The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NPR is losing some of its Black and Latino hosts. Colleagues see a larger crisis.

Audie Cornish, co-host of “All Things Considered,” announced this week that she would be leaving NPR.
Audie Cornish, co-host of “All Things Considered,” announced this week that she would be leaving NPR. (Brad Barket/Getty Images for Vulture Festival)

In recent years, NPR has taken pride in its efforts to diversify its ranks of on-air hosts, with the hiring of many Black and Latino journalists to lead its signature news programs, including voices such as Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, Noel King, Michele Norris and Audie Cornish.

But now the public-radio giant is contending with an exodus of the very same talent.

On Tuesday, it was Cornish, the co-host since 2012 of NPR’s daily newsmagazine, “All Things Considered,” who announced she would be leaving at the end of the week, destination unspecified. “I have never considered the host chair a tenured position,” she said, though many of her predecessors have enjoyed decades-long runs in the job. “It’s time for me to try my hand at new journalism projects and embark on new adventures.”

Other prominent on-air personalities of color to depart NPR’s airwaves recently include “Weekend Edition Sunday” host Garcia-Navarro, who left in September to host a New York Times podcast; “Morning Edition” host King, who left in November for Vox Media; and former “1A” host Joshua Johnson, who joined MSNBC.

In addition, NPR has in recent months lost the stars of two weekly programs and podcasts — Maddie Sofia (who hosted the science program “Short Wave”) and Shereen Marisol Meraji of “Code Switch,” which discusses race in America.

Some see a pattern — and a problem. Cornish’s announcement, in particular, unleashed a public airing of grievances from within NPR about its treatment of minority journalists.

“If NPR doesn’t see this as a crisis, I don’t know what it’ll take,” tweeted Ari Shapiro, Cornish’s “All Things Considered” co-host. He wrote that the organization was “hemorrhaging hosts from marginalized backgrounds.”

Shapiro quoted a tweet from September by another NPR program host, Sam Sanders, who name-checked recently departed staffers and commented, “Look at all the incredibly talented hosts from marginalized backgrounds who’ve left @npr recently . . . I believe in the mission of public radio; this trend is antithetical to that mission.”

Garcia-Navarro tweeted, “I’m sad to see this happening but it is not unexpected.” She and Sanders declined to elaborate, as did Cornish.

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NPR’s chief spokeswoman, Isabel Lara, said Tuesday the Washington-based organization regrets losing familiar journalists, although she pointed to other journalists of color who are filling the ranks of the departed. Among them, she cited Scott Tong, the co-host of NPR and WBUR’s daily “Here and Now” program, and “Morning Edition” co-hosts A Martinez and Leila Fadel. Martinez was appointed in May, and Tong was named in June. Fadel, a former Washington Post reporter, was named last week.

Lara contended that many of those who’ve left were scooped up by deep-pocketed companies that are building podcasting businesses in direct competition with NPR. “It used to be that hosting a newsmagazine at NPR was the pinnacle” of radio journalism, she said. “Now there are so many opportunities” at Apple, Audible, Netflix, the New York Times and others creating audio-news and nonfiction programming divisions. “It’s a very competitive landscape.”

But Garcia-Navarro pointedly disputed this in her tweet. “People leave jobs for other opportunities if they are unhappy with the opportunities they have and the way they have been treated,” she wrote.

Despite giving unprecedented opportunities to women since its founding in 1970, NPR has struggled for many years to diversify its audience and provide alternative perspectives. It hired its first African American host of “All Things Considered,” Michele Norris, in 2002 (Norris is now a columnist for The Post). It launched but canceled programs aimed at minority audiences, such as “News and Notes,” and “Tell Me More,” the latter hosted by Michel Martin, who went on to become the weekend host of “All Things Considered.”

People of color make up 42 percent of NPR’s podcast listening audience, and 21 percent of its radio audience, according to data compiled by ratings firm Nielsen for NPR and shared last year with The Post. NPR has grown its podcasting arm in recent years, which executives have said helps fulfill the organization’s goal to reach younger, more diverse audiences.

But people familiar with NPR say its management hasn’t done enough to provide opportunities to minority journalists, especially women.

Jenna Weiss-Berman, co-founder of the podcast company Pineapple Street Studios, has poached several people from public broadcasting, and “every single time, what they tell me is, ‘I have no creative freedom, I feel disrespected,’ ” she said.

Some have big names in the industry but work on short-term contracts; others complain they’ve been denied the opportunity to develop new programs or podcasts even when they devote their free time to it. “They’re just told ‘no’ so much when it comes to anything creative,” said Weiss-Berman, who worked in public radio for 10 years and at BuzzFeed’s audio division before starting her company. “When you’re told ‘no’ a lot, and you see another opportunity where you might be told ‘yes’ a little more, you’re going to take it.”

Public-media executives often assume she’s paying significantly more to hire away their employees. She says that’s not the case.

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Celeste Headlee, who has hosted several public radio programs and written extensively about race in the industry, said she couldn’t speak to the specific reasons individual hosts have left but called the departures concerning. “It’s so common for companies to put resources into recruiting people of color and then put no resources into really retaining them or supporting them in the roles they have so that they will continue with the organization.”

She said she regularly hears from public-radio staffers of color who say they deal with daily slights and resistance to their ideas, despite a sense they got their jobs to help expand the audience.

But Headlee — who founded a nonprofit for minority public-radio employees — credited John Lansing, NPR’s president and chief executive, for being “dead serious about solving these issues.” She added: “If there ever was a chance for our industry to move forward, now is the time.”

NPR employees raised questions about the exodus of women of color during an all-staff meeting last month headed by Lansing, who is generally well-regarded within the organization. But he received a cool reception when he told employees that turnover was common in the news media and that NPR couldn’t stand in the way of staffers seeking greater opportunities elsewhere, according to one participant.

“There seemed to be a lack of acknowledgment that when people leave it’s because they’re not getting something they need in-house and they don’t see a path,” said this staffer, who was not authorized to speak to the news media.

Referring to Cornish, the staffer said: “There’s a lot of confusion that again we’re seeing another talented host walking out the door . . . for unspecified opportunities. There’s concern that this is not treated or viewed by leadership as the crisis that it is.”

Lara declined to characterize the issue as a crisis or problem but acknowledged that it was “important” to maintain a diverse workplace.

NPR’s internal statistics show that its workforce is 62 percent White, 15 percent Black/African American, 12 percent Asian American and 7 percent Latino or Hispanic.