The National Black Church Initiative, a coalition of 34,000 churches, asked members and parishioners late last month to refrain from donating to NPR in response to the public radio network’s recent decision to cancel Tell Me More with Michel Martin at the end of July.
“This represents the third time NPR has cancelled a wonderfully produced, nationally recognized African American radio program,” reads a letter about the action, addressed to NPR’s CEO. “As a representative of the African American community, this cancellation disheartens us deeply.”
Launched in 2007, initially online, Tell Me More is a show that discusses issues of race, identity, faith, gender, and family. It has attracted a passionate, diverse fanbase, including people who don’t normally tune in to NPR.
If the church association really wants to make an impact, it should instruct worshippers to redirect their attention from NPR to member stations in their respective cities, states, and regions. That’s because the stations that carry NPR programming play a bigger role than the public might expect in determining what shows NPR produces. In the case of Tell Me More, a growing number of member stations broadcast the show, but they did so in hinterland timeslots more suited for insomniacs and shift workers than the typical high-brow, early rising public radio audience. For example, WGBH in Boston airs Tell Me More at 11pm, and KPCC in Southern California airs it at 9pm, hours after the show’s live broadcast at 11am eastern time.
“That show is just bucking its head up against program and public affairs directors everywhere who are afraid to take a chance,” said Rob Lorie, news director at WMNF in Tampa, FL. “That’s the way we are in public radio. That’s not a good excuse, but I think that’s what we’re bucking up against.”
The point isn’t solely about stations not carrying a show. It’s a larger one about WHO is making decisions, one insider said. “My main point is that if we had more people of color in positions of influence around the industry, shows like Tell Me More might still be around. Might.”
NPR’s board of directors, which voted to cancel Tell Me More last month, is comprised of a powerful block of officers from member stations and has financial oversight of NPR.
NPR member stations are independent, locally owned and operated broadcasters. Two hundred sixty-eight members operate 835 stations. In total, 987 local radio stations air NPR programming. About two-thirds of stations are licensed to, or are affiliated with, colleges or universities, according to NPR’s website. The remaining third are governed by community-based boards. Some stations are operated jointly with public TV stations. Each station determines its own format (such as news and talk radio or music-only) and program schedule.
Out of those 987 stations that air NPR programming, Tell Me More is only broadcast on 136 of them. Compare that to the TED Radio Hour, which launched in 2012, five years after Tell Me More, and is now in more than 400 markets. Tell Me More debuted on just 31 stations, according to data compiled by NPR for CJR. Both Tell Me More and TED Radio are niche programs, but the latter appeals to a whiter, more general audience than the former, which makes TED Radio Hour more appealing to station managers whom, Lorie said, are often resistant to trying anything new.
“If the talk show works in Boston, New York, Seattle, Denver, or San Francisco, then we’re just going to follow what those cities do. We’re very conservative in going away from what we think is going to be successful,” added Lorie.
Most NPR member stations have very little diversity, if any, on staff. There have been no shortage of media reports blaming NPR’s lack of diversity on the cancellation of Tell Me More. True, those making programming decisions and running the NPR member stations are overwhelmingly white; and in the cancellation of Tell Me More there is an undercurrent of race for sure—NPR has a rocky legacy regarding diversity, both in terms of programming and staffing—but neither station demographics nor racism killed the show. Its demise can be traced to member stations’ unwillingness to run shows that veer even the tiniest bit outside NPR’s traditional wheelhouse.
NPR officials said they’ve invested a significant amount of resources building Tell Me More’s audience over the years, funding the show’s staff, recruiting high-powered talent in the form of the show’s host, Martin, a former anchor for ABC News, and by spending $2.1 million annually to produce the show. NPR had also been offering member stations incentives and discounts to air the show, said Kinsey Wilson, chief content officer for NPR.