The announcement by National Public Radio that it plans to cut its only African-American themed show “New & Notes” in 2009 came both as a shock and a huge disappointment. Shock because on the eve of America swearing in its first ever Black president, you’d think that NPR would see the relevance in having a show like “News & Notes” on the air, especially given all of the outstanding coverage that they provided during the primary and general election. Disappointment because the show’s cancellation is just another sign that it’s not safe out there for Black journalists…anywhere.
Believe it or not, there are many of us who don’t turn on the radio (or the Internet for those of us in Los Angeles where ‘News and Notes’ isn’t on the air) to hear the latest rap or R&B song but rather to find out what’s going on and connect with Black people around the world—and for that, we turn to “News & Notes.”
NPR had many choices on where to make cuts—but chose to focus on “News & Notes.” Instead of perhaps scaling the show back to three times a week down from five, they decided to cancel it all together. A bad move.
I for one agree with journalist and author Linda Villarosa who wrote “what about ‘Car Talk?’” Why is it that when times get hard, the balancing of NPR’s budget has to be done at the cost of its only Black themed programming?
Looking at NPR’s programming line-up, I see a lot a lot of room for cuts that could be made before canceling “News & Notes.” Here are a few suggestions:
American Radio Works
The Annoying Music Show
As it Happens
Been There/Done That
The Brian Lehrer Show
A Chef’s Table
Creators at Carnegie
The Diane Rehm Show
The DNA Files
Earth & Sky
Fresh Air® with Terry Gross
From the Top
Hearts of Space
Here and Now
The Infinite Mind
Lost and Found Sound
Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz
Marketplace Morning Report
The Motley Fool Radio Show
National Press Club
On the Media®
Only A Game
Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz
A Prairie Home Companion
Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane
Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
Saint Paul Sunday
Sound & Spirit
Speaking of Faith
Theme and Variations
This American Life
The Thistle & Shamrock®
To the Best of Our Knowledge
To the Point
Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!
The Weather Notebook
Word for Word
World of Opera
You Bet Your Garden
Zorba Paster On Your Health
According to NPR’s own website, “diversity is a fundamental part of everything we do at NPR, and of our ability to offer relevant news, culture, and entertainment programming to an increasingly diverse public. Diversity is a cornerstone of our recruitment, programming, and talent development initiatives.”
So then, the question becomes, how do they explain putting their only African-American themed show on the chopping block?
In an email to staff members, Interim President and CEO Dennis Haarsager cited a decrease in listenership, corporate sponsorship, and the economy, a familiar tune we’ve heard before, most recently at the Los Angeles Times where a series of forced retirements and layoffs left only a handful of Black writers.
However, sources inside NPR wishing to remain anonymous for obvious reasons (severance pay, benefits, etc.), say that they were told repeatedly at “News & Notes” that their mandate was not to increase listenership for NPR, increase membership, or bring in corporate sponsorship. Yet, with their outstanding coverage during the primary and general election they did just that—not to mention host Farai Chideya’s widely publicized $150,000 grant from the Ford Foundation.
The “News & Notes” team was told that their mandate was to make the Consortium happy. Plain and simple. And to the best of their knowledge they had done that. In fact, they received a standing ovation in 2007 in Washington during Congressional Black Caucus week from the Consortium. They were also told that the cancellation of their show had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of their programming. And that was reiterated in a press release issued by NPR that said, “With near-record audience levels, now more than ever people are relying on NPR to better understand the extraordinary events occurring in the world.”
So which is it, a decrease in audience or an increase? Inquiring minds want to know and somebody’s got some ‘splainin to do. Don’t send out an internal email saying one thing and then tell the unassuming public another.
And despite NPR’s unwillingness to market “News & Notes,” they showed remarkable leadership and proactively including launching a YouTube channel, blog, and brought in the voices of some of Black America’s most read blogs and websites to build the shows audience. A move that proved to be the right one as it won them several journalism awards in the past two years, including two from the National Association of Black Journalists, one from the L.A. Press Club, and one from the National Association of Lesbian and Gay Journalists.
