An Anti-Racist Future: A Vision and Plan for the Transformation of Public Media
Racism is the idea that one racial group is inferior or superior to another, and has the social power to carry out and benefit from systemic discrimination. This applies to most, if not all, institutions in this country, including public media. Anti-Blackness and white supremacy shape both the institutional policies and practices of society and shape the cultural beliefs and values that support racist policies and practices.
White supremacy is the political and socio-economic system that allows white people both at a collective and individual level to enjoy structural advantage and rights that other racial and ethnic groups do not.
Anti-racism is the idea that people of all racial groups are equals. Anti-racism is also the work of actively opposing racism and white supremacy by advocating for changes in political, economic, and social life that reduce racial inequity, and the advocacy of policies that support equity for people oppressed by white supremacy.
White supremacist culture and anti-Blackness shape the policies, norms, and standards of public radio. They determine whose opinions are valued, whose voices are heard, whose stories are told and taken seriously, who is promoted, and whose resume never gets a second glance. Historically, Black on-air talent are told their dialect and speaking voices do not fit the public radio prototype. There is a strong bias against journalists who have a distinct ethnic or regional tone in their vocal delivery.
Management pats itself on the back for hiring journalists and editors of color but then does not support them or give them space to grow professionally. While moving to anti-racist principles may require shifting funds around, keep in mind that budgets should reflect an organization’s values, and this is especially true in public media.
Our audience has changed a great deal since the 1968 Kerner Report and the Minority Report on Public Media ten years later. Public media management has not. It remains overwhelmingly white.
The Kerner Commission concluded that news media were not serving Black communities in 1968. That was more than 50 years ago. Public media has had the opportunity and time to change since then, but stations, networks, and nationally distributed shows have not done enough. The first public report on public radio in 1978 decades ago said that “public radio has been asleep at the transmitter” on issues of race.
Complicated decisions — who to hire, who to promote, what stories to cover — require careful thought and consideration. Not instinct, hunches, or strong feelings, but anti-racist processes and systems that prevent us from making biased choices. Processes that are measurable and quantifiable, that can be tracked and articulated. When we don’t follow those processes, when we choose to make decisions based solely on our guts, we must be held accountable.
Racism is not a knowledge problem. We know it’s wrong. We’ve known that it’s wrong for hundreds of years, but we’re making racist decisions anyway. Racism is a behavior problem.
We’re not a mostly white and male industry because we consciously think white males are better, but because we live in a racist, sexist, society that has conditioned us to view white male heteronormative as the standard. Racism and sexism are the norm.
The way we do things, the way it’s always been done, however, is not working.
The systems we’re comfortable with are sustaining the discriminatory system that favors white males. Comfort is the enemy at this point. The work that faces us is painful and frustrating and profoundly uncomfortable.
THE WORK AHEAD
This effort is the result of more than 200 people in public media coming together to identify the primary obstacles to anti-racist public media and create a vision for transformation. Our vision for public media is the implementation of anti-racist procedures and policies, radical transparency, equity and not equality, and no more decisions based solely on instinct. It’s time for a new kind of journalism: anti-racist journalism. We hope to tear down public radio in order to build it back up. We don’t critique our industry because we hate it, but because we love it and hope it can live up to a higher standard of inclusivity that serves our diverse communities.
Creating anti-racist media is a collective task. Everyone in the industry has a responsibility to scrutinize how our work contributes to or challenges white supremacy and racism. It’s a task that requires long-term commitment and accountability with measurable outcomes. But ultimately, anti-racist transformation means cultural change, and we know that some of the most important results of anti-racist commitments appear in how we are transformed individually, and collectively.
There is no easy way to do this work. But the work calls on us and on everyone who listens to public radio to expand their imaginations about who the audience is, who provides leadership, and how decisions are made.
Our open letter is divided into sections:
Hiring, Promotions, and Pay Structures
Section 1: Amends
Vision and demand: We envision public media in the 21st century as a platform that centers the most marginalized, that serves the parts of the public that have been traditionally underserved by corporate media, and that presents a leading model for community engagement and anti-racist practices in journalism. As a prerequisite and an ongoing practice, public media must own its mistakes and apologize for the harm it has caused to individuals and communities of color. Public media organizations, as well as individuals in leadership and in newsrooms, must make amends for these harms.
Rationale: Making amends is not a standalone act, but an ongoing cycle that is fundamental to healing and transformation. The process of amends undergirds all the other work we do to dismantle structural racism, as our public media institutions will not succeed in anti-racist transformation without meaningfully addressing past harms.
Amends is actually a three-step process: Reckoning, apologizing, and offering reparations. In recent years, a growing number of news organizations from the Los Angeles Times to Wisconsin Public Radio have launched efforts to reckon with everything from historic racist coverage to a lack of diversity among news sources. The Montgomery Advertiser has apologized for its “shameful” coverage of lynching; National Geographic has apologized and openly explored its decades-long history of racist coverage. Of course, the apologies are only as good as the follow-through with transforming coverage; and the effort at transforming coverage only as good as the offer of reparations to communities who have been harmed.
Making amends for racism in news media is not a new idea. In 2020, Black employees of the national organization Free Press released a landmark essay that describes a vision for reparations in U.S. media, as part of a project called Media 2070. The essay explains how media profited from and participated in slavery, benefited from and upheld Jim Crow laws, and has remained entrenched in dangerous complicity with white supremacy well into the 21st century.
“We dream of a world where reparations are made real, where Black people live and fully exercise their fundamental human rights that are actually enshrined and protected by law,” writes Free Press. Following the leadership of Black visionaries, let’s imagine a public media that truly embraces transformation by moving to make amends and offer reparations.
