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May 4, 2023, 12:42 p.m.
Reporting & Production

The voices of NPR: How four women of color see their roles as hosts

Leila Fadel, Michel Martin, Ayesha Rascoe, and Juana Summers have taken over host chairs at NPR’s flagship news programs.

This story was originally published by The 19th.

Juana Summers is struck by “an incredible sense of responsibility.”

She took over one of the host chairs at “All Things Considered” in June 2022 after many years as a political correspondent for NPR. Now almost a year into her new role, she sees herself as a guide to making the news program — and NPR in general — a place where people can feel represented.

Part of that, Summers believes, starts with the audience knowing her.

“I am never setting at the door that I am a Black woman, I am a stepparent, I am a woman who grew up in the Midwest and lived in a low- and middle-income home growing up, and who went to private religious schools,” said Summers, 34. “All of those dynamics are things that inform how I do my journalism, and the degree in which I lean into any part of that varies from story to story.”

Summers is one of the four women of color — three of them Black — who have taken over hosting duties at flagship NPR programs over the past year. Leila Fadel moved to “Morning Edition” in January 2022, joined just over a year later by veteran NPR host Michel Martin. Ayesha Rascoe became the host of “Weekend Edition Sunday” in March 2022. Their roles extend beyond the voices delivering the headlines. Each are editorial leaders with immense influence over what and who is covered.

Three of these new host hires step into the seats left empty by women of color. Those departures, which happened in quick succession, came amid a wave of complaints from many at NPR regarding whose voices and perspectives held the most value there — and in the wake of a study that showed that employees who were women or people of color were more likely to be in lower-paid positions.

The recent hosting appointments, the organization says, are part of a strategic growth plan to diversify its overwhelmingly white audience. NPR believes part of the path to achieving that is letting journalists approach their work differently. Eric Marrapodi, the vice president for news programming at NPR, said a key part of NPR’s editorial strategy is leaning into the reality that the person reporting is “in the story no matter what.”

“It is your voice on the radio, your face on TV,” Marrapodi said. “Where you are coming from is going to be obvious to the listener, and that’s something we can’t run away from. Who we are plays into how we tell the story.”

Summers wasn’t always comfortable using her lived experience in her reporting, especially coming from a background where she was covering politics.

“We are conditioned to leave our identities and leave the fullness of ourselves on the sidelines in a way that I don’t think is always actually conducive to the reporting,” she said.

Despite reaching the role of host at such a young age, Summers still thinks a lot about what it means to feel confident in your own success and how to lead, especially as a Black woman. When Summers recently interviewed “Abbott Elementary” star Sheryl Lee Ralph, something Ralph said struck a chord with Summers. At 66, Ralph is reaching a level of renown that she’s never known. At the end of the interview, Ralph addressed the listener directly — but Summers said it was exactly what she needed to hear.

“You have no idea the possibilities of your own life,” Ralph said. “Sometimes you just got to know you are enough. Now, carry on with that. You are enough, yes.”

It’s a charge Summers has taken to heart as she closes out her first year in the host seat at “All Things Considered” and embraces the amount of editorial power and leadership that role confers.

“I’m really thoughtful about the fact that they didn’t hire some nameless, faceless person,” she said. “NPR chose to hire me.”

In January 2020, newly installed CEO John Lansing announced to NPR’s board of trustees that the organization’s new “north star” would be expanding the diversity of its audience. Doing this, he said, would also mean diversifying their workplace and the content they produced.

As of the summer of 2022, NPR’s audience across all platforms — radio, digital and podcasts — was 76% white, 11.9% Latinx, 9.2% Black, and 5.1 percent Asian. The organization is particularly focused on reaching Latinx and Black listeners, groups that NPR’s chief diversity officer Keith Woods described as “the largest group of underrepresented people in our audience.”

NPR’s newsroom is more diverse than its listener base — but it’s also being hit hard by economic issues impacting the media industry right now. In March, NPR laid off 84 people, or 10% of its staff, in an attempt to close a $30 million budget gap, the most significant staff reduction since the 2008 recession. In announcing the layoffs, Lansing vowed that they would not disproportionately impact people of color — something that typically happens regardless of industry.

A spokesperson for NPR told The 19th that they anticipate that the demographic breakdown of their workforce should be substantially the same as it was prior to the layoffs: 42% people of color, and 26% women of color.

Still, NPR has been surrounded by questions about how it values diversity following the high-profile departures of three women of color. Noel King, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, and Audie Cornish — all prominent longtime hosts — left in the span of a year, beginning in January 2021. According to reporting from NPR’s public editor, their departures highlighted many of the issues NPR had long reckoned with, including uneven pay for people of color and women and a historically slow progress toward diversity at the news organization.

“It would seem that after NPR top executives and news managers saw its three most popular women of color hosts departed within the last year, they would have pondered seriously about why these stellar female journalists left, with serious determination to make progressive changes at the public network to recruit and retain women of color hosts,” said Sharon Bramlett-Solomon, an associate professor at Arizona State University and an expert on race and gender in broadcast journalism.

