Partially due to NPR’s investment, the show’s audience did grow steadily. Between 2011 through present day, the show’s audience increased by an impressive 42 percent, NPR representatives said. But despite NPR’s best efforts, Tell Me More never broke even, let alone paid for itself. With NPR footing the bill, too few member stations willing to air it, and those that did only having to pay discounted carriage fees, Tell Me More steadily lost money for NPR, to the tune of $1.5 million annually, according to the organization’s records. As more and more of the stations that did carry the show moved it to evening hours, NPR decided it was economically unfeasible to continue putting money into it. Only two stations in the top 20 markets that carry Tell Me More carry it at the time it is broadcast, NPR’s Wilson said. “Most other stations pushed it into evening hours when listenership is typically much smaller,” skewing older and more male, an NPR spokeswoman said. Meanwhile, the show’s target audience are people of color.
Former and current public radio executives said that stations have failed historically to promote shows with black hosts. Before Tell Me More, there was The Tavis Smiley Show with host Tavis Smiley, then News & Notes with Ed Gordon, who was followed by Farai Chideya and then Tony Cox as hosts. And before that, The Derek McGinty Show aired from 1991-1998. All three shows failed.
NPR’s own David Folkenflik reported late last month that Tavis Smiley took his popular radio show to a rival network over clashes with NPR over how much money it spent marketing his program, which launched in 2002 but went off the air two years later. But the pattern started before then, when stations dropped The Derek McGinty Show in favor of The Diane Rehm Show.
“That was the beginning of when you could see where they were coming from,” said a former NPR member station manager who didn’t want his name used because he still works in the industry. “They kept the old, white woman, but dropped the black man. And they promoted her show, which made a big difference.”
Tell Me More had to build most of its audience through word of mouth, insiders said. Though public radio has never done much promotion for its programming, there are low-cost tricks that can help build a brand, such as using social media. NPR capitalized on its Twitter and Facebook followings with Tell Me More, but member stations did very little, if any, promotion for the show and did not promote it during the tentpole shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, according to one insider.
“My personal view is that in public radio many of us are sometimes reluctant to promote ourselves and our programs beyond our own airwaves. I don’t think we can continue this way if we want to grow or even maintain our audiences,” said LaFontaine Oliver, one of a handful of black general managers over NPR member stations across the country.
And audience has to know when the show is airing. Herein lies the crux of the reason NPR is canceling Tell Me More, officials said. If member stations refused to air a show live, or at least during peak hours, there is nothing NPR can do about it.
NPR officials insist money was not the deciding factor in canceling Tell Me More. “It was a strategic decision to take the show off the air and create an editorial team around Michel Martin so her vision and the type of stories she covered on TMM can reach listeners through multiple platforms,” said an NPR spokeswoman via email. “This approach reflects the changes in our newsgathering operation and in the media landscape since the show was created. Ten years ago, we were focused on getting mass reach; in the current fragmented media landscape it is equally important to develop smaller and very engaged audiences around niche shows.”
Spreading resources over multiple platforms rather than investing primarily in shows as primary units would infuse existing programs with more diverse content in the way NPR’s Code Switch currently does, minus the blog. But it will likely do little to expand NPR’s reach in attracting new audiences. Most NPR listeners still come primarily through broadcast, so shows remain the most effective unit for reaching large numbers of people—maintaining a dependence on member stations’ programming and promotion decisions. At least for now, if there’s not going to be cooperation and a combined effort by both NPR and member stations, then new, diverse voices are unlikely to receive wide pickup.
Not even if they’re as thoughtful as the ones that filled Tell Me More.
The post has been corrected to fix Kinsey Wilson’s job title.
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