On December 15, 2008 I wrote a post entitled "News and Notes Silenced". For those who don't know, News and Notes represented an attempt to diversify NPRs program offerings by presenting a program dedicated to producing the news from a black perspective. Led by Tavis Smiley, then by Ed Gordon, and finally by Farai Chideya, it gave those of us who listened to NPR but wanted news and commentary more reflective of the country, a different choice. And it gave me the opportunity to do something I never ever thought I'd do as a college freshman–routinely talk to national audiences about issues important to me and by extension people like me.
Above I talk about my fraternity's attempt to deal with decreasing black graduation rates.
And here I talk about Octavia Butler's passing.
Every now and again you'd find Fresh Air or The Diane Rehm show featuring interviews with people of color. And local NPR affiliates in urban areas would have talk shows or music shows that featured African Americans prominently. But for the most part News and Notes created content no one else on NPR would create.
It was forced to go off the air because executives felt it didn't have the affiliate support and the revenue it needed to continue.
Taking a subtly different approach from News and Notes, Michel Martin's Tell Me More sought to provide news and commentary that didn't work on the assumption routinely taken by NPR and by America's Sunday morning talkshows. One of its most popular segments was The Barbershop, a roundtable featuring men from different backgrounds irrevently talking about the news led by Jimi Izrael.
Farai Chideya was responsible for my presence on News and Notes.
Jimi Izrael was responsible for my presence on Tell Me More. I was on the first show, and was a regular for Tell Me More's entire run.
As you can tell above, the Barbershop segment combined humor with insight…sometimes more one than the other. Here's the female counterpart, recorded more recently.
For the last year or so I've been part of a father's roundtable, again featuring dads from a variety of backgrounds. Although the numbers suggest NPRs listening audience and staff is fairly diverse, particularly in comparison to what it once was, I just don't hear much like this, particularly given the stereotypes about black fatherhood:
A few months ago Tell Me More received the same word New and Notes did years ago, that it was being cancelled due to low ratings. I've seen the numbers, but the numbers don't really tell the story. The problem Tell Me More faced was not that it was multicultural. The problem wasn't even its low ratings. The problem is that NPR, while being "public" on paper, still works on a market model that relies on a combination of local affiliates and corporate support. Now it's possible for shows like Tell Me More to perform decently under that model. But it requires two things outside of content: significant buy-in from executives higher up the food chain, and a strong producer voice who can fight for the show.
Last year, right around this time, Teshima Walker (Jimi Izrael's wife), passed away. If TMM bore the mark of anyone outside of Michel, it was Teshima. She was a force. Her absence–she'd been gone from the show longer than a year for medical reasons–affected the way the show was marketed, and affected level of care the show was given by executives. Tell Me More was always fighting an uphill battle–NPR still doesn't believe it's future lies in metropolitan market growth. But it became much harder in Walker's absence.
I've been writing this piece off and on since I heard the news. Could never quite get it right. Can't get it right now. As far as I can tell, for about ten years folks have heard around ten black male voices regularly on NPR. And I've been one of them, because Jimi saw something in me I didn't even see. Now I won't.
The struggle continues. Michel is going to keep fighting. Her staff, many of whom found work in NPR, will continue to fight. As hard as the last few years have been for Jimi, he's a soldier. He fights because that's what he does.
And even though I've been busy and will get busIER I still plan to appear regularly on Marc Steiner.
This is what WE do. Everyday. Bloodied but unbowed. But damn.