All Things Joyce Slocum
NPR's GC takes us behind the scenes
Published in Corporate Counsel Edition® - July 2009 magazine
on June 12, 2009
Updated on June 15, 2009
Joyce Slocum, general counsel and senior vice president of legal affairs for National Public Radio, is telling a story with all the flair of someone who should be on the air. “I had been an NPR fanatic for many, many years,” she says, with a voice reminiscent of Kathleen Turner. “I love getting the news in an unbiased way, and without anyone shouting. I’ve traveled a lot internationally, and without the education that ‘Morning Edition’ and ‘All Things Considered’ have given me, I would have had a hard time holding my own in discussions of world affairs with people from other countries.”
The Dallas native is sitting in her corner office overlooking the National Portrait Gallery in downtown Washington, D.C., just a few blocks from NPR headquarters. She goes on to say that NPR’s automotive program, “Car Talk,” even saved her one vacation almost 20 years ago. “The guys from ‘Car Talk’ helped me in Hawaii when my car overheated,” she says. “I turned to the person I was with and said”—she changes her voice in imitation of herself—”‘Well, Click and Clack say you should open up all the car windows and turn the heater up full blast and the fan on high. That will draw heat away from the engine.’
“We did it,” says Slocum, breaking into a laugh, “and wouldn’t you know, it worked.”
Today, she oversees the legal affairs for not only “Car Talk” but all of NPR’s programs. Slocum joined the nonprofit, noncommercial network last July, after serving 14 years as general counsel for Lyrick Studios, a children’s entertainment group best known for producing Barney & Friends, and its subsequent owner, HIT Entertainment. Before that, she had spent a decade as an attorney for the Southland Corporation, now 7-Eleven, Inc.
With her outgoing personality, Slocum could have made her career in a variety of professions. “If you met her on an airplane, lawyer would not necessarily pop into your head,” says a friend of 30 years, Terri Minatra, a senior counsel at HIT. “She has a tremendous sense of humor,” adds Marsha Hoover, a Chicago-based attorney who has assisted Slocum with intellectual property matters over the years. “And she’s a great storyteller.”
Growing up in Dallas, Slocum practiced “cheerleading, baton twirling, all the girly things,” she says. Her mother, Doris MacDaniel, was a high school English and government teacher, “so good grades were not an option.” Academic performance came easily for Slocum, who, after only two years of high school, sought out a new challenge. She made a deal with her mother to live with other family members in Illinois and enroll in a unique program to start junior college without a high school degree. She went on to earn a B.A. in sociology from Southern Illinois University and, after being accepted on a full scholarship, a J.D. from Saint Louis University School of Law. “I thought that being a lawyer would be like putting puzzles together all the time,” she says, “and working things out.”
It wasn’t like that at first. After graduation, she returned to Dallas and joined Johnson & Swanson, where she spent three years as a tax attorney. It was a position she had lobbied for, but it almost caused her to leave the profession. “I think what attracted me to it was what eventually made me tire of it, in that there is nothing intuitive about tax law, you just have to know it,” she says. That, and the fact that tax law changes just about every year.
Then she received some sage advice. “I had a friend who was a legal headhunter and I was telling her that I was seriously thinking about leaving the practice,” says Slocum, remembering the conversation from the early 1980s. “She said, ‘Do you know what, Joyce, before you leave the practice of law, you should think about an in-house position. In my mind, you’re more of a team player and strategic thinker than most lawyers.'”
Her headhunter friend happened to be looking for an attorney to handle franchising and international licensing contracts for the Southland Corporation, also based in Dallas, which pioneered the convenience store concept in 1927. Slocum landed the staff attorney position. She held the post for a decade, beginning in 1984; and after the company’s bankruptcy in 1990, she worked with the chain’s subsequent majority owner, Ito-Yokado of Japan. She even studied Japanese so she could exchange polite banter during business meetings.
“The thing I love about being in-house is that you’re on the team,” she says. “You’re in a situation where you can influence the issues, or sometimes spot things when they’re just potential issues.” She says that advice from outside counsel is simply that-advice-whereas in-house counsel implement advice, tweak it and test the work every day.
Ask Slocum how she moved from the chain famous for Slurpees to the home of Barney and you’ll get one of her signature narratives. “In the course of my travels for Southland, I started using a particular car service to go back and forth to the airport,” she says. “My favorite driver was named David. He was also driving for the Barney people.”
In particular, David was driving Sheryl Leach, the Dallas mother and teacher who in 1987 created the big purple dinosaur, which was picked up by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in 1992. “David kept telling me, ‘You should meet her. You would really like her,'” Slocum recalls. He was telling Leach the same thing about Slocum. One day, Leach called Slocum’s office. The company that owned the rights to Barney at the time, Lyrick, needed a general counsel. Slocum met with Leach, and although Slocum protested that she didn’t know anything about entertainment law, she was hired.
She quickly discovered that “being a lawyer anywhere is being a lawyer. I had learned early on to try and figure out where people’s interests were aligned at first and work from there,” she says. “You also have to maintain a sense of humor about what is going on. People can get very personal over legal deals and there’s no need for that.”
In 2001, Lyrick was acquired by HIT, which operates a catalog of more than 1,500 hours of children’s programming—including such popular shows as Bob the Builder, Thomas the Tank Engine and Angelina Ballerina—in 240 countries and 45 different languages. Slocum helped broker deals with PBS for broadcast rights to HIT programming.
Jack Dougherty, vice president for business affairs at PBS, has high praise for Slocum. “She fights tough but she fights fair,” he says. “She has the presumption of being in a long-term relationship. She doesn’t feel that she has to go for every last nickel. She’s always looking for creative ways to make it work for both parties.”
