They Can't Eat Prestige: The NHPR Staff Unionizes
Updated: Jun 30, 2021
Best news of the week, so far, is word that comes via Twitter that key staff people at New Hampshire Public Radio have formed a union, the NHPR Staff Collective, and are asking President and CEO Jim Schachter to recognize them voluntarily as the collective bargaining agent of this fine radio organization's journalistic talent.
The NHPR employees' decision -- part of a discernable trend across public radio -- comes in the aftermath of Schachter's recent decision to cancel the station's long-running public affairs interview program The Exchange. He took that step after the program's veteran and venerable host, Laura Knoy, decided to step down.
It is certainly true that Laura is irreplaceable. As a former journalist, and as an occasional guest on The Exchange, I can testify to what a remarkable phenomenon Laura was as the host of such a program. She was incisive, cheerful, respectful, thorough and, unlike every single other person I have ever encountered in public radio she never let a drop of her personal opinion creep into her discourse. Under her aegis, The Exchange was a unique opportunity for people like me to be held accountable in circumstances that were both fair and beyond our control. If you look up "objectivity" in the dictionary, there's a picture of Laura next to the first definition.
It's also true that Schachter's move, though unexpected and disappointing, isn't exactly irrational. The Exchange aired at an hour -- 9:00 to 10:00 a.m. -- in which few people are actually listening. It was a venerable show, relying on a venerable format, catering to a venerable audience, by which I mean "old people." No offense -- at this point, I'm an oldster too -- but NHPR's audience is greying and if our public radio station is going to thrive in perpetuity it has to figure out how to become relevant to youth. (Of course much the same can be said of New Hampshire itself, especially because its all-retiree Legislature is so committed to "get off my lawn" policymaking.)
Circumstances apparently forced Schachter's hand. Knoy decided to step down right before NHPR's most recent on-air fundraising drive. Imagine the outrage if, after days of pitches to the tune of "we rely on your contribution to support great local programming like The Exchange," NHPR banked the pledge-drive money and then announced it was cancelling the program. So, Laura's news would likely have leaked if Schachter had not announced it when he did -- well before he, only a year or so into his tenure, had any brilliant plans to announce for how he intends to make NHPR super-relevant for the next 30 years.
Though the NHPR staff is very disciplined, it includes some critics of Schachter who see him as autocratic and too inclined to let the bottom line dictate program choices. But one person's autocracy is another person's accountability; the CEO's job is a lonely one and we don't know whether Schachter's Board of Trustees is holding his feet to the fire. If only because I myself am the leader of an organization, and know what that kind of loneliness feels like, I'm inclined to give NHPR's chief executive more of a chance to prove himself.
That's why I am so happy the staff is unionizing. It's the right move because it says, in effect: Yes, Jim, we respect that you are the leader of the organization, tasked with making tough choices that will inevitably provoke criticism, so we'll respect your role while exercising our legal right to partner with you in figuring out how to make our workplace thrive.
Unfortunately, critics of unionism can take comfort in the reality that even a left-leaning organization like NHPR (and, yes, I acknowledge that public radio skews in the opposite direction of Fox News and the National Review) is likely to react spasmodically to these developments. I'm reminded of my tenure, 20 years ago, on the board of a nonprofit that sponsored an annual music festival. The musicians informed the nonprofit that they intended to unionize, at which point the executive director and the board began to freak out. But this particular organization, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, was founded by folk singer and progressive icon Pete Seeger, the patron saint of everything pro-union! I shamed my colleagues into voluntary recognition of that union and I hope NHPR does the same here.
But I am not optimistic. Foes of trade unionism have been working successfully for decades to make everyone subconsciously associate unions with all that is bad, stressful, and conflict-ridden about work. Full disclosure: Early in my career, I was a shop steward in the Wire Service Guild, in connection with my very first job (at Associated Press in New York). I've also read We Can't Eat Prestige, a fabulous book by John Hoerr about how the women of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers moved beyond the 1950s Teamsters style of unionism and adapted it to a form suitable for white collar workplaces. That's the blueprint for the NHPR Staff Collective, right there for the taking even though it's 25 years old.
Here's my pitch to both Jim Schachter and the NHPR Staff Collective: We rely on you for our support, what we do would be impossible without you, and so pick up the phone and call us. Tells us not just that NHPR will gain the benefits of a staff union but also that NHPR will partner with others in the journalism business and, indeed, your listeners themselves.
Because, let's face it: As I have said before, journalism in northern New England is in the toilet swirl. The daily newspapers around here are becoming pale ghosts of their former, robust selves. They cling to their 18th Century business models. Meanwhile, online nonprofit news organizations like InDepthNH.org and NewHampshireBulletin.org are emerging; NHPR should partner with them. (More full disclosure: InDepthNH is the home of my column about my day job, Power to the People. NewHampshireBulletin has Amanda Gokee, who's covering the energy beat these days like a lush, green shag carpet circa 1971.)
Television and commercial radio are beyond the pale, thanks to deregulation. And here's yet more full disclosure: I told you so. I did it, while an undergraduate at Middlebury, in the September 23-29, 1978 issue of TV Guide, then the nation's magazine with the largest circulation. Look it up if you don't believe me; it's the one with Mary Tyler Moore on the cover. I'm not bragging, just laying out my bona fides. And if the dismal devolution of commercial radio is of further interest, check out the recent "Hush Rush" episode of historian Jill Lepore's podcast The Last Archive.
So, in the course of partnering with the rest of New Hampshire's emerging nonprofit journalism sector, it's time to empower the listeners through what we cooperators refer to as "democratic member control." (Still more full disclosure: I'm ga-ga about cooperatives, as a former president of the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society, the customer-owned grocery empire in the Upper Valley.) For all the talk about "membership" at NHPR and other public radio stations, in this context "member" just means "donor." How about making membership truly mean something by allowing listener-contributors to elect some or all of the NHPR Board of Trustees?
Meanwhile, here's to the birth of the NHPR Staff Collective. It's a great first step toward securing the future of New Hampshire Public Radio as the hub of the journalism universe in New Hampshire and the savior of our democracy.