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Feb. 17, 2022, 3:41 p.m.
Business Models

What diversity looks like on public radio: Christopher Chávez explores how NPR could be reimagined to serve everyone

NPR sells itself on the idea that it’s a public broadcasting network. But, Christopher Chávez argues in a new book, that hasn’t fully included Latinx listeners.

The departures of NPR hosts Audie Cornish, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, and Noel King over the last few months has spurred immediate questions about why the network might be “hemorrhaging hosts of marginalized backgrounds,” and also broader ones about who, exactly, NPR serves.

NPR was founded in 1970 after the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Its original mission statement reads, in part:

The program would be well-paced, flexible, and a service primarily for a general audience. It would not, however, substitute superficial blandness for genuine diversity of regions, values, and cultural and ethnic minorities, which comprise American society. It would speak with many voices and many dialects. The editorial attitude would be that of inquiry, curiosity, concern for the quality of life, critical problem solving, and life loving. The listener should come to rely upon it as a source of information of consequence, of having listened as having made a difference in his attitude toward his environment and himself … National Public Radio will not regard its audience as a market, or in terms of its disposable income, but as curious, complex individuals who are looking for some understanding, meaning, and joy in the human experience.

That’s different from the NPR we know today, argues Christopher Chávez, the director of the Center for Latina/o and Latin American Studies at the University of Oregon. He’s a scholar of Latin American media who published a 2015 book about how “language, power, and industry practices are reshaping the concept of Hispanic television” and, last year, published The Sound of Exclusion: NPR and the Latinx Public. In his new book, Chávez uses media industry data and 50 interviews with public media workers to argue that NPR’s growth has come at the expense of serving Latinx audiences in the U.S.

“I hope to address how power is enacted in everyday broadcast practices,” Chávez writes in the book’s introduction. “By interrogating industry practices, we might begin to reimagine NPR as a public good that is meant to be accessed by the broader spectrum of the American public, not just the country’s most elite.”

I caught up with Chávez to learn about the challenges in studying NPR from this lens, who he thinks is serving Latinx audiences in audio, and what NPR might need to do to be more relevant to the largest minority group in the country. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Hanaa’ Tameez: How did you decide to study the history of NPR in the context of the United States’ Latinx population?

Christopher Chávez: There are two background stories. The first is interrogating my own ambivalent relationship with NPR. I’m a longtime listener of NPR, and at the same time I’m very aware that I fit comfortably within their ideal audience: I have a certain degree of cultural capital and I’m English-proficient. I’m already overserved in some ways in civic discourses by other news organizations. I fit nicely within their current profile.

But I also knew that NPR was really intended to have a broader net and to serve a broader and more disenfranchised audience. It became an urgent conversation for me when Donald Trump was running for office and I noticed that mainstream national news organizations were often so passive about the rhetoric that was [being used], about some actual physical violence against Latinx bodies that was occurring at the time. I noticed just how long it took national news organizations to really humanize Latinos during this process, or even to include their voices.

I was interested in the specific practices that undermine this larger goal of representing the public and integrating different kinds of voices. Because that’s the way NPR sells itself: It sells itself on the idea that it’s a public broadcasting network. Just recently, it had its 50th anniversary under the tagline “hear every voice” and a promise that it’s going to be very inclusive. But it’s not.

Tameez: If I understand correctly, you believe that NPR has changed from being a public broadcaster into being a media company. Can you talk a little bit about what that means and about the economic, cultural, and editorial pressure NPR might be under to do that?

Chávez: There are kind of two intersecting factors here. One: NPR faced economic pressures almost immediately. It was given funding, but the funding was inconsistent. It always had to hustle to be sustainable. It started off as a semi-amateurish professional organization that was very, very scrappy in its early term, but wasn’t really viable.

Over time, realizing that it had to become economically sustainable, around the early 1980s it started to pivot toward a marketplace model. [That meant]: Segment the programming for an audience that it thinks is going to be able to underwrite the program, that is going to give the necessary annual donations. It implemented the process of market segmentation to identify the kind of listener that it wanted to pursue and then refocused its programming toward that listener.

There’s also the overlying factor of the racial ideologies that shape some of these practices. If NPR was going to pursue diverse audiences, they had to fit really nicely within the package. There are some ideological implications at play — for example, that America is an English-speaking country, that America is a primarily white country. I argue that it made an effort to exclude a whole range of the public that it had originally been tasked with serving.

