Sunday, September 21, 2008

If at Third You Don't Succeed…

Diversity was a big topic at the recently concluded Public Radio Program Director's Conference. The issue was most prominently on display in the activities of CPB, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Though CPB started investing in diversifying public radio's audience more than a decade ago, the composition of the audience hasn't really changed. None of the past efforts have been significant enough in scope to add a meaningful number of new listeners.

The new effort is multi-faceted. CPB's Talent Quest has identified and is now investing in several new programs hosted by African Americans. A service targeted at multi-lingual Latinos in Los Angeles is in the works. Audience diversification will be a key component of the new Grow the Audience project.

It will be quite some time before the success of this new initiative can be measured but it should be noted now that there isn't a single African American or Hispanic person from inside public radio on the Grow the Audience Task Force. All of the diverse voices are from outside the industry.

The composition of the Task Force, unfortunately, shines a light on the inability of public radio's national organizations to recruit, nurture, and promote African Americans and Hispanics to positions of power and influence.

When was the last time a high-level executive position that influences programming at CPB or one of the major networks was filled by a person of color who came from within the ranks? When was the last time the host chair of a major public radio program was filled by a person of color who came from within the ranks? How is it that a task force charged with growing and diversifying the public radio audience fails to include a single African American or Hispanic from the industry? It's not a very good track record.

The Grow the Audience Task Force presents an opportunity to change that record, even if it means slowing the project down a bit. There are many managers, programmers, producers, reporters, and music hosts of color already in public radio who could significantly contribute to the project on a strategic level.

The argument against this will be that these individuals can participate in "working groups" that will contribute to the Task Force's recommendations. That's not good enough because working groups ultimately have no strategic decision-making authority.

Now is the opportunity to bring diverse voices from within public radio to the highest levels of strategic thinking, planning, decision-making, and budgeting. It is a golden opportunity to diversify the industry's leadership. Hopefully, the opportunity won't be missed.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Aaron Read said...

When was the last time a high-level executive position that influences programming at CPB or one of the major networks was filled by a person of color who came from within the ranks? When was the last time the host chair of a major public radio program was filled by a person of color who came from within the ranks?

John, if you really want that, shouldn't you just listen to Pacifica Radio - where inclusiveness is written into the charter? (figuratively if not literally)

Yeah, and you can see how well that's worked for them, too.

Anyways, I'd like to call attention to how PRI's Michael Arnold points out the trap that programming to anything but attitudes, and then proceeds to fall right into the same trap.

I don't deny that your points are valid, John; if you're going to program to a more racially diverse audience, you can't do by having a bunch of upper-middle-class white folks doing all the work.

I'm just pointing out the 800lb elephant in the corner of the room here: public radio has soared to its current level of success in no small part because it streamlined its programming to maximize appeal to the most lucrative audience.

Trying to diversify programming to appeal to other audiences will...not might, will...alienate that existing audience. Countless studies have shown that having a mixed music/news program schedule on one station is usually a loser of a programming strategy; so why are people so hellbent on effectively doing the same thing when it comes to racial diversity?

By the way, this lends itself to another discussion: if NPR created enough programming targeted at a different racial demographic that could fill an entire week's worth of programming at a station, and thus you could have diversity via aggregation of multiple signals...now THAT might be a strategy that I could get behind.

I don't deny it wouldn't be easy, but I just don't see how any station could walk the impossibly fine line of attracting more diverse listeners without seriously risking alienating the core base of white, upper-middle-class listeners.

(P.S. the above applies equally to the concept of programming to a youth demographic instead of a 30-54 demo)

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

CPB recently hired Ted Garcia, former GM at KNME, New Mexico, to be VP Programming for television.

11:02 AM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

Aaron-we're in agreement that targeting attitude is important. I've written about that many times over the past few years and will be writing about it again this week.

The issue here is that, despite a decade of saying public *radio* should be more diverse in audience and work force, CPB has launched an audience growth task force that does not include a single person of color from the industry. That seems problematically inconsistent with the stated goals.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Aaron Read said...

Indeed, looking at that specific aspect, I'm in total agreement with you as well. It does seem, to put it mildly, rather counterintuitive.

12:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When was the last time the host chair of a major public radio program was filled by a person of color who came from within the ranks?

Farai Chideya, the host of News and Notes, was hosting a call-in program on KALW in San Francisco.

4:34 PM  

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