Sep 1 2002

White Noise

Voices of color scarce on urban public radio

“[Public broadcasting] should provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard…[and] help us see America whole in all its diversity.”– 1967 Carnegie Commission Report, which served as the basis for the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967

An Extra! survey finds that the dominant voices on the leading public radio stations in seven U.S. urban markets are overwhelmingly white and predominantly male.

The survey, which looked at the ethnicity and gender of the stations’ daytime hosts and news anchors, found that 73 out of 83 were non-Latino whites (88 percent). Fifty-seven of the daytime hosts and anchors were male (69 percent).

Six of the hosts were African-American, two were Asian-American and two were Arab-American. (Hosts who appeared on multiple stations were counted once for each station.) Just one Latino host appeared during any station’s daytime broadcasts, while no Native American hosts showed up in the survey.

The dominance of white, male voices contrasts with public radio’s professed mission of inclusiveness, especially when considering the diversity of the metropolitan areas the stations serve.

Diverse cities, homogenous hosts

The survey included weekday shows that aired from the beginning of “morning drivetime” to the end of “afternoon drivetime”–from 6 AM until 6 PM. Drivetime–when many commuters are listening to the radio in their cars–generally gets the highest listenership during the day, and the midday hours in between typically have considerably more listeners than the evening or late night hours (, “Radio Today 2001”).

We looked at hosts and anchors because the sheer amount of time they spend on the air, usually far more than any individual reporter or other on-air personnel, makes them the most identifiable voices associated with the station.

Extra! chose seven prominent, geographically disparate cities, and then looked at the leading noncommercial station with a news and public affairs format in each city. The stations surveyed were KCRW in Los Angeles, KQED in San Francisco, WBEZ in Chicago, WNYC in New York City, WAMU in Washington, D.C., WABE in Atlanta and WLRN in Miami.

While all the stations are affiliates of National Public Radio (NPR) and subscribe to other program services as well, each is locally controlled and independently programmed. Each of the seven stations airs NPR‘s main news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, during daytime hours, so those shows’ anchors were counted in our study.

To compare the stations’ most prominent voices to the communities the stations serve, we used the U.S. Census Bureau’s Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), which provide demographic information on central cities as well as their surrounding suburbs. While the average station surveyed had daytime hosts who were 87 percent white; the metropolitan areas served by these stations averaged 45 percent white.*

While the stations reached a population that was, on average, 19 percent African-American, their daytime hosts and anchors averaged just 7 percent African-American. More strikingly, the cities served by the radio stations studied were on average 25 percent Latino, but only 1 percent of the hosts and anchors at the stations studied were Latino.

The stations reached a population that averaged 9 percent Asian-American, but only 2 percent of their daytime hosts and anchors were Asian-American.

Sixty-eight percent of hosts and anchors were male, serving areas that were, on average, 49 percent male.

Claims and reality

Aggregate numbers for the seven stations reflect a lack diversity, but individual stations varied significantly. The lineup of D.C.’s WAMU came closest to reflecting the ethnic diversity of its public; serving an area that is 56 percent white and 26 percent African-American, WAMU‘s daytime presenters are 60 percent white and 20 percent African-American. Chicago’s WBEZ and Atlanta’s WABE aired the least diverse line-ups; neither station featured any people of color as daytime hosts or anchors.

Despite serving the New York metropolitan area, where whites make up just half of the total population, 90 percent of WNYC‘s weekday hosts are white; 70 percent of the hosts are male. Defending the station, WNYC communications director Emma Dunch told Extra! that “one out of every two hours a WNYC listener hears during primetime is anchored by a host of diverse background.” This claim is based on the idea that the primary hosts of All Things Considered and Morning Edition are the local anchors who occasionally break into the national programming to read news headlines–and that Greek-born Soterios Johnson, who does this for WNYC during All Things Considered, counts as a “host of diverse background.”

The weekday hosts and anchors at San Francisco’s KQED are 90 percent white and 70 percent male, identical to WNYC‘s demographics. While San Francisco’s metropolitan area is 23 percent Asian-American and 17 percent Latino, none of the KQED hosts in the survey were Latino or Asian.

