NPR Staffers Worry About Diversity With End Of “Tell Me More”

“They want people of color in a very small box. They don’t want to challenge that idea.”

On Tuesday morning NPR employees gathered in a conference room in front of the company’s top brass and were told that the midday show Tell Me More would stop airing in August. In addition to the end of Tell Me More, 20 employees would be losing their jobs and eight unfilled positions would be cut, as part of the effort to balance the $6.1 million deficit NPR is running this year.

According to an NPR employee in the room, a staffer spoke up: “Tell Me More has the most diverse staff. And cutting it might cause folks to wonder if we’re as committed to diversity as we always say we are.”

An executive then reiterated the company’s pledge to improve diversity and the plan to parachute Tell Me More’s host Michel Martin with a small team into the network’s tentpole shows — like All Things Considered and Morning Edition — but many staffers left feeling sore. In addition to the nine people from Tell Me More’s staff, 11 more across the newsroom were losing their jobs. Eight of those laid off were staffers of color. And while the show’s struggling ratings may explain its demise, many staff members — and observers — the layoffs appear to be another chapter in NPR’s long history of struggling with diversity.

Tell Me More, which was geared toward a black audience, is the third show of its kind to to leave the NPR airwaves in recent years. Tavis Smiley moved his show to Public Radio International in 2004 after failed salary negotiations, and News and Notes was canceled in 2009.

Conversations with sources very familiar with the inner workings of NPR — as well as current NPR employees — reveal many believe that while NPR seems committed to fixing the diversity problem, the company is unwilling to stick it out through turbulent patches to make inroads.

“NPR has had problems with diversity forever and people of color have had a horrible time staying at NPR,” said a source who asked for anonymity, adding: “They want people of color in a very small box. They don’t want to challenge that idea. It’s a complicated form of institutionalized racism.”

The change in Martin’s role seems to be intended to combat that notion. Martin will host a slew of NPR live events in the fall along with producing regular segments for NPR’s other 11 news magazine shows and daily news coverage, according to a memo sent to staff by NPR Senior Vice President for News Margaret Low Smith. The company will also be hiring five new people to staff an editorial team built around Martin. Martin did not respond to requests for comment.

Keith Woods, NPR’s Vice President for Diversity in News and Operations, told BuzzFeed the canceling of Tell Me More was not a setback for the organization and pointed to the plans for Martin, as well as the success of its Code Switch blog, as indicators that things were going in the right direction. “I have a great deal of faith that what will happen from here will be bigger than what we’re losing,” he said.

Woods also emphasized that with Tuesday’s layoffs, non-white staffers still made up 22.7% of the NPR newsroom; a decrease from 23.4%. Compare that to Radio Television Digital’s findings that the national average of non-white radio journalists in 2013 is 11.7%.

Richard Prince, who has written his bi-weekly column, “Journal-isms,” about diversity in the news business since 1991, expressed regrets for the show’s cancellation and the new plans. “There should still be one place for discussing these issues in one compact format rather than spread out,” he said.

In response to NPR’s new plans, Prince withheld judgment. “We don’t know how this is going to turn out,” he said. “The proof will be in the pudding.”

Others shared disappointments about the slashing of a program that African-American listeners related to, especially considering that NPR surveyed its own audience in 2012 and calculated that it is 87% white.

Latoya Peterson, a senior digital producer at Al Jazeera America and owner of the website Racialicious, said that Tell Me More functioned as a launching pad for her and other young journalists of color to bigger places, comparing it to The Village Voice of the 1990s.

“It was a place to get comfortable,” Peterson said. “I think the hope was that you’d move on afterwards to bigger things.”

Peterson also did research about NPR as a fellow for the thinktank Public Media Corps. “When we polled white viewers, many of them could name the flagship hosts of NPR, but would not know who Michel Martin was,” she said.

Others like Wall Street Journal tech reporter Gautham Nagesh had concerns about the scope of race coverage. “This shows once again the danger of allowing minorities and #mediadiversity to be the province of the ‘race beat,’” he wrote on Twitter. “Problem with having a show/beat/segment dedicated to diversity: guess which show gets least resources, is first to go when things get bad, which is why the ultimate goal must be for the entire newsroom to be diverse, not jamming us into a pod that can be jettisoned as needed.”

Tell Me More’s ratings were ultimately a big part of its cancellation.

Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s executive vice president and chief content officer, spoke with Prince: “Tell Me More had an audience of 161,000 in the latest compilations, Wilson said, but appearances by Martin on NPR’s “bookend” or “tentpole” shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, would reach 12 or 13 million people a week.”

But many blamed the show’s end on the lack of support from NPR executives, as well as scheduling decisions made by member stations across the country. A source said that midday shows are harder to get corporate underwriting for. And the Philadelphia member station, WHYY, which is allowed to program its station as it wishes, moved the show to the 9 p.m. slot, a veritable dead zone in audience numbers.

These programming issues were pointed to by sources when they compared NPR’s good intentions to its inability to act during crisis time.

“People do want [diversity], but you have to want it when it’s not convenient because it’s never going to be convenient,” one source said. “If your audience is 85% white, you’re starting from scratch. You can’t start over every five years. You have to say it’s a rough patch.”

Email the author of this post at myles.tanzer@buzzfeed.com

update

This post has been updated to remove a quote.
A quote from Gautham Nagesh was given a clarification.

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