Saturday, December 13, 2008

Cuts At NPR Run Deeper Than the Numbers

It didn't rank among the headlines that showed how thousands are losing their jobs in banking or the car industry. And it pales beside the hundreds at Yahoo.com who will be out of work in a few weeks.

The 70 positions cut at NPR won't likely effect listeners' daily lives. After all, NPR will still be heard on more than 900 public radio stations around the country. The meat and potatoes of public radio will still be served. And what if a few public broadcasters lose their jobs in these times? In the grand scheme, it's a minor blip on a seismograph that is shuddering every day. All true and I expect, sentiments that are easily voiced.

However, there is one person who has been let go, and that is a huge loss to the company.


His name is Doug Mitchell. For the past ten years, Doug has single-handedly kept alive the training culture at NPR. He has run something called "Next Generation Radio." I don't know precisely how many young peoples' lives he has changed. Hundreds easily. Maybe thousands. I know Doug's people have gone on to transform public radio in America and elsewhere. Doug spent some time in Chile and made a huge difference in the radio culture there as well.

But it is in the US that Doug's legacy can be found.

What "NextGen" (as it was known) did was to find young people from various backgrounds and give them the sense of wonder about radio journalism in all its forms. Doug taught these kids about sound and story-telling and taking risks. Doug was especially keen to make sure that "NextGen" had a real mixture of people from all backgrounds. Of color, certainly, but also of geography and education too. For Doug it was important to get people into NPR who came from all around the country, from campus radio in state colleges, and not just the northeast ivies.

This next generation of radio creators would come to Washington DC for an intense few weeks as interns at NPR. Hundreds applied. Only a few dozen were chosen at a time.

And these interns weren't "just" in the news department. They were in all areas of the company - news, cultural programming, legal, engineering, corporate communications, the office of the Ombudsman, etc.

While they were doing their regular jobs at NPR, doing research, helping the staff, showing a senior correspondent how to turn on her computer, etc., Doug was teaching them about radio. How to edit sound, how to create a wiki, how to blend audio and video, how to put in on a website. But most of all, he taught them how to take risks and have an impact on peoples' lives through journalism. In so doing, he changed the interns' lives as well. When you met them heard their finished product (known as "Intern Edition"), it gave you hope that the culture of great radio journalism would survive.

Elements of "Intern Edition" were often so well done, that they ended up as pieces on the NPR news programs. You undoubtedly heard them if you listen to NPR.

Doug did what a trainer is supposed to do - encapsulate the best values of the organization and transmit them intact to a new generation. Using the metaphor of these days, he was a Moses to their Joshua.

I'm not worried about Doug. He's smart and funny and adaptable. My guess is that, even in this economy, he'll be snapped up by some smart media savvy organization. There is no shortage of far-seeing folk around the public radio community and beyond who know Doug and what he can do.

I am worried about NPR and other media organizations who are throwing their best overboard in an effort to survive.

Once we are through this horrible time, NPR will, I hope, find another way to keep what Doug did alive. In the meantime, we haven't heard the last of Doug Mitchell. Nor, I am sure, from the people whose lives he has changed and who in turn, continue to change our lives everyday. On the radio.

19 comments:

  1. Hi, Jeff... Max Cacas in D.C. here (Adam Powell is a good friend, and we met when you came to the old Newseum / Freedom Forum a coupla years back). Thanks so much for a very nice piece on my friend, Doug Mitchell. NPR's made a big, big mistake cutting him loose like that. I'm determined to help hium, if I can, find another place to continue his work. All the best, - Max

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  2. http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/group.php?gid=48460833108&ref=mf

    fb group: Save Doug Mitchell's job.

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  3. I got my first spot on an NPR Newscast thanks to Doug's NextGen program at the National Association of Black Journalists' convention in Dallas in 2003. Danyell Irby, then of the Newscast unit, edited me and made sure I knew what to say when I called DC to file. Yolette Garcia and Bill Zeeble of KERA handled the ISDN, and Doug oversaw it all. That's the kind of open-it-up-to-newbies, make-sure-they-don't-get-hung-up-on-the-first-time stuff that simply doesn't happen without NextGen.

