BROOKE GLADSTONE: Late last month, NPR announced that for budgetary reasons, Tell Me More, a one-hour daily news and talk show would be off the air come August 1st. The show has struggled over its seven-year run. The listenership was tiny, and it was costing NPR more than a million a year. But the demise of Tell Me More revived longstanding concerns about diversity at NPR. It's the third show geared toward an audience of color canceled in the last decade or, as Veralyn Williams put it in a piece for Ebony Online, the shuttering of Tell Me More marks, quote, “The End of NPR’s Blackest Show.”
As a public radio producer herself, Williams had some questions for Keith Woods, NPR's Vice President for Diversity in News and Operations. So we brought them together. Veralyn, welcome to the show.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Keith, welcome to you too.
KEITH WOODS: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In an NPR report on diversity, it was stated that it's important for the news organization to sound like America. That was something that particularly caught you, right, Veralyn?
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Yeah, and I would argue that “sounding like America” means that diversity is institutionalized and is not just segments that air on NPR programs. And Tell Me More was hosted and produced by a woman of color. It covered diverse topics five days a week. And Michel Martin had editorial control that I don’t really see happening across public radio, for the most part. How will NPR fill the void that Tell Me More’s cancelling is going to leave?
KEITH WOODS: I feel pretty certain that some of the parts of storytelling, some of the parts of imagining the stories that we are going to tell will carry on. Lynette Clemetson, who is an African-American woman, now tasked with helping to create this new presence for Michel, is also at the director level in the organization. And, if you spent any time at all with Michel Martin, you know that you don’t have to worry too much about her voice not breaking through.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Well, I started on Radio Rookies here at WNYC. I’ve interned a bunch in public radio. Then I went from interning to freelancing. One of the things that I’ve learned, specifically as a freelancer, is that even though producers or senior producers may have the best intentions, there is a level of control that you lose in that process. I guess my fear is that the more segmented a person like Michel Martin is, the more watered down her perspective is going to be.
KEITH WOODS: Let’s say up front that you can’t say that the end of that show, with five hours of programming a week, when it goes away doesn't take something with it. Having said that though, the platform the Michel gets, again, you know, NPR has this to prove.
But I think with the amount of weight behind her from the top leadership down in the organization, we’re going to see something different than we've seen at any other time at NPR. We have an opportunity there to do something very special and very different.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How many people of color are involved at high enough editorial levels to actually direct reporters in, in one way or another? KEITH WOODS: You probably have a substantial cadre of black leaders, in particular, at NPR, at some significant level – national editor, executive producer, two director’s positions, Audie Cornish as a host on All Things Considered, Arun Rath on weekends, All Things Considered. You look at the range of people there and there’s reason to say “yay”, you know, we’re being successful in some ways. The one thing, in just four years of being at NPR that I know is that, you know, when you suffer setbacks, you get up and you move forward again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After the layoffs that ended Tell Me More, nonwhite staffers made up 22.7% of the NPR newsroom, according to NPR. That's a lot better than the average of nonwhite radio journalists, which was 11.7% of newsrooms, in 2013, so nearly twice as much. NPR's audience is calculated to be 87% white. And Michel Martin's audience for Tell Me More was 80% white.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] If diversity is a goal of NPR’s, 7% - some people would be like, it’s just 7%. Well, but that is trending towards your goal.
When it was decided that Tell Me More would be cancelled, was that ever brought up? Like, what was that conversation like?
KEITH WOODS: Well sure, it was at the center of the conversation, and I think we fully understood that it’s a show that doesn’t simply add a broader range of diverse voices to the air, it filters the world through a different set of filters, so you have a particularly interesting take on just about everything. Whether we're talking about, you know, “Beyonce 101” which was one of the more recent pieces –
- or, or you’re talking about the crisis in Iraq. And I think that you have to look at the things that were the very best about that show and dedicate yourself organizationally to seeing to it that we’re able to achieve that, because we're looking at a bigger audience and perhaps ultimately a bigger impact.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think we can all see the value of bringing her voice to millions of people in the tent pole shows.
