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.