Bramlett-Solomon added that leadership at NPR now faces a unique challenge in showing their commitment “to move forward with dramatic and meaningful transformation in programming inclusion and not simply window dressing on the set.”

Whitney Maddox, who was hired for the newly created diversity, equity and inclusion manager role in January 2021, said that in her role, she has especially focused on women of color at NPR: “What’s happening with them? How are they doing? What do they need?”

She has created a monthly space for women of color at the organization to meet and share about their day-to-day experiences and voice what resources they need. Her work also includes consulting to the flagship programs and checking in on their workplace cultures and how people are supported, including how stories are pitched and edited.

Maddox also started Start Talking About Race, or STAR, which is a twice-monthly event open to everyone in the organization. From these conversations, Maddox said she’s already seen an impact.

“This is moving beyond this space into how people are pitching their stories,” Maddox said. “Editors have come back to me and said, ‘A point that somebody made in STAR — I used that when I brought up a point of how we should think differently about how to source this story.’ There is a process, there is time, there is changing people’s hearts and raising their consciousness to understand why this work is important.”

The leadership of Fadel, Martin, Rascoe, and Summers are key parts in acting on conversations surrounding equity. Their roles in the host chairs are a signal of NPR’s commitment to reflecting their audience, Marrapodi said. “Our job is to be public media for the entire public,” he said. “We’re here for everybody. Our job is to hold a mirror up to society. And this is what society looks like.”

Fadel, 41, is acutely aware that her in the host chair is a representation of what society looks — and sounds — like.

“I just never thought it could happen. Clearly women have held host seats at NPR long before me, and people of color have moved up through the organization, but I just never imagined it,” she said. “How could I have imagined this for myself? There was no one who looked like me, who was an Arab woman, who was Muslim, doing this job.”

During the three hours each morning that the program airs, Fadel says her name, on average, 21 times. And each time, she uses the Arabic pronunciation, the way it is said in Lebanon, where her father is originally from. When Fadel’s family moved to America from Saudi Arabia, they didn’t correct others when they said it with a Westernized pronunciation, sometimes adopting it themselves. But when Fadel — who came up in journalism as a print reporter covering the Middle East — joined NPR as a Cairo-based international correspondent in 2012, she made a choice: She was going to pronounce her name correctly on the radio.

“It’s such a small thing,” Fadel told The 19th. “I didn’t do it as some big political statement. I thought it would be something that would make my dad happy.”

It did. And it made Fadel proud, too.

“In doing this, I also let listeners know something about me — and that’s something that maybe lets them know that this news is also for them,” Fadel said. “The more kinds of names you hear listening to NPR, the more different communities can know this news is also for them, is about them and includes them.”

Marrapodi shares those ambitions — and hopes it also helps NPR usher in a new generation of journalists.

“There are young Muslim women who are going to look at Leila and say, ‘That could be me one day.’ There are young Black girls all over America who are going to look at Juana and will say, ‘That can be me one day.'”

“Weekend Edition” begins recording at 8 a.m. Sunday morning, and Ayesha Rascoe arrives in the newsroom two hours ahead with a bottle of Coke and a bag of Doritos in hand. “I have to get myself hyped up,” she said.

Rascoe, 37, was a breakout star of the NPR Politics podcast, where she was a regular reporter and occasional host before recently moving over to “Weekend Edition” as its Sunday host.

In the studio, Rascoe — mother to three children, ages 9, 7, and 5 — is warm, engaging and vibrant. On air, her voice perfectly mimics the energy she exudes in a room, a mix of familiarity, comfort, insight and precision.

Rascoe made her work at “Weekend Edition” feel personal almost immediately. Last fall, she began a series of stories on the surviving leaders of the civil rights movement by speaking with her mother, Phyllis Jones, and uncle Ben Thorpe about living through the desegregation of their rural North Carolina town in 1970. Rascoe said she feels compelled to represent her family’s history on air.

“I think about that responsibility and I take it very seriously,” Rascoe said. She said she thinks about her late grandmother, a sharecropper from North Carolina, constantly as she works. “I think about her and I think about my whole family, and I never want to make them not proud of me. I never want them to look at what I’m doing and say, ‘What is she out here doing? How is she representing us? We didn’t raise her that way.’”

Even the sound of her voice has been true to Rascoe’s roots: As her executive producer Sarah Lucy Oliver said, “Ayesha sounds like herself. She says she sounds like a Black woman from Durham, North Carolina.”

Oliver described what she calls “NPR voice” — a low register, stripped of any regional dialects, that registers as white and male — as the prevailing sound of NPR. Rascoe, she said, is a disruption to that.

“For decades, listeners have been accustomed to a particular kind of NPR voice. You can run through the dial and figure out when you’ve landed on an NPR member station,” Oliver said.

Hearing a voice like Rascoe’s “is a definite change in direction, and is exactly the kind of voice NPR wants to bring to the air,” Oliver said. “This is part of the real world. People speak differently. People have different regional accents. People use different kinds of colloquialisms. NPR is trying to sound more like the real world now.”

But Rascoe has had to reckon with the way audiences — used to that staid, white, and masculine NPR voice — perceive her. She has received racist listener feedback: coded messaging urging her to “sound professional,” telling Rascoe about how they don’t like her voice.

