The long road to diversifying PBS

January 5, 2022

In fall 2020, Grace Lee, a Peabody award-winning filmmaker, wrote an essay criticizing PBS for its overreliance on filmmaker Ken Burns and its marketing of him as “America’s storyteller,” while reminding readers that PBS and CPB were originally created to develop and distribute “a diversity of programming dependent on freedom, imagination and initiative on both local and national levels.” 

At the heart of Lee’s provocation was this question: “How much does PBS reflect the audiences it was intended to serve?” 

This question resonated with me. I’ve noticed that many of my peers don’t really tune into PBS, and their relationship to public television often ends at Sesame Street. I wondered how we could make PBS more inclusive, so I was eager to team up with Grace when presented with the opportunity to further explore this question. I quickly learned that Grace’s essay was hardly the first effort to call out public media’s diversity and inclusion issues. Perhaps that’s why in the spring 2021, when Beyond Inclusion, a BIPOC-led collective of non-fiction media makers (including Lee), released an additional open letter to PBS, seven hundred people co-signed, including PBS stalwarts Stanley Nelson and Sam Pollard. 

The letter asked for data about the amount of broadcast hours, funding, and resources dedicated to BIPOC filmmakers compared to white filmmakers, and how that data has shifted over time. It also noted that Burns has produced 211 hours of programming on PBS over 40 years, 108 director credits, and 119 executive producer/producer credits. To date, PBS has yet to produce the data requested in the letter. PBS’s track record and continued inaction in addressing these questions signified a need for a record of just how widespread and persistent this problem is, and the idea for the Viewers Like Us podcast was born. I joined the podcast as a co-host and investigative reporter.

Viewers Like Us was predated by many sustained efforts that span over fifty years to create a more inclusive public media. In February 1968, The Kerner Commission issued its report on institutional racism in the US, noting how the overwhelmingly white news and entertainment media have failed to adequately address matters of race. Six years later, a CPB-commissioned panel found “the interests and needs of minorities have been neglected in public broadcasting”. In November 1978 CPB released “A Formula for Change: The Report of the Task Force on Minorities in Public Broadcasting,” critiquing public broadcasting’s lack of racial diversity. Ten years later, in October 1988, Congress passed the Public Telecommunications Act of 1988, affirming that it is in the public interest for CPB “to develop programming that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, especially children and minorities”. In 1991, the National Minority Consortium (NMC) was created to develop and support diverse programming for public television. 

In 2005, National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) asked PBS for diversity data regarding staffing and content themes from signature prime-time series. Five years later, The National Federation of Community Broadcasters asked the Federal Communications Commission to collect race and gender data about public broadcasting governing boards to facilitate policies that promote diversity. In 2015 — A CPB-funded report highlights the need for more diversity in public television. The following year, Current, a public media trade publication, produced a multimedia package on the state of diversity in public media showing that its track record had barely budged in the previous decade. In March 2021, the Beyond Inclusion collective called on Kerger and PBS to release ten years of data around staff diversity, hours of non-fiction programming directed or produced by BIPOC filmmakers, and how much funding has gone to them versus white filmmakers. In September 2021, PBS released the Muhammad Ali series that may have been better suited to be told by a Black storyteller, but instead is co-directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah, and her husband David McMahon.

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Despite these many concerted efforts throughout the decades, the available demographic data on PBS and its top member stations is troubling. As of April 15, 2021 PBS is 60 percent white at a company-wide level, and 72 percent white at the leadership level. WGBH, one of the largest PBS stations, released its 2020 diversity report which stated the station’s demographic as 80 percent white, and 88.9 percent white at the leadership level. The numbers show that there is still much room for improvement, and Viewers Like Us aims to use historical records, firsthand experiences, and open, honest conversation to inform the way we move forward while reflecting on the past. 

 In September 2021, the podcast launched, hosted by Grace Lee and myself, and produced by Lee, Joaquin Alvarado, Ken Ikeda, Cheryl Devall, and Olivia Aylmer. Our sixth and final episode just released on December 30th. Episode 1, “America’s Storyteller” focuses on PBS’s continued reliance on one white male director’s perspective to tell the history of America and its people. Episode 2, “Endless Loop”, points out the multiple times this issue of diversity and inclusion at PBS has come and gone, with an emphasis on the infamous question asked by Loni Ding at a 1987 US Senate subcommittee hearing, “Where is the public in today’s public broadcasting?”. Episode 3, “Minority Report”, reveals what happened to a PBS Diversity Report filed fourteen years ago and explores the limits of a system whose leaders repeatedly promise to ‘do better’ over the years without building in true accountability and specific goals. Episode 4, “An American Experience”, explores tokenism and features Myrton Running Wolf, who shares his experiences of participating in a Native American mentorship program run by Boston’s GBH, and Callie Crossley, veteran journalist at GBH who directed multiple episodes of the original ‘Eyes on the Prize’ series. Episode 5, “Don’t Go Chasing Watersheds”, focused on accountability and data transparency, and featured Dacia Mitchell of KQED, Representative Joaquin Castro, Darnell Hunt of UCLA, and Richard Jean So of McGill University.  In our season finale, “It’s Not Over,” Grace and I discuss who and what will keep the pressure on PBS to live up to its founding mission, and the exhaustion and burnout that comes with organizing for systemic change. 

While I’m excited and pleased with the series and its overwhelmingly positive feedback so far, it remains unclear how our efforts will be received by those in power, especially given the track record of PBS. At its core, the Viewers Like Us podcast asks a few simple questions: What will be different about the calls for diversity, equity and inclusion this time around? Will this be yet another flashpoint of conversation followed by inaction from PBS and station leadership, or will there be sustained change? What can be learned from past efforts to make public media more inclusive, and how can this information be used to inform today’s movement? How can we use existing data, and push for the release of more data from public media institutions in order to better track progress on diversity and inclusion? With our population becoming more diverse by the day, while the options to consume film and television continue to increase, PBS must address these issues if it wishes to thrive in the future. We hope our series helps set us in the right direction, as our goal is to save the system that has served so many before it’s too late. 


Update: The spelling of Olivia Aylmer’s surname has been corrected.

Akintunde Ahmad is a recent CJR Fellow and Ida B. Wells ­Fellow with Type Investigations. He is now a freelance multimedia journalist based in Oakland.