Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Failure to Diversify is a Leadership Issue

There's nothing like a Federal Funding crisis to send public radio into fits of guilt over the size and diversity of its audience. The latest wave seems to be started by Sue Schardt, Executive Director of the Association of Independents in Public Radio (AIR). She spoke to the NPR Board about rethinking public radio's programming strategies and who public radio serves. Her comments appeared in the industry newspaper Current.

For Schardt, it's not enough to have 11% of the U-S population listen to public radio weekly and more than 20% listen monthly. That's right. 20% of Americans listen to public radio each month according to the audience estimates created by Station Resource Group (SRG) for 170 Million Americans campaign. Twenty percent!

And Schardt is let down by that.

Her disappointment is due largely to the demographics of public radio's audience, which despite more than two decades of major efforts to diversify, remains predominately well-educated, upper middle class white people.

Schardt attributes this to public radio's focus on growing the Core audience over the past two decades. There's a lot of truth to that. We’ll cover that topic in the next posting and why it’s not a bad thing, even though it is now being positioned as such.

There's also one other essential fact that Schardt leaves out of her public radio audience overview.

Public radio's demographics look almost exactly like the demographics of public radio's executive leadership, including her.

It turns out that the predominately well-educated, upper middle class white people in charge of public radio policy, funding, and programming are very, very good at making radio for their demographic peers and no one else.

The leadership talks a good game when funding is on the line, but the track record shows a different story. After two decades of trying, public radio’s white leadership is incapable of diversifying the audience in any meaningful, measurable way. Just try and find an audience report from CPB or NPR that shows a diversity initiative that yielded audience growth among minority listeners.

Or, look at Grow the Audience, public radio’s current “effort” to diversify listenership. Here’s a CPB-funded project that listed Inclusiveness (the new “diversity”) as its primary goal, yet the project was managed exclusively by white people and its Task Force was initially formed without a single Black or Hispanic station manager, program director or program producer. After public criticism, the project added one Hispanic station manager/programmer.

Here was an opportunity to diversify from within the industry, to bring new people to the seats of public radio power, and CPB fumbled it. Remarkably, this happened around the same time CPB Radio VP Bruce Theriault challenged public radio to “throw open its doors to new people.”

It also turns out that the Grow the Audience Task Force was formed almost exclusively from members or partners of the SRG. That’s not exactly throwing the doors open to new people, especially at the executive level. And finally, there is CPB radio management. There’s no new blood there either -- the executive team is made up of white, public radio veterans -- even after Theriault’s challenge to the rest of the industry.

CPB isn’t alone in talking diversity while failing to implement it at the highest levels of public radio power. Programming executives and major program hosts at all three major networks are predominately white. Even the Association of Independents in Radio chose a white, 20+ year veteran of public radio to be its leader – Sue Schardt.

You know the saying, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” It applies here. For two decades, public radio policy-makers and executives have viewed diversity as a problem to be solved outside its predominately white, veteran power structure through the distribution of money and top-down management. But that’s failed too many times to believe it could ever succeed.

As an industry, we are extremely good at serving listeners like us and no one else. The only way for public media to realize Sue Schardt’s vision of reaching more and different Americans is to hand power and money over to more and different Americans and let them take a shot at it. The question is, do we believe in the mission of public media strongly enough to do that or are we keeping the money and power for ourselves?

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1 Comments:

Anonymous John Proffitt said...

In my relatively short public media career I was at first heartened, then revolted, by the leadership's mouthing of diversity platitudes. It sounded good and assuaged white guilt, but it was all talk.

How many conference sessions "focused" on this issue? How many "studies?" -- all headed up by white folks. And when experiments in non-white programming didn't perform well, they were axed. Well, of COURSE they didn't perform well -- the audience was never there to hear them and the core audience was either non-plussed or actively turned off.

But God help you if you pointed out the facts, if you stood in the way of diversity conversations in the all-white boardrooms, if you said the emperor had no clothes. In public media circles that was tantamount to wearing a white sheet to the office.

I'm actually OKAY with white, upper-middle class, educated media. Frankly, that IS a minority at this point -- not the white part, but the educated part. Radio today is basically commercials, repetitive pop music and angry white men (some crazy)... plus public radio. Yeah, I'll take the public radio! I'm too educated to buy the angry white man stuff and my time is too valuable to waste with the rest. And don't get me started on TV.

Truly diversifying would dilute the value of public media to me and people like me. Diversifying wouldn't make it "worse," it would just make the good stuff harder to find and less relevant to my interests. That's just reality.

At the end of the day, if you want to pursue diversity, then do it. Just stop TALKING about it and posturing as if you care -- as if THIS YEAR you're going to DO something about it.

No you're not. Own it.

Check your white guilt at the office door and be a joyful version of yourself. That doesn't make you a racist.

10:01 PM  

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