Half of the book focuses on case studies for [the NPR programs] Alt. Latino, Latino USA, and Radio Ambulante. Each one does something really interesting. Each chapter starts off with a moment of violence against Latinos, either state-sponsored violence or otherwise, and the failure of mainstream media to really capture the humanity of some of those stories. Then these players come in and tell these stories in interesting and compelling ways, drawing in the voices of Latinos. I try to trace the conditions that allow those stories to happen within the space of public radio. Some of the book attends to that. I think one of the things that the stories need in order to sort of reach a broader audience and to survive is just consistent support from NPR. And so in the postscript to the Latino USA chapter — this wasn’t in the book — Maria Hinojosa ended up taking Latino USA outside of NPR’s portfolio and going with PRX because she never really felt that it was supported or funded consistently by NPR.

I don’t want to speak for any of those producers of the other two programs. But, yes, NPR has them. They are on the portfolio of products, but [I believe] NPR doesn’t truly support them in a meaningful way and in some cases, uses the digital landscape to sort of have it both ways. Like: You can see we have this Latino-serving podcast, but at the same time, it doesn’t really impact the terrestrial experience in any kind of meaningful way.

Tameez: Based on what you studied, do you find that this is a problem that’s unique to the Latinx public, or do you feel as if NPR has kind of siloed all or several marginalized communities or racialized communities?

Chávez: I think we can look at NPR as just another product of the media marketplace. We’ve moved from the general audience model that we may have had decades ago to something that’s really hyper-segmented. There are many properties that are targeting working-class Latinos — a lot of Los Angeles Spanish-language radio stations, for example, target working-class Latinos, and serve that audience with music, but also with politics, in some cases much, much more politically than you might find on NPR.

NPR, if you look at it from that perspective, is targeting a very different kind of audience that’s congruent with who The New York Times or The New Yorker is targeting: People who are highly educated with significant amounts of social resources and economic resources. It’s a small [audience] and one that’s over-served already, civically.

Tameez: Do you think the problems you found are unique to public media?

Chávez: I do, in some ways. Public radio, especially the larger [stations] that purport to be mainstream, are facing the same kinds of pressures. They’re not sure how they’re going to pivot to meet a younger, more diverse audience with more inclusive sensibilities.

That said, when you look at the programming on NPR versus PRX, I think [PRX’s] focus is really different in the kind of the risks that it’s willing to take in terms of language, in terms of subject matter. NPR is much more conservative than some of the other approaches that you might see on public radio.

There are also smaller efforts like Radio Bilingüe, which is in Spanish but also in Triqui and other Indigenous languages. They have much smaller budgets and they are serving a really different kind of audience.

Tameez: Why do you think NPR’s history is important for us to understand now?

Chávez: I think it’s important because it seems as if any time [a problem] comes up, the changes made are cosmetic. This became evident recently when we saw the departures of Audie Cornish and Lourdes ‘Lulu’ Garcia-Navarro. A number of high-profile hosts left and it prompted this conversation, as it does every few years, about diversity and whether NPR is reaching the public. The solution always comes to be, “We need to hire another Black or Latino host. We need to hire more or maybe invest in programming here or there.”

There’s never any serious reconsideration of the thing itself and what it was intended to be. That raises questions, for me, about what diversity even looks like on public radio. It’s different than it might be on television, where you can look at diversity phenotypically. On radio, is it a surname? Is it a sensibility? Is it a linguistic choice in how you’re allowed to speak? You can have diversity, in some cases, without really having diversity. I think, again, if we don’t know the history of NPR and what it was actually intended to be, we just look at the thing that we currently have and say, “Ok, how do we make modifications to it?” without thinking about wholesale, transformative change.

Tameez: What were some of the challenges in researching and reporting for this book?

Chávez: Some senior-level interviews with current NPR executives [didn’t happen].

[Editor’s note: From NPR spokesperson Isabel Lara: “Chávez says he reached out to NPR executives and got no response yet the only request that came to media relations was for permission to use a photo in his book. I would have been happy to talk to him & to help arrange additional interviews.”]