    I am just as grateful for the many, many opportunities NPR later granted me that have all shaped my career. But that first spot established my credibility, raised my profile with senior colleagues at my station (where I was an intern), and helped me understand how to get more chances to contribute. I'm not sure how that would have happened if not for NextGen--perhaps more awkwardly; certainly without support from four people who wanted to see me succeed.

    That's what Doug does--as Jeffrey has so aptly described here.

    I am coming to realize that Doug can continue his work regardless of an affiliation with NPR. It's truly a loss for the network, though, and Jeffrey has spelled out why.

    I happened across an old interview with Jeffrey just yesterday, and, thinking about Doug, I wondered: what would Jeffrey have recommended about NextGen if he'd still been at NPR? Lucky me: I think this post has answered my question.

    Thanks, Jeffrey!

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  4. When NPR let Doug go, the company sent a powerful signal about its commitment to diversity, its future and growing the next generation of young producers and reporters.

    Look, you can only hire the great talent from newspapers for so long. You have to nurture radio and multimedia talent.

    Doug did that. On a shoestring. It takes time and risk and patience. But he translated a nascent passion into concrete results; young people committed to quality journalism and practicing a craft well. That is why PRX stepped up and made sure hundreds of Next Gen pieces were made available to stations.

    NPR's loss will be someone else's gain. Doug is an inspirational talent. He is a pleasure to work with. He also knows beer.

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  5. Well said, Jeffrey. Twice I asked Doug to join my show but he loved his NPR job too much to leave it. One of my producers is a Next Gen alum who now wins national journalism awards. I wish we had a staff opening for Doug right now.

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  6. Megan Verlee (was Williams)December 13, 2008 at 4:10 PM

    Jeffry, I would add to your wonderful portrait of what Doug did, and I'm sure will somehow continue to do, the impact his work has on career radio folks as well.

    I went from being one of those fresh-faced (if utterly clueless) interns, to helping at a couple of NextGen projects over the past few years. I doubt I was the only mentor who came back from those weeks with a new excitement for my own work. Teaching interested newbies how to gather nat sound and write for the ear makes things that can often be tedious, feel new again.

    By continually introducing new talent into the system, Doug made it more exciting for all of us. It's not just the free labor and new potential NPR's losing, it's that overall spark of energy.

    A damned shame.

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  7. NPR NEVER EVER cared about diversity. they paid lip service to it. and doug's sacking is a perfect example of the patronizing latte-drinking Takoma Park mafia packing that place.

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  8. Doug is cutting edge in all ways. Ahead of the curve on new media, he also recognized, embraced and delved into the global village. His talents are tremendous, as is his energy. I too am committed to making sure Doug's skills are put to use. Joan Mower, VOA

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  9. I met Doug a few years ago. I have always been inspired by his passion, focus and dedication to a vision and a cause greater than himself.

    There is no doubt that Doug will land on his feet and grow on to do bigger and better things because he has too much too offer, he is too large a force of nature to simply disappear.

    And Doug is not alone, there are many lights that have dimmed across the system. As you know Chicago Public Radio had to make similarly painful decisions. They did not want to lay off 11 full-time staff, including those who working in their pioneering Vocalo.org.

    This is not a popular thing to say but at times like these we should bear in mind that the people who remain behind have also been deeply hurt, perhaps not as sharply or deeply but their pain is not any less real just because it is less severe.

    I am no a management aplogist, anyone who has worked with me will konw I am tougher on top management and senior executives than most, but no one takes these actions easily. Absolutely no one.

    Blame is no balm, it does not help anyone, not those who are hurt and least of all those who dole out the blame. Blame only diverts, it only consumes our vital senses and precious energy when we need it the most to create a new future, together.

    We know we entered a new war zone, beyond the war on terror, drugs, AIDS, education, housing and health care - this war will rip through us, all of us, it will leave none of us unscathed.
    We will get through this torment because we are resilient and we have each other.

