What's Going On at PRX, Part I: Behind the Reporting
Kerri Hoffman in the Hot Seat
“We build turnover into our model,” PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman told a packed room at Hot Pod Summit this past February. “We just…generously fortify and water the seeds and let people go and really champion every aspect of their journey.”
Hoffman’s comments were part of a panel discussion at the exclusive audio industry gathering, in which she, Multitude Productions CEO Amanda McLoughlin, and LWC Studios CEO Juleyka Lantigua were supposed to be sharing how they recruit and retain employees in a market increasingly encroached on by bigger players. While the other two CEOs onstage shared how their organizations provide paths to promotions and raises, Hoffman appeared to be characterizing workforce churn as a positive.
“It felt very empty and ironic,” someone who was in the room told me later. “There were people in the room who were openly rolling their eyes.”
Eighteen months earlier, Hoffman had been in the hot seat for a different reason: in an August 3rd, 2020 resignation letter leaked to Twitter, Palace Shaw, a Black PRX employee, had accused PRX of fostering a racist and discriminatory workplace. She recounted a time when Hoffman touched her hair, put her fingers into her top bun, and commented on her “distinct profile.” She said that despite having more experience than peers at the same level, she was paid less, and that when she brought this up with her manager she was “put through an embarrassing seven-month process that included taking on more responsibility to prove myself worthy of a raise.” She claimed to be the fourth Black woman to leave the organization without another job lined up in less than a year. Here’s more from her letter:
PRX both internally and externally refuses to fully recognize and name its own toxic impact. Which means it cannot move forward, despite any promotions or new hires… Everyone at PRX should know that each characteristic on the list of White Supremacy Culture Characteristics is fully expressed in the workplace…Most present, I would say, are fear of open conflict, defensiveness, sense of urgency, and paternalism. DEI is not enough on its own…I strongly feel that the work culture here harms everyone regardless of race.
The letter triggered enough industry outrage to prompt Hoffman and PRX’s board of directors to announce an investigation into Shaw’s claims.
You could be forgiven for not remembering what the investigation found, as its results were not heavily publicized. In my initial research, the only evidence I was able to find of the report was an “excerpt from the final summary” which PRX published on the company’s Medium page on October 29th, 2020 and a news item in the October 30th, 2020 paywalled edition of Hot Pod. (Eventually, I was able to locate a copy of the full report in this extremely random location.) All of this to say, it’s likely that you wouldn’t have come across the news unless you were actively searching for it.
In any event, the third party who conducted the investigation “did not uncover any evidence of unlawful discrimination or harassment, or a violation of any PRX policy related to Ms. Shaw and her employment at PRX.” While the investigation did identify “signs of what can be described as unconscious bias and ‘microaggressions’ that tended to make the work experience for some BIPOC employees difficult,” its writer concluded that “for now, PRX is doing what it should be doing, and so long as it is diligent about its DEI efforts and stays on its current path, improvements will not come overnight, but they will come.”
As I re-read these results earlier this year, I decided to look into whether this prediction had come true. I started with the basic hypothesis that if improvements had come, employee turnover would be low, or lowish. With help from the The Wayback Machine, LinkedIn, and a few (human) sources, I began tracking new hires and departures. My research showed that between August of 2020, when Shaw’s letter was submitted to PRX, through July of 2022:
PRX lost 37 employees, or more than half its August 2020 headcount of 70.
Of those who have left, approximately 30% are people of color.
During that same timeframe, PRX hired 27 new employees.
100% of white employees hired during this timeframe are still employed by PRX.
42% of employees of color hired during this timeframe have left PRX; none stayed more than one year and one left after six months.
In an effort to be 100% transparent:
One of the employees of color who departed during this timeframe recently returned to PRX in a more senior role.
I did not count Cathy Twiss, an employee who died during that time, in any of my calculations.
While losing more than half your headcount over the space of two years certainly isn’t great, I was also aware that numbers never tell a complete story. With that in mind, I began reaching out to former employees of the company. As of this writing, I’ve interviewed 16 former PRX employees (some multiple times) of varying backgrounds and ethnicities. All sources spoke with me on the condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation.
After I interviewed the 16th former employee, I decided it was time to let PRX know that I was working on this story. I also requested to interview Hoffman and the organization’s senior director of DEI, Dr. Byron Green. Here's an excerpt from that September 12th email:
I’m writing to request interviews with Kerri Hoffman and Byron Green (separately) for a story I’m writing for The Squeeze about the steps PRX has taken since 2020 to address the issues raised by Palace Shaw’s letter and the recommendations listed in the org’s internal investigation. I’m also trying to get a general sense of how the org has evolved between 2020 and today. I want to give Kerri and Byron the opportunity to share their perspective on the company’s progress and its future, in as much depth as possible. In the spirit of being fully transparent, I’ve spoken with some former employees already.
Through a spokesperson, both Hoffman and Green declined to be interviewed. Instead, I was provided with a “comprehensive overview of organizational work.” Here’s the overview, in full:
PRX conducted an extensive organizational culture audit that included quantitative equity surveys, listening sessions, and qualitative analysis to help inform the development of strategic inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA) goals with a comprehensive roadmap to achieve them. PRX has developed an organizational commitment to work across all aspects of the organization and set core values of courage, humanity, opportunity, purpose, and equity.
In April 2021, Dr. Byron Green joined PRX as the organization's first Senior Director of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility through a highly collaborative hiring process. Before Dr. Green joined the staff, PRX worked with DEI consultants Project Inkblot, Common Ground, and b*free.
Combined work and initiatives include:
All-staff training––ongoing training in areas of emotional intelligence, bias, identity, and creating team goals and processes with an equity lens, as well as team-building. Focused training includes team-wide sessions and one-on-one sessions at every level of the organization. PRX has also formalized management training centered around inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.