One of Slocum’s major accomplishments was her role in launching PBS KIDS Sprout channel, the first 24-hour cable network for preschoolers. The idea came about in early 2004 during an executive meeting in New York City. Over drinks, Slocum and another company executive were discussing the difficulty for producers like HIT to find distribution platforms when companies such as Disney and Nickelodeon do both and have incentives to air their own shows. “We were talking about how there was a channel for everything. There was even a golf channel,” she says. “We said to each other, ‘If there is a market for a channel that does nothing but golf, you’d think there would be a market for a channel that does children’s programming.'”
Soon HIT executives approached PBS, which had been considering the same idea. The two entities approached Comcast about starting a 24/7 children’s channel, and then Sesame Workshop joined the group. The negotiations took more than a year. Among the sticking points was whether to air commercials. Because PBS is a nonprofit organization that is also noncommercial, it airs only short spots identifying program underwriters before and after shows. Comcast, on the other hand, is a for-profit company that sells ads. The parties eventually compromised: allow commercials to bookend but not interrupt shows, and the advertisements are required to be targeted at parents, not children.
In the negotiations, Slocum showed an understanding and sensitivity to the concerns of public broadcasters. “She has the unusual ability to see the whole field and where the fault lines are,” Dougherty says. “She’ll push right up to them without pushing you over.”
In 2005, after the Sprout talks ended, HIT was purchased by Apax Partners/Sunshine Acquisition Limited, based in the United Kingdom. Soon after, the company announced that it would close its Dallas office. Slocum decided to explore other pastures. Barbara Landes, CFO of PBS, told Slocum about the NPR opening. “I knew that she really cared about public television and public broadcasting,” Landes says. “She’s smart and talented. And NPR was in the process of going through an evolution in management, not so much in its mission, but in establishing itself even more as a media presence online, nationally and internationally.”
Slocum knew it would be the perfect fit. “There are people who are stunned that I would leave Texas for a job,” she says. “I tell them that the job at NPR is one of about three jobs in the world that I would have moved for. But, in truth, I can’t even think what the other two would be.”
Slocum left HIT on July 4, 2008, and started at NPR three days later.
“Joyce dove right in and got her hands dirty,” says Margaret Low Smith, NPR’s vice president for programming. “She came here with a kind of television sophistication that was incredibly valuable.”
In September, Slocum helped close the sale of the network’s headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue to make way for the construction of a new building closer to Capitol Hill. (NPR will move into the building in 2012.) When World Radio Network wanted to retransmit some of NPR’s programs in Russia, she helped draw up international distribution contracts. Before the presidential election, there were talks with the Federal Communications Commission about whether NPR could broadcast a debate if only one candidate showed without having to give equal time to the other. Both candidates wound up attending, so the question was moot, but Slocum had to nail down the legalities with the FCC just in case. In addition, Slocum’s staff has to review the underwriter tags for each NPR program to make sure that they avoid endorsements, being that NPR is noncommercial. In essence, she handles “pretty much everything except family and criminal law,” she says.
Since Slocum moved to Washington, NPR hasn’t been involved in any major litigation. But she does often have to tap outside counsel when the organization needs subject matter expertise. “We are very lucky that many of our outside counsel provide us services on a pro bono basis or at a greatly reduced hourly rate,” she says.
Slocum joined NPR during a time of great change in the industry, and media in general. For NPR’s legal department, that poses great questions about whether grants of rights to NPR for radio programming from years ago can be extended to the Internet, satellite radio, TV and other platforms. “Convergence is where the opportunity is for the industry, but honestly it’s what creates the most challenges for lawyers,” she says.
The changes in technology have made the digital media folks close partners with the legal team. Together, they work through distribution deals, partnerships with other content providers and questions about rights.
A distinctly different challenge came in December, when NPR announced layoffs and the cancellation of two programs, “News & Notes” and “Day to Day.” “There wasn’t much rest over the winter holidays,” Slocum says. “[However] the very collaborative process by which the executive team determined how to cut the budget was heartening to me. The process also demonstrated how passionate people who work at NPR are about its mission.” (NPR announced a second round of layoffs in April.)
Attorneys who have worked with Slocum credit her with being a collegial leader who can be a tough negotiator while also managing a staff like family—baking a breakfast egg strata or cheese grits with garlic and Tabasco sauce for a staff meeting, or hosting out-of-town staff at her home. “Anyone who’s ever worked with her would go back in a second,” says Minatra from HIT. “She’s a mentor and a leader and also a little bit of a mom or aunt. She looks at the big picture with people, making sure the work is satisfying and that they maintain a good work/life balance.”
Back in her office, Slocum is reminded of how far she’s come. Only days before Barack Obama was sworn in as president, NPR got word that it would be able to conduct a live broadcast of the inauguration. “We also had to move fast to make our deal to cover the ceremony from the Rotunda of the Canadian Embassy,” she says. “And we had an interesting internal debate over whether to go truly live or to engage the tape delay.” The network went live.
And for a longtime NPR fan, it doesn’t get much better than dining with award-winning legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg and chatting with “All Things Considered” host Michele Norris. “It’s a little intimidating to be at someone’s house for dinner and see snapshots lying on the breakfast bar of them with Supreme Court justices,” Slocum says. “I tell people in a very G-rated way, I feel like a groupie with a backstage pass.”
Despite that, Slocum says she has no ambition to be on the air. “I’m actually quite a shy person,” she says. “I’m sure I would completely freeze behind the microphone.”