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Good, Gray NPR | The Nation

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Good, Gray NPR

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One subject on which the critics agree is that NPR can do much more to reach nonwhite listeners. In the 1980s audience research data urged public radio stations to concentrate on a specific type of well-educated, self-motivated individual. According to Jack Mitchell's Listener Supported, that data boiled down to the following: "success for public radio meant having great appeal to a subset of the population and none at all to the vast majority of the population." This helps to explain why nine out of ten NPR listeners are white. And these facts form the backdrop to Tavis Smiley's dispute with NPR. (It has to be said that the reasons behind Smiley's divorce from NPR remain murky: On one side is his assertion that NPR wasn't doing enough to promote the show. But NPR, which rushed to create a new black-oriented show hosted by Ed Gordon, claims that Smiley insisted on a $3 million promotional budget for his show, when its entire advertising budget is less than $200,000.)

About the Author

Scott Sherman
Scott Sherman (scottgsherman.com), a contributing writer to The Nation,  is at work on a book about the New York...

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In any case, some station managers saw Smiley's show as a vital bridge to nonwhite audiences, and they regret its disappearance from NPR's airwaves. One station manager in a major metropolitan market recalls a series of focus groups composed of African-American and Hispanic adults who had never before listened to public radio. He notes that they reacted indifferently to nearly all of the programming on his station--except for Smiley's show, whose energy and verve fully captured their attention.

"There is a belief out there that NPR has no interest in reaching African-Americans and Hispanics," says Maxie Jackson, program director of WETA in Washington, DC. "I don't believe that. I firmly believe that they would love to increase the audience of people of color for public radio programming. That is also true of Public Radio International and the other program suppliers. The problem lies in the fact that none of them have the research, the research budget, the marketing expertise and the communication strategy expertise to do that.... The biggest and fundamental issue at hand here is that none of these organizations have reached out to people of color in the past. None of them know how to do it."

Critics who wish to see NPR move in a more progressive direction are likely to be disappointed. At the moment, NPR's center of gravity is in the middle of the spectrum. Twenty-eight percent of NPR listeners, according to an internal document, consider themselves either "very conservative" or "somewhat conservative." Thirty-two percent defined themselves as "somewhat liberal" or "very liberal." But 29 percent chose the category "middle of the road." Given this data, NPR executives will no doubt play it safe in the years to come.

Indeed, the economic structure of public radio more or less guarantees a centrist editorial formula. Less than 2 percent of NPR's budget consists of funds from the taxpayer-funded CPB. (In the 1970s NPR received 90 percent of its budget from the CPB.) But the member stations, which in some sense "own" NPR, and on which NPR relies for much of its additional revenue, receive a hefty 12.7 percent of their budget from the CPB. To compensate for diminishing federal support, NPR has been forced to rely on corporations and foundations. In 2002, the last year for which data are easily accessible, NPR accepted $250,000 or more from each of the following corporate "underwriters": Procter & Gamble, Sodexho, Microsoft, Saab, Citibank and the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company. Wal-Mart became an underwriter in 2004. Both NPR and Wal-Mart refuse to disclose the dollar amount. A public radio system that is substantially dependent on corporations will not, in all likelihood, produce a new generation of I.F. Stones, Jessica Mitfords and Sy Hershes to investigate chicanery in corporate America.

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