Growing up in Dallas as the only girl in a family with two older brothers, Joyce Slocum spent her childhood dreaming of one day becoming a ballerina. But once the Slocum family sat down at the dinner table, the topics of conversation were always serious. Her mother, a high school government teacher, placed a strong emphasis on education and taught her children not to shy away from talking politics. Discussions commonly centered around such topics as civil rights and First Amendment issues.
The setting provided the perfect foundation for the future general counsel of National Public Radio Inc. (NPR). “That’s where I got my initial interest in law,” says Slocum, whose official title is senior vice president of legal affairs, general counsel, board secretary and chief ethics officer. “And as soon as it became apparent to me that I would never be a ballerina, I had to look for other career options.”
A stint working as a substitute teacher convinced Slocum she didn’t have the patience for teaching. So, after college, she decided to go straight to law school. Upon graduation, Slocum returned to Dallas and worked as a tax lawyer in a firm for three years, but soon became disenchanted with the practice. A friend suggested she try an in-house position before giving up law all together. Slocum took her friend’s advice and in 1984 landed an in-house gig with Southland Corp. (now 7-Eleven Inc.) in Dallas. She later worked for Lyrick Studios, which after several mergers became Hit Entertainment. Slocum eventually became Hit’s GC.
Q: How did you end up at NPR?
A: Barbara Landes, CFO of PBS, called me and said she had heard from Neal Jackson [NPR GC at the time] that he would be retiring, and she and Kathryn Lauderdale, GC at PBS, thought I should put my application in.
I met Landes and Lauderdale when I was involved in putting together the [children's TV station] Sprout Network. You can imagine the negotiations–you have Comcast on one end of the spectrum and PBS on the other. Hit was a for-profit company, but it was very mission driven. So I was the shuttle diplomat for the parties.
When they asked me to apply for the NPR position, I said, “I don’t know anything about radio.” They said, “You understand the public broadcasting system.” It was a leap of faith to put in the application, but I couldn’t resist trying.
Q: Were you an NPR listener?
A: Yes. When I worked at Hit, I traveled a lot, and I realized if I had to rely on my daily newspaper for news, I would have been way behind the 8-ball. Public radio allows me to converse intelligently on international issues.
Q: What are the major differences between the for-profit and non-profit worlds?
A: NPR allows us to take the longer view on many more things. Many for-profits are driven by quarterly results. That can be good for the short term, but bad for the long term. We take a longer term view, and think about how we work for the member stations.
Q: Tell me a little about the work you do as GC of NPR.
A: There are 10 in the department–six of us are lawyers. The work is incredibly diverse. We have a lot of IP and First Amendment issues. We have a big organization so personnel and benefits come up, as well as contracts work.
I also do board work. We have a fabulous board that includes both public members and those that come from our member stations. They are very active and incredibly intelligent and committed. We also have our foundation, and it has its own board of trustees. I do a lot of work there too.
Q: What makes your legal department and team unique?
A: Folks in this department have a depth of expertise in one area or another. They are able to take that knowledge and simplify it and blend it to make things happen.
Q: Why are you a good fit at NPR?
A: I have the devotion to the mission. Everyone here is passionate about the mission. I believe a true impartial press is an absolute requirement of a democratic society. NPR stations perform a service to our country.
Q: Has NPR been involved in any litigation?
A: No. We pretty frequently ask people to be respectful of our IP. Reach is one of our mandates. We want our stuff out there. But we want people to be respectful of it. We fairly frequently will join amicus briefs with regard to First Amendment type issues.
Q: The economy has hit us all–NPR too. How were you involved in the layoffs from program cancellations that occurred in December 2008?
A: It was a big challenge. I had planned and executed layoffs over the course of my career, and I hoped it was something that had gone away. I was part of a team of managers that spent a lot of agonizing hours trying to find ways to trim costs. We did our best to handle it as professionally as possible.
Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?
A: The constant diversity of issues that we’re dealing with. Switching gears from union negotiations to satellite issues to amicus briefs, for example. It can be jarring sometimes.
Q: What do you like most about the work you do?
A: That is also the thing I like most. Every moment is different. You never know what the next phone call is going to bring.
Q: What advice would you give a lawyer who would like to someday become GC of a large public radio station?
A: Love the mission. You don’t get into it for bonuses or stock options. If you love it, that stuff fades in importance. You really need to be a team player. It can’t be about your ego. Just because it’s a non-profit doesn’t mean you don’t have to be a good business person. We can’t do good if we don’t do well.
Q: If money weren’t an issue, what would your dream job be?
A: I joke with friends that I would run an organic goat farm or open a fish taco stand on the beach in St. Barts.
Q: What is your favorite NPR program?
A: There is something for every aspect of your personality. I don’t think I can pick a favorite. They’re all my favorites.