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Blacks Last Hired, First Fired at NPR

New America Media, News Analysis, Jasmine Cannick Posted: Dec 17, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- The announcement by National Public Radio that it plans to cut its only African-American themed show News & Notes in 2009 came both as a shock and a huge disappointment.

Shock because on the eve of America swearing in its first ever black president, youd think that NPR would see the relevance in having a show like News & Notes on the air, especially given all of the outstanding coverage that they provided during the primary and general election.

It's disappointing, because the shows cancellation is just another sign that its not safe out there for black journalistsanywhere.

NPR had many choices on where to make cuts and instead of perhaps scaling News & Notes from five times a week back to three, they decided to cancel it all together.

I agree with journalist and author Linda Villarosa who wrote, What about Car Talk? Why is it that when times get hard, the balancing of NPRs budget has to be done at the cost of its only black-themed programming?

According to NPRs own website, diversity is a fundamental part of everything we do at NPR, and of our ability to offer relevant news, culture, and entertainment programming to an increasingly diverse public. Diversity is a cornerstone of our recruitment, programming, and talent development initiatives.

So then, the question becomes, how do they explain putting their only African-American themed show on the chopping block?

In an email to staff members, Interim President and CEO Dennis Haarsager cited a decrease in listenership, corporate sponsorship, and the economy, a familiar tune weve heard before, most recently at the Los Angeles Times where a series of forced retirements and layoffs left only a handful of black writers.

However, sources inside NPR wishing to remain anonymous for obvious reasons (severance pay, benefits, etc.), say that they were told repeatedly at News & Notes that their mandate was not to increase listenership for NPR, increase membership, or bring in corporate sponsorship. Yet, with their outstanding coverage during the primary and general election they did just thatnot to mention host Farai Chideyas widely publicized $150,000 grant from the Ford Foundation.

The News and Notes team were told that the cancellation of their show had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of their programming. That was reiterated in a press release issued by NPR that said, With near-record audience levels, now more than ever people are relying on NPR to better understand the extraordinary events occurring in the world.

So which is it, a decrease in audience or an increase? Inquiring minds want to know and somebodys got some splainin to do. Dont send out an internal email saying one thing and then tell the unassuming public another.

And despite NPRs unwillingness to market News & Notes, the team there showed remarkable leadership, proactively launching a YouTube channel, blog, and bringing in the voices of some of Black Americas most-read blogs and Web sites to build the audience. A move that proved to be the right one as it won them several journalism awards in the past two years, including two from the National Association of Black Journalists, one from the L.A. Press Club, and one from the National Association of Lesbian and Gay Journalists.

So theres a real question as to the validity of the claim that the show's cancellation has to do with listeners and money.

In 2002, NPR made its first attempt at drawing minority audiences to public radio when they asked Tavis Smiley to host his own show designed to appeal to an African-American audience. The show began on 16 stations, with less than 300,000 listeners per week. By 2004, the show had grown tremendously. It could be heard on 87 stations in nine of the top 10 markets - 18 of those stations were in predominately African-American communities - and had more than 1 million listeners per week. Smiley quit his NPR show in 2004 when his contract expired, charging that NPR didnt do enough to promote him.

Negotiations to renew Smileys contract ended when he quit via a letter sent to stations carrying his show and publicly criticized NPRs commitment to diversity.

Then in 2004, NPR announced the addition of Ed Gordon, the former anchor of BET News, BET Tonight and host of Lead Story to host the then new show News & Notes. That lasted all of a year and half before he was gone.

In July, NPR canceled its Bryant Park Project, an experimental weekday morning program designed to draw a younger audience to public radio and capture listeners who had moved online. The live two-hour program covered news and cultural topics in an informal, conversational manner and was hosted by Alison Stewart.

Stewart told the New York Times, From what I understand, we are obviously in extra-tough economic times, and it is a financial and strategic decision she said. I was told it had absolutely nothing to do with the quality or content of the show.

When I initially wrote about the cancellation of NPRs only African-American themed show News & Notes, I received a note from friend and former ABC correspondent Michel Martin, reminding me that she was still there. And you know whatshes absolutely right. But I never really considered Michels show Tell Me More, on which I have been a guest multiple times, as a black-themed show. While Michel herself is undeniable black, her show often times features a plethora of multi-cultural issues. Which is not a bad thingbut makes it distinct from News & Notes.

Described on NPRs website as a show that focuses on the way we live, intersect and collide in a culturally diverse world. Each days show features a variety of segments examining U.S. and international news, ideas and people; its range of topics covers politics, faith and spirituality, the family, finance, arts and culture and lifestyle, its clear, to me at least, that Tell Me More focused on people of color in general, whereas News & Notes focuses on African Americans.

NPR needs to be called out on this. While its about News & Notes today, its really about all of the black themed shows in the past and the present and their black staff members, producers and anchors. If they can so quickly cancel News & Notes they can do the same to Michel Martins Tell Me More and national news reporter Karen Grigsby-Bates. No one is safe. Besides if we dont speak up now, it only goes to validate NPR's assertion that News & Notes had low listenership.

When you set a mandate that diversity is a fundamental part of everything you do to offer relevant news, culture, and entertainment programming to an increasingly diverse publicthen you are obliged to live up to it. And when you do not not, its our job as the audience, whether we are subscribers or not, to remind you of it. Consider this NPRs official notice.

Jasmyne Cannick is a critic and commentator based in Los Angeles who writes about the worlds of pop culture, race, class, sexuality, and politics as it relates to the African-American community. Her work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times and Ebony Magazine. A regular contributor to NPRs "News and Notes," she was chosen as one of Essence Magazines 25 Women Shaping the World. She can be reached at www.jasmynecannick.com.

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