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Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Wise Words for the Newsroom (especially Radio and especially these days)

This is from a friend and wise colleague from my NPR days - Jonathan Kern.  Posted here with permission.

I recently found a 10-year-old email I wrote to the producer of All Things Considered, who had solicited some management advice. (I had been the Supervising Editor and Executive Producer of the show.) Since it falls in the category of Stuff I Wish Someone Had Told me, I'm passing on the bullet points from the note. I hope this may be helpful to pubmedia folks who are new to managing -- but of course, just ignore it if it isn't:
* Articulate your vision for the program. Give people the big picture, and remind them of it often, so they see how their daily work fits into what you see as the main goals of the team.
* A corollary to the above: Encourage people to give you suggestions, and really hear them out. You can't be responsible for generating all the good ideas; two heads (or five or ten) really can be better than one.
* A corollary to that corollary: Once you've made a decision, tell people why. This helps the people who thought you should do something else understand your rationale. In some cases, you may want to explain your decision to people one-on-one. Often you can enlist the help of a potential opponent just by asking for it. ("I know you had a different idea of what we should be doing, but I need your support now.")
* Give praise publicly and criticism privately.
* Give oral or written feedback often. It's best to set aside a time each day for reviewing what people have done and writing or sending feedback notes. Remember to comment on people's attitudes, as well as their work. Someone who volunteers to train a new employee may be as valuable as someone who is a fast tape cutter. (I know it's not really tape.)
* When you criticize someone's work, be as specific as possible about how they can improve. For instance, it's much better to tell someone, "I really need you to be bringing story ideas to the meeting every day, and getting at least one of them on the air each week" than to say, "You never seem to have any story ideas."
* Follow-up all personnel discussions (such as the one above) with emails that begin, "I just want to go over a couple of things we discussed today." This is necessary because people will hear what they want to hear when you're talking to them; they may even zone out and be thinking, "He never cares about my ideas...He plays favorites...He's just scared of what the hosts will do..." and as a result not hear ANYTHING you're saying. In extreme cases -- if someone is put on probation -- you'll be glad you have a paper trail. (I create a folder in Outlook for each person I supervise, and put relevant emails in that folder. You may want to keep hard copies, or even BCC your HOME email address, so the copies are off-site.)
* Don't allow conspiracies to develop. If you get wind that people are whispering behind your back, confront the employee -- in a positive way. "I'm getting a vibe that you and Jonathan aren't happy with the way things are going. Be honest with me: what do you think I'm doing wrong?" There is this phenomenon of the "echo chamber," where employees tell each other something (i.e., "He doesn't want any humor in the show" or "The only way to get a piece on this show is to be an independent producer") and it reverberates and gets louder and louder, even if it is untrue. This is the chance to challenge those assumptions -- and prove them wrong.
* Try not to take things personally. If someone leaves [your show] for another program [or station], it doesn't mean they don't like you; and even if it does, that's irrelevant to your job. Just start looking for a solution. Which reminds me:
* When a staff member brings you a problem, try to enlist him or her in solving it. For instance, if a producer says, "I think this rollover schedule is completely unfair," you might ask, "What would you do to make it fairer?" If someone threatens to quit because she thinks the work she's doing is beneath her, ask her how else she thinks she could contribute to the program.
* Look for ways to build people's skills, especially by letting them trade off jobs occasionally; don't let someone's competence in one field make them so invaluable that you never want him or her to do anything else. You may not want your booker to be a substitute host no matter how talented she thinks she is, but you might be able to teach her how to cut a two-way, or use a flash recorder.
* Keep track of your own achievements. Your supervisors are much more likely to note when you make a mistake than when you succeed.
* Stand up to difficult personalities, whether they are on your staff or in other parts of NPR. I say this, even though I think it was one of my biggest failures. Don't get mad, or get in a fight: just explain why something needs to be done, and assume responsibility for the decision -- even if it turns out badly.
* Try to have a positive attitude, or at least present one to the staff. [Former ATC producer] Sean Collins often started the day by saying, "We have the best jobs in broadcasting!" Think about the things that made YOU want to come to work and try to provide them to your staff. (Beer is good.)

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