The mission statement of KCRW in Los Angeles proclaims that “KCRW‘s programming reflects the diversity of the community it serves.” This statement would be fairly accurate if KCRW broadcast in Montana, for that state and the station’s weekday hosts are both 91 percent white. However, the population of the Los Angeles metropolitan area is 40 percent Latino, and there are no Latinos among KCRW‘s weekday hosts.

Chicago’s WBEZ claims to speak “with many voices” and to be “a reflection of the distinctive and diverse Chicago area.” But every host and anchor of weekday programming from 6AM to 6PM is white, serving a metropolitan area that is 19 percent African-American and 17 percent Latino. When asked how WBEZ justifies the disparity between the voices on the radio and the city of Chicago, WBEZ vice president of programming Ron Jones responded that “we do have some other contributing voices–just not hosts or anchors.”

Despite broadcasting to a metropolitan area where Latinos are 57 percent of the population, Miami’s WLRN had only one weekday host who was Latino (7 percent). However, WLRN had the most gender balance of any station surveyed, with a male-female ratio of 57 percent to 43 percent.

Despite the relative diversity offered by WAMU, the station’s program director Mark McDonald believes the current state of public radio is still far from ideal. “I think we’re making progress; I don’t think that we’re good enough,” said McDonald. “I think there are a lot of people who are satisfied with having an African-American on the air or on the news staff and think that’s good enough.” McDonald readily acknowledged public radio’s past exclusivity: “It’s no secret that public radio in the past has concentrated on an upper-middle-class white target audience.” However, said McDonald, “Things are starting to change as important people in public radio begin to realize the importance of attracting a wider segment of the population.”

The national problem

One obstacle to diversity at the seven stations is their reliance on NPR programs, particularly the flagship news shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. These drivetime programs serve as the “tent poles” of daytime programming at all seven stations. Hosted by white males Bob Edwards and Robert Siegel, respectively, Morning Edition and All Things Considered amplified the lack of diversity offered by the stations.

Other commonly offered national programs contribute little to public radio’s diversity. NPR‘s Fresh Air, hosted by Terry Gross, a white woman, is featured in the daytime weekday programming of every station studied except D.C’s WAMU. NPR‘s Talk of the Nation, hosted by white male Neil Conan, is broadcast by four of the seven stations.

Marketplace and The World, shows picked up by some stations from NPR rival Public Radio International, also feature white hosts. Of all nationally distributed programming aired on the stations during the hours studied, only NPR‘s The Diane Rehm Show features a host who’s not European-American. (Rehm is an Arab-American.)

When we described the survey findings to NPR president and CEO Kevin Klose, he rejected the notion that there was any serious problem with diversity throughout the public radio system. “There is not a disconnect between NPR stations and their communities,” he told Extra!. “This is borne out by the audience growth of NPR stations throughout the country.”

According to public radio producer and consultant Nan Rubin, many public stations are not interested in reaching audiences outside their familiar demographic base. After interviewing many public radio officials for a report for the Ford Foundation called “The State of Programming in Public Radio,” Rubin observed:

The path they are choosing is to continue providing a program service aimed at the white, middle-class demographic that they already reach. Moreover, they are counting on the loyalty of their existing audience to support the station, not at its current level, but at a higher level–this despite the figures from NPR that public radio already reaches 93 percent saturation of its “core listeners.” As one station manager said, “The overall impact of this strategy is fewer listeners, but more dollars.”

“Do they serve all the people?”

“There is a dichotomy that the system hasn’t come to grips with,” said Loretta Rucker, a radio consultant who helped launch the Tavis Smiley Show, NPR‘s first and only predominantly black program. “Do they serve all the people, or do they stick with the core audience they’ve been cultivating for years?”

“As someone who works in public radio, the lack of diversity doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Maria Martin, founder of the weekly public affairs show Latino USA:

They’ve had 30 years to make it right and, really, nothing has changed. They say they are responding to ratings, but what they are really doing is tailoring programming for a white, elite, educated audience. In many ways, it’s opposed to the ideals of public radio, which was meant to introduce Americans to each other. Instead, what you hear is one elite group talking to itself.

