial crisis."
Lansing deserves a lot of credit for avoiding layoffs when the revenue tanked in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic. His No.1 goal was to avoid pink slips. And he did, through salary reductions that have since been restored, and a hiring and promotions freeze that has since been thawed. Good for him for not using the economic crisis to achieve ulterior goals.
But now NPR faces a different challenge. If you can't grow your way to a representative staff, other pathways must be forged.
At the negotiating table
Contract negotiations are the place where talent and NPR come to the table to hammer out a mutual future that benefits both parties. NPR has been fumbling these conversations.
In addition to salary, negotiations often stipulate special assignments and other considerations. While the pandemic has created hurdles, several hosts told me they were frustrated by inequities long before the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Gilbert, who supervises the radio shows, said, "Our hosts basically get to pitch and choose their assignments, and we encourage that. You know, providing that they work in consultation with their executive producer. We are looking for reporting which is going to be distinctive and moves the needle and be different and something that audiences could not find anywhere else. ... We want our hosts to dig in on things that they're passionate about."
Of course a system that relies solely on folks raising their hands to pitch ideas and then others agreeing that it's a good idea leaves plenty of room for disparity in the results. There would be less risk of disparity and dissatisfaction if contracts stipulated assignments (some do) and then NPR made a commitment to follow through.
Lansing told me there are other clauses in contracts in which NPR is trying to demonstrate more flexibility. In some cases that might mean relaxing restrictions and noncompete clauses.
"One of the things that may be of interest to a talent and/or a host is the ability to leave without much friction in the contract," he said, referring to noncompetes that would prevent a host from going to another national news outlet. "And so the paradox may be that retaining people is giving them more freedom to leave."
Given this new reality, NPR leadership should consider what it would take to bring more sophistication to attracting and managing high-level talent contracts.
Lansing told Folkenflik that in the future he was personally going to approve all contracts. That's a start.
More hosts in waiting
NPR's working toward a steady, robust bench of hosts-in-waiting, ready and willing to get behind a show. Last summer, Morning Edition announced A Martínez as David Greene's replacement. It took six months from Greene's last day, even though he had given NPR several months' notice.
Leila Fadel, a Lebanese American journalist, was recently announced as Noel King's replacement. Lulu Garcia-Navarro's Sunday-morning slot and Audie Cornish's ATC seat are currently open.
If you've listened over the last month, you've heard an ensemble of fill-in hosts on all the shows, including Ayesha Rascoe, Eyder Peralta, Scott Detrow, Asma Khalid, Danielle Kurtzleben, Sarah McCammon and Adrian Florido. Four of the seven are people of color, three are white.
It's exciting. It's been way too long in coming. You'll likely hear more of it in the future.
"We want to make sure that that's more strategic and that we are in particular creating a lot of opportunities for a diverse array of people to fill in and get that experience so that when the next opening comes up, people are ready to apply both internally and externally," Barnes said. "And I would say, in particular, we want a better array of fill-in hosts who are men of color."
This current tension at NPR would not be happening at all without a critical mass of younger and more diverse employees who NPR brought on in recent years, including some of those who have been in the host seat, advocating for change.
We the audience will be the ultimate beneficiaries as NPR accelerates the pace at which it can showcase more talented journalists who are Black, Latino, Asian and Native American. That work will turn them into household names. And like those who came before them, those household names will guide us through the news we need and the news we didn't know we needed.
The Public Editor serves as a bridge between the newsroom and the public and stands as a source of independent accountability for NPR. Click here for information on our office. Subscribe to our weekly newsletter to keep up with our work.
This Public Editor column was researched and produced by Kayla Randall.