As I write this, Kamala Harris has just been inaugurated as the first woman and first person of color to serve as vice president. That is an inspiring sign of progress — but it’s also a reminder of how challenging it is to increase racial diversity in the highest ranks of leadership.
Sadly, the television station business stands as a sobering example. “The best candidates of color certainly want a great place to work and where the journalism is great,” says Jordan Wertlieb, president of Hearst Television. “But they also want to see a management team that reflects them. And I’ve said this publicly: Shame on the broadcast industry.”
According to RTDNA research released last fall, “general managers are less racially and ethnically diverse than last year . Just 7.1% of general managers are people of color, down from 10.3% last year.” Wertlieb estimates fewer than 20 stations have Black general managers. “And that’s a staggering number, if you think about it, with all the broadcast television stations that are in the country.”
“When I go back to Emma’s purpose, it wasn’t just about having talent in front of the camera. But it was also ensuring that we were in decision-making roles behind the camera,” says Nikki Bethel, president and CEO of the Emma Bowen Foundation, which has been placing talented students of color in multi-year paid internships in media and tech companies for more than three decades. “If you have no senior leaders of color in the newsroom, on the ground, out in the field, then are you really serious about what you say you’re talking about? Show that you believe it by putting your money where your mouth is and hiring people who look like me in positions of authority, and then allow me to sit next to them. No matter how young I might be, no matter how inexperienced I might be, it has to start somewhere.”
The foundation has placed more than 1,400 interns over the years — alums who form a growing network that’s a potential resource for the next generation of newcomers, for companies eager to draw on it, and for the foundation itself. “As the network grows, we keep our ear to the ground around what is the culture and the climate like,” Bethel says. “And culture and climate, though they are complementary, are two different things: Culture is set by the C-suite, climate is how you feel on the ground.”
Jordan Wertlieb and his team in the “C-suite” at Hearst Television are longtime Emma Bowen partners. Nine Bowen alums are working at Hearst stations now. The executives agreed to talk with me about what it takes to change both culture and climate: to move more diverse candidates not just through the door but up the ladder. “Let’s be clear and be careful. There aren’t quotas,” Wertlieb says. “But it’s a numbers game. So if you fill up more of the producer ranks and more of the sales ranks with diversity, if we’re pushing them towards more training and more mentorship and more exposure, then they naturally progress into department head level. And then they naturally progress into a general manager.”
Watch a Hearst video celebrating its Emma Bowen alums.
Hearst has multiple initiatives to help address this goal, all of which were underway before last year’s nationwide reckoning on racial inequity. In May of 2018, Human Resources SVP Katherine Barnett presented every GM in the group with statistics comparing diversity at their stations with the populations they serve in their markets. “The GMs were already focused on it,” Barnett says, “but this really punctuated it for them when we held the mirror up in front of them. It was just further fuel in their tank to continue to move the needle.”
The company has a program to recruit military veterans, a naturally diverse pool from which to draw. There have been 51 hires in five years. In addition, since 2014, the Fred Young Television Producing Fellowship has been plucking promising producer candidates right from college for 10 weeks of training and then putting them to work at Hearst stations. “While it is not defined as a minority fellowship, it has evolved [so that] about 50% of our fellows have been people of color,” says News SVP Barb Maushard. “And the majority of those fellows are still moving through the company.”
A year ago, Hearst appointed its first director of talent recruitment, Sinan Sadar, a former news director and veteran of three Hearst stations whose brief includes increasing diversity across the company’s 26 news markets. Even before taking on his new job, the gregarious Sadar had a reputation for connecting people with the right station in the company: Wertlieb calls him “the Swiss Army Knife” of mentorship. “I think it’s just trying to broaden our pipeline and our funnels at the entry-level stage and at the mid-level stage — bringing in the people that will eventually move to department head and more senior positions,” Sadar says. “We think this is the time that, especially in my role, you can help amplify that and increase the aggression. Because there’s a way to go.”
“We have allowed [mentorship] to just be organic and natural up until now,” Katherine Barnett says, “but now we’re ready to put some more formality and structure to it. And we have solicited all of our general managers initially to suggest to us individuals who could be mentors and individuals who would like to be a mentee — and at all levels, not just entry level.”
The executives say that an ironic outcome of the pandemic is more face-to-face contact with and among employees, albeit virtually, and the ability to match people by shared experience rather than by proximity. “It’s giving us a plethora of combinations that we never had before,” Wertlieb says. “There’s not a criterion other than saying, ‘You know what? That person, that department head has had a pretty similar path as what we’re trying to do here with this person. Why don’t we connect them?’” Just one example: Anel Disla, who helps run creative services at WPBF-TV in West Palm Beach, is now mentoring Michée Mande, a newly minted promotion producer at Sacramento’s KCRA-TV. (Both are Emma Bowen alums.)
Barb Maushard also hopes to expose mentees to a more diverse array of talents within the company — and perhaps reap some unexpected rewards, “With some of these more formalized mentorship programs that we’re working on, I think we’re going to find different people from very different disciplines getting mixed together and figuring out what some of the skill sets are that we might not have otherwise known about,” Maushard says.
Nikki Bethel of the Emma Bowen Foundation agrees that a formal mentorship program is essential to generate more newsroom and station leaders of color, and she hopes that her growing network of alums can help.”It’s one thing to hire, it’s another to retain,” Bethel says. “You retain folks that are a part of this community by aligning them with other individuals who’ve walked the path they think they want to walk. You put them in touch with people who can say, ‘Been there, done that. This was my walk. Here are my wins, here are some failures.’ All things and roads lead back to mentorship.”
Jordan Wertlieb says the road to a general manager’s office at Hearst is a “10-year journey.” He’s proud to have the three Black GMs on his team — WDSU’s Joel Vilmenay in New Orleans, KOAT’s Lori Waldon in Albuquerque, and WJCL’s Ben Hart in Savannah — but rather than try to speed that process up (and set people up to fail), Wertlieb and his team are moving aggressively to bring in more people of color and support them through the ranks.
It’s not just up-and-coming employees who are on a “journey” either — the management team must be as well. And the first step is to recognize that waiting for change to happen on its own won’t work. “You’ve got to walk the walk,” Wertlieb says. “You’ve got to point out to these candidates, ‘There’s no ceiling: You can run a television station, you can go to the corporate level.’ So what the industry has to do is start demonstrating more successes in the levels you’re talking about. And then your pipeline will get better.”
Editor’s Note: Every station group is trying to meet the challenges of diversity, equity and inclusion in its own way, and we’re interested in what your company is doing to change the equation. Please share your story with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.