Broadcast media’s commitment to diversity challenged


Although local outlets claim progress in multicultural programming, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) has questioned National Public Radio’s (NPR) commitment to diversity.

According to Richard Prince’s website, which reports on media diversity issues, Greg Peppers, a 22-year NPR veteran who supervised its newscast unit, was fired on October 16. On the same day, Walt Swanston, another Black manager, resigned as NPR diversity management director, citing health reasons.

Peppers’ dismissal came less than 24 hours after NPR hosted the NABJ at their Washington, D.C., headquarters, Prince wrote as he referred to NPR’s seemingly “checkered history” regarding Black men. Only two Black males have held top positions. Tavis Smiley and Ed Gordon once hosted programs but eventually left, both claiming poor management support in terms of promoting their shows.

NABJ President Kathy Times and Broadcast Vice-President Bob Butler strongly questioned NPR’s diversity efforts in an October 27 letter sent to its president and CEO, Vivian Schiller. “Who are the managers of color at NPR?” they asked. “Mr. Peppers’ firing comes 10 months after NPR dismissed Next Generation Radio creator Doug Mitchell, who has trained scores of young journalists, including many African Americans, for jobs in the broadcasting industry.”

Schiller later responded that diversity is integral to NPR’s mission and provided some specifics to support her contention. According to Schiller, nearly 24 percent of NPR management is staffed by people of color; 13 percent of the 313-person NPR news/programming staff is Black; and people of color comprise almost 28 percent of NPR’s total staff of 754.

MSR recently inquired about Minnesota Public Radio’s (MPR) diversity commitment. According to MPR Senior Vice President and General Manager Tim Roester and News Director Chris Worthington, people of color make up 13 percent of its newsroom staff, including two persons of color who were hired in the last two years.

“I’m optimistic we will have a third [person of color] in the next seven months,” predicted Worthington.

MPR also has a nine-month journalism fellowship program, he added. “We take somebody with no radio experience but reporting experience, and we teach them radio,” Worthington explained. “Four of the last five years, they have been journalists of color. We are aggressively looking for reporters of color in the newsroom.”

“We don’t feel satisfied with where we are in regards to diversity,” noted Roester, who added that a diversity consultant from the West Coast has worked with him for almost three years. “One of the strong [recommendations] he had is that it is not only about recruiting, but also about retention,” claimed Roester.

MPR did not carry Smiley and Gordon’s programs when they aired, nor are they currently carrying NPR’s “Tell Me More,” hosted by Michelle Martin. Roester says MPR instead prefers “live and local” programming, such as MPR’s “Youth Radio” monthly series, which uses ethnic youth who produce and air reports on their communities.

“Sometimes the various [NPR] programs that we are considering will be put up against that ‘live and local’ filter, which is really important for us,” said Roester. Worthington added that MPR is still deciding whether to add “Tell Me More” to its program schedule: “It is still on the table,” he says.

MPR’s news coverage “is very inclusive,” said Worthington, adding that because Minnesota’s general population is becoming more diverse, “I think we are doing a pretty good job covering that story.” He said he often challenges his reporters “to talk to people you don’t typically talk to” when reporting on diverse communities.

According to data provided by Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) Director of Recruiting, Training and Diversity Sean Fetterman, 25 percent of its full-time, part-time and intermittent staff comes from a diverse background. However, Vice President and General Counsel Allen Giles is the only Black person on its senior management staff.

“We have a full time, 24-hour television service primarily made up of local and Minnesota content,” TPT Programming Executive Director Thomas Holter pointed out. He added that TPT regularly airs programs focused on a particular ethnic group: “We do acknowledge six heritage months throughout the year.”

Now, with its multiple over-the-air channels, including TPT MN, that features diverse programming daily, “I think just about any given week we have something in our schedule that celebrates, or documents, or analyzes the complexities of the multicultural America,” Holter said.

Almanac, a longtime weekly public affairs program, regularly features Black contributors, and its producer, Brendan Henehan, is Black.

“Every week there is either on-screen text or history about the African American community in just about every episode [of the show],” noted Holter.

“Much of it [comes] from the newspapers around the state – a lot of it is from the Spokesman-Recorder.”

This might be viewed by some as “spoon-feeding a bit of [Black] history to our audience,” admits Holter. “[Nevertheless], it’s important history that’s often underreported or under-told. This is something that the whole audience, not just African Americans, ought to be interested in and knowledgeable about.”

The local public broadcasting officials all agree that diversity on the air and behind the scenes is very important. “I would suggest if you are going to take measure of our commitment to diversity or interest in diverse issues, that you consider the whole,” stated MPR’s Worthington. “Do we need more diverse on-air staff? Absolutely.”

“We want to cover the general community as well as we possibly can from diverse perspectives,” added Roester, MPR’s top executive.

“The purpose of public television is to serve all citizens throughout [Minnesota],” Holter concluded.

Next week: Diversity in commercial over-the-air television’s top-tier newsroom management

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