Illustration by Rebecca Ustrell
From the narrative-changing storytelling initiative, “Driving Change From the Inside“, a look at the DE+I movement in organizations across the country.
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One wish that I have for America is for more organizations to have the clarity of logic, depth of commitment, and force of execution happening at NPR as they address their businesses challenges and needs concerning Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
In January of 2020, NPR President and CEO John Lansing made audience diversity NPR’s number one priority. Since that time, the organization has shared its progress across workplace, content, and audiences. This includes a three-year strategic plan that opens with the words “NPR must change to survive.” To get a first hand view into this progressive change agenda, I had the privilege of sitting down with the Chief Marketing Officer of NPR, Michael. The conversation that unfolded might be considered a masterclass on establishing a long term DEI strategy.
According to Michael, the business imperative for DEI is simply “believing in the strategy that to serve a more diverse America, you need to have a team of people whose life experience is more in line with the customers that you’re serving.” That sentiment is shared from NPR CEO, John Lansing down through the organization.
“NPR came out of the Great Society program of the 1960s, where the government set up the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helped launch NPR and PBS. Their mission was to create media resources that weren’t being fed by the commercial media.”
Back in 1971 when NPR launched, their audience was in line with the United States. About 80% white and 20% diverse audience, similar to the country at the time. Today, their radio audience is still about 80-20, while the composition of the American population has shifted to 60-40. And, of course, the country has made a massive switch to digital in the intervening years as well. In order to get back in sync with America, NPR has been prioritizing efforts to make the network younger and more diverse.
Michael says that NPR has a fiercely loyal audience, because their values align with those of the audience. However, he says most Americans are not even aware of NPR. “We know from research data that only 30% of all Americans have actually even heard of NPR, which is maybe surprising to people who are big fans of the brand. There’s a huge swath of America that we need to make aware of the great work that we do, and a lot of that audience are younger and more diverse people.”
As impressive as NPR’s DEI strategy and tactics are, so too is Michael Smith. The second son of “immigrant strivers” from Jamaica as he describes, Michael was raised by a single mother, gained admission and scholarships to Stanford University. Now, he is living his childhood dream of being a leader in media and entertainment.
“I’ve always had this feeling of being the new kid and being outside, and I think there’s something actualizing about the power of being able to have your voice heard, even if it’s not being heard in your day-to-day life. You feel like if you’re making media content, you can be heard by the world. So I think that’s what drew me to it.”
The beneficiary of an 1980s minority-focused internship program at the San Francisco Chronicle Foundation, Michael, like myself, took advantage of internship opportunities designed to address diverse pipeline issues. I benefited from a program at Viacom that still exists, which recruits and trains underrepresented media talent. Throughout our conversation, Michael offers insights from his four decades of navigating the media industry, from an intern to founding the Cooking Channel to the CMO of NPR — as a Black man.
His story is inspiring to anyone who is interested in a career path, but lacks the immediate familial access to knowledge and mentorship in that industry. His combination of hard work, curiosity, creativity and agency provides a blueprint any individual can follow to manifest their professional dreams.
Here are a few highlights from our conversation, curated to help any individual or organization seeking to adapt to societal change and create a safe space for employees of all backgrounds, orientations, races, and beliefs.
1. Understand the business imperative
Listen and learn:
This is NPR’s “number one priority. To really diversify our audience to better reflect and serve America. We’ve always been about making a more informed, and more culturally enriched population through our content, but we haven’t always done it. Our commitment right now is to very much reflect all of America, and put the public back into National Public Radio.”
“It’s really one big thing, which is just believing in the strategy to serve a more diverse America. You need to have a team of people whose life experience is more in line with the customers and service users that you’re serving.”
“If you think about when a brand like NPR started in the 1970s, the country was about 80-85% white. If you think about who the listeners were, most of whom were in colleges, who were in corporations, and all kinds of institutions, it was 80-90% white. We’re at a time now where it’s really changed. For the first time in some states like California, the majority of kids who are in elementary school are of color.”
Change or risk extinction. It appears NPR sees something that many organizations are failing to prioritize. If you cannot relate to your audience, then you will eventually lose them. Our nation has become more diverse and our nation’s media (and other organizations) need to adapt to meet their audiences’ expectations and sensibilities. Once you identify the core business case for diversity, it unlocks the license to infuse DE+I goals intrinsically into your business strategy, goals, and roadmap.
2. Get educated on the headwinds BIPOC employees face
Listen and learn:
“I know from my own career, when I got out of college and business school and was working on Madison Avenue back in the ’80s at Young & Rubicam, a popular and famous agency. There were only two African-Americans, me and one other gentleman, in the entire company – account management – and they had, I think, about 800 different people in account management.”
