Media

White Noise

Despite mission statements that champion diverse voices, public radio is doing little to put people of color on air.
"[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


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."

More »

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 (Arbitron.com, "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 of 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."

This story was originally published in Extra!, a magazine published by FAIR.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Environment
Food
Media
World