National Public Radio (NPR) was recently put in the spotlight for its reliance on temp workers to produce content consumed by millions of listeners every day.
A Sunday story in The Washington Post reported on how America’s flagship radio broadcast news network has an abundance of temp workers in its union-affiliated newsroom who aren’t given the same pay or protections as its salaried staff. Some of the workers the Post interviewed — who spoke on condition of anonymity so as to not jeopardize future assignments with the network — describe the temp arrangement as “stressful,” “precarious,” and even “exploitative.”
“I felt like I could never make a mistake because, if I did, they’d just hire someone else,” a former two-year temp for NPR told the Post. “I felt like I couldn’t take Christmas off, I can’t go to my high school reunion. Because if I do, I’ll be out of the loop.”
While full-time employees fall under the network’s contract with the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists union (SAG-AFTRA) and get all the pay and protections associated with union affiliation, temp workers do not. And they’re tasked with performing all the functions normally assigned to full-time journalists and producers.
Under the SAG-AFTRA contract, management can terminate a temporary employee without cause, whenever necessary, and without explanation.
What’s more, NPR is under no obligation to offer a temp a permanent job, even after years of employment. Some employees have been temps for so long they’re known as ‘permatemps.’
One former temp said she spent three years in various jobs at ‘Morning Edition,’ ‘All Things Considered’ and its weekend version before giving up hope of landing a permanent position. Her responsibilities ran the gamut: editing, research, pitching story ideas, writing segment introductions, mixing recordings, doing interviews.
To NPR’s credit, the network pays its temp workers — who work out of NPR’s DC office — a relatively high hourly rate compared to the current DC minimum wage of $13.25/hour. Temps are paid $21.63/hour, which would amount to roughly $45,000/year assuming the temp works 40 hours a week all year. But that’s rarely the reality for most temps, who can sometimes work for weeks at a time, then be dismissed with little to no notice and no assurance that they’ll ever be called back again.
“There were many weeks when I wasn’t sure if I was coming back,” former temp Becky Sullivan, who is now a producer of the program “All Things Considered” and a steward for SAG-AFTRA. “It’s an experience I hope I never have to repeat.”
For someone living in Washington, DC, having unpredictable income can make the difference in whether or not someone is able to meet their monthly obligations. Washington, DC is America’s fifth-most expensive city, and an Inc.com report from earlier this year estimated that a worker would need a salary of $90,000/year to live comfortably in DC — more than twice what a temp worker would make if s/he worked full-time, year-round.
The network’s reliance on temps, which make up 20 to 22 percent of its workforce (compared to roughly five percent at a typical TV news outlet) approximately NPR President of Operations Loren Mayor told the Post that temps are needed to meet “a range of needs.”
“As a media company that strives to be innovative and nimble, we need talented people who can come in on a short-term basis to help us experiment with a new idea or pilot a new program,” Mayor said. “As a breaking news organization, we need additional reporters and editors to staff up for targeted news events like elections.”
(FULL DISCLOSURE: Grit Post contributor Carl Gibson is a former NPR freelancer.)
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.