The Listener

A New Accent on 'Public' From NPR

"We're trying to make a safe place to talk about hard things": Michel Martin in the studio of her NPR show "Tell Me More." (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2007

Michel Martin has a keen ear, a taste for good stories and a knack for asking tough questions. On this day, she also has a raspy voice, a common cold's way of injecting jitters into a studio full of radio producers.

But as much as the staffers at National Public Radio worry over a little huskiness in the host's instrument, that bit of showbiz fretting is nothing compared with how entertainment values have shunted aside serious journalism in broadcast news. Martin, who rose to the top in both print and TV news over the past two decades, has left television to launch her own radio newsmagazine, "Tell Me More," NPR's latest effort to push beyond the classic definition of a public radio listener: highly educated, white, suburban.

"Some of the stories we do, they would have laughed me out of the room on TV," says Martin, who spent a decade as a correspondent on ABC's "Nightline" before the network dropped the show's long-form stories in favor of a quicker pace.

On "Tell Me More," if Martin wants to devote time to news from Senegal or feature a blogger from Trinidad or interview a Burmese political dissident whose thick accent makes him difficult for some listeners to comprehend, she charges ahead, trusting that the audience will stay with her and make the extra effort. "That's not something we could do in television," she says.

But the hour-long daily show -- which started in April and airs at 2 p.m. weekdays on WAMU (88.5 FM) and on 31 other stations around the country -- is not merely a way for NPR to demonstrate its commitment to serious journalism in an age of cutbacks and lowered ambitions in broadcast news. "Tell Me More" is also about reaching out to blacks, Hispanics and others who have remained persistently underrepresented in NPR's audience.

"It's really a tricky thing," says Marie Nelson, the show's executive producer. "We want to have conversations that people of color would want to hear, but we also want to create opportunities for other people to hear about these issues. We both happen to be African American, but we live in connection with all kinds of groups."

The big white board that tracks plans for upcoming segments in the show's tight warren of cubicles at NPR's Massachusetts Avenue NW headquarters portrays a program that focuses heavily on black life in this country and African, Latin American and Asian stories from overseas. The mix includes pieces on Motown founder Berry Gordy, "Soul Train" host Don Cornelius, a Washington-based effort to create dialogue between black and Jewish teenagers, the 150th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, attitudes toward HIV on black college campuses, and a weekly discussion with NPR's correspondents in Africa.

Directly across from the schedule board, a list of pointers -- the show's Ten Commandments -- asks staffers to focus on this question as they book guests: "What story, event or idea will be compelling to all Americans?" Everything from the composition of the staff to the selection of topics and guests to the musical bumpers that frame the stories makes it clear that NPR wants to break out of its reputation as a programmer for an overwhelmingly white audience.

"We are so not wrapped in cotton," Martin says, laughing at the classic "Saturday Night Live" parody of public radio hosts as oh-so-ethereal voices of gentility.

NPR has made several attempts to reach black listeners in recent years, and not all have gone well. Talk show host Tavis Smiley left NPR last year complaining that the network had failed to give his show the marketing push it needed, in part, he said, because "everything about my personal aesthetic was antithetical to public radio. . . . This thing called public radio is a club, and they're not trying to let everybody in."

But Smiley also railed against being presented as NPR's black show. "Tell Me More" aspires to break out of the racial balkanization that has persisted throughout radio's history.

Martin's regular features include a group of mothers known as the Mocha Moms who talk about everything from relationships to politics, and a "Barbershop" segment in which a mostly black cast of men hashes out topical issues. But Martin mixes in white voices and tries to maintain an alluring intimacy while steering the show clear of the exclusive "just us" tone that dominates black commercial radio.

"We're trying to make a safe place to talk about hard things," she says. "One thing I'm more worried about than being pigeonholed as a black show is being pigeonholed as a women's show."

Toward that end, Martin spurns the confrontational style that marks much of talk radio. But this is not chick chat, either. She preps hard for interviews, and her background as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post comes out in her tendency to correct guests when they stray from the facts. When was the last time you heard Larry King or Glenn Beck do that?

Seeking a broad audience doesn't inhibit Martin from speaking frankly about race or other touchy topics. Interviewing Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's longtime friend, Armstrong Williams, about the justice's new autobiography, Martin asks questions you wouldn't likely hear on TV: "Would Clarence Thomas like to be known as a race man? Is it possible he doesn't recall events from [the time before he was nominated to the court] because of his drinking?" (In his book, Thomas writes that from his college years until 1982, "I sought comfort in the bottle" and was "definitely drinking too much.")

Martin wants the show to speak to "those who are not being spoken to," something she hopes her erstwhile colleagues in television will once again find the courage to do. But the current cost-consciousness in television leaves a big opening for radio and for new media. Martin started a blog about "Tell Me More" months before the show premiered, and she still uses the blog to give listeners a peek at how decisions are made about what gets on the air -- the kind of transparency audiences increasingly demand.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company