Programmed For Success

Fox News Channel has quietly sought to increase its minority employee base through an apprentice program spearheaded by the network's most senior executives.

CEO Roger Ailes created the network's Apprenticeship Program in 2003 in an effort to provide minorities at entry-level positions with an opportunity to gain valuable behind-the-scenes experience working at a cable network that otherwise wouldn't be available to them.

“I didn't think enough minorities were getting access to the system,” Ailes said, whose own Fox News Channel employee base is nearly 20% minority. “If there aren't a lot of people they know inside, then they don't necessarily have the same access as others.”

Candidates for the apprentice program are usually chosen from college graduate interns or entry level Fox News employees who are looking to move up the ranks. But rather than apply for a potential job, would-be apprentices are recommended by Fox News staffers for positions, according to vice president of human resources Maureen Hunt, who handles the day-to-day operations of the program.

But the executives' role in the program goes beyond just making recommendations. If their choice is accepted, the nominating executive officially become a mentor to that apprentice for one year's time, according to Hunt. The network creates and fully funds a 12-month paid position for the apprentice, during which the candidate has to prove worthy of a permanent position at Fox News. Thus far, the network has allotted $900,000 for apprentice positions.

Among the many executive mentors is The Fox Report anchor Shepard Smith, who said the program is a great way to find and nurture talent.

“This seemed like a perfect way to keep people who would be in demand everywhere else and really train them to be tomorrow's leaders,” he said. “A lot of people talk about diversity and they make shows about diversity, but here it's about the future of our company.”

Since 2003, 16 apprentices have graduated from the program and moved on to more high-profile positions, ranging from guest booker for shows such as Studio B With Shepard Smith to guest hair and makeup stylist to news writer.

Hunt said one of the program's first graduates, Francisco Cortes, has ascended from a production assistant for Fox Reports to overseeing on-air graphic design as head of Fox News's graphics production unit.

And not everyone actually remains with Fox News. Hunt said former apprentice Tisha Lewis left the cable news channel to pursue an on-air reporting career. She's now a general assignment reporter for an NBC affiliate in South Florida.

Ailes said on-air talent is the toughest role to fill, given the experience reporters traditionally must gain in smaller markets.

“The hardest one to fill is on-the-air because [as reporters] you have to go out and make your bones in a small market, but even in those cases we help them,” he said. “I'm still in touch with some who have gone to small stations and hopefully, one day, we'll bring them back as on-air talent.”

Whether minorities stay with Fox News or move onto other opportunities, Ailes said his main goal is to open the door of opportunity for people of color. “This is such an important part of our future,” Ailes said. “You will hear more and more from them because they will take on mentoring roles and leadership positions within the industry.”

Apprentices such as Korean-born Iwook Song — one of four in this year's class — said the program offered him an opportunity to break into the telecommunications industry that otherwise would not have been available.

“Even if I were to go to Harvard graduate school, I could not get this great a lesson in [television],” said Song, who through the program has written news scripts for such shows as Fox Report Weekend and has even offered voiceover translation for a Fox News Channel-produced Korean-based documentary.

While Ailes says the program is progressing, the network and the industry still has a lot of work ahead of it with regard to diversity. But he feels at least Fox is moving in the right direction and hopes that one day that the Apprenticeship program won't be necessary.

“More and more, you're seeing more opportunities for kids, but I think for a while its better to have a program that can connect [minorities] with executives they don't automatically know,” he said. “I'm trying to fill the gaps of kids who don't have access.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.