The majority of the NPR audience (86%) identifies itself as white. African-Americans make up the second largest audience for total NPR programming, comprising 5% of all listeners (and 31% of jazz listeners). The lifestyle and consumption patterns are similar for NPR listeners across ethnic groups.
I’m a regular NPR listener, both to broadcasts and podcasts, and an off-and-on contributing member. I generally like NPR’s news/talk content a lot, but one show we have in Philadelphia that I don’t care for is “Tell Me More,” a national news-talk show focusing on topics of interest to minorities. I get that I’m not the main audience for the show, even though nearly 9 out of 10 of us NPR listeners don’t qualify as the main audience for the show. But whatever. Still, I find the show fairly dull and earnest.
For example: On the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor this week, host Michel Martin interviewed Hawaii US Sen. Daniel Inouye, a decorated World War II veteran who witnessed the Japanese attack as a teenager. Inouye has an interesting story to tell, obviously, and gave distinguished service to our country under adverse conditions for Japanese-Americans. But the interview was so — how to put this? — um, worthy. There was nothing new or interesting or insightful about it. The host seemed satisfied to let Sen. Inouye tell the same story he’s been telling for years. I don’t mean to disparage Sen. Inouye in the slightest … but is this really the best NPR’s “minority” news show could do on the Pearl Harbor anniversary? There are bound to be so many stories about Japanese-Americans and how things have changed for them since World War II. Or, what about the issue of Japanese spies on the US West Coast during that era? Doesn’t that complicate the issue of the treatment of Japanese-Americans back then? Wouldn’t that make for a more interesting radio segment, talking with historians about that?
Understand my point here: I’m complaining about dull journalism, not Sen. Inouye. Again, I know that I’m not the primary audience for “Tell Me More,” but I listen to it hoping to learn something about various minority communities. More often than not I turn it off out of disinterest, because the stories seem so often to be either about Minorities Who Are Suffering Unjustly, or Worthy Minorities Who Are Achieving Despite Oppression. It’s so booster-y, in the way that boring religion sections often are (or were, when newspapers had religion sections). The program strikes me as the kind of minorities-focused news-talk show that white Baby Boomer liberals would love. Maybe it’s what black liberals think too. I dunno. Like I said, I’m not the audience for this show.
But who is? If nearly nine in 10 NPR listeners are white, I wonder what this program’s audience looks like. The Washington Post reported back in 2004 that Tavis Smiley’s daily NPR show, which he left in an absurd diva huff back in ’04, could claim an astonishing (to me, anyway) 71 percent of its audience was non-black. And Smiley’s show was way, way more pointedly “black” than “Tell Me More.” So maybe I’m off-base here. To be sure, it doesn’t bother me one bit if NPR produces minority-oriented radio shows, but there’s very little on this particular one to hold my attention.
Here’s what I’m getting at: Consider that in light of this other demographic information, via NPR.org:
- The political outlook of the NPR News audience is relatively balanced, with nearly equal percentages identifying as middle of the road (25%), conservative (28%), and liberal (37%).
- 58% of NPR listeners believe that holding to religious faith and belief is “very important”
Isn’t that interesting? NPR’s listening audience is comparable to the general political/demographic distribution of the US, according to the comprehensive 2011 Pew political typology. And nearly six in 10 NPR listeners are serious about religious faith. I don’t know what the breakdown is, obviously, but the numbers have to include religious conservatives (like me), religious moderates, and religious liberals. It seems pretty clear that the potential audience for a daily one-hour news-talk show on religion (including values and spirituality) is there — and that there are far, far more potential listeners to a quality faith-and-values news-talk show than for, say, “Tell Me More.” So why not do it, NPR? NPR’s demographic research shows that its overall audience is fairly well educated. It shouldn’t be hard to do an intelligent, punchy, balanced daily news-talk show on religion, spirituality, and values. (I’m a fan of Krista Tippett’s “On Being” program, but that’s a very different kind of show than a topical news-talk program.)
Understand that 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?