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Turning A Lens On Ourselves: A Conversation About Diversity With KUT/X's General Manager

Debbie Hiott speaks in an interview at KUT in February 2019, a month after becoming KUT and KUTX's general manager.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Debbie Hiott speaks in an interview at KUT in February 2019, a month after becoming KUT and KUTX's general manager.

KUT and KUTX's leadership has posted a letter to our listeners on the station's efforts to better reflect the diversity of our audience. The letter was released as part of a new effort called Public Media for All – a national campaign asking public media organizations to reflect on their lack of diversity and inclusion.

In the letter, station leaders acknowledge our own poor track record on race – and how the station plans to change things going forward. KUT reporter Nadia Hamdan spoke with KUT and KUTX Director and General Manager Debbie Hiott about why she decided to write this letter – and what she hopes to achieve.

KUT is also looking for your feedback on how to increase our outreach throughout communities of color in Central Texas. You can find the survey online here.

This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity:

Debbie Hiott: Public media, in general, has long had a history of being, frankly, overwhelmingly white, and at KUT there's been that history — and there's also been a history of people of color feeling uncomfortable about the organization and having experiences within the organization that did not reflect their culture and, frankly, were not good experiences. And so it felt important to us not only to talk about what we wanted to do going forward but also to acknowledge that there is a history there — both a station history and an overall public media history — that really makes us even more urgent for us to to do this kind of an effort. 

Nadia Hamdan: And let's talk about that. What led up to this? Like you just said and in your letter, you talk about colleagues of color feeling uncomfortable and having negative experiences at the station. Can you be more specific on how KUT failed here? 

Sure. We have had people in the past who have said things that I certainly would have considered objectionable — offensive. And I think that's something that should never be happening in any newsroom or, frankly, any workplace. I also think that there were people in some leadership roles that, frankly, led in a way that was punitive to people and that's not something any organization should have.

There were times when we did not have enough colleagues of color, and I feel like we still don't really reflect the community. And I think that the people who were within the organization at times felt very isolated and also felt like perhaps their ideas and their views were dismissed. And you know what that meant — two things: It made it an uncomfortable workplace for them, but it also meant that for our audience that they did not benefit from those diverse voices. 

And I think it's important to point out that this isn't the first time KUT's issues have been laid out publicly. There's been local news coverage, social media callouts from former employees. And KUT had even hired an independent reporter and editor to investigate the allegations of workplace hostility. But the stories published in 2018 were quickly taken down, with no explanation as to why.

I know much of this occurred before you became general manager, but as the current leader of this station, can you tell us now whether or not those stories will be republished? 

That is something we're looking into. KUT received legal advice on those. And the decisions, apparently at the time, were made based on that legal advice. The executive editor, Teresa Frontado, is taking a close look at that now. As the general manager, I don't have a role in making the decisions about what is or isn't published or aired. But we have been having the conversations about what does she need to review and what does she need to know in order to make those decisions.

And do you feel we've been transparent enough to our community? 

I think that there are times when, in the past, when certainly KUT has not been transparent enough. As a 30-year journalist myself, the notion that anything was ever unpublished from the website is disturbing to me. But I think that we want to make changes.

We want to make sure that there is a really strong editorial integrity process in place, that the newsroom is making decisions that are based on what the audience needs to know. And that's part of what we've been working on for the past 18 months. And it's what we're going to keep working on. 

Oftentimes, when we hear these conversations about organizational change, we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that we're talking about people, specifically people of color, who feel they've been mistreated and boxed out. I'm curious, what have you learned from people of color about their experience working at KUT and KUTX? 

One of the things I've done is I've gone back and talked to everyone, of course, here at the station about things that occurred in the past. But I also reached out to some people who had left the station to kind of get a sense of those experiences. And I think the overwhelming concern was that, at times, their ideas and views were dismissed. And, like I said, not only is that bad in terms of a workplace, but it also means that the audience doesn't benefit from a lot of different ideas and a lot of different life experiences that are important to what goes into understanding our community. 

And how much should how KUT looks on the inside matter to our listeners? In other words, how should our health as a diverse newsroom be reflected in the stories we cover? 

I think that what it means is that, at times, there are complex stories that because we've become more diverse, we'll do a better job of covering. You know, a great example that's been talked about a lot recently in the media and elsewhere is the whole notion of the bloc Latino vote in the most recent election.

Newsrooms that have come to value diversity and those diverse voices — and really listened to all of the different life experiences of the teams that they have — have done a much better job of explaining that Latino vote was never a bloc. It's a lot of different communities and a lot of different viewpoints. And so I think that's what we're talking about.

When I talk about diversity in the context of a newsroom, I'm talking about better coverage. Because the more that we can reflect the community, the more that we can understand the community, the better job we're going to do covering the whole community. 

Obviously, you've put out this letter and with it, the KUT and KUTX leadership team has put together a list of ways you all plan to "improve diversity, equity and inclusion." Can you share some of those with us? 

Sure. The first thing I want to do, though, is clarify that this wasn't a list the leadership team put together as much as it was a list that came from talking within the organization about what are the needs and where are gaps and what are the things we really need to work on. We had a lot of departmental meetings and some all-staff meetings to kind of recognize these areas.

Some of the things that we're talking about are how can we be better in our coverage — in listening to the community. The newsroom has come up with a plan, talking about reaching out and holding some community engagement efforts. On the music side, the music team decided to come up with some goals around making sure that more diverse voices, people of color, other types of music are included within the music that we play on KUTX.

In terms of what we do within the organization, we had a lot of conversation about how we hire and what that process is like. And managers talked about how we can make it better. We also talked with staff members about that. So we laid out a new recruiting and hiring process as well.

And do you have anything in place, any accountability measures to hold yourselves — hold ourselves accountable to follow through with these promises? 

Yeah, I mean, we tried as much as possible to put very specific dates around things. And also, frankly, the biggest accountability measure we feel was to be transparent and share all of this action plan with our listeners, because I expect that the community will help hold us all accountable within the organization. 

I expect that my team, the whole staff, will help hold me accountable and the other leaders accountable. You know, part of the reason for launching at all in this way is to make sure everyone knows it's there and so everyone knows when we're failing and everyone knows when we're making progress on things. 

KUT is not the only media organization confronting how it treats people of color. We're seeing this happen across the industry. Why do you think it's so important for media organizations to hold themselves accountable in this way? 

We take great pride as media organizations in our role in holding others accountable. It is the whole community watchdog role, the whole notion that what we do matters in terms of making sure that people know what's going on elsewhere. It's hypocritical not to turn that lens on ourselves. 

Nadia Hamdan is a local news anchor and host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT.
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