KEITH WOODS: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But how would you assess what we’re losing by not having Tell Me More?
KEITH WOODS: The ability to spend exclusive time on ideas that are filtered through that lens of difference that the Tell Me More crew represented. When you talk about what's lost, it is the frequency of that happening because there is a show. But I don't believe we’ll lose the perspective that grew out of the Tell Me More table. It will be different because there are going to be fewer people around it.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: There’s also the cultivation of people that Tell Me More brought, you know? It was huge for me, ‘cause it showed me what the possibilities were.
KEITH WOODS: Michel was getting voices on the air, sources on year who made their way ultimately to other places at NPR, who – who might not have made it there but for the fact that they came in through Tell Me More.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
KEITH WOODS: But it is up to us organizationally to take the load off the shoulders of a single show or a single person.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
KEITH WOODS: And that is also a piece of the work that we have underway at NPR right now. And we will have to wait to see how we do over time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How have you dealt with the public relations part of this? Now, I know Tell Me More didn't have a lot of listeners, and part of that is because of its placement by local stations, all of whom get to choose where they put it. The other reasons, we can only project what they might be. Nevertheless, the National Black Church Initiative, which is a coalition of 34,000 churches, asked members and parishioners to refrain from donating to NPR, which fundamentally means donating to local stations, because, quote, “NPR has abandoned the African-American community. We cannot be expected to donate to a station who has failed minority voices in America.”
KEITH WOODS: We’re an organization that has to make difficult decisions, like so many other news organizations have. In context, NPR still has been one of the most stable news organizations and very much the beneficiary of a public that understands the relationship between their money and our work. So we have to make difficult decisions. We have to deal with the fact that when we do that, there'll be people like the reverend who wrote that letter who will disagree with our decision.
I think that our public very much understands the realities of being a media organization in 2014. We can’t say that it doesn’t hurt when we have to close a show, but it is not the end of the world for the work that someone like Michel Martin is trying to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Assuming that NPR had to end Tell Me More to address its deficit in 2014, do you think that NPR was doing enough in 2011, in 2010, in 2005? Is this a symptom purely of a momentary shortfall in a bad time, or does NPR have some making up for lost time to do?
KEITH WOODS: What makes answering that question difficult is that if you go back to seven years ago, when the show started, what you would find is an incredibly changing cast of characters, year over year over year, who have had significant roles in seeing to it that anything that we did rose or fell. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What Michel Martin calls “executive churn.”
KEITH WOODS: Churn, sure. Each of those events was a different event, but the consequence is the discontinuity that kills broader diversity efforts in the organization, or had, and did not do well by Tell Me More, particularly, because I think the kind of work that we might now understand would need to be done over many years wasn't done at the level that it could have been done. Why was that? Is it institutional? I'm hard-pressed to say yes to that, but mostly [LAUGHS] because what is institutional at NPR is individuals, and we have had so much change. But we do know we could have done better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is this a weird position to be in, Keith?
KEITH WOODS: [LAUGHS] What makes you say that, Brooke?
You know, look, I came to NPR because I believe in what public radio does, the kind of journalism that we all should be aspiring to in the profession. And NPR offered to me, through this particular work, the opportunity to have a hand in changing not just the journalism but changing the way that the consuming public understands the issues. And any awkwardness that I might feel, being in a position here of defending a decision that we've made to close the show that is very much about that effort, any discomfort that I feel about that is overshadowed by the opportunity that I still believe exists here to do that kind of work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Keith, thank you so much.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Thank you, Keith.
KEITH WOODS: It's my pleasure. And Veralyn, nice to meet you and, and Brooke, great to talk to you again.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Same here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Same here. And Veralyn, thank you, too.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Veralyn Williams is a social justice journalist and communications organizer at the Brooklyn Movement Center. Keith Woods is NPR's Vice President for Diversity in News and Operations.