Public radio struggles to find black audience

by ERIC DEGGANS, St. Petersburg Times

Even now, Ed Gordon isn't sure how it all turned out so badly.

When his newsmagazine show debuted on National Public Radio more than 18 months ago, he couldn't have been in a better position. After the abrupt departure of Tavis Smiley and his self-titled program, Gordon's News & Notes inherited space on 90 stations nationwide, an audience of more than 1-million per week and status as the symbol of NPR's continuing effort to develop programming focused on black audiences and culture.

But what a difference a year and a half can make.

These days, Gordon's show has lost 17 percent of its original weekly audience - about 185,000 listeners.

Stations in major markets such as Chicago, New York and Cleveland have dropped or downgraded the show. Staffers have been told by NPR management that if they were working on a commercial radio program with comparable listener loss, they would have been canceled by now.

But, considering that News & Notes is the second, black-focused show to find turbulent times at NPR, a sharper question emerges: Is the organization unable to sustain quality programming for black audiences?

"Sometimes, I feel this show is being allowed to die on the vine," said Gordon, who nevertheless resisted notions that NPR was failing to program to black people.

"People say I haven't connected with audiences. ... That's probably true because the show hasn't connected with me," he added. "And part of the problem was not knowing what people wanted. Do you want a typical, NPR-type show, or do you try to bring some shade ... some color to NPR?"

NPR officials insist whatever problems News & Notes may have are specific to the show and its awkward, rushed development.

"Five or six years ago, we made a commitment to something that had never been done before: to launch new programming aimed at more diverse audiences," said Ken Stern, NPR's executive vice president, noting that in his seven years at the company, two of the three new shows have been black-focused.

"When you look around National Public Radio, there was not the sort of diverse bench strength we wanted," Stern added; NPR's staff is currently 28 percent minority, according to a company spokeswoman. "We've been trying to bring in people from the outside and build an even more diverse staff. ...And just because we didn't get it right the first time or the second time doesn't mean we won't keep trying."

NPR developed Smiley's show, and later Gordon's program, at the urging of the African American Public Radio Consortium - an alliance of about 22 stations, mostly based at historically black colleges, which serve predominantly black audiences.

Consortium spokeswoman Loretta Rucker defended NPR's efforts to develop black-focused shows, saying the company had spent at least $8-million on Smiley's and Gordon's programs, trying to fulfill a need first identified in the 1980s for public radio content aimed at black listeners.

Smiley's show started in January 2002 on 16 stations, with about 300,000 listeners per week, according to a 2003 column by then-NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin. It quickly became NPR's fastest-growing show, eventually expanding to just over 1-million listeners weekly on 86 stations. And with black listenership at 30 percent, it had the company's highest proportion of black audience - an important consideration for a company that was sued for race and gender discrimination three times in the mid 1990s.

But negotiations to renew Smiley's contract ended when the host walked away. NPR executives say they didn't realize Smiley was leaving until he sent a letter to stations carrying the show and publicly criticized NPR's commitment to diversity.

"The disagreement with NPR was not about my personal behavior or professional goals, or else I would not have been offered a multi-year (contract renewal)," Smiley wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "We disagreed about how to program and market a show to black people, most of whom have never heard of NPR. To reach those folks and truly live up to the 'public' in public radio, you have ... to do things differently than you've always done them. You have to take risks. NPR lost interest in those goals after our first year on the air."

When NPR first talked to Gordon about starting a companion show to Smiley's program, they expected it would be based at a public radio station in the New York area - the same way popular shows such as Fresh Air and Car Talk were developed at public radio stations in Philadelphia and Boston, Rucker said.

But Smiley's sudden departure pressured NPR to move quickly to keep program directors across the country from reassigning the time slots. Gordon, a radio neophyte who has appeared on Black Entertainment Television, MSNBC and CBS' 60 Minutes II, had about six weeks to launch News & Notes after Smiley's departure.

Theories for what has happened since run the gamut: Gordon lives on the East Coast, while the staff that assembles the show is based in Los Angeles; Gordon, an import from TV news, hasn't connected with listeners the way dynamic activist/pundit Smiley did; NPR never learned how to bring powerful personalities like Smiley and Gordon into public radio's passive-aggressive corporate culture.

"What (stations) are saying ... is that Ed isn't connecting with people," Rucker said. "Tavis had a style that was very, not NPR ... but I think people appreciated the level of passion and authenticity he brought. The audience demands a sense of connection. ... (Gordon's) style has not worked."

One woman who worked at Smiley's and Gordon's shows described an environment where producers under pressure struggled with a distant host, questionable decisions made by the consortium and uncertain leadership from NPR.

"We never could buy into (Gordon's) vision," said Teshima Walker, now assistant program director for the Syndication One talk radio network, who worked as a producer on Smiley's show for two years and on Gordon's show for one year. "Tavis ... was programming for black people, and the white people who listened in were more like voyeurs. Since Tavis was the person who constructed that, it was hard for Ed to come in with all the baggage that was left over and create a new plan for himself."

Currently, NPR is developing a new black-focused show with former ABC correspondent Michelle Martin. It plans to launch the show in January 2007, giving Martin about a year to guest host existing shows, meet staff at affiliate stations, develop a pilot for her two-hour program and learn how the company operates.

Gordon plans to announce a new, non-NPR TV venture Friday at the National Association of Black Journalists' national convention in Indianapolis, fueling rumors he may be planning for his post-NPR life. Walker feared NPR might simply replace Gordon's show with Martin's new Washington, D.C.-based program - delaying the consortium's goal of creating a block of black-focused shows on NPR.

"I hope NPR figures something out," she said. "I hope they haven't given up."

Ron Jones, vice president of programming for WBEZ-FM in Chicago, dropped News & Notes in December after it lost two-thirds of its average audience.

"NPR's challenge always was to do something that had some appeal to the existing public radio audience, while beginning to serve the African-American public radio audience," Jones said. "That's a lot to ask."

In Cleveland, officials at WCPN-FM saw News & Notes losing audience every quarter, so they removed the show in July.

"What NPR does well is news," said Kit Jensen, chief operating officer for WCPN, who noted that his station airs Smiley's weekend show on Public Radio International. "Is it even reasonable to expect NPR to do everything in media for public radio today?"

Rucker emphasized the consortium hopes to retain staffers of color in Los Angeles now working on the show - including widely liked News & Notes co-host Farai Chideya - to maintain NPR's diversity levels.

"If we let the black host go down quicker than any white host, people might say, 'You've never (fired) a white host that quickly,' " said Rucker. "We're in the moment where the show has to drastically change. ... We can't say what the options are right now."

George Curry, editor in chief of the black-focused National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, was hired as a regular, paid participant on Gordon's reporters roundtable for the show's first year. (Full disclosure: This reporter has also appeared several times as an unpaid participant on the roundtable.)

"All these concocted excuses seem like nothing but a smokescreen," said Curry, a longtime friend of Gordon's. "They knew Ed was not Tavis - Tavis' shows are personality-driven and Ed's work is issue-driven. The problem with NPR is that everything is done by committee. And now that Ed is disengaged, it's the bland leading the bland."

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