First comprehensive annual engagement survey––in 2021, PRX conducted its first all-staff engagement survey regarding perceptions of equity and inclusion within the organization, experience with matters of diversity and inclusion, knowledge awareness, and skills relating to cultural competence. 98% of staff participated.
Updating the compensation process––PRX partnered with the consultancy Clifton Larson Allen (CLA). CLA executed a pay equity analysis across the organization and in fall 2021 guided PRX’s implementation of its compensation philosophy, which uses rigorous market benchmarks while maintaining internal alignment. Updates to PRX’s hiring process have also now included removing degree requirements from job descriptions, providing all applicants access to Human Resources prior to applying to discuss the position and the process, and publishing salary ranges within job postings.
Updating the performance review process and developing clear policy for promotions across the organization.
Individual departments have begun further implementing and centering the foundational work PRX has undertaken into their functional areas with guidance and support from Dr. Green.
Also as part of the roadmap, to date, PRX has on-boarded three new Employee Affinity Groups for PRX staff. These groups include:
Staff who identify as Black or as part of the African Diaspora
Staff who identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community
Staff who identify as neurodiverse
Ongoing training and workshops around inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility continue into the future. PRX has been engaging public media organizations to learn where they are on their journey, share resources, and to convene different groups to learn and build with one another.
What struck me about this response was its focus on tasks versus results. For example, the fact that 98% of the PRX workforce participated in a survey “regarding perceptions of equity and inclusion within the organization,” doesn’t actually tell me anything. Why not share those results? Or at the very least, let me know if they had an impact?
Or consider that final bullet point: “PRX has on-boarded three new Employee Affinity Groups for PRX staff.” While that sounds like a good thing, mentioning it doesn’t do more than check some imaginary box. What’s come of those groups? Who provides the content? Do employees feel that these have made a positive difference in their work lives?
I could literally point to anything on this list and ask the same kinds of questions — what are the results so far? Has there been an impact? (Go ahead, try it yourself.) These are the sorts of things I would have asked Hoffman and Green, had I been given the chance. On the other hand, I certainly wasn’t surprised that they declined a chance to speak. Almost universally, the employees I’ve interviewed told me that PRX management tends to run away from hard conversations. Old habits die hard.
Anyhoo, I accepted their decision and continued my reporting.
On September 22nd, I emailed my contact with a request for two pieces of factual information: a confirmation on PRX’s official founders (Google’s answers are weirdly murky on this front) and a list of current Radiotopia shows (I wanted to be sure that what I was seeing on the website was up-to-date). Instead of providing answers, I received the following note:
It would be helpful to further understand context. Might you be available for a quick call for clarification on the piece you're planning? Happy to set this up with Donna Hardwick, CMO at PRX.
I didn’t think any further clarification was necessary, particularly as my request was for indisputable facts. So instead of taking PRX up on an offer to speak with its CMO, I revisited the idea of interviewing Hoffman and Green:
When I first wrote, I hoped that they would be open (eager, even?) to having a frank conversation about how things have progressed at PRX for the past two years. This would be a chance for them to discuss the many initiatives that were listed on the document you sent. As it stands now, without any stated outcomes, that document isn’t all that helpful. I’d like a chance to ask Kerri and Byron about the those initiatives, share what I’ve learned in my reporting and potentially have a genuine exchange about the complexities of doing this kind of work. This is a chance for PRX to continue its efforts to be transparent about their process. So do let me know - are they both officially declining to speak with me?
Yes, I was told again, they were officially declining.
So I got back to double and triple-checking my reporting.
Earlier this week, in anticipation of publishing my findings, I sent PRX a list of things for them to fact-check. My email was admittedly lengthy, and at this point — currently 2:14pm on Wednesday, October 5th — I’m still going back and forth with the organization on some pretty important items from that list. As a result, I’m not ready to share what I learned during my interviews with former employees, but you’ll see those findings in a future issue. For now, I’ll share a two statements that I’ve received from PRX this week:
First, an unprompted statement from Donna Hardwick, PRX CMO:
Creating an inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible environment for staff is PRX’s top priority, and organizational work is of highest importance. There is no ‘end date’ for this work, as it is ongoing. PRX remains committed to a roadmap of short, mid, and long-term organizational improvements.
And second, a statement from PRX regarding my employee turnover data:
Staff members may depart for a variety of factors depending on individual situations. Building internal community and retention are important pieces of ongoing organizational work and PRX views inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility as central to the mission and the health of the organization. PRX recognizes this is a journey. Please see the organization's full IDEA statement. Similar to organizations experiencing a changing workforce, we aim to improve.
Here’s my aim: to get past PRX’s “comprehensive overview of organizational work” in favor of bringing you inside what it’s been like to work at PRX since the summer of 2020. I’ll attempt to do that by sharing what I’ve learned from people previously employed by the organization.
PLEASE NOTE: If you are a current or former employee of PRX, and you are open to sharing your story, please reach out. I honor all requests for anonymity. Send email to email@example.com or DM me on Twitter @SkyePillsbury and we’ll arrange a time to speak.
That’s all for me this week!
See you next Thursday.
Postscript: Thanks to the PRX spokesperson who has been — and still is! — working hard to get me what I need to complete my story. I’m sure this is not an easy task and I deeply appreciate the effort.
This is an important story. I applaud your thoroughness and tenacity in reporting it. I look forward to the next parts. I wonder how the observations of current employees compare with those who have left.
Something is really wrong with corporate executives who dodge questions and then answer with "this is a journey." Thanks for your tenacity in getting to the bottom of this story.