NPR's white noise

Published April 3, 2005

With a swift motion, I turned off the radio, silencing Click and Clack midway through a joke about Dodge Ramblers and their appeal to the fairer sex.

Why? I was pulling up to the drive-through window at my neighborhood McDonald's, and I didn't want the sister behind the counter to know I was listening to two cackling white guys on National Public Radio.

Let me explain: I'm a serious public radio fan. I live for Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me's geeky limericks on the week's news and the Magliozzi brothers' wisecracks about SUVs on Car Talk. I can even sit through an episode of Public Radio International's Prairie Home Companion, regarding Garrison Keillor's tales from the fictional Lake Wobegone like some anthropological excavation of rural, Caucasian Minnesota culture. Oh yah.

But there are times when I'm reluctant to let my public radio jones show - despite the Sirius Satellite Radio subscription that allows me access to three channels featuring NPR and PRI from the comfort of my driver's seat.

Why? Because public radio - especially NPR's signature shows - just feels too darn white.

Indeed, public radio distills intellectual white culture in a way few other outlets do, from Diane Rehm's bookish author conversations to Terry Gross' urbane interviews on Fresh Air and the frat-guy jocularity on the Motley Fool business program.

Hearing a vintage Susan Stamberg interview with Dame Judi Dench can feel like exploring a different world: cultured, sometimes geeky or wonky. Even the guys who host Car Talk have engineering degrees from MIT.

And then there are the hosts. With very few exceptions - All Things Considered's Michele Norris or News and Notes' Ed Gordon, for example - it's a sea of white folks pursuing stories that matter to readers of the New York Times, New Yorker and the New York Observer.

Ask NPR executives, however, and they correctly note the diversity of subjects featured in their news coverage, from elections in Zimbabwe to the work of Thai author Rattawut Lapcharoensap. They also highlight recent efforts to develop shows for black broadcasters Tavis Smiley (who started on NPR and recently moved to PRI) and former TV journalist Gordon.

"We are always looking to increase our diversity," said NPR spokesman David Umansky, who is white, noting the service's black audience averages about 10 percent. "We have a significant amount of African-American journalists working in the news department. Diversity is an important goal in the decisions that we make."

But Adam Clayton Powell III, the first black person to serve as vice president of news and information programming at NPR in the mid 1980s, has persistently criticized the lack of diversity in public radio, particularly at his former employer.

"The concept of taking taxpayer dollars and creating a broadcast service designed for an audience public broadcasters describe as elite, college-educated and upper-middle-income is nothing other than welfare for the rich - and the wiser public broadcasters know it," said Powell in an e-mail.

Powell took over at NPR News after the service was ordered by a 1978 federal consent decree to diversify its staff, because white people held almost every senior job category. While at the service, he helped develop Wade in the Water, a 26-installment series on black sacred music, and other efforts focused on reaching beyond NPR's target audience.

"Public radio and TV were formed, as their central purpose, "to serve the underserved,' " Powell added in a later telephone interview. "Now, the audience is disproportionally college-educated, disproportionally affluent, disproportionally white. Why limit yourself? It's like being a music station and playing the same 10 songs all day."

Such sentiments have been echoed by another black broadcaster who used to work for NPR: pundit/host Smiley.

"They were not really doing much of anything to embrace the notion of diversity and inclusion anywhere in the company," said Smiley in a telephone interview from New York, where he was promoting his new, two-hour weekend show for PRI, scheduled to debut April 29. "I have a hard time believing I am the only person of color who can do this public radio thing successfully."

In late 2004, Smiley left the self-titled NPR show he had hosted for nearly three years, complaining that the service balked at the level of marketing and promotion necessary to build his program's audience.

NPR originally developed Smiley's show (and Gordon's News and Notes) largely in response to demands for a less white-focused alternative to the news programs All Things Considered and Morning Edition from the African American Public Radio Consortium - a coalition of black-focused public radio stations largely located at historically black colleges and universities.

There is little doubt Smiley succeeded in transferring his brand to NPR, eventually reaching 900,000 listeners daily on about 87 stations. According to NPR, his show had the highest percentage of black listeners of any NPR program (29 percent) and the youngest audience (44 percent aged 44 or younger), though the actual number of black and young listeners was probably smaller than for other, better-known NPR shows.

But NPR spokesman Umansky said Smiley wanted the company to spend about $3-million - 25 times its total annual marketing budget - to promote his show. "After an initial exchange of proposals, he ended (negotiations) unilaterally and would not respond to calls," Umansky added. "We got one letter from his attorney, and that was the end."

