White Noise: 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.

This story was originally published in Extra!, a magazine published by FAIR.


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