NPR Run by Army of Temps

While often portrayed as left-leaning, the public broadcaster is ruthlessly capitalistic in its labor practices.


WaPo (“At NPR, an army of temps faces a workplace of anxiety and insecurity“):

Julia Botero was happy to catch on, and determined to stay on, at NPR. After completing an internship at the public broadcasting organization in Washington in 2013, she began a year-long stint as a temporary employee, moving between producing jobs at NPR’s signature news programs, “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition.”

Botero quickly realized what she was up against. As a “temp,” she floated among unfamiliar co-workers and faced an ever-changing set of responsibilities, some of which she’d never been trained for. Her work contracts were sometimes as brief as two weeks, at the end of which she’d have to persuade a manager to extend her.

Worse was the sense of constant competition among her fellow temps, many of whom were angling to be hired for a limited number of permanent positions. “The only person I felt I could trust,” she said, “was the person I was dating, who was in the same position I was.” After a year of such uncertainty, she left, taking a job as a reporter for a group of public radio stations in New York state.

What’s surprising about Botero’s experience is how unsurprising it is at NPR.

For decades, the public broadcaster has relied on a cadre of temporary journalists to produce its hourly newscasts and popular news programs. Without temporary workers — who are subject to termination without cause — NPR would probably be unable to be NPR. Temps do almost every important job in NPR’s newsroom: They pitch ideas, assign stories, edit them, report and produce them. Temps not only book the guests heard in interviews, they often write the questions the hosts ask the guests.

And there are a lot of them. According to union representatives, between 20 and 22 percent of NPR’s 483 union-covered newsroom workforce — or 1 in 5 people — are temp workers. The number varies week to week as temps come and go.

NPR’s management cites a somewhat lower figure, 16 percent, although its count reflects managers and interns and other employees in departments that aren’t represented by the union. NPR says the overall ratio of temporary workers to permanent employees has remained more or less stable for several years.

[…]

Temps were often left in the dark about how long their assignments would last, how much they’d be paid, who they were reporting to, or what their title was. They also said they received little feedback from supervisors after completing an assignment, and were “routinely” overlooked in NPR’s recruiting efforts.

Several temps interviewed for this story use the same word to describe NPR’s temp system: “Exploitative.”

By any measure, NPR is unusual among broadcast media organizations in the size of its temporary workforce.

About 5 percent of the staff at a typical TV station was employed on a part-time or temporary basis, according to a survey conducted last year by the Radio Television Digital News Association. Radio stations, which usually have much smaller staffs than TV stations, reported an average of just one part-timer or temp in the survey. The number of temporary workers among stations has declined steadily over the past 10 years as the recession has eased, said Robert Papper, who conducted the survey.

Other kinds of news organizations employ few temps. The only journalists officially designated as temporary in The Washington Post’s newsroom are six “extended interns,” who are employed with the expectation that they will someday fill a permanent job when an appropriate one opens, Managing Editor Tracy Grant said.

NPR hires temps to address “a range of needs,” said Loren Mayor, president of operations. She said temporary workers fill in for permanent staffers when the latter go on vacation, take sick leave or parental leave, or when news events warrant.

“As a media company that strives to be innovative and nimble, we need talented people who can come in on a short-term basis to help us experiment with a new idea or pilot a new program,” Mayor said. “As a breaking news organization, we need additional reporters and editors to staff up for targeted news events like elections.”

In a lengthy response via email, Mayor made no mention of any financial advantage in employing temps. But the potential seems obvious: Temporary employees are paid only when they work, and they work only when managers decide. This gives NPR, a nonprofit organization, flexibility in managing its payroll and broad discretion over work assignments.

This is, indeed, exploitative—even by media and nonprofit standards.

In DC, at least, the unpaid internship is an unfortunate rite of passage for those seeking to enter the think tank, nonprofit, and media worlds. Massive numbers of intelligent young people right out of college—and, often, out of graduate school—compete for a relatively small number of entry-level jobs in those fields. Naturally, the employers exploit that imbalance by “hiring” a lot of “interns” to do low-level work, usually for no pay at all. The young people take these jobs, usually footing the bill for moving to and living expenses in a very expensive city in hopes of gaining experience and connections that will lead to full-time, paid employment.  While this obviously works to the advantage of folks from affluent families who can backstop them during the period, it’s generally understood that it will last for only a few months, maybe a year at the outside.

