City Desk

National Pale Radio?

The open letter is a format that probably deserves to be dragged out back and shot. Still, I'm with Root editor Joel Dreyfuss on his complaints about how white white white NPR is, to new head Gary Knell:

NPR has long reflected that liberal myopia. As far back as 1993, the liberal watchdog Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting showed that NPR's guest list was overwhelmingly white and male and its views centric, and few on-air experts were black or women. In 2009 NABJ complained (pdf) that there was only one on-air black male personality on NPR — Juan Williams. The network responded by hiring Keith Woods from the Poynter Institute as vice president for diversity issues. But few can discern a fundamental change in NPR's tone and approach since.

By contrast, I have a broader vision of a multihued NPR, with a range of voices and worldviews not often heard or seen on commercial radio and TV: conservative, liberal, radical, atheist, religious, African American, Latino, immigrant and Native American — all in a glorious rainbow cacophony.

I imagine a news show that doesn't treat the occasional story involving downtrodden African Americans, Hispanic Americans or poor people like a dutiful piece of foreign reporting before reverting to its dulcet-toned narrative of all things white and comfortable. I imagine an NPR that includes black and brown and female experts on the economy, ecology, energy, foreign affairs and everything else, instead of your standard bland diet of the same old tired voices that already pollute mainstream media.

Dreyfuss may be dreaming, but that doesn't mean his ideal isn't something to strive for. I had a friend who consulted on diversity for NPR tell me that people there joke that the only place one can consistently spot black folks in the offices is where Michel Martin's Tell Me More—a show that carries the burden of the network's multicultural coverage—is located.

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  • JM

    Maybe he should also write WOL and WPFW and complain about their blatantly anti-white bias?

  • JRM

    I love NPR and absolutely agree with the open letter.

    I remember hearing a segment that included an explanation by a climate scientist about how hurricanes strengthen over warm waters. Fairly straightforward stuff.

    What was funny (and sad) was how shocked I was when they mentioned that he was from Howard University. I couldn't believe that it wasn't a story about civil rights, income inequality or unemployment.

    Clearly some of that reaction are my own issues, but it also made me aware how limited the pool of experts is that NPR selects from.

    And while I'm on this soapbox, Marketplace (produced by American Public Media not NPR) has just announced that David Frum will no longer be the counterpart to Robert Reich on their commentaries about the economy. We'll see if they can manage to not screw up this opportunity.

  • D

    It's radio. Race should not matter, least of all here. Try enjoying it for what it is. And while you're at it, reflect on whether your ideal involves judging the programming by the color of the presenter's skin and the "dulcet-toned"-ness of their narrative.

  • Mark

    The issue the article and open letter raise is how to share the influence and power of a public institution.

    A discussion about how race doesn't matter if you are unable to see the speaker misses the point.

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