July 18, 2023


Experienced, creative and highly-skilled media professionals, from companies like Spotify, CNN, Vox Media, Disney and NPR, are all looking for work right now. Axios recently cited a report published by Challenger, Gray & Christmas from June, 2023 documenting more than 17,000 publicly acknowledged media layoffs in 2023 alone–the highest year-to-date level of job reductions in the industry on record. Meanwhile, public media stations are dealing with a high number of vacancies in crucial positions.

In March 2022, “Current” conducted a study that found an average job vacancy rate of over 10% for the public media industry. Public media hiring managers should be the most popular people at the party right now, and yet they are struggling to fill these positions. What’s going on?

From our perspective as public media consultants, working with a wide variety of stations across the country, public media can no longer attract candidates with an out-of-date employment model. The enormous job scope, unsustainable compensation, and lack of room for growth and innovation are boxing out our future and potentially most impactful colleagues. However, we also believe these factors can be overcome if public media hiring managers apply scrappiness and creativity to think like modern employers. 

Let’s examine two common assumptions:

  • “Great applicants don’t know about this open position because our organization is too small to publicize this job.” FALSE. Journalists, fact checkers, producers, audio engineers and media managers are the shrewdest and savviest Googlers, web trawlers and networkers in any industry. If you have ever posted this position on a public website or mentioned it to your neighbor’s cat-sitter, media pros will know about it.
  • “No one wants to relocate to [Our Town], [Our State].” FALSE. The pandemic triggered a migration of people from densely populated cities to towns and rural areas across the country, looking for more affordable living situations and more closely-knit communities. The pandemic also made us rethink which job functions must be completed on-site.

We believe these assumptions are part of the common narrative that public media hiring managers are telling themselves and are hearing from others, too. And we believe this because this is what we’ve been told when we’ve consulted with hiring managers.

Based on our research, along with conversations with colleagues and within our networks, here’s what we think is really going on: “Media professionals these days just don’t want to work in public media.

PAINFULLY TRUE. Historically, working in public media may have signaled certain attributes about an employee such as well-educated, unbiased, a bit artsy and mission-driven. Even working for little money due to one’s passion for the work has been viewed as a noble quality. However, a halo of perceived values does not make a job sustainable, especially during this period of historic inflation. Author Simone Stolzoff recently talked with On Point’s Megna Chakrabarti about diminishing “vocational awe”: “When you treat the privilege of doing the work as a form of compensation in and of itself,” he said, “it can cover up workers getting less than they deserve.” (Read even more on this topic in Stolzoff’s recent New York Times guest essay). Ultimately, Stolzoff says, modern employees are clear-eyed that work is an economic contract, not love. Love doesn’t pay your bills or cover your healthcare. 

To attract top talent to these open positions in public media (and so you, too, can go back to a 40-hour work week), we believe it’s critical that public media stations shift to think like modern employers.

First, look at job scope: Public media has prided itself on loyal employees wearing many hats, leaving vacations early to save the day, being available to solve problems 24/7, etc. This is a recipe for employee burnout. Prospective employees can smell that a mile away when they read job descriptions which clearly outline work that will take more than eight hours each day.

This isn’t how people want to work anymore and these expectations are out of date.

To right-size the scope of your open position, consider this:

Use your best estimate and count the number of weekly hours needed for each responsibility. Stop counting when you get to 40. The tasks that you didn’t include in the tally should be assigned to a different role, or the tasks that you did count need to be made smaller in scope to make room for the other responsibilities. Although one person may have done this job in the past, it’s not reasonable to assume that the next person can or should be responsible to meet those inflated expectations.

Which are the most important responsibilities of this position and what is in the second tier of importance?

Are there ways to break up one role into two? Or, are there job duties of this one role that could be delegated into a part-time role for an additional person?

Consider over-stuffed job descriptions as terrific growth opportunities for other employees. Of the duties that don’t fit into the new hire’s bucket, ask current employees if there are any of the unfilled responsibilities they’d like to learn. Then, you can reassign some of the tasks that the employee has perfected to another person who is eager to learn. This will take more coaching and supervision from managers, but it’s a great investment in talent. Ideally, hiring managers should match responsibilities to the skills of the team, not just slot individuals into pre-existing job titles. Every new addition to a team is a chance to re-evaluate how the team is working together and what could be done more efficiently or creatively.

Second, examine compensation: Does this salary pay enough to live on, commensurate with the experience the job requires? What candidates might be self-selecting out of your applicant pool because they couldn’t afford their education, child care or housing payments at this compensation? 

We have observed many public media job postings state salary ranges that are far below the years of experience or level of responsibility the position requires

When thinking about compensation, consider this:

What was the last time you or your employer conducted a salary audit? What does the average person make in your community? Even if your employer isn’t ready to conduct a salary audit, some salary information is publicly available. The Pew Research Center, for instance, has made the study of middle class salaries an area of research expertise. As of 2021, they estimated that a “middle class” salary for a family of 2.5 was between $50,000 and $150,000. This depends on location, of course, but you can use their calculator with up-to-date location data to ballpark how this position pays within your community.

If a salary is low, a quick way to fix it is to adjust your expectations in the job qualifications. Think about removing requirements like “experience managing others” or downgrading the necessary years of work history. All of those extras–like obtaining a master’s degree, time spent in management or certification training, years working as an associate producer–would be an enormous benefit to your organization, but they required significant investment on the part of the applicant. An employee should be compensated for those additional benefits to the organization. 

If there’s really no way to adjust the salary range of the position and you suspect that it is too low, think about what other benefits you can offer in lieu of a higher salary. Might you offer a phone stipend, a regular parking space at no charge, additional vacation time, a yearly bonus based on achievement of goals, or a week at a leadership retreat or outside training program? 

Finally, make room for growth and innovation: Public media has a reputation for being slow to change (even a lightbulb!). Sometimes it’s cost-efficient to do things the same way they’ve been done before, but in other instances insisting on a particular workflow might be a symptom of power hoarding or a white supremacy work culture. Remember that an employee/employer relationship is a two-way street. Yes, a new hire will check off boxes on the weekly to-do list, but a job candidate also has a wealth of professional experiences and may teach your station a better, faster or more creative way to accomplish the goal. Additionally, a job description that clearly welcomes an individual’s skill growth and a chance to distinguish themselves through innovation may entice candidates to apply for positions they might otherwise not have considered. 

To craft a job description with room for growth consider this:

Where in this job is there room for an individual to make a unique, lasting impact?

If the job is a checklist of specific tasks to complete, then why are you hiring a human to complete them? Perhaps it’s time to consider automating some of the tasks or using AI to do this work. That way, the employee can contribute their creativity to bigger challenges and bigger rewards for the station.

Considering job scope, evaluating fair compensation, and allowing for growth and innovation for new hires and current employees – three things to consider as you continue to struggle to fill your vacancies. What does the future of our industry require from you? Stop doing things “the way they’ve always been done”! Remember, outstanding, qualified job candidates are out there! And you’re more likely to attract and retain them once you start thinking like a modern employer.