NPR to end ‘Tell Me More’ program aimed at minorities, eliminate 28 positions

NPR has decided it won’t “Tell Me More” much longer.

The broadcaster has canceled its daily news-discussion program “Tell Me More,” the latest in a series of the NPR’s failed efforts to produce programs aimed at minority audiences.

Washington-based NPR said Tuesday that the cancellation was a financial decision, triggered by the need to close a persistent budget gap.

After seven years on the air, the program was carried by just 136 of the more than 800 noncommercial stations affiliated with NPR.

Broadcasts of the program, which is hosted by journalist Michel Martin (and airs 2 p.m. on WAMU-FM in Washington), will end Aug. 1. Given that cancellation and other cutbacks, some 28 positions at NPR, about 3.5 percent of its staff, will be eliminated.

The decision was another setback for NPR’s efforts to diversify its audience and provide alternative perspectives. NPR has struggled to produce programming for and about minority listeners for more than a decade. “News and Notes,” a magazine-style program that was tailored to African Americans, was canceled in 2009 during a budget-cutting cycle. Tavis Smiley, who was an African American host of an NPR program, abruptly left the organization in 2004 after a dispute with managers over promoting his show.

More broadly, NPR’s on-air diversity has been an issue before. In 2010, the broadcaster fired African American news analyst Juan Williams, who said on Fox News Channel’s “O’Reilly Factor” that he was nervous about flying on airplanes with people dressed in “Muslim garb.” It was one in a series of comments by Williams that NPR’s management said crossed a line.

NPR has sought to close a gap between its revenue and costs for the past four years. Last fall, it began offering buyouts to its 800-plus employees, hoping to reduce its staff by about 10 percent. It is expected to run a deficit of about $6 million during its fiscal year, which ends in September.

NPR will save about $4.4 million with the cuts announced Tuesday and the recent buyouts, reducing the newsroom staff by about 9 percent, said Kinsey Wilson, its executive vice president.

Wilson said “Tell Me More” wasn’t carried by enough NPR member stations for it to achieve “financial viability.” In addition to an annual membership fee of $12,500, NPR stations pay the Washington organization fees for the programs they air, based on the size of each station’s revenue.

“Tell Me More” was attracting about 1 million listeners each week, said Wilson, far less than NPR’s two daily news programs, “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition,” which draw between 12 million and 13 million weekly listeners.

The president of the National Association of Black Journalists, which advocates greater newsroom diversity, said NPR didn’t put enough effort behind promoting the program.

“I’m very disappointed,” the NABJ’s Bob Butler said. “There was a lot of frustration within the program that NPR wasn’t doing enough to market the program to affiliates. They put a lot of effort behind ‘Morning Edition’ and ‘All Things Considered,’ but very little behind ‘Tell Me More.’ ”

Butler’s organization has questioned NPR’s commitment to diversity in the past. In 2009, after NPR’s dismissal of two managers of African American descent and the resignation of its director of diversity management, NABJ challenged then-NPR President Vivian Schiller’s assertion that minorities made up 16.9 percent of NPR’s on-air hosts, reporters and correspondents.

“Besides contributing news analyst Juan Williams, who on the staff is an African American man?” NABJ’s then-president, Kathy Times, and Butler, then the organization’s vice president, wrote in a letter to Schiller. Williams was fired the next year.

NPR said that Martin and her executive producer, Carline Watson, who are African American, will remain at the network after “Tell Me More” goes off the air. They will contribute to NPR’s coverage of race, education, religion and other topics on its news magazines. Watson will lead “a new editorial team” with five new reporters, according to a statement from Margaret Low Smith, senior vice president for news at NPR.

In a statement released by NPR, Martin said she is proud of the program she hosts, but added: “As you imagine, I’m very disappointed with today’s news. I hoped we could have found a way to save the show, but NPR news management has assured me that the mission that we’ve undertaken will continue in new ways.”

NPR has two ongoing initiatives expressly about racial issues: the “Race Card Project,” which features audio and digital reports hosted by veteran NPR correspondent Michele Norris, and “Code Switch,” an online series about race in America.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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