The demise of NPR’s Tell Me More can be traced to member stations

Shows won't succeed if affiliates won't run them

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.

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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Tracie Powell writes about the media and media policy, specifically on issues regarding piracy, media ownership, government transparency and the business of journalism. A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, she lives in Washington, DC. She has contributed to Poynter, NPR, and Publica, the first nonprofit investigative journalism center in Brazil. Tags: , ,