A lot of the senior executives just wouldn’t [respond] to me, and it makes sense, because they’re currently invested in what NPR is. I would have loved to have spoken with Lulu Garcia-Navarro. [Talking to] some of these folks that had a prominent role at NPR at the time would have been insightful, but I get the reason why they didn’t. In some cases, I‘m also skeptical of whether, if I had spoken to them, they would have been forthright or honest. But overall I think I was pretty lucky in getting to speak with some of the folks that I was able to speak with.

Tameez: What do you think non-Latinx NPR listeners and readers should take away from your work?

Chávez: The American public looks different now. When we look at the world, demographically, we’re changing. We’re becoming much more diverse in really beautiful and interesting ways. There are all kinds of important stories to tell. During my research, I found that some of the policing [over what can be on NPR] comes from executives and broadcast-level producers, news directors who make small choices. But some of the policing comes from audience members themselves. Some people would react negatively when they heard somebody speaking in an accent, for example, or when a lot of time was spent on a Latinx-oriented story.

Consumers are very vocal, and in today’s digital environment, that feedback can be given to institutions immediately. And it can be swift and severe. That often came up and it was really profound in terms of the range of stories in Los Angeles, where I grew up. L.A. is a predominantly Latinx city. The radio station KPCC’s motto is “We speak Angeleno,” but it’s really speaking in English, speaking without an accent, excluding people that are primarily Spanish-dominant, not telling their stories, and just not showing the breadth of the reality that I know there to be in Los Angeles.

Tameez: What are some of the changes that you think would need to happen for NPR to fulfill its original mission?

Chávez: Speaking with executives, [I found] they know the business realities. They know that their audience is getting older and that they need to go younger. At the same time, they don’t want to make any aggressive decisions that are going to, what they call, “take the network into a precipitous decline.” Like, you make these decisions and all of a sudden you might lose listeners significantly. This was palpable at the executive level and at the station manager level. Nobody seemed willing to make any kind of changes that would disrupt the listening audience, for fear of losing any kind of revenue stream.

But transformative change comes at a cost. Transformative change means that you might lose significant amounts of listeners if you want to become something fundamentally different. All of the change that I think that anybody was willing to entertain was, again, cosmetic. How do we keep this thing as it is, but just maybe give it some makeup?

Tameez: I would love to hear more from you about an idea you talk about in the book: That “character-driven stories” have been to the detriment of accurate coverage of Latinos in public media.

Chávez: That was somethingthat kept up coming during the interviews: “We tell stories and we’re interested in characters.” It always struck me as as interesting. For me, you’re talking about real people who have real lives and real lived experiences, and so this trope of the character really fascinated me, because when you look at it from a business perspective, it’s a form of entertainment. The idea is to hook listeners to make sure that they continue listening and that they get something rewarding out of it.

That requires a flattening-out of experience. You have to make it cohesive and coherent to the audience that you’re telling the stories to. Since NPR’s current audience is primarily white, educated, maybe liberal-leaning, but certainly not Latinx in and of themselves, Latinx stories almost become content to serve up to audiences that are not Latinx. Even after having done this research, I’m not sure what many of [NPR’s] Latino-oriented shows do. Like, are they actually serving Latinos? Are they delivering Latino stories to white audiences? I’m not sure where I end up on that one. I guess there’s a little bit of both going on.

Tameez: What are some the bright spots that you see in Latinx media today?

Chávez: It’s a really interesting moment for the soundscape. There are so many different kinds of properties emerging that are, in some ways, outdoing NPR. NPR has lived by this marketplace model and in some ways, it’s going to die by the marketplace model because these other properties are emerging and telling compelling stories that are siphoning off talent from NPR. We’ve seen that begin with Audie Cornish and Lulu Garcia-Navarro. People are investing resources to out-NPRing NPR. I think that’s going to create new kinds of opportunities.

It could create a two-way channel. Before, if you worked in public radio, you stayed within the public radio circuit and the problem was that there were so few opportunities relative to the larger media landscape to move up. Now there’s sort of a pipeline out and back in. You can go to other kinds of properties that are doing similar kinds of stories, get some great experiences, and then in some cases, come back. Jasmine Garsd Garcia would probably be an example of that. She was cofounder of Alt. Latino, [left and] ends up at Marketplace, did some other work with the BBC for a while, and then ends up coming back with NPR as the New York correspondent, with a much more prominent voice on the network. I think some interesting economic pressures are going to be exerted on NPR that are going to force it to react.

POSTED     Feb. 17, 2022, 3:41 p.m.
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