Race at NPR and the End of ‘Tell Me More’

Edward Schumacher-Matos, NPR, June 28, 2014

Hundreds of listeners have written passionately to protest NPR’s decision to shut down its talk show dedicated to themes of diversity, Tell Me More, come August 1.

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I agree that cancellation of the journalistically excellent seven-year old show is sorrowful, and I don’t think I am talking out of school when I say that this seems to be a feeling shared up and down the NPR hierarchy. The reasons for the closure, as Chief Content Officer Kinsey Wilson has made clear in a number of public statements, are that the show had a relatively small audience, lost money and is a victim of shifting strategies to keep up with changing times. One change is the growth of excellent local talk shows by member stations; many don’t need or want to run the national show. See the chart at the bottom. The other reason is that while NPR’s on-air audience has been stagnating, its online audience has been growing dynamically; more internal resources are being freed to meet the digital demand.

But what of diversity?

Diversity, of course, means many things, among them region, ideology and gender, but let’s focus on the central concern surrounding the shut-down of Tell Me More, which is race and ethnicity, even though the show covered much more than that.

Wilson insists that emphasis on diversity will be re-doubled in NPR’s remaining flagship shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as their weekend counterparts. {snip}

Each of these is a journalistically admirable effort. You will decide for yourself whether they are enough. What might help you judge, especially with the demise of Tell Me More, is to look at NPR’s audience and staffing. The table below updates the core numbers from a large study and its follow-up that I did two years ago.

AudienceStaffing

You will see that the audience last year for member stations that run NPR’s news programs—the closest proxy publicly available for the shows themselves—was 5 percent African-American, 6 percent Latino and 5 percent Asian-American. For blacks and Latinos, this is less than half their proportion in the nation’s adult population. Not so good, seen that way.

But it looks very different seen through the lens of a breakdown of college-educated Americans. For better or worse, the public affairs programming of NPR appeals mostly to Americans with a college degree, regardless of race or ethnicity. By this measure, black listeners index exactly the same as their proportion of college graduates in the wider society. College-educated Latino listeners are lower but within shouting distance.

Asians present the opposite picture. Twice as many Asian-American adults listen to NPR news stations as their weight in the population. Among college graduates, however, the proportions converge.

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The end of Tell Me More is unlikely to greatly affect these figures. This is due to the peculiarities of the show’s audience. It is small, and while it has a higher proportion of blacks than other shows, according to Nielsen Audio data, its listenership is still overwhelmingly white. Listener Padgett, the “white suburban mom,” is in fact a typical Tell Me More listener.

NPR has undertaken a concerted effort to “sound like America.” So, if NPR’s shows are expected to reflect the interests and voices of all the nation’s races and ethnic groups, then clearly it helps to have those groups represented in the newsroom. The chart also shows staff breakdowns, including from my 2012 study and what they were following layoffs announced May 20, including from Tell Me More. The numbers are of reporters, editors, producers, designers and other full time newsroom professionals, and not administrative support. NPR had 365 such professionals after the layoffs.

You will see that Hispanics in particular are under-index in the newsroom compared to the population. In the last census in 2010, Latinos made up 14 percent of the adult population and growing, but they make up only 5 percent of today’s NPR newsroom. This, roughly a third of their adult population weight. The proportion of blacks in the newsroom has actually dropped over the last two years. It dropped to 10 percent from 12 percent, which had been equal to the adult population weight. Asians significantly over-index in the newsroom, though their absolute numbers are small. {snip}

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African-Americans make up 5 percent of the college graduate pool but 10 percent of the NPR newsroom, or twice their weight in the pool. Latinos slightly under-index: 6 percent of college graduates versus 5 percent in the newsroom. Asians over-index at NPR once more: 7 percent of the newsroom versus 5 percent of the pool.

There is a limit to the value of these numbers. But I believe that race still matters in America, and just as the framers of the Constitution gave disproportional representation to small states in the Senate because states mattered more then, minority racial groups arguably should have disproportional representation in the newsroom, or in stories. Their concerns, like those of small states, may get lost in the majority white culture. {snip}

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Here, meanwhile, is the chart that shows the audience for all of NPR’s shows and part of the reason for the sad demise of Tell Me More.

Chart

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