So there’s a real question as to the validity of the claim that it has more to do with listeners and money.
So what gives?
I Cram to Understand
Many people aren’t aware, but “News & Notes” is produced out of Los Angeles, America’s second largest media market. So you’d think that given the show is based in Los Angeles that you’d be able to hear it in Los Angeles, but sadly that is not the case as both Los Angeles NPR affiliates, KCRW 89.9 FM and KPCC 89.3 FM have refused to carry it. Even more baffling is that NPR hasn’t pushed for one of these two stations to do so, even though Los Angeles County is home to the majority of Blacks that still reside in California, Oakland being the second.
Currently, Los Angeles has one daily news show that focuses on African-Americans, “The Front Page” hosted by Dominique DiPrima on KJLH 102.3 FM, an independent station owned by Stevie Wonder. The “Front Page” airs Monday through Friday from 4:30 a.m. to 6 a.m. So like the song says, “I got to get up early in the morning…”
We’ve Been Here Before: Tavis Smiley, Ed Gordon, and the Byrant Park Project
In 2002, NPR made its first attempt at drawing minority audiences to public radio when they asked Tavis Smiley to host his own show designed to “appeal to an African American audience.” The show began on 16 stations, with less than 300,000 listeners per week. By 2004, the show had grown tremendously. It could be heard on 87 stations in nine of the top 10 markets – 18 of those stations were in predominately African American communities-and had more than 1 million listeners per week. Smiley quit his NPR show in 2004 when his contract expired, charging that NPR didn’t do enough to promote him.
Negotiations to renew Smiley’s contract ended when he quit via a letter sent to stations carrying his show and publicly criticized NPR’s commitment to diversity.
“The disagreement with NPR was not about my personal behavior or professional goals, or else I would not have been offered a multi-year (contract renewal),” Smiley wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times.
“We disagreed about how to program and market a show to Black people, most of whom have never heard of NPR. To reach those folks and truly live up to the ‘public’ in public radio, you have … to do things differently than you’ve always done them. You have to take risks. NPR lost interest in those goals after our first year on the air.”
Then in 2004, NPR announced the addition of Ed Gordon, the former anchor of “BET News,” “BET Tonight” and host of “Lead Story” to host the then new show “News & Notes.” That lasted all of a year and half before he was gone.
Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times questioned back in August of 2006 amidst the departure of then “News & Notes” host Ed Gordon, why NPR was unable to sustain quality programming for Black audiences.
“Sometimes, I feel this show is being allowed to die on the vine,” said Gordon, who nevertheless resisted notions that NPR was failing to program to black people.
“People say I haven’t connected with audiences. … That’s probably true because the show hasn’t connected with me,” he added. “And part of the problem was not knowing what people wanted. Do you want a typical, NPR-type show, or do you try to bring some shade … some color to NPR?”
In Deggans’ article, NPR officials insisted whatever problems “News & Notes” may have are specific to the show and its awkward, rushed development.
“Five or six years ago, we made a commitment to something that had never been done before: to launch new programming aimed at more diverse audiences,” said Ken Stern, NPR’s executive vice president, noting that in his seven years at the company, two of the three new shows have been black-focused.
“When you look around National Public Radio, there was not the sort of diverse bench strength we wanted,” Stern added; NPR’s staff is currently 28 percent minority, according to a company spokeswoman. “We’ve been trying to bring in people from the outside and build an even more diverse staff. …And just because we didn’t get it right the first time or the second time doesn’t mean we won’t keep trying.”
In July, NPR canceled its “Bryant Park Project” an experimental weekday morning program, designed to draw a younger audience to public radio and capture listeners who had moved online. The live two-hour program covered news and cultural topics in an informal, conversational manner and was hosted by Alison Stewart.
Stewart said told the New York Times, “From what I understand, we are obviously in extra-tough economic times, and it is a financial and strategic decision,” she said. “I was told it had absolutely nothing to do with the quality or content of the show.”
According to the New York Times, Stewart said she was surprised that the program had been canceled but said, “I also understand the economic reality.”
