Keith Woods' 2018 Leo C. Lee Address: How To Make It Stick

Jun 25, 2018

During the PRNDI Awards Banquet on Saturday June 23rd, NPR's Keith Woods accepted the Leo C. Lee Award for his exceptional work in public media.  Woods is NPR's Vice President for Newsroom Training and Diversity at NPR.  He titled his address: How To Make It Stick.

Good evening. Thank you Terry and Teresa; thank you to the PRNDI Board and to all of you who have extended the kindness or congratulations and have made the work I do so gratifying. Hello to fellow award winners who are here: Maryanne, Bill and my buddy Doug. Thank you to Vickie Walton James and immediate past Leo C. Lee winner Andrea de Leon and all my other NPR colleagues who made me feel so special over dinner last night.

Now, I need to work off the calories.

See, this fall, I’m planning to do a 100-mile bicycle ride called the Seagull Century. So, I’ve been working up to the distance while trying to whip myself into better shape. I know what I have to do: Eat more salads. Avoid the cookies. Work out. Ride. And ride some more.

These last seven days, I’ve been pretty good. Salads every day. I put in 30 miles on the bike on Father’s Day. I had a pretty rigorous spinning class last Thursday. And I came into the week excited that I was on a roll. (I intended that pun).

But my wife made a killer cake Sunday, and I couldn’t just let it go to waste, so there went Monday, too. Then Tuesday I planned to ride my bike home from work, but a flat tire killed that idea. Then Thursday, I was late getting to Union Station in D.C., and it was past lunch time, and there was McDonald’s, right there, so you can guess the rest of this sentence.

I have all this motivation and ambition; all this insight into what needs to be done; into what works, but as October comes nearer, the Seagull Century ride is an uncertain goal, and I’m in a pitched battle to make my training regimen stick.

It’s such a metaphor for what I do; for training overall and for the work of diversity. I think this is the right moment to talk about that; here, as I accept the Leo C. Lee Award. Because in building the Western Public Radio program, Leo was the original public radio trainer. He emphasized training people of color and women (the Kitchen Sisters were in his first workshop), so that put him on the leading edge of the diversity conversation in public radio.

And he knew what he had to do. He knew that to build a robust corps of storytellers, training was critical. And he knew that to build a diverse corps of storytellers, you had to pay special attention to diversity.

That was close to 40 years ago, and our diversity record in public radio has looked a lot like my pursuit of the 100-mile ride: a lot of good intention, some identifiable progress, and some serious backsliding.

How do you make it stick?

About six months after I joined NPR in 2010, I polled station news directors and general managers and asked what strategies they were using to improve diversity at work. Most said they were looking for answers themselves. Some had good ideas.

Then I heard from Bill Davis at KPCC in Pasadena. If you know Bill, you won’t be surprised by what he said. It took about four words.

“Hire people of color.”

That’s pretty much what John Barth of PRX said when he won this award two years ago. It took four words for him, too.

“Hire more diverse talent.”

It’s like that Nike slogan: Just do it.

I know it’s not as simple as that. I think maybe I could sell Pasadena to a prospective producer easier than I could sell places with fewer palm trees and less ocean.

But I also know the stories of stations in Detroit and Boston and Arkansas and Charlotte, where a steady focus on diversity in staffing has borne fruit. I know managers who have figured out how important it is to be patient and relentless in recruiting and hiring; who’ve looked around with an intentional eye.

I know managers who have stuck with an opening until they could find someone who brought the talent and knowledge they needed; someone who had the added qualification of life experience, language skills or just plain perspective that strengthened their staffs and deepened their journalism.

I know newsrooms in Philadelphia and Chicago, Portland and Milwaukee, Madison and Hartford, where they’ve made a commitment to coverage or scrutinized their sourcing, or both.

To excel in diversity, you have to be willing to look hard at what you’re doing; to tell the unpleasant truths about your shortcomings. You have to be willing to sacrifice; to ask your staffs to put in more time while you cover for the missing reporter or producer or editor whose position you’re trying to fill. It means walking that fine line between hiring for diversity and making a “diversity hire.” It means having that uncomfortable conversation where you explain the difference to skeptical colleagues.

If you’re serious, you can’t half-step.

I mean, I think I can do the endurance part of that big bike ride this fall. I think I could get to the point where I survive for 100 miles. My pal Rolando Arrieta at NPR – he’s the one who roped me into this thing – told me last year that the real trick to surviving the Seagull Century ride is making your butt muscles strong enough to sit on that bike seat for more than 8 hours. The rest, he said, is manageable.

So maybe I could skip some of the other get-fit steps. When I’m in spinning class and we’re doing Tabatas – you know, those sadistic, 4-minute sprint intervals – it feels like I’m about to die every time. I’d rather not. I don’t know about you, but I have an allergic reaction to pain.

So, if I tell you that I haven’t stretched for a few days, or a few weeks (let’s say, hypothetically, that it was, like, four months), then you might logically conclude that I’m avoiding the pain of reawakening those dormant muscles and ligaments. I know how to avoid pain.

It’s like that slogan Nike rejected.

You know: Just don’t do it.

Maybe I could just do part of the work.

Can you hear the metaphor?

I got up this morning and I really wanted to do a few crunches. I know it’s the right thing to do. I know it’ll help me in the long run. I’ve had some great streaks of consistency, but I haven’t kept it up. Like Sam Sanders says, it’s been a minute.

What keeps stopping me? Well, I got up late one morning. Then there was the day when I had a headache. And, yeah, it’s hard to do morning crunches on Tuesdays when I have to be at the airport by 6 a.m. That always messes up my momentum. And, look. It’s hard, ok? I’m not as young as I used to be. And the last time I tried to do the ride, I injured my right leg. I’m afraid I’ll get burned again.

Can you hear the metaphor? Can you hear the reasons this work we so resolutely endorse doesn’t get done?

How do you make it stick? How do you go from talk to action? How do you go from politely nodding to making real change?

We are in a grueling, unforgiving race for relevance in this industry, and we won’t win unless we take this issue seriously.

You want to make a difference with diversity? You have to decide to make a difference. You have to put in the time. Make the sacrifices. Endure the discomfort and the discord. You have to lead. And lead some more.

You have to recognize that failing is not failure. Failure is when you stop trying. Even talking has value if it means you’re telling your staff or your community that you’re going to do something so that they can hold you accountable.

But if there are many people in this room who want to do it, there are way too many who are just talking about it.

So how about we make a deal. I’ll say something, and you can hold me accountable. I will be in the best shape of my middle-aged life by the 6th of October. I will ride 100 miles, maybe for the first time. I will get up in the mornings and do crunches, and I’ll do spinning classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I will eat right and sleep better. Hold me accountable.

What are you going to do? Hire somebody? Add some beats? Examine your sourcing? Train your staffs? Email me or call me or text me over the coming months and tell me what you did, and I’ll tell other people your stories, and we’ll learn and grow together and push past good intentions and incremental change and our chronic Tabatas of commitment.

And when we’re done, the kind of training that Leo C. Lee launched 40 years ago will have new meaning. And we in public radio will be in the best shape of our lives.