NPR has cancelled its daily race-and-diversity news show Tell Me More as part of an effort to close public radio’s budget deficit. Excerpt:
“These times require that we organize ourselves in different ways and that we’re smarter about how we address the different platforms that we reach our audiences on,” NPR Executive Vice President and Chief Content Officer Kinsey Wilson said. “We’re trying to make the most of the resources that we have and ensure that we keep radio healthy and try to develop audience in the digital arena.”
Wilson went on to say that NPR is “strongly committed to serving diverse audiences.” This is liberal media-speak for: “We will go out of our way to keep producing programming that appeals to ethnic and sexual minorities, whether or not it makes economic or journalistic sense. Don’t worry, we will not forget that some people are more diverse than others.”
What am I talking about? Let’s return to a piece I did for this site back in 2010, when I lived in Philadelphia, using the program Tell Me More as an example of an NPR blind spot favoring liberal ideology over its audience’s demographic realities. Before we go there, here are some updated 2012 NPR audience demographic numbers, courtesy of the nonpartisan Pew Center. According to Pew, NPR’s listenership is:
- 43 percent Democratic, 34 percent Independent, 17 percent Republican
- 21 percent conservative, 39 percent moderate, 36 percent liberal
- fairly affluent; 43 percent make $75K or more annually
In 2012, NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos pointed out, using NPR’s own internal research, that NPR’s audience is overwhelmingly white and educated. Excerpt:
Indeed, I am also trying to follow how NPR is doing in covering the white working and middle class. My sense is that the national news media, of which NPR is part, has done a poor job in recent decades of covering this segment of Americans. The recent coverage of the Tea Party, which to some degree represents this group, has been mostly political, not social in character. I am a critic of some of Charles Murray’s earlier books, but feel that he is on to something in his latest, Coming Apart. His study uncovers a huge cultural chasm that has opened between poor and working class whites, on the one hand, and upper income and highly educated whites on the other. This latter group includes most national journalists.
Looking at NPR, the overwhelming majority of its radio audience is in fact white –roughly 87 percent, according to research pulled together for me by Lori Kaplan of NPR’s Audience, Insight and Research Department. This is substantially higher than the 77 percent of adult Americans (18 and older) who are white. Asian-Americans make up nearly 4 percent of the audience, but roughly 3 percent of the adult population. African-Americans and Latinos, however, are under-represented among NPR’s listeners. Blacks make up nearly 12 percent of the adult population but just a little more than 5 percent of NPR listeners. For Hispanics, the numbers are 14 percent versus 6 percent.
Schumacher-Matos, who is Latino, makes the important point that when you control for educational status, NPR’s demographic portrait is a lot more balanced. The fact is, there are many more whites with college degrees than there are blacks and Latinos, so if NPR’s listenership appeals primarily to people with college degrees, it’s naturally going to skew more white by comparison to the general population. The point is, blacks, the primary audience for Tell Me More, are about one in 20 NPR listeners — about the same as for Hispanics. Almost nine out of every 10 NPR listeners is white. So you tell me: what sense did it ever make to create a daily talk show oriented exclusively around race?
As I wrote back in 2010 about this show, pointing out that according to 2009 listener research, 58 percent of NPR’s listeners said religion was “very important” to them:
I’m not raising all this to complain about bias. I’m simply a regular NPR listener who would love to hear an NPR news-talk religion show, and who doesn’t understand the reasoning behind NPR’s producing “Tell Me More,” a daily program pitched at 14 percent of its overall audience, but has no daily news-talk program potentially addressing 58 percent of its current audience. Something doesn’t add up. What am I not seeing here? Is there really no audience for an NPR daily faith-and-values news-talk program, or is there just no audience for it at NPR headquarters and among the leadership of the member stations?
Back then, NYT religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer responded to that column, giving his reasons for why an NPR daily talk show on religion would fail. One of his reasons I took issue with, but mostly I conceded he was right: NPR would be so deadly earnest about religion, in part because the risk of offending someone would be too great. This, as a matter of fact, is a big part of why Tell Me More — which I listened to when I was in the car, because NPR is the only thing on worth listening to — was so dull and worthy. As I wrote then:
For example, the other day “Tell Me More” interviewed one of the black US Olympians who gave the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics, and who has a new book out. It was a total cream puff of an interview, following the usual “Tell Me More” formula of Minority Triumphs Over Adversity. When the story started, I wondered how the athlete’s thinking about his country had changed over the past decades, and why. Isn’t that interesting? Were there no questions that could be put to the athlete challenging his acts or his views? If any had been, they were left on the editing floor. If this is the kind of journalism NPR would do in a faith-and-values program — and Mark Oppenheimer has given good reasons for why this is what we could expect — then yes, better not to try it.
OK, so let’s assume that NPR probably shouldn’t try to do a faith-and-values news and newstalk daily show about religion, because that’s too risky. I can see that — and I would much rather have no religion show at all than one that was smotheringly earnest, as Tell Me More was about race and ethnicity. Is there something else NPR ought to be doing to reach out to the actual diversity of its audience, as distinct from the kind of diversity that liberals prefer exclusively? What kind of NPR daily newstalk programming do you think would work?
Here’s my idea: a daily show about ethics and morality, driven by the news. Call in ethicists, theologians, historians, people like that, for segments about moral issues raised by current events in the news. For example, I’m looking at the online front page of The New York Times right now. Just glancing at what’s there, here’s the NPR show for today:
1. New campus orthodoxies: how far should tolerance and sensitivity go on college campuses?
2. E-cigarettes helping people quit: should e-cigs be seen as good things, because they help wean smokers off of tobacco, or wolves in sheep’s clothing, as they may draw more young people to nicotine addiction? Can there be a morally acceptable way to consume nicotine? Why or why not?
3. Christian college causes uproar by altering stance on evolution: How are conservative Christian universities dealing with science vs. religion on the evolutionary biology? Why do evangelical and fundamentalist colleges struggle with this, but Catholic colleges do not?
I’m sure there are more interesting topics across the news spectrum, but these are three I picked off the front page of the Times just now. Fold questions of race, religion, class, homosexuality, gender, and all that into this format, and ensure a balanced discussion, and you’d have a show that I bet would appeal to a huge number of NPR listeners of all races, incomes, and political leanings. I know I would listen.
I’m betting a fair number of my readers are also NPR listeners. Even if you liked Tell Me More, it’s clear that in these financially straitened times, NPR can’t sustain a talk show focusing on such a small segment of its overall audience. Do you have any ideas for a new NPR program that could incorporate a sensitivity in exploring news and issues related to the minority experience in America, into a program that has far broader appeal? There’s bound to be a way to do it, but programmers and executives inside the NPR bubble need to think more creatively.
UPDATE: Reader MC said he can’t believe I let the opportunity to title this post “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me More” pass. He’s right. Duh! I changed the subject line.