Voice of America acting director gets Sammies nod for turning around employee engagement

Yolanda López is a finalist in this year's Service to America Medals program and she joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin in studio.

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You might say Voice of America was in turmoil. Big disagreements between agency staff and the Trump administration meant people were leaving, put on leave or under investigation. A series of leaders had come and gone for several years. A day after the Biden administration started, it appointed Yolanda López, who had been removed from her job as news director only weeks earlier as acting VOA director. Since then, employee engagement scores rose 13 points from below average to above average. Now López is a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program. She joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin in studio.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. López, good to have you in.

Yolanda López: I thank you for having me.

Tom Temin:What is your current job now as acting director? I mean, it sounds like you’ve got the agency in your arms, maybe review what the agency does the new role of VOA and where it fits in the pantheon here?

Yolanda López: So yeah, I’m the acting director of the Voice of America. Voice of America broadcast[s] in 48 languages around the world. But people used to know or talk about Voice of America as a radio broadcaster. We do radio, we do TV and obviously, we are present in all the digital platforms. And we are present in countries where there is no freedom of the press, usually in places in Africa, in Latin America, South Central Asia, East Asia. Our mission is very clear, and it was stated in its charter signed back in 1976 by President Gerald Ford: VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive. The charter itself protects the editorial independence and integrity of VOA programming. We have what it is called a firewall, which means that the no one in the government can tell us what to do, what to say, so we are independent editorially.

Tom Temin:Right, and so I guess that came into question, and we won’t go into the details there. But what happened when you were removed from your job as I guess, a top editor there, and then you were kind of in limbo until the new administration came in?

Yolanda López: Well I was the director of the news center that produces stories and content in English. And I just got removed from that position. And they put me as director of programming. And then one week later, received a call that I was the acting director of Voice of America, everything happened in a span of what maybe one week or eight days. I really thought, that is already in the past so I really don’t know really what to happened or why. We can only guess. But the thing is that what I’m focused on is in the fact that Kelu Chao, which is the acting CEO at [U.S. Agency for Global Media] gave me this responsibility, this opportunity. Kelu Chao is a great leader, is a role model to me. And I couldn’t say no to her. She told me if I could be the acting director and we both thought that it was going to be just for a few months, really.

Tom Temin:Right, now it’s been, what a year and a half or so?

Yolanda López: A year and a half, yeah.

Tom Temin: Wow. And the scores are up and you are a Sammies finalist. When you became acting director, what is it you felt you had to do first to kind of put as I call it, oil on the waters, because there was a lot of staff uncertainty?

Yolanda López: Well, that is a great question because the first thing that I tried to do is to communicate internally. Most of my time, the first few months, was dedicated to the workforce, to talk to them to gain their trust. Also, imagine everything happened when we were doing a pandemic, we were working remotely. So imagine to have this situation to be the acting director all of a sudden from home, and how to communicate with your staff. We have, like I said, 48 language services. That means that is the same amount of newsrooms that we have.

Tom Temin: Right, so it’s pretty far flung.

Yolanda López: Yeah, it is a lot of people in several languages. So the first thing that I had in my mind is we had to regain the trust, we had to tell everyone that everything is going to be okay, that we should start focusing again on the mission. That we are gonna tell them everything that is going on, we are gonna communicate what is our mission, what is it that we are doing. And this is basically what I did for the first few months. I met relentlessly with everyone. We had several town hall meetings, I still do a weekly message every single Thursday, explaining what we are doing and what others are doing. So everybody’s aware of everybody’s work. And this is basically what we did, there was a lot of mistrust and uncertainty. And again, the pandemic didn’t help and the fact that everybody was working remotely, so it is easier to start figuring out and thinking where things, or gossip or – rumors, and so I tried to be very transparent, really, and just communicate what we were doing all the time.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Yolanda López, she’s acting director of Voice of America and a finalist in this year of Service to America Medals program. And do you feel that being a career employee yourself in the acting position, maybe gave you credibility that the string of politicals that had been coming in and out of VOA and its parent agency for actually a number of years could not bring to it?

Yolanda López: Well, I think that was important. Because if you had to lead an agency remotely, and as complicated as VOA is, for someone that is from the outside, I could say that you can be great, you can be fantastic, but it’s gonna take some time. VOA is very complicated and complex, and our relationship that we have, among ourselves, taking into account that we are both journalists and federal employees, which is kind of contradictory, it is difficult to grasp. So I think that yes, it helped because I worked with the language services, I worked with divisions, I knew what was going on, and what was missing. I knew what had happened. And I think I knew what all the staffers and all the employees needed, because it’s what I needed when I was in that position. So I tried to think, well, when they tell you, what would you change in your agency, if you had the power to do so? So I took that, and I’d say, well, now I cannot say. Oh, I don’t have any power, I just go along. No, I really had to act upon what I thought that had to be right.

