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.