One presumes NPR uses unpaid interns as well. But to then go on to use these people as temporary workers—with no guaranteed income or benefits—is shocking for what most view as a progressive organization. There’s really very little incentive to hire full-time professionals if they can lure quality candidates under this system.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. mattbernius says:

    There’s not too much to be added here other than to note that way too many professional gig (be they in government, the media, or academics) rely on unpaid internships and this type of precarious hiring. Which really limits the people who are often able to participate.

  2. Kathy says:

    This kind of thing makes progressives look hypocritical. They can’t argue for a living wage, and then do things like underpay their own employees.

    I don’t know if NPR in particular advocates for $15 an hour minimum wage, but those who do ought to call them on their employment practices.

  3. Mister Bluster says:

    Temporary employees are paid only when they work,…

    Will someone direct me to a job that pays me for not working. Mattress tester?

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Mister Bluster: Most professional jobs in the media pay salaries, guaranteeing a paycheck and benefits regardless of how busy the employee may be. Temps are paid only for the days the company needs them to come in.

  5. Guarneri says:

    Progressivism for thee, but not for me. Anyone surprised?

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  6. Franklin says:

    If it weren’t for progressivism, idiots like you would be working in a sweatshop and so would your children.

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  7. Mister Bluster says:

    @James Joyner:..Temps are paid only for the days the company needs them to come in.

    That was my life working in the land line telephone industry for 35 years as a contractor instead of a company employee. Every job I worked was temporary. Even when I was working under a union contract (about 1/3 of the time) there was zero job security.
    I knew this before I started my career.
    I also knew I would have to travel to jobs across the country, at least 14 states as I remember, and supply my own truck and tools (for which I was handsomely reimbursed).
    I worked outside all the time and I enjoyed the work and it paid well and I got to see the country.
    At times I was the employer and had others working for me. They knew full well what the conditions were before they started.
    Some of them stayed on, some of them quit.
    It was their choice.

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  8. mattbernius says:

    @James Joyner:

    Most professional jobs in the media pay salaries, guaranteeing a paycheck and benefits regardless of how busy the employee may be.

    I think it depends on what you mean by “professional.” Most of the networks have increasingly relied on temporary staff to augment their existing staff, particularly on the production side (i.e. sound, video, logistics, etc).

  9. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy:

    This kind of thing makes progressives look hypocritical. They can’t argue for a living wage, and then do things like underpay their own employees.

    Sure they can! This is America; you can treat workers however you want here if your business has the right amount of stroke and market leverage.

    ETA: As a substitute teacher, my daily wage is $150+, or roughly $25/hr for a 6 hour day. The trick is that working only 3 days/week, average, the weekly rate is $10.02 per 8 hour day.
    BTW, the districts I work for pay above the average rate of about $100/day.

    The problem isn’t the wage, it’s the instability. I’m retired now, so I don’t care, but for younger people…

  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mister Bluster: You bring up an important point–the degree to which full (enough) employment can be cobbled together as a contract laborer. I’ve known several people who did contract labor and much of the time their rate was above what the company would have paid them as a regular employee (but not above the total outlay including pension and medical/dental). The trick was that they were in fields where they could count on getting hired almost every day. I even worked day labor during summers while I was in grad school and after I started teaching. Virtually instant employment, no applications to fill out, no interviews, down time between school ending and new job starting was usually the weekend. Win-win situation–for me at least.

  11. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    NPR is not a progressive organization. Like most independent public broadcasters it is politically neutral, even if their viewers skew left. Sure, we are used to seeing that anything other than Fox or Breitbart is “progressive”, but NPR is not a progressive organization.

    Besides that, they pay their interns – 13.25 a hour. Maybe it’s a small pay for Washington DC and NYC, but its paid.

  12. Mister Bluster says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:..much of the time their rate was above what the company would have paid them as a regular employee (but not above the total outlay including pension and medical/dental).

