Last week, NPR announced that it had received a $1.5 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to improve its coverage of race and ethnicity. According to the news release, it will be putting together a six-person team to "launch a major storytelling initiative focused on the racial, ethnic, ideological and generational issues that define an increasingly diverse America."
Now there's nothing I like more than a good storytelling initiative (there was a time when telling stories implied you were making things up, but in the age where every important matter can be reduced to a "narrative," storytelling is the highest form of journalism). Still, the rationale behind this initiative seems deeply flawed.
The AP story on the subject seems to suggest that this is a defensive move on the part of NPR. "Scrutiny of NPR's record on diversity has heightened since the October 2010 firing of commentator Juan Williams. . . . " Which makes sense, since Juan Williams was the only black man on the air at NPR. But the AP doesn't say that. It says that the scrutiny was the result of Juan Williams's comment that he gets nervous when he sees Muslims on a plane. Racial diversity is great -- as long as the racial minorities we hire stick to the party line.
But NPR offered a different explanation for this grant. Gary Knell, NPR CEO and president, explained that
There's still too many people who are not really aware of public radio in this country and my hunch is many of them might be minorities who haven't discovered public radio and who we think would be more amenable to tuning in and becoming supporters if they knew the content was more accessible and really aimed to a demographic, that speaks the issues that are of critical importance to Hispanic, African American, Asian American and Native American audiences.
"More accessible"? The problem with NPR stories is that they are not accessible enough to racial minorities? Can you make things a little simpler for these folks who just don't operate on NPR's level? Forget all that national political coverage and your high-falutin' book reviews. Find stories that minorities can wrap their heads around. Imagine if Roger Ailes made such a remark!
NPR's audience is an upper-class one, maybe an upper-middle-class one. Affluent educated white people are a big part of NPR's audience. But so, I'm guessing, are affluent blacks and Hispanics and Native Americans. A study by the NPR ombudsman found that 87 percent of NPR's audience is white. Perhaps racial minorities are underrepresented among affluent, educated Americans and therefore are underrepresented among NPR listeners. But to suggest that educated blacks haven't "discovered" public radio and would be more "amenable to tuning in" if only they heard more stories about blacks is a fairly condescending view.
It's not that NPR is inaccessible. But it is occasionally obnoxious. One could imagine that public radio could get more middle-class listeners if it were just a tad less smug and condescending. Take this recent ad for WNYC (New York's public radio station):
There are people who need you to explain things to them. They don’t understand about things like food co-ops and sleep deprivation in children. There are people who count on you to be witty, at least smart. They don’t know what to think about Goldman Sachs or fracking in the Catskills. They expect you to tell them. And if you let them down, who knows what will happen to the world . . . or at least New York, which for some people is the world. You owe it to them to listen to WNYC all the time, so please don’t do a half-assed job, that’s not like you. WNYC. Never turn it off.
All of us NPR listeners engaging in witty repartee with our friends about food co-ops, investment banking, fracking, and our poor exhausted children. Ugh. Just the thought of it makes me want to find a country music station. So here's a tip for all of you public radio executives. Want to diversify your listening audience (politically, socio-economically, geographically, and racially) without spending 7 figures? How about dropping ads like this?