Smiley agreed that a dispute over marketing helped sour his deal, but he scoffed at NPR's contention that its total marketing budget was so low. He also said he had hoped to produce other shows focused on a multicultural audience and to gain ownership of his radio show - conditions PRI met in his new deal.

Smiley said he will foot the bill for the production and promotion of his new radio show, using PRI to help find underwriting and distribute the program. It's a system already in place for his TV program on PBS, a production with an $8.5-million annual budget.

"If public radio does not have experience reaching out to different audiences of color and I do . . . it's important for me to have the opportunity to steer this ship," noted Smiley, who said he turned away from opportunities in commercial and satellite radio to work for the smaller, lesser-known public radio system PRI.

"People of color . . . do not listen to NPR, because NPR has done a poor job of programming to a black audience," he said. "What I didn't see at NPR . . . was more people that look like me. I do not have time to waste working with people who aren't fully committed the notion of inclusion and diversity."

Gordon, a black journalist who has worked for Black Entertainment Television, MSNBC and 60 Minutes' Wednesday edition, artfully sidestepped questions about Smiley's criticisms. ("Everybody's been asking me if NPR is diverse enough," he said during a telephone interview. "I haven't been here long enough to know.") But Gordon is savvy enough to admit that his NPR show might still be on the drawing board if Smiley hadn't decided to leave - prompting a hasty Jan. 31 debut for News and Notes, which is Gordon's first-ever radio job.

In our conversation, Gordon initially resisted the notion that the show comes "from an African-American perspective," until I reminded him that he recorded a promotional spot for the show declaring exactly that.

"Well, the host is black, the majority of the people making (programming) decisions are black . . . (but) we're trying to do the best entertainment and public affairs show there is," he said. "No one would call Morning Edition a show from a white perspective."

Well, actually, I would. And although Gordon shares Smiley's penchant for trying way too hard to prove how much he knows while asking questions, he has developed a show with an eye toward serving sophisticated black listeners.

Highlights include a tribute to actor Ossie Davis featuring Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier and a regular roundtable discussion of the day's news events with black journalists and pundits rarely featured elsewhere. (Full disclosure: I once appeared on Gordon's show to discuss CBS anchor Dan Rather's retirement.)

At times, Gordon seems caught between two extremes: the desire by NPR to offer a show that transcends its mostly white focus, while not sounding so different that its target audience feels out of place.

An analysis of NPR's audience, called Audience 98, concluded seven years ago that public radio "in its best moments transcends racial and ethnic differences" by focusing on "character attitudes and values" that reach beyond race and ethnicity, such as college education. The report concluded that "college education is the single most defining characteristic of public radio's audience," and minorities will be underrepresented because "minority listening to public radio reflects longstanding educational inequities that are still being overcome."

While noting the Audience 98 report was based on ratings information gathered in 1996, Jackie Nixon, NPR's director of audience and corporate research, did not refute the basic strategy.

"Education more so than any other demographic - age, income, race, etc. - is the strongest demographic measure correlating with listening to NPR programming," Nixon, who is white, said in an e-mail. "Public radio news and information audiences tend to be curious about their world, enjoy learning and are heavier consumers of information than the general population. . . . Our own research finds that these characteristics are present in both groups of listeners, black and white."

But doesn't that let public radio off the hook by pretending its focus on white culture is really just a focus on a "transcendent" culture - blaming the lack of minority listenership on the fact that not enough minorities go to college?

"We realize there is more to be done and continue to pursue more diversity in programming," wrote Nixon, citing NPR's work with the AAPRC and its new midday show Day to Day - hosted by longtime NPR staffer Alex Chadwick, who is white - as examples. "Your conclusion that diversity hasn't been added to other programs is not accurate, given the variety of topics and issues NPR discusses."

Perhaps. But true diversity won't come from propping Gordon or Smiley up in shows that stand as islands of black culture in a sea of white-focused programs. Public radio needs to stop transcending or targeting and integrate a little more.

Powell says he hopes Smiley's and Gordon's shows will serve as incubators for new minority talent in public radio, developing young producers and correspondents who would eventually migrate to other shows. "If Tavis' and Ed's shows work as they should - as institution builders - they should (help diversify) this next generation of public broadcasters," he added.

And if Chris Rock shows up next to Paula Poundstone on Wait Wait or Sheila E. sits in with Keillor on Prairie Home Companion, we all can feel a little more comfortable blasting public radio the next time we pass through the McDonald's drive-through.