NPR cuts more staff, programming

Can public radio, long linked with upscale white Americans, make significant progress in appealing to communities of color?

That question is bound to be debated — again — with today’s announcement from NPR that it is cancelling the program, “Tell Me More” (airing at 9 p.m. on MPR), and eliminating 28 jobs in the process as it continues to deal with budget deficits. “Tell Me More” was created to appeal to an African-American audience.

The short answer to the question is, “not with separate programming.”

NPR’s media reporter David Folkenflik notes on the NPR blog today that this is the third time NPR has cut a program intended to appeal to a more diverse audience.

Tell Me More’s demise is the third for programs expressly designed to have a primary appeal for African-American listeners and other people of color. Tavis Smiley took his show to a rival public broadcaster after clashes with NPR brass over how much money the network spent to market his program and News and Notes went off the air in 2009.

That year, at the depths of the global financial crisis, also marked the end of the midday program Day to Day; last year, NPR shut down the long-running afternoon program Talk of the Nation.

(NPR executive vice president and chief content officer Kinsey) Wilson said NPR was strongly committed to serving diverse audiences.

“We’re in a different era than we were, even in five or six years ago,” Wilson said. “There is in fact an opportunity to reach a larger audience across a larger audience across platforms. … not simply through principally a once-a-day broadcast show.”

Which explains why host Michel Martin is staying on at NPR, and will provide stories to the network’s flagship news programs.

The network is maintaining its digital product, Code Switch, to examine race, culture, and ethnicity.

The problem of appealing to a more diverse audience has been vexing for mainstream broadcast media, particularly NPR, whose audience is about 75 percent white.

In his assessment of programming efforts in 2012, ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos (who seems unlikely to be around NPR after his contract is up in August, but that’s another story) seems to embrace the philosophy contained in today’s announcement.

In my own study, I don’t actually quantify a breakdown of the news coverage by race, and to my knowledge no one else has either. I tried, but found that it is impossible to classify stories as black, Latino or Asian. Most stories cross over and are of interest to many groups—even stories that might focus primarily on one racial group. There were so many caveats that any numbers I tried to come up with were useless.

But I do have a separate caveat. To look at race and ethnicity does not mean that I believe NPR should write any goals into stone. Race and ethnicity still matter in America, but less as time goes by. I used to teach immigration policy at Harvard, and that background tells me that the United States is the single most successful example in world history of a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society.

Sociologists and market researchers today have identified what some call “a new mainstream” in which the educated and the young identify with each other more than with their ethnic and racial roots, though the roots don’t disappear.

But that’s a tough sell, even if true, unless the voices change and the news media loses its aging Rolodexes full of white people and their perspective.

In the two years since Schumacher-Matos wrote his assessment, it’s hard to see much evidence that race and ethnicity matter less now than before.

  • Chris

    When I read “across platforms” in the Wilson quote, I think this is someone who is forgetting what the R in NPR stands for. The other platforms are nice to have, but radio is still how most people get NPR programming.

    Tell Me More was a great show I enjoyed listening to since it was added to 91.1. It sounded like real public radio. At some point, if you keep cutting bus service to save money, people quit riding the bus and you have even less money.

    • Unfortunately, depending on your perspective, the “R” doesn’t stand for anything. NPR dropped National Public Radio as its name a few years ago and it’s now just NPR — same as AT&T in which the “T” no longer stands for either “telegraph” or “telephone.”

      • Chris

        It is unfortunate that NPR does not honor the “radio” in National Public Radio.

        • I would guess that the majority of the NPR programming budget and staff works primarily for the radio side.

          • Chris

            It would be nice to know. In my ideal world the overall public radio budget would be 80% producing radio, 10% administration, 10% fundraising and other fun stuff.

          • David

            http://www.npr.org/about-npr/178660742/public-radio-finances
            About halfway down there is a section where expenses are discussed. Looks like around 52% is spent on “News & Engineering” and “Programming”

          • I think mainstream media has pretty well proven that if you hold on only to your core medium and disregard emerging technologies, you’ll probably die.

            NPR has actually done better than most in this area but public radio as a whole still thinks “If I don’t bother the Internet, it can’t hurt me.”

          • chris

            I think this is common wisdom that is less true than you think. Radio is unique among mass media in that listeners make a very personal connection to it and it goes along with you while you mow the lawn or clean the garage or whatever else, unlike the web or tv that demand your eyes. Public radio should have an internet companion but nobody should ever forget which is the most important part of the equation.

            Also, a newspaper that has a webpage is still a newspaper. A TV show that you watch through a DVR or Roku is still a TV show.

          • Maybe. But I come from commercial radio and I’ve sort of seen a lot of this before. Commercial radio news is now dead and people told use people would always want local news. They were wrong.

            The other complicated factor is the protections of terrestrial radio are gone.

  • Nicholas Kraemer

    According to the US Census Bureau NPR’s listenership (at 75% white) is very close to the percentage of Americans who are white. It may not be a realistic goal to attract an audience that is more diverse than the nation as a whole. (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html)

  • ptoadstool

    There is a lot of competition for my ears these days. I am not likely to choose something like Tell Me More, if only because there is an “I’m already ‘told’ enough” thing going on. Give me the news so that I can make my own opinions, and after that the offerings had better be really compelling or it’s off to audiobook and podcast-land.