She added: “We worked our hearts out, and I think we succeeded in many ways.”
According to the New York Times, “Bryant Park Project” had a rocky start when one of the original co-hosts, Luke Burbank, quit just before the debut. (He ended up staying through mid-December.) Stewart went on maternity leave in April, and the news anchor, Rachel Martin, left for ABC News in May. Mike Pesca had been filling in as host.
Tell Me More vs. News & Notes
When I initially wrote about the cancellation of NPR’s only African-American themed show “News & Notes,” I received a note from friend and former ABC correspondent Michel Martin, reminding me that she was still there. And you know what—she’s absolutely right. But I never really considered Michel’s show “Tell Me More,” which I have been privy to be a guest on multiple times, as a Black themed show. While Michel herself is undeniable Black, her show often times features a plethora of multi-cultural issues. Which is not a bad thing—but makes it distinctly different from “News & Notes.”
Described on NPR’s website as a show that “focuses on the way we live, intersect and collide in a culturally diverse world. Each day’s show features a variety of segments examining U.S. and international news, ideas and people; its range of topics covers politics, faith and spirituality, the family, finance, arts and culture and lifestyle,” it’s clear to me at least that “Tell Me More” focused on people of color in general, whereas “News & Notes” focuses on African-Americans.
The Future of Blacks on Television and Radio Depends on What We Do
There was a lot of talk after President-Elect Barack Obama won the presidency that there’d be a rush among news networks, both radio and television to bring on more African-Americans. It may be just the opposite. It may be that the powers that be fear a Black overload in the news and are doing just the opposite. Just a thought.
What I do know for sure is that all of us don’t need our news fed to us between the latest top 40 song. I also know that had it not been for “News & Notes,” there are a whole lot of issues that would have gone uncovered by NPR—and the mainstream media period.
I am hopeful that this week, we’ll hear from NABJ on the cancellation of NPR as well the various members of the Congressional Black Caucus, celebrities and their publicists who all benefited from “News & Notes” willingness to cover them and their issues. Now is the time for us to rally together around one of the few, and I mean few, national Black news focused theme shows in this country. While this is not to slight NPR or the other people who work there, it must be said that there are things that “All Things Considered” and “Talk of the Nation” either just don’t get, won’t cover, or are unable to cover from an unapologetically Black point of view.
NPR’s commitment to diversity is constantly being challenged and with their announcement of the cancellation of their only Black themed news show, it’s clear why. NPR needs to be called out on this because in less than a year they’ll be announcing yet another Black themed show that will be gone in 18 months or less given NPR’s track record. NPR had got to better by Blacks and the only way they’re going to get the message at the top is by sending it directly to them. While it’s about “News & Notes” today, it’s really about all of the Black themed shows in the past and the present and their Black staff members, producers and anchors. If they can so quickly cancel “News & Notes” they can do the same to Michel Martin’s “Tell Me More” and national news reporter Karen Grigsby-Bates. No one is safe. Besides if we don’t speak up now, it only goes to validate NPRs assertion about “News & Notes” low listenership.
When you set a mandate that diversity is a fundamental part of everything you do to offer relevant news, culture, and entertainment programming to an increasingly diverse public—then you are obliged to live up to it. And when you do not not, it’s our job as the audience, whether we are subscribers or not, to remind you of it. Consider this NPR’s official notice.
Contacting Executive Team at NPR
Send the executive team a reminder about what diversity truly means and let them know that you want your ‘News & Notes’ show.
Phone: (202) 513-2000
635 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20001
- Ellen Weiss, Vice President for News
- Walt Swanston, Director of Diversity Management
- Margaret Low Smith, Vice President for Programming
- Mitch, Praver, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Office
- Jackie Nixon, Director, Audience Insight and Research
- Dennis L. Haarsager Interim President and Chief Executive Officer
- Bob Holstein, Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer
- Alicia C. Shepard, Ombudsman
Sign the Petition
Help spread the word and support for the ‘News & Notes’ team at NPR. Sign the petition and have all of your friends and family do the same!
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