Rascoe says this is “all just a way of saying, ‘You are Black, and you are a Black woman from the South, and therefore you are stupid.’” When she first arrived at NPR in 2018 from Reuters, where she was a White House correspondent, it was a shock. “I will not try to pretend that it didn’t hurt and that it wasn’t frustrating,” she said.

Though Rascoe said she has received nothing but support from her colleagues and managers, her experience speaks to the dynamic at play in newsrooms nationwide aspiring to evolve, change and grow in being representative in their journalism.

The work of “disrupting the whiteness that journalists of color so often feel in white newsrooms” is hard and real, Bramlett-Solomon said — but doable, especially when there is real, on-the-ground support from management, with actual dollars behind it to show it.

Rascoe is aware of the fact that by simply being on air in such a high-profile way, she is doing that work of not only changing NPR, but changing American audiences’ expectations more broadly on credibility within the news.

“I have a voice that is not a voice that people necessarily expect — but it’s mine…Hopefully, it helps expand their idea of what authority, what professionalism and what intelligence can sound like,” Rascoe said.

Martin, 63, first joined NPR in 2006 to launch “Tell Me More,” an interview-focused show that aired on NPR member stations nationwide from 2007 to 2014. She then became host of “Weekend All Things Considered,” a position she held until joining “Morning Edition” as one of the hosts in March.

After decades in journalism, and many years at NPR specifically, Martin is deliberate and thoughtful in her imagining of the organization’s future and her role in it. As someone with a long history with the organization — one that includes using her voice to help push NPR forward on how it thinks about and covers race — she brings to her new role the ability to hold the past in the present while continuing to look forward. She said she’s constantly thinking not only about her time at NPR, but the ways journalists of color have worked to serve communities throughout history in how she approaches her role today.

“I just want us to keep getting better,” Martin said. “I want us to keep getting better because if you aren’t, then you are not growing. If you are not growing, then you’re dying.”

Martin steps into leadership at the flagship program at a time when the political climate often makes it tough for journalists to report. Martin says she thinks journalists play an especially important role “to help us understand each other’s experiences.” Without helping audiences dig into the nuances of why people believe what they do — and why the political is so personal for so many — journalists aren’t doing the job they are charged with executing.

“Yes, the words are changing and we’re all having to learn to use different language and to recognize different identities that were perhaps not part of our own experiences before. But that’s life. That’s learning. That’s education. That’s the news,” she said.

Martin said she takes inspiration from the way that Spanish-language and Black newspapers have crafted their coverage strategies.

“The origin of these news outlets was not just to talk about the politics that particularly affected these communities, but also to help people understand how to live in the new world that they were in: telling people things like how to register to vote, how to register your kids for school,” Martin said.

It is exactly this kind of work — often dismissed by editors and audiences alike as “unserious” for being service-oriented or because its target audience is those from historically underrepresented backgrounds — that Martin has always prioritized, and sees as essential now more than ever.

“What I want the most is for us to keep moving forward and not lose sight of our mission, which is to serve the public…I want us to keep doing our jobs because I think the country really needs us,” Martin said. “I want us to get more honest and stronger and more clear in how we serve people by helping them understand the world that does not lead them to carry the baggage of waking up and saying, ‘Whose side am I on today?’ That’s not who we are and I think not being that is so important.”

To think about equitable journalism means to consider the weight and totality of experience that exists behind each voice that feels unheard. That’s something that Martin’s “Morning Edition” co-host Fadel thinks a lot about, too. Fadel said she sees a major part of her job as being someone who can actively make and support a “safe space” for a range of voices, opinions, and perspectives in the editorial process.

Being fully present as herself in the host chair is a critical element of that, Fadel said — while also acknowledging that simply sitting in the seat doesn’t mean her newsroom, or any other, is done with the work of thinking holistically about what representation means in journalism.

“Change doesn’t happen because one person sits in a chair,” Fadel said. “It requires action at every level. This is happening at NPR, but of course there is more work to be done. Diversity isn’t just who is in a newsroom, but whose voices are in a story, and there is still a lot of work to be done there. We have a very diverse newsroom, but we need to always make sure it is more than white men whose voices get to talk about what happened.”

Fadel said she thinks all the time about how her own journalism can help change other people’s — and predominantly white listeners’ — perceptions.

“I didn’t see myself and my family in the stories I saw on the news. My father is from Lebanon and I grew up in Saudi Arabia. Talking about people like my family in the news meant only talking about people who were ensconced in conflict. It was all conflict. But there are real people who exist in these places where there is conflict. And they are nuanced and may all experience pain differently and joy differently and have lives outside of the conflict going on around them.”

Sitting in the host chair at “Morning Edition” is a way that she feels she can change this kind of sentiment across journalism, writ large.

“Representation matters,” she said.

Jennifer Gerson is a reporter at The 19th, where this story was originally published.

Ayesha Rascoe, Michel Martin, Leila Fadel and Juana Summers, four women of color who have taken over host chairs at flagship NPR programs over the past year. Photo by Lexey Swall for The 19th.

POSTED     May 4, 2023, 12:42 p.m.
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