“One of the things that I had noticed when I was younger is that a lot of senior executives in media: If you looked at their family backgrounds, their fathers were also in media. Or they had brothers or cousins, or there were the people around the dinner table when they were 12 or 14. Their dad was reading The Wall Street Journal and talking about what was going on at work. They just had certain insights that people, especially BIPOC people, we just didn’t have.”
“In terms of discrimination, I think that the biggest thing that I’ve faced, and I think a lot of people of color have faced, is being underestimated, undervalued and marginalized in terms of what people think your potential could be.”
In today’s job market, if you wish to foster safety and retain high potential BIPOC employees, it is unwise to ignore the effects of race and privilege. Creating lasting inclusivity requires the hard work of building trust and connection for team members to explore privilege and bias. Peer to peer storytelling can be effective when appropriately moderated and as bonds of trust in organizations are strengthened. Ongoing people-manager training, community gathering, and proactive mentorship programs can help to close the trust gap, and reduce missed opportunities between employers and underrepresented talent.
3. Make long term investments in BIPOC pipeline
Listen and learn:
“When you think about diversity and inclusion across U.S. companies, there are two things going on, and they’re both related to this question of the pipeline. One is getting more people into the pipeline. Two is once they’re in the pipeline, making sure that they actually make it through and thrive.”
“You see, what C-Suite leaders need to do to really make diversity a reality is, first get true buy-in to why this matters. Not just the moral reason behind it, but the business imperative. Because your audience is changing and you’re gonna become a dinosaur if you don’t reflect the people you’re serving outside of your company. You gotta get buy-in at first, and then understand the nuances of the situation. It’s a combination of bringing people into your organization, but more importantly, what do you do once they’re in the organization.”
“I give a lot of credit to, as we talk about diversity, to the San Francisco Chronicle Foundation, which is a newspaper foundation that had created a minority internship program back in the 80s. The idea was to help kids of color get exposure to the business. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t think I would have gotten my foot in the door at the TV station that they owned. And then that led to other internships that I got in the industry and started my career.”
Content is king and content companies are the king makers. In the cases of media and advertising, as the cost of creating content falls and new platforms for brands and storytellers emerge, the competition for all talent is increasing. In order to create long term demographic shifts, investments need to be made that recruit and support the retention of candidates over an extended period. If you aren’t investing in BIPOC talent, stand back as players from all sectors win the love of the talent and audiences that you covet.
4. Measure the impact of investment in DE+I
Listen and learn:
“We measure our social impact on how many people we reach with our content, and how much of a change we make in our society through that content. When we look at NPR historically: We had about 80% white audience, 20% diverse audience, and that was similar to the country. But if you look at us today, our radio audience is still about 80-20, and the country has changed to digital. So we realize that we’ve gotten out of sync with America, and so we’ve been re-doubling our efforts to make the network younger and more diverse.”
“We’ve had great success in podcasting, because that’s the platform that younger people really resonate with. It’s on demand. They listen on their smartphones. We found that our podcast content, whether it’s shows like How I Built This or Planet Money or Code Switch, or It’s Been a Minute, those shows actually have about a 40% to 45% people of color audience.”
“So we see the path forward. Which is to make content and put it on the platforms where younger people are. We have another series on YouTube, which is another place where young people love to go. It’s called Tiny Desk Concerts, and it’s basically live concerts featuring a wide variety of diverse artists. And that series is bringing in young and very diverse people into the NPR fold. So we just feel like it’s about those series.”
Numbers don’t lie, unless you want them to. For NPR, by focusing on goals of attracting a younger and more diverse audience, they were able to implement strategies that are yielding the processes and connections necessary to produce the content that appeals to their desired audience. Whether your business goal is to appeal to more consumers, employees, clients or potential partnerships, identifying the business imperative for diversity, equity and inclusion and measuring it clearly, is the most effective tactic of assuring your moral goals remain linked to your business health regardless of leadership or cultural changes.
Watch or listen to highlights of Michael Tennant’s conversation with Michael Smith
About the author
Michael Tennant is a founder, writer, and movement-builder dedicated to spreading tools of empathy and helping people find their purpose. Before founding Curiosity Lab, Tennant spent 15-years becoming a media, advertising, and nonprofit executive, and delivering award-winning marketing strategies for companies like MTV, VICE, P&G, Coca-Cola, sweetgreen, and Oatly.
Tennant founded Curiosity Lab in 2017 and created the conversation card game Actually Curious. Actually Curious became a viral sensation in 2020 during Covid-19 and the rise of the racial justice movement for helping people build meaningful connections and to tackle the important topics facing our world.
He has channeled his business success and momentum into a sustained movement supporting BIPOC and other underrepresented communities through speaking, writing, leadership, mentorship, consulting, partnerships, and talent-pipeline programs.