Helen Zia, a former executive editor of Ms. who is active in the Asian American Journalist Association, sees the lack of diversity at NPR as part of a larger problem in media organizations. She noted that Extra!‘s figures for non-white hosts on public radio stations are nearly identical to the numbers published in the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ latest survey of minority newsroom employment; in both cases the minority share was 12 percent. “If anything, public radio’s responsibility to diversity should be greater than other media,” she noted.

* For purposes of our survey, Latinos were considered people of color; “white” as used here is more or less equivalent to the Census Bureau’s “non-Hispanic white.”

Sidebar: How Diversity Is Stifled

Created by the Public Broadcasting Act and signed into law by President Johnson in 1967, the government-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) is legally required to “constitute an expression of diversity and excellence” through programming “that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.” It was also mandated to promote “locally relevant” programming that is “reflective of America’s common values and cultural diversity,”

But progressive media historian Robert McChesney (Alternative Radio, 11/99) says the CPB has “gone almost nowhere near those principles,” adding, “What groups in society is [the CPB] trying to give voice to? It would not be the dispossessed, the marginalized, those outside the power structure. It’s giving voice to the business community, the entrepreneurs, the upper middle class, the intelligentsia.” The libertarian Cato Institute likewise warned in a 1997 policy report on public radio funding that “CPB aid has brought with it incentives to professionalize, to centralize, to shy away from diverse programming.”

Most of CPB’s financial support for public radio is distributed through Community Service Grants, which are often a station’s single largest source of revenue (typically between 10 percent to 15 percent of a major station’s budget). To be eligible for these grants, stations must fulfill particular requirements, like broadcasting at least 18 hours a day and employing at least five staff members. Most importantly, the station must generate a minimum certified listenership or receive a certain amount of local financial support. For markets of 3 million or more, the station must have an average audience of at least 0.12 percent of the total population within the station’s coverage area, or else raise at least 18 cents per capita.

With larger audiences and bigger fundraising–both from listeners and corporate underwriters–CPB grants increase. For many public radio stations, efforts to expand–to maximize CPB funding through increased ratings, corporate support and listener pledges–are paramount, overriding the original need to “constitute an expression of diversity and excellence.”

Ratings drive programming

To this end, many public radio stations adhere to the philosophy of audience researchers like David Giovannoni, whose Audience Research Analysis firm “holds contracts with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, Public Radio International and almost every major NPR member station in the country,” according to the New York Times (11/11/01). Emphasizing the importance of ratings, Giovannoni encourages public radio stations to replace “lower-performance programming with higher-performance programming,” which often means canceling “niche” local cultural programming in favor of more mainstream NPR news and talk fare. As a result, NPR member stations increasingly share the same daytime format of talk and news; as well as an omnipresent gentle, almost timid tone, distinct enough to merit a satire on Saturday Night Live.

As NPR vice president of development Barbara Hall says, “NPR is a great brand” (Washington Business Forward, 11/01). It’s so successful that public radio stations are hard-pressed to survive without it. Indeed, stations are subject to intense pressure not to deviate too far from the accepted NPR tone, lest they lose the core audience (and the corporate sponsors) they depend on financially. Giovannoni emphasizes this point explicitly (New York Times, 11/11/01): “The way to get more audience? The way to serve your public better? Lose what’s on the periphery. Focus on a single audience and serve that audience extremely, insanely well all the time.”

Accordingly, when surveying the programming on public airwaves in seven distinct urban markets across the nation, one notes a remarkable sameness. Not only did every station studied by Extra! broadcast both Morning Edition and All Things Considered, but in four of the seven markets studied– Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Washington–these shows each air twice, on two separate NPR member stations.

The frequency of programming overlap prompted Rep. Howard Coble (R.-N.C.) to question NPR‘s strategy on the House floor (Washington Post, 8/7/01): “What became of diversity, the commodity so frequently promoted by public radio?” The answer seems to be that when it comes to maximizing ratings and underwriting dollars, diversity doesn’t cut it. The Washington Post‘s Frank Ahrens (8/7/01) reported that to explain all the overlap, “NPR president Kevin Klose invokes what he calls the Starbucks principle: The reason that you build a Starbucks one block from another Starbucks is that it makes more people drink Starbucks coffee.” A better analogy for the market-driven homogenization that is overtaking public radio is hard to imagine.–S.R. & W.C.