    The same is true for Doug and all these wonderful people who find theselves out in the bitter cold facing a new future. They are not alone. They will bounce back, they will reinvent themselves, they will find new strength.

    We are connected, we will get through this drastic global correction, not because we are Americans, or because we are brave or because we are resourceful or clever, we will all get through this because we are together.

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  10. Well said Jeffrey...Doug has had a huge impact on so many people's lives. jill spaner

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  11. Nicely put Jeff...I sometimes wonder whether boards and companies are really looking forward when moves like this are made. Do they really see the forest or do they focus on a few trees?

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  12. I was just telling my spouse about how Doug was determined to work for NPR when he left Stillwater, Okla. I both admired him for seeking this goal, and thought he was a bit crazy for wanting something so "far out there." I just wish NPR had the same determination to keep good people that Doug had in seeking employment with them.

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  13. Jeffrey: Thanks for writing the piece on Doug. I worked with him on several of the Next Gen trainings, and no one is more dedicated than he on finding and developing new talent.

    You can't imagine what he did with his budget to create makeshift newsrooms in hotels under all kinds of conditions. The time he has spent teaching and mentoring students at journalism conferences is unbelievable.

    Without him, all of us who care about young talent couldn't have succeeded.

    I'm deeply saddened by this loss, but hope Doug will land on his feet in a stronger position.
    Yolette Garcia
    Former news director and asst. station manager, KERA, Dallas

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  14. Doug is first class all the way. He'll have a nice landing

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  15. Jeffrey, thank you for writing this. As a small person in the public media pond, it's gratifying to hear someone of your stature (and class!) recognize Doug's contributions. Both you and Doug have always stood out to me...you, because you mailed me NPR's Ethics guidelines with a personal note after I met you for 10 minutes in Minneapolis, and Doug, because he was (in fact, still is) incredibly generous with his time as I worked through several professional panic attacks over the years. He sets an example as a mentor, which I have always tried to measure up to.

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  16. Hi Jeffrey and I hope hello to Doug too. I was the director of training at NPR for several years and there isn't much I can add to what others have said, though I want to add my (written) voice. Quite a few people at NPR and around public radio have been committed to improving diversity and inclusion in the public broadcasting world but no one person has done more than Doug. I hope no one among those who have trained and worked for more inclusion takes offense by that -- and I include myself too. For Doug, "not possible" did not exist.

    Doug, you are tireless in your creative commitment to developing people who want to become radio journalists. Money never stopped you and I know it won't stop you now. I am already thinking about how I might help the next lucky organization that can use your talent, experience and enthusiasm. No ideas yet, but it's just a matter of time. It sounds like others here will be doing the same thing so the village will be working together.

    All my best and more to come. Cathy

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  17. Thanks for writing this.

    Ever since I heard he was laid off, I've been wandering around vaguely sick to my stomach.

    As you and others here have pointed out, Doug will go on to more great things. No doubt.

    But, NextGen? Is it just dead, now?

    A sad development, for sure.

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  18. NPR has never been sincere about diversity on or off the air ..for decades it ignored entire continents unless of course some carnage occured in non-western venues..

    When NPR does cover diversity topic often it is the social science victim bs..

    The model at NPR will never cultivate diversity when they terminate talent and vision of folks like Doug..

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  19. Jeffrey,

    Your appreciative writings about Doug are so touching. I have no doubt you're sharing the comments you receive about Doug's huge impact on NPR, and public radio in all its forms, with management. It's insulting to say NextGenRadio will continue without Doug. It *is Doug. Any attempt to keep it going with the same name, but different leadership, will be felt as fraudulent by the stations, schools and conferences where Doug has created very strong relationships.

    It's important for these institutions to know that they don't have to - and maybe even can't - count on NPR for training the next generation of radio journalists. Please keep your blog audience posted on Doug's progress, and options outside the ennnn...peaaaaa....arrrrrr mothership.

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