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NPR hosts' departures fuel questions over race. The full story is complex

(L-R) Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Audie Cornish, Noel King
(L-R) Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Audie Cornish, Noel King

Updated January 12, 2022 at 1:23 PM ET

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.

"I have been honored over the past two years to be part of the biggest stories of our time at Here & Now," Mosley says. "As individual journalists and as institutions, we need to be thinking about what are the ways we serve the audience that may be different than the way we do now. This is a moment where we need to have deep reflection on who we are and what value we have to the people. Maintaining the status quo is not the way to do it."

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.

Yet the interviews also yield a more complex picture.

Broadcast news shows no longer hold uniform allure

Major changes within the industry have shifted where many journalists' ambitions lie. Hosting a traditional radio program no longer holds the same allure it did a generation ago, or even a decade ago. For many, it's now a combination of old-school prestige and daily grind in an era of unrelentingly grim headlines. In late 2020, former Morning Edition host David Greene, who is white, left NPR without any new gig lined up. He had been a mainstay of the network for 15 years.

"How people view those hosting jobs, I suppose, are in the eye of the beholder," Lansing says. "The magazine shows are the very definition of excellence and [the hosts] represent NPR on the radio and through the podcasts Consider This and Up First. They are the most visible form of the expression of the NPR brand and what we stand for."

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.

But the new roles taken elsewhere by Cornish, King and Garcia-Navarro afford them greater individual prominence and a form of journalism that will allow them more expression of their individual sensibilities. Barnes, the NPR news chief, alluded to that fact in her note to staff.

"There are now enormous opportunities for journalists that did not exist a decade ago, and that's generally a good thing," she wrote. "This fierce competition doesn't explain all of our losses, and we will have to work harder to eliminate every obstacle — from processes to problems in the work environment — that might lead someone to leave."

"We plan to embrace and lift up new voices and build a robust, diverse pipeline of journalists ready to move into every critical role," wrote Barnes, who is white.

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.

Increasingly, outlets owned by for-profit companies, such as The New York Times and The New Yorker, are also creating programming for public radio stations that competes with NPR offerings. And NPR hosts frequently pursue outside interests. Mary Louise Kelly and Scott Simon write novels while Steve Inskeep is the author of several historical nonfiction books; Shapiro has sung on tour with Pink Martini and Alan Cumming; in April, he is scheduled to perform his solo cabaret act at a renowned cabaret bar in New York City.

Inside NPR, Shapiro, who is white, and King, who is Black, pitched podcasts built around their interests. Both felt stymied by NPR's programming division, which oversees podcasts and is run apart from the news side, according to colleagues they spoke to.

Several people interviewed for this story expressed frustrations that the two sides — news and programming — were not run in a more unified fashion. Though there have been myriad collaborations, particularly in extending the brands of those tentpole shows in daily podcasts, news executives cannot concretely promise NPR's journalists running room to develop podcasts and other projects without buy-in from the programming side.

While NPR's news magazines define the network for tens of millions of listeners, NPR now derives more sponsorship revenue from podcasts than those news shows. And the audiences for the podcasts are markedly younger and more diverse.

NPR boosts hosts' salaries after confrontation about pay gap

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 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.

Lansing proved receptive. And executives unveiled a "grid" — a chart intended to standardize pay, while recognizing years of service and performance. As a result of the hosts' advocacy, most female hosts received five-figure pay raises in subsequent individual contracts. Yet the grid ended up rankling the people it was supposed to reassure. Several hosts concluded that, after the initial increases, the grid imposed a rigid cap on how much pay they could earn, regardless of offers from competing news outlets or other factors.

Last week, in a meeting with Lansing, numerous hosts complained about the pay structure.

"The grid was a good-faith effort, I thought at the time, to address some concerns from the hosts of color," Lansing says. "I realized from hearing them out last week, that that's not the case."

Lansing says NPR would find another solution.

"For a very long time, the way things worked at NPR was kind of arbitrary, based on how much you knew and who you knew," says Sam Sanders, host of NPR's It's Been A Minute With Sam Sanders. "Things like pay and host pay operated under cover of darkness. You would get your deal based on your relationship with management."

Sanders, who is Black, says NPR's leadership did not expect its hosts to act in concert.

Sanders' show is both a podcast and a weekly radio show, developed out of the programming side. He argues that NPR has done more to groom a new generation of talented hosts from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups through podcasts rather than its shows.

"If there's going to be a true conversation about pay equity, it has to be about the entire company," Sanders says. "NPR is more than its news division."

Fraught contract talks hastened departures

When it was time for Garcia-Navarro and King to renegotiate their contracts with the network, the talks became unexpectedly acrimonious. Each felt network officials adopted a sharp and dismissive tone, according to numerous colleagues.

Colleagues say Garcia-Navarro bristled at the network's suggestions that she dial back expression of her interests as a Cuban-American or in social justice matters. Last week, after Cornish announced her departure, Garcia-Navarro tweeted, "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."

Lansing says the acrimony over the contract negotiations pains him. "That goes against what I stand for," Lansing says. He says in recent talks with NPR's labor unions, he had directed company negotiators to make sure new contracts were a win for both sides.

"Our people are all we have in terms of quality and credibility," Lansing says. Starting now, Lansing says, he will personally review all host contracts before they are finalized.

Network executives say they value their hosts' sensibilities. "We're headed in a direction where we want people to feel more comfortable bringing their lived experiences into the hosts' chairs," says Sarah Gilbert, NPR's vice president over its newsmagazines, who is white. "Our journalists want to feel they can have a more agile career. We want to find a way to give people an opportunity for that within our organization."

New challenges elsewhere for a fixture in public radio

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."

In 2019, Joshua Johnson left 1A, a nationally syndicated public affairs show produced by WAMU in Washington, D.C., and distributed by NPR, for MSNBC. In recent remarks online, Johnson, who is Black, focused on a more competitive landscape for NPR journalists, including people of color.

"NPR is better for having an inclusive workforce," tweeted Johnson, now a host on the NBC News Now streaming service. "But it would be far worse if that workforce thought it had nowhere to go except@NPR. Reaching our potential requires new avenues for growth and possibility. There's a huge difference between feeling safe, and feeling stuck."

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."

Disclosure: This story was reported and written by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by NPR media and tech editor Emily Kopp and Managing Editor Terence Samuel. Under NPR's protocol for reporting on itself, no corporate official or news executive reviewed this story before it was posted publicly.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 11, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story misspelled Alan Cumming's last name as Cummings.
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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