NPR brings on a new workforce leader.
By Dirk Olin
Jeff Perkins has only been on the job for six weeks. “I feel like a newbie in that sense,” he says, “but I’m getting my sea legs. I’ve been traveling around our system, because our system is very much about our member stations, because they’re what make up our organization really.”
The stations in question would be the local affiliates of National Public Radio, the iconic, 40-year-old broadcaster that hired Perkins as senior vice president and chief people officer in July. Perkins’ charge stops at the roughly 850 employees of NPR proper, not the thousands employed by the 880 locals. But it is Perkins’ office in Washington, D.C., that is the workforce hub for many of the nationally known names (think Nina Totenberg, Noah Adams) and program operations (think “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered”) that so many radio listeners would identify with.
So when the historic media organization came knocking on his door earlier this year, it was a slam dunk, right? In a word, no.
The door that NPR was knocking on was that of Huntbridge, Inc., a human resources, recruiting and consulting firm that Perkins himself had founded. Before that, he had held several prominent positions in media companies. He was SVP at Fox Interactive Media, a division of Fox News Corporation, where he led a team of 65 and oversaw the hiring and on-boarding of more than 1,000 employees in 26 countries and 11 businesses. He had also held several highly visible positions with AOL Time Warner, including Director of Human Resources for AOL International; VP of Human Resources for AOL, CompuServe, and Netscape; and SVP of Human Resources for AOL Europe. And before that, Perkins had served as Manager of Staffing, North America, for AC Nielsen, eventually becoming Director of Human Resources for Nielsen International in Europe.
With that storied background—and given that he was now calling his own shots at his own boutique—the courtship would not be as easy as A-B-C. Indeed, 1-through-18 is more like it.
“I had my own company and was happy doing recruiting,” recalls Perkins. “So I was not completely convinced that I was right, and I’m not sure NPR was convinced either. But after I met with a bunch of people, by which I mean I met with 18 different people, I think that made our decision for us.
“Plus, I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and I’d spent nine years of my adult life in D.C., doing media and technology, and it became very clear that there are very few opportunities like this in Washington, and I wanted to get back here.”
Fair enough, but Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation surely constituted harder-bitten workplaces. NPR is renown for its lack of shouting, its sober and measured and almost quiet approach to the news. What’s more, it’s a nonprofit. Was Perkins prepared for culture shock?
“It’s true that it’s my first time working in a nonprofit, and I had colleages telling me how different it would be. And there are some differences—the way we do budgeting, handling donors, and the support system from member stations. That’s a key differentiator. I’m used to working with boards that are full of neutral or disinterested parties, and the NPR board is 75-percent member stations and only four ‘public members’ of the type that you’d find on a for-profit board.
“But the difference ends there. As far as coming to work, the enterprise of the employees, how we work, this is as intense as anywhere. I like to say that we’re a nonprofit with for-profit expectations—that means for our employees and for ourselves. I used to think maybe at a nonprofit they’re not as serious. We’re very serious, about what we do, how we spend our funds, and what we expect from those expenditures.”
Which means what, exactly? In a world of geometric online growth, and with social media spreading like kudzu over the consumer landscape, what is the mandate for Perkins’ management of NPR’s workforce?
“The first thing is recruiting—or talent acquistion—followed by organizational development, compensation, and benefits,” he says. “We’re in the middle of implementing a flex-time program, too.”
The particulars on that, he adds, tie into the NPR culture. “This place is more collaborative and employee-driven in size than previous places I’ve worked. So when we implement something, a high level of consideration goes into how that will play with our employees—and we have both union and nonunion members of the staff. It’s a level of dialogue I’ve never seen at any of the organizations where I worked—fairness and collaboration ranks high. You may have heard of something like the Sharepower program at Pepsi. Well here, it’s not a program. It’s the culture.”
Despite the unique character of NPR, Perkins says he is not averse to outsourcing, when appropriate. “For certain, senior level searches, we will go to an outside firm,” he says. “Similarly, on the benefits side, we’re looking at new and creative approaches, and we have good minds in house, but just in the last couple weeks we’ve been thinking that maybe an outside firm could help us think it through. We don’t hesitate to go out to vendors for specific areas of expertise—recruiting, benefits, and technology.”
The last of those is as much of a moving target for broadcast media as most other lines of business these days—both in terms of providing HR services internally and implementing the learning function for employees. “I was out of this for a while,” says Perkins, “so I’m learning the new systems and what’s out there in HR technology, generally, and what NPR has and how it’s integrated daily.”
The casual observer (or listener) might assume that radio’s status as the oldest broadcast medium has inoculated it from technology’s hyperdrive. An interviewer, a subject, and a recording device. Same as it ever was, right? Wrong.
“Our primary business is radio and has been for 40 years,” says Perkins. “But the second business we’re in is digital, NPR.org and everything that’s in there. Our digital media group includes a lot of technical hiring. If you look at the work that organization has done, we’ve now surpassed 500,000 downloads on iPods and iPads. That takes a lot. And we have a spot bonus program, but we don’t have a full bonus program, so how do we recognize and reward the employees who have helped make that technology happen and launched us into social media too?”
And while the divide between the tech side and the content side has widened in one way, it has narrowed in another. “We have a Knight Foundation training program now to teach reporting online and the use of video and digital tools. It’s five weeks of training, and that involves folks taking leaves or doing rotations. Also our studios have modernized considerably, requiring another level of training. And that’s for the on-air talent, too. Ten years ago, you might find one person on-air and three technicians, whereas now you might find the people on-air doing some of that themselves, maybe with one supporter.”
All of which leads to the basic question of how Perkins will mesh his experience with the broadcaster’s mission, going forward. “I’m still in the process of figuring out what the goals are,” he says. “I’m not arriving with a binder that I’m trying to impose on NPR, because that wouldn’t work. The whole talent acquisition and management side is very important, of course. We’re very selective. Remember, I interviewed with 18 people before joining the company. So there’s a lot of discussion, we really want to know who we’re hiring.
“On the other hand, we’re trying to make all of our processes smoother and easier for managers to navigate. Payroll, spot bonuses, access to things on the employee intranet—I’ve heard employees and managers alike, time and again, say simplify those things. I mean, you don’t want a spot bonus program to be complicated and become a negative experience. You want to make it easy to administer. Structurally, we haven’t historically had HR generalists supporting a specific business. Should we? Or should the head of the digital business, say, be shopping main HR for compensation in one case or training or recruitment in another case. We’re looking at what that model is and we’re having that discussion to become more efficient in HR as a service provider for the whole organization.”
In the end, then, Perkins faces many of the same challenges he would find in other businesses—media or not, for-profit or non. He laughs. “I thought it would be such a different challenge,” he says, “but although it’s less hierarchical and more collaborative, in the end, the challenges are the same.”