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Balancing the Journalists and the Journalism

November 1, 1998
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Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, Benefit Design and Communication, Labor Relations, Featured Article
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From WFUV FM in New York City to KUSC FM in Los Angeles, listeners all over the world know they can expect top-notch programming from the journalists and broadcasters at Washington, D.C.-based National Public Radio Inc. (NPR). And those who work there are proud of this. There's a tangible sense of commitment among the employees who deliver programs like "Morning Edition," "Talk of the Nation," "Fresh Air®¨ with Terry Gross" and "Jazz from Lincoln Center" to 530 member stations and 17 million listeners weekly.

And why wouldn't they be proud? Beyond a stellar reputation for in-depth reporting and high-quality programming, employees can look to a management team that stands firmly behind the company's People Principles-a set of corporate values exclusively tied to how employees work together.

But installing the Principles was just the first step. President and CEO Delano Lewis recognized that in recent years NPR has been placing more emphasis on producing quality journalism than on providing service to its employees. To answer this challenge, he brought on board Vice President for Human Resources Kathleen Jackson. She's now redesigning all of NPR's HR strategies to support the company's People Principles.

How is your experience with NPR different than previous HR jobs?
I've been in HR for close to 20 years, but I'm new to broadcast journalism and to nonprofit. Most of my positions have been in financial services, but my last assignment was with Atlantic Energy, an electric utility in New Jersey.

One of the things that struck me here that's different from any other place [I've worked] is how passionate the employees feel about their work: getting out information that isn't merely sensational but thoughtful, in-depth and balanced.

And being nonprofit, although we're concerned about money and resources, at least we don't have to worry about share prices and return on equity.

How long have you been with NPR?
A year and three months.

What are some of your key accomplishments so far?
I negotiated a four-year contract with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA); I put in a new cafeteria benefits plan; I updated and enhanced our pension plan, and I'm in the middle of doing negotiations with our engineering group.

Also, all of our practices here at NPR need to be realigned to support our People Principles. [So I'm in the process of reworking] all of our policies.

What are People Principles?
They existed before I got here and are one of the reasons why I came. The People Principles have been articulated [by President and CEO Lewis] as part of NPR's mission and vision.

The situation was that not all of the people pieces were in place or operating the way they should have been. In fact, one could argue that [the organization was] so focused on the journalism and making sure that the best reports went out on the air, that taking care of the people inside NPR didn't have the same kind of priority. So it's been one of my challenges to [create] that balance, to show the connection between taking care of the people issues and getting the best journalism on the air.

How are you doing this?
One of the things I put in place are People Accountabilities for managers. We now have six different items related to people that managers are going to be held accountable for. One of them is completing performance reviews on time. Following policies and procedures is another, especially since we are a union company.

What are some of your union-related challenges?
Half of us are union employees with AFTRA. All of our on-air personalities are members: Our hosts, our reporters, our production assistants, our editorial assistants and our newscasters. So all of our most publically visible people are unionized. That was very much a shift for me to understand what it means when the stars are in the union as opposed to the blue-collar workers and support personnel.

There's far more cooperation because none of us wants things to get to the point where the journalism is compromised and our audience is let down. So the union employees are much less likely to threaten a walkout. On the other hand, management is much more apprehensive about that possibility, because unlike a lot of other places, management couldn't easily step in and do the job.

For me it's a pleasant departure from when I was involved in negotiating for my last company. Although there was never a strike at my previous company, our management had strike plans and each side did a lot more posturing. It was just more adversarial and less focused on [keeping quality high].

What made you decide to implement a cafeteria-style benefits plan?
This came up from the employees. There were really two drivers for this. One was that employees felt NPR wasn't being family friendly. Employees had free medical coverage, but families had to pay full freight for anything beyond the cost of the employee. That's a hefty cost because typically family coverage is three to four times the cost of a single person.

The other thing was that employees felt NPR wasn't being equitable. A person could pick anything from a high-end plan to a low-end plan, and NPR would pay for it. A lot of families took HMO plans [to make their children's coverage affordable]. Single people went with a high-end plan. So we were paying different amounts for different people.

The cafeteria plan allows us to reallocate the way NPR spends its money. This isn't a cost savings for NPR, but rather a more equitable distribution. So now people on the high-end plans pay a little more, and people on the low-end plans pay a little less.

We're also giving discretionary credits for employees to spend in ways they want, like getting prepaid legal services, additional life insurance, or adding nontraditional policies, like cancer policies or long-term care. So we're giving more choice in this cafeteria plan, as well as reallocating the dollars we're spending.

How did you design the plan?
Actually a task force was in place when I arrived, and it had been working on [creating the plan.] The union had a task force and the nonunion people had a task force, which were combined into one group. But [the members] couldn't get [the plan] off the ground because [no one] here had a background in doing this.

I had been instrumental in putting together cafeteria plans in the past, so I knew what to do. The task-force members were really determined to get this thing done, so I asked them to take a year to educate themselves. We [worked together to do] an employee survey, and we hired an outside consultant. We went through the process and put it together.

The enrollment period is over, and we're doing the administrative pieces now so that on [the start date,] [all employees] will have their ID cards and they'll be covered. Then we'll want to debrief the process.

Would you say that regardless of a significant change in industries, your jobs have had many things in common?
A lot of the issues are the same whatever place I'm in because people are people. All organizations face similar kinds of problems.

Workforce, November 1997, Vol. 76, No. 11, pp. 25-26.

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