From the two decades I spent living in the Bronx, I know it to be true what Karen Everhart says in her article, “Study sees growth if NPR loosens up, sounds less elite” in Current.org:
The researchers found that barriers to entry for public radio listenership are rooted in what they called “accessibility”— listeners’ perceptions of the NPR brand, their ability to relate to the content…
I became an NPR listener at the young age of 23. I was just settling in to the Bronx from Seattle, and I had little in common with WNYC’s morning news host, Steve Post. Yet one early morning in July of 1992, at home with my 18 month old and surrounded by freshly opened moving boxes, I flipped on the radio to hear, “It’s already 85 degrees in disgusting New York City.” This struck a chord in me as I struggled to acclimate to my new home. I let out a laugh, glad to know someone in New York didn’t take things so seriously, and I became a public radio fan.
I had no clue then, as a young mom lost in a concrete jungle, that I would someday sit in a producer seat in a public radio station. In fact, at first a lot about public radio annoyed me. I never listened to pledge drives. I became angry and embarrassed once when a DJ on my local college/NPR station, WFUV, called their early folk/singer-songwriter music programming (which would later become their bread and butter) the “indigenous music of white people.” I didn’t have the patience to focus on mid-day news shows, as I was often interrupted by toddler demands for apple juice and attention. But I never missed Steve’s morning satire, which went perfectly with my coffee.
My kids were a little older when Starbucks, another business that had to deal with perceptions of elitism, came to New York. It was a breath of espresso-infused air for my husband and I, who had grown accustomed to good coffee in Seattle. No, really. That’s not a cliche. Quickly the green siren signs popped up everywhere in Manhattan, and finally, one appeared on Fordham Road in the Bronx. What a treat. Now we could enjoy good coffee near home. But that shop didn’t last long on Fordham Road, despite the morning Manhattan-bound traffic and the youth Bible study that took over one corner. The reality of economics–the Bustelo drinkers were not gonna drop $3.50 on a cup of coffee–won out and another affordable fashion store filled the gap.
Quoted in a presentation on the study is a young adult Latino user of new media: “NPR, I feel, is mostly for educated adults from middle class and up. That is my impression.”
Pay attention here, all of you NPR peeps who so badly want diversity among your audience. This Latino young adult, if he’s like any I know, wouldn’t have had a problem slipping in the adjective “white” if that’s what was really going through his head. Rather, he chose “educated” and “middle class”. If I were to interpret this comment, based upon my experience living in the Bronx for almost two decades, what I think he’s saying is: “Why should we pay attention to what you think is news or culture when we don’t have access to your schools, your housing, your jobs or your government? We don’t matter when it comes to affecting change.”
I had a chance once to talk to a group of young adults who represented many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. I wasn’t giving a lecture. I was sitting among them as a fellow student, a returning adult student, defending my comment that they should vote. Not one of them believed they had any political influence, yet when I told them a story of state and local government officials choosing our district as a site for the creation of a water filtering plant, in part because it was an area of such poor voter turnout, I got their attention. For the first time, they realized that their action and their inaction would affect them directly.
I’ve watched people who don’t believe they have a voice–my neighbors and friends–create their own spheres of influence in order to cope with the belief that they are powerless. Where there was little education or opportunity to be creative, time and money were devoted to creating status, through pure white sneakers, immaculate Timberlands, pagers, cellphones, 2″nails, knock-off handbags, bandannas, guns. Not coffee. Not a subscription to the New York Times. For God’s sake, not a public radio tote bag.
The study — shaped in part by Station Resource Group’s Grow the Audience project — sought to define the best prospects for expanding public radio’s news audiences.
Ok, it’s understandable that the study would frame the task at hand this way, given the economic climate we’re in, but what if we flipped it? Instead of figuring out how to make a public radio listenership larger and more colorful, what if we sought growth by expanding our news coverage? What if more producers of public media began by believing people like my neighbors in the Bronx are the public and we already work for them? What if we actually visualized them mailing in their tax checks, or paying that sales tax, and understood that they already support us? Would we then notice new ways in which our work could empower those who don’t believe they have a voice? Could we report to a larger public, earn their trust and then look for growth?
I agree with Margaret Low Smith, VP of NPRs programming, when she acknowledges, “it’s critical that people at the editorial table reflect a range of economic positions in life, a range of political views and a range of color.” It’s why I keep trying to sit at that table. Yes, I’m white, but diversity comes in many, many flavors. I also appreciate her stating that, “Now NPR seeks to diversify its audience base not only as a means to expand listenership but to also fulfill its editorial responsibility to reflect all of America.” I understand Public Media’s mission to be giving the public the information they need to act and to make a difference in their lives. That requires the people involved in public media to not only employ more people of color and varying background, but to cultivate sources and invest in relationships with people outside the well educated and affluent sphere of influence.
My suggestion for NPRs action plan: throw your resources farther afield. Renew reporting beats in neighborhoods with low donor ratings. Help broadcast the unique coverage of independent producers. Look beyond the wall that separates many artists from the inner circle. Don’t forget Public Media owes something to the Strugglers as much as it does the Dutiful Aggregators and Voracious Voyagers.