Public media stations and organizations must audit and reflect on their past and present racism — in terms of coverage, relationships to communities of color, and how they have treated BIPOC (Black Indigenous and People of Color) employees.
Public media must apologize for racist coverage and for neglecting communities of color in programming, past, and present.
Public media must open its doors to communities of color that have experienced these harms and neglect to play an active role in shaping the future of public media, including shaping public apologies and suggesting specific and creative forms of reparations.
If any BIPOC employees have left the organization due to racism, sexism, mental health harms, or abuse on the job, leadership must document what happened, apologize publicly for the harm it caused, and hold individuals accountable for that harm. This includes removing white people who have created a hostile work environment for people of color, and the leaders who have been complicit in that hostile work environment.
In addition to apologies to individuals and communities, public media leaders should offer specific, concrete forms of reparations and accountability to the people harmed. These reparations could include offers of financial compensation, support for mental health costs for individuals, or in some cases opportunities to return to positions they have left or lost. The people harmed should be involved, if they choose, to drive this process forward.
We will know amends are working when:
Former and current BIPOC employees accept apologies, articulate their specific needs for repair, and then those needs are met.
Former BIPOC employees return to their jobs or positions whenever possible, or get to a place where they would be comfortable recommending that another person of color take their former positions.
Communities of color are able to make specific demands for reparations from past harm, and those demands are met.
Communities of color are at the center of conversations about transforming newsrooms going forward.
The following four sections of this document outline what specific transformative changes may look like. Please keep in mind that part of making amends and offering reparations is about listening. For example, in your community, repair may look like supporting a bail fund, training a group of youth to make radio and helping them produce their own show, or helping Black and brown-led organizations with a fundraising strategy. There are many creative ways public media can contribute to the communities it has harmed and these will naturally be community-specific. Ideally, they’ll result in relationships of depth and trust.
Section 2: Hiring, Promotions, and Pay Structure
Vision and demand: Every station in the U.S. should have a workforce, including leadership, that proportionately reflects the demography of the community in which it operates and serves; and provides leadership around diversity and representation for groups that are underrepresented in non-public media.
On the path toward this vision, every station should adopt a full pay transparency policy, and a standardized organizational chart that includes job descriptions, salary ranges, and requisites for promotion advancement with flexibility to modify guidelines based on region and cost of living indices.
Rationale: The current organizational structure at many public radio stations is chaotic and misused, offering no standardization of organization or organizing principles that allow for equity and transparency. A lack of standardization shields problematic managers, prevents accountability in cases of misconduct, and may lead to stations becoming a reflection of the preferences of individual general managers and leaders.
Arguably, pay transparency could create friction and resentment between colleagues. It’s important to note, however, that the right to discuss your salary is protected by federal law. It’s equally arguable that resentment already exists based on inequitable institutional structures that perpetuate inequality. Moreover, college-educated Black women are woefully undervalued and face considerable bias when negotiating their salaries compared to their white male peers. This often pressures prospective hires to accept mediocre wages — or worse, it dissuades a new generation of talented journalists from considering work in public media.
Salary transparency alleviates confusion for new hires, builds trust among employees, and makes it easier to account for fair wages. Further, research shows employees tend to be more productive and companies enjoy higher retention rates when salaries are disclosed.
A public radio employee should not have to start over every time they move from one station to another. Consistency and transparency in pay and organizational structure will make public radio career paths more equitable and viable, and help public media organizations to recruit and retain diverse candidates.
Pay structures and ranges for each position should be made transparent to all job applicants and current employees.
We suggest hiring an independent auditor to evaluate, adjust, and organize employee categorization and demographics, making the new organization structure accessible to all employees.
As part of the restructuring the auditor will perform a regression analysis to account for pay differentials and other variables that are often obfuscated by subjective assessment as opposed to policy procedure. Once they are identified, race and gender-based inequities in pay must be corrected immediately.
Organizations should also track numbers of applicants of color, and not proceed with job searches without a) an open search and due diligence and outreach, and b) a proportional percentage of qualified applicants of color. If you are not getting applications from qualified Black, Indigenous and people of color, your outreach isn’t done.
New organizational structures should allow for advancement without the requirement of becoming a manager, and prioritize transparent pathways to career advancement.
Organizations must not abuse intern and fellowship programs. Overuse of unpaid and temporary positions has contributed to the disempowerment of staff members and unfairly disadvantages people of color who often can’t afford to spend months working without pay. Managers should not be the only employees who enjoy job security at an organization.
Full remediation and adjustments must be made, going forward, to compensate eligible employees.
Routine audits of compensation and employee advancement should show no racial or gender inequities in hiring or pay.
All employees should be able to clearly identify organizational structures and the opportunities to advance within these structures.
Organizations should set clear, time-stamped targets for BIPOC employee recruitment and retention. Make those targets part of hiring managers’ job responsibilities and evaluations. When those targets are not met, managers in charge of hiring must be held accountable.
Section 3: Equity and Accountability in Public Media Training and Professional Development Programs
Vision and demand: We envision the public media workplace to have competent, flexible, and accountable leadership with a commitment to justice and equity. Public media should be a workplace that equitably provides professional and personal growth. It also has leaders who hold the highest journalistic standards while having the tools to know how to treat employees with integrity and respect and lead anti-racist transformation.
Training and development dollars need to be invested equitably so that all employees have the opportunity to progress and evolve in their careers. This holds true from onboarding through career progression. All managers need to receive some kind of DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) training so that they can be held accountable for implementing and carrying out effective and inclusive policies.