    Depending on the need for my skills, the hourly wage was almost always more than the Telephone Company employee I was often working with. Some jobs offered medical/dental and pension programs at little or no cost to me. Some did not.
    It all depended on the demand for my labor.
    When I started in 1973 many telephone exchanges were still providing 4 party service as well as more expensive private lines in cities and towns. In rural exchanges Telcos were converting to buried plant. Abandoning aerial open wire circuits. In some states all rural customers could get were 8 and 10 party lines as recent as the 1980’s. Now that I think of it the last jobs that I had cutting over rural customers to exclusively private line service was in the early ’90s in Missouri.
    Different states Public Utility Commissions mandated private line service at various times.
    More work for me.
    When dial up internet came on the scene most land line residential and many business customers wanted an extra telephone line so their voice phone line would not be busy status all the time. Phone companies across the country were slammed with work orders for 2nd and sometimes 3rd lines. This in an urban exchange environment (Houston, Texas for instance) where facilities were allocated to provide one to one and a half circuit loops per residence.
    More work for me.

  13. Liberal Capitalist says:

    When the accountants overtook America, it all took a shit.

    Now, nearly every location (for profit or non-profit) will take a temp if they can. No benefits, no long term entanglements, easily ejectable humans, without severance.

    Temps are a stop-gap until robotics can take it further. Walmart is already using robots to stock shelves and scrub floors.

    Everybody is cheering for Tesla, but the factories are very clean and relatively uninhabited.

    GM was vilified by Trump for reacting to market pressures (sedans aren’t selling, so quit building sedans) and closed factories. Mary Barra has her sights set on the global market, so shifting to electric vehicle production and self-driving transportation services. Which is great for GM (and likely awesome for the country), but will again displace a large number of workers.

    So the question is not what will NPR do or not do, it is more a question of what will WE do as we continue to move forward?

    Do we accept a permanently unemployed or majority? How does this balance with the insistence of continued production? Does society bifurcate?

    This is not a new question. Back in 1954, Pohl wrote a short story called “The Midas Plague” that addressed that issue.

    I never expected to be one of the “Haves”. I always expected to be a “Have-not” (and if I am totally honest, to be completely dead by now). But across the board I can see the sub-society encroaching and being accepted in America. And it’s not immigrants. It’s the same Americans that are not getting a decent chance, not born into money (not even what used to be the lower middle class) and continually being sold a bill of goods that it will be better.

    Along with a 12 year deadline for global warming, this is our second horseman.

  14. Kathy says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    When the accountants overtook America, it all took a shit.

    I think this is when employees went from being an investment (ie human capital), to being a cost.

    Back in 1954, Pohl wrote a short story called “The Midas Plague” that addressed that issue.

    Thanks for the link. I’ll read it later.

    I read a book by Pohl and Kornbluth called “The Space Merchants.” I won’t say it’s great, but it does give one a lot to think about.

    There are a few short stories by John W. Campbell Jr. (THE man himself) dealing with humans that degenerate from being idle while machines do all the work.

  15. Just nutha igrant cracker says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: Nonsense, the problem–as almost anyone here will tell you–is “those people.” You know, the ones who are too lazy to “upgrade their skill sets” and “move out of their small, dead towns.” We’ve been talking about them here since before Trump got elected, and they haven’t wised up yet.

  16. Hal_10000 says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    When the accountants overtook America, it all took a shit.

    Everything’s been going to hell that way.

    In academia, adjuncts teach classes for tiny salaries. Meanwhile, University Presidents makes high six-figures and they hire armies of six-figure admins. In medicine, doctors and nurses make good money. But the highest salaries go to admins and CEOs. Our entire country being swallowed by administrators and consultants — people who don’t actually do anything but make huge salaries for doing nothing.

    NPR’s heads and celebrity hosts make good money — hundreds of thousands. And meanwhile they’re doing this to staff.

  17. MarkedMan says:

    @Kathy:

    I read a book by Pohl and Kornbluth called “The Space Merchants.” I won’t say it’s great, but it does give one a lot to think about.

    Truly an amazing read. Pohl wrote real human characters incredibly well, while simultaneously positing fascinating outcomes of technological trends. Kornbluth… not so much. But his concepts were great.

  18. JohnMcC says:

    @Hal_10000: And that keeps the ‘average wage’ right up there where it looks good. Which contributes to the surprise when things like the Crash of ’08 happen.

  19. Dave Schuler says:

    This isn’t particularly unusual in not-for-profits. That most of its workers aren’t particularly well-paid isn’t much of a scandal.

    What is a scandal is the very high compensation that top-level executives of not-for-profits bring down. That calls into question the notion of not being for profit.