Vermont Public Radio has begun a noble effort in upstream swimming that makes a salmon run look like a splash in the kiddie pool. The overwhelmingly-white-even-by-Vermont-standards service has launched the Diverse Voices Initiative, “a comprehensive approach to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.”
I wish them luck. They are not only battling a history of whiteness that goes back beyond the founding of NPR to the early concept of “educational radio”; they are also trying to foster diversity in a famously non-diverse state, and they are battling the rules of radio programming itself. Kind of a tall order.
Let me pause for a moment and state, for the record, that I’m an old white guy and I’ll probably get some stuff wrong here. What I do bring is experience in public radio that goes back to the late 1970s, which is not nothing.
Public radio has always been a preserve of whiteness. Specifically, of college-educated upper-middle-class whiteness, the kind of people who read The New Yorker and drink wine and do brunch. And listen to classical music, which used to be a mainstay of public radio before news/talk took over.
Many public radio licenses were held by universities. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, I worked for one such organization in another state; its programming largely consisted of classical music plus lectures and commentaries by university professors. That’s tape-recorded, full-hour classroom lectures. The station’s news department made a point of not covering its own community. It ignored campus protest movements that sometimes took place in the plaza below its fifth-floor perch. That would be demeaningly tawdry, and not of interest to their refined audience. (It also might upset university administration, which at the time provided much of the organization’s funding.)
Practically from the beginning, NPR stations were beset by criticism of their pearly whiteness. In 1977 — two years before the creation of “Morning Edition” — the Corporation for Public Broadcasting commissioned a task force on how public television and radio were addressing communities of color. Its conclusion: when it came to serving people of color, “the public broadcast system is asleep at the transmitter.”
And despite NPR’s stated commitment to minority outreach, the task force found that only thee percent of its budget was spent on programming focusing on the nonwhite U.S. population.
NPR affiliates have always had a diversity problem. Predominantly white organizations have tended to stay that way. Even when people of color get hired, they often wash out because of unfriendly workplace cultures or a sense that programmers don’t value their ideas and experiences. Despite good intentions, overwhelmingly white staffs have remained that way, and top administration is almost entirely white. These issues have once again come to the fore in 2020, the year of #BlackLivesMatter.
Last month, the union representing NPR employees issued a statement denouncing NPR for a half-century of failing “to fully reflect the public it serves,” and demanding a commitment to action.
There have been many such commitments over the years. They haven’t changed the fundamental reality of a predominantly white public radio system that caters to its predominantly white audiences.
This year, St. Louis Public Radio has been rocked by accusations — from its own staff — of institutional racism. The very public dispute led to the removal of the station’s longtime general manager. Some of the system’s crown jewels, including WAMU in Washington, WNYC in New York and WGBH in Boston, have faced complaints about workplace culture and white leadership.
So now VPR is going to try to overcome all those decades of failure with its new initiative, which will get $80,000 in funding this year. Compare that to the organization’s $9.5 million budget, and it looks an awful lot like tokenism. That money will help pay for a fellowship and internships and freelance opportunities, all devoted to people underrepresented on VPR’s entirely white (last I checked) staff and management.
It will also create “an improvement plan for its recruitment and hiring practices, as well as existing internal culture around diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Good luck with that. Well-intentioned public radio people have been bemoaning the system’s lack of diversity for more than 50 years, and have undertaken various kinds of diversity initiatives without much success. VPR will be additionally handicapped by geography; it’s hard to convince people of color to move to such a lily-white place.
In its announcement, VPR also touted new additions to its program schedule including Latino USA, a news and public affairs program, and a pair of music programs including Latino content.
That’s nice, but the shows got some real dead-zone time slots, such as 9:00 p.m. Tuesday, 7:00 a.m. Saturday, and 10:30 p.m. Saturday.
Which points to the very real dilemma faced by public radio stations and networks: Their audience is predominantly white, and isn’t all that interested in programming about communities of color. One of the frequent complaints from reporters of color is that it’s hard to get stories about their communities on the air.
At one time, public radio was largely funded by state and federal governments and educational institutions. (My first radio employer used to do two days of on-air fundraising per year.) Now, it gets almost all its funding from underwriting and membership. One of the tenets of public radio fundraising is the crucial importance of “Time Spent Listening.” If a person listens to public radio for more than 10 hours a week, they will almost certainly donate. If they listen less than that, they won’t.
This is why public radio programming has become steadily more homogeneous. Stories on “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” the NPR tentpoles, have gotten shorter and shorter over the years. With the exception of “Fresh Air,” long-form interviews have almost disappeared. Programmers can’t risk alienating or testing the patience of listeners, who have way too many options these days. Gotta keep ’em tuned in.
This is all a significant disincentive to program for audiences beyond the public radio core — which is still middle-aged white folks who read The New Yorker, drink wine and do brunch.
In short, that $80,000 commitment by VPR will have to do a hell of a lot of heavy lifting. I’m sure management’s intentions are good, but I’ll believe it when I see it.