Tom Temin: And besides the communication and the understanding that people should do what their jobs were supposed to be and fidelity to the mission, were there any operational or procedural or process changes that didn’t need to be made?

Yolanda López: Well, we have made a lot of changes, most of the changes came from the feedback and the input that were received from the employees. I continue to do so because they are the ones that really gave the great ideas, right? One of them by instances, we realized that people will come to VOA without understanding very well what that relationship was between VOA and USAGM – VOA and the fact that we a federal government.

Tom Temin: USAGM being the U.S. Agency for Global Media, your parent agency.

Yolanda López: Company, exactly, VOA’s parent company. So that is difficult to understand. So we then provided a two-week new employee orientation program that wasn’t there before. And we just had like a two, three days orientation. This one last two weeks, in which the new employee, whether it is a contractor – PSC [Personal Services Contractor] – or a full-time employee, federal employee, will get a grasp a little bit. It is impossible in two weeks but still –

Tom Temin: That’s better than no weeks though?

Yolanda López: Yeah, some training and get to know where to go, who the person in Human Resources is, who the person in contracts is –

Tom Temin: Where to go if you need a new microphone cable?

Yolanda López: Exactly, or the best practice editor, which is very important. And he provides training on the firewall and understanding, this relationship between being a journalist and a federal employee. So that is important. And that’s something that we come up with, and he has been very successful. So those kinds of ideas, they come from the employees. They tell me, this is why we need them we try to implement.

Tom Temin: Yeah, and the scores show it with respect to employee engagement, because you did go to above average, from below average in one year. So you know, good for you.

Yolanda López: We were always the last ones and we were like, wow, this is threatening. Also, I mean, we are talking here about the stuff that is that we are journalists, were really skeptical, cynical, it is very difficult to please us and I understand that because I’m a journalist myself. So you cannot, and excuse me, if I cannot say this, but you cannot BS a journalist. Also journalists are very used to holding everyone powerful and people in power accountable. So they held me accountable as well. So I’m very mindful of that. This is the people that I have to lead. This is the people that I have to serve. And that’s the way I see it. And again, I cannot be as them. If I say something, I better do it.

Tom Temin: And for most services provided by federal agencies, American citizens can avail themselves of these wherever the agency might be VA Health and Human Services. Voice of America, if I’m correct, is proscribed from broadcasting within the United States, actually, so most people never really understand what other people outside the United States? Hear from VOA? Yes. Do you ever think maybe that’s one of the hindrances to maybe greater understanding in Congress and so forth?

Yolanda López: For that question. That is a great question. Because believe me, as soon as I leave the country, and I say that I worked for VOA, we are treated like rockstars. But here is like, what? What is that? You do radio? Wasn’t that in the World War II with the Nazis? It’s like, no, we do also digital. We are everywhere. I know the platforms – yeah, it is a shame. I mean, obviously, people within the United States they don’t know the work that we do. But because our focus is international audience. And the good thing about Voice of America is that when we talk about our mission, and when we broadcast the news, whatever platform, we do it in the language of the country, which it is better received that way, right? And again, when you go outside, I recently went to Uruguay. UNESCO invited me and I had the pleasure to meet with a lot of affiliates there, the major affiliate networks in Latin America. They really rely on VOA for news information that are accurate objective, and they really praise us. You go to Africa, the same. You go to Europe and you say Voice of America, they start telling you stories about how they used to listen to Voice of America, how now they are watching our newscast. It’s just incredible. The amount of recognition that we have outside the United States is just fantastic. That is why sometimes, it’s great to go outside because you see the impact that you have. Because yeah, in here, it is a constant like – listen, believe me, we do have an impact. People really know what Voice of America does.

Tom Temin: Because when I traveled overseas and said, I’m host to the Federal Drive, nobody treated me like a rockstar. So clearly, it’s not known over there the way Voice of America is. And finally, your story. I mean, you are Spanish natively, from Spain. And so how did you get here and here?

Yolanda López: Oh, it is a very long story.

Tom Temin: Well give us the short version.

Yolanda López: The short version is I came here to study English. And then I fell in love, which is still my husband, and also with this country. So I’m naturalized American as well. My kids now also live here. So my entire family is American. And I feel very much American as well. But prior to work in the Voice of America, I worked at Univision. I worked in L.A., in Chicago, then now I’m in Voice of America, but I have worked always in broadcasting, and most of the time and here in the United States in broadcasting. And even though I specialized at the beginning in the Latino community. And now I have a global audience, which is just fantastic. I’m so humbled, and is the honor of a lifetime.

Tom Temin: All right. Well, we’re glad you’re here and glad to have you. Yolanda López is acting director of Voice of America and a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program. Thanks so much for joining me.

Yolanda López: Thank you.

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