By Canceling "Tell Me More", NPR Diminishes Public Radio
I am deeply angered by PBS's cancellation of "Tell Me More", with Michel Martin. Like NPR's Terry Gross and Diane Rehm, Martin skillfully hosted an intelligent talk show, with a continually interesting roster of worthy guests.
Her regular features over the course of a given week included speakers on technology and personal finance, correspondence in the mailbox, and a feature Faith Matters about church, religion and spirituality. Her guests were of all faiths, races, ethnicities and sexuality—and often combinations of those categories—but a strength of the show was how explored in depth African American issues and interests. She had weekly gatherings of the Mocha Moms, a panel of women talking about mothering and related issues, and—my favorite—The Barbershop, men of color and friends talking about politics, entertainment, sports and society
Though The Barbershop talked more about sports than I'd choose (Michel Martin is a sports fan), it examined a range of issues with humor, indignation, and perceptive insights by regulars Jimi Izrael (who so far has posted nothing about the cancellation on his blog), civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, and sometimes sportswriter Pablo Torre, Gustavo Arrellano, Cory Dade of The Root, and conservatives like Lester Spence or Neil Minkoff. Their exchanges were always spirited, and—unlike most talk radio—they actually listened and responded to each other.
I live in Michigan, where many cities (Detroit, Flint, nearby Saginaw) have black majorities, and have always had black people around me in school and work. I want to know what concerns them, want to hear political issues in their diverse and argumentative voices, I want—the eternal white boho quest!—to know what's new and hip from them. I pick up local black publications when I see them, full of ads for churches picturing their ministers. I glance at the Grio's facebook news feed. I resolve to read the Root, to which Jimi Izrael contributes, but never seem to. Mostly I listened to "Tell Me More" on days I didn't teach, when I was home at the time it was broadcast.
I guess in my household we are like Britons of George Orwell's generation of BBC listeners, content with the offerings of a single public station. It seems the last twenty-five years has heard a silencing of progressive voices. We used to listen to Pacifica Radio's KPFA-FM out of Berkeley, featuring righteously radical voices Shoutin' Out with Mama O' Shea. My wife laments the perceived silencing of John Hockenberry when he peered too closely at corporate power, and Ferai Chideya had a more pointedly critical political show carried by our mid-Michigan public radio station that was replaced by Michel Martin's more varied one. In his introduction to the anthology of the comic book World War 3 Illustrated, Chicago activist Bill Ayers has admits his son jibes him for listening to the "Pentagon Broadcasting System", as many of its Washington-based experts (frequently, as on the Diane Rehm Show) are from the Defense establishment.
On May 22, when the announcement was made that NPR would end production of "Tell Me More" on August 1, 2014, I sent an angry note to NPR's Director Jarl Mohn about the cancellation. The speed with which I got a reply from Erin of NPR Audience and Community Relations makes me think it was boilerplate sent to the many complainers. The decision was made "for strategic as well as budgetary reasons" and "Michel is staying with NPR as part of a new editorial team to extend her voice and reach new audiences through live events and across all NPR’s news programs and platforms."
Erin goes on to affirm "Members of Tell Me More have been catalysts for change within NPR. They have cultivated impressive sources, introduced new and vital voices to our audiences, and have advanced NPR’s mission with editorial heft and skill. The issues and perspectives that Michel Martin and the show team have brought to public radio will be infused into every aspect of our journalism."
I'll believe it when I hear it. Yet since the announcement a month ago, I have been waiting for a black benefactor to show up and save the show. For a Bill Cosby or Oprah Winfrey or Michael Jordan to call NPR's Director Mohn and ask, well, how much does it cost? Then arranging for their charitable foundations to produce it. Perhaps a deal could be reached where NPR provides 35% for another year, then other funders take up the slack. On May 28, the National Black Church Initiative called for its 34,000 churches—15 denominations of 15.7 million African American churchgoers—not to give money to NPR. Could they instead have earmarked their gifts to ONLY support that show?
NPR's financial model is flawed, where shows that get the most pledges during Pledge Months are seen as the most popular and essential to the well-being of the day's schedule. I have normally switched the station during the irritating Pledge Drives, listening to Classic Rock until a spate of screaming commercials demand I slip on a CD instead. NPR just doesn't get it, and it puts too much faith in this compromised funding model. People didn't call in and pledge during "Tell Me More"—a lot of people, black and others, are working during the time of its broadcast—but it remained a valuable, even essential, part of the day's schedule.
I feel cheated, hoodwinked, swindled. It is as if we've been subjected to a decision very thoughtless, stupid and cruel, affecting many people, a lot of them black. A major conclave of thoughtful black voices has been silenced, and our nation and region is the poorer for it. Trying to turn a deficit into an opportunity, Your Eternal Optimist writing this sent out an email that suggested two opinionated female African-American faculty colleagues I respect fill the local radio void...but producing a regular show would be a big commitment.
Oh, I'll probably still listen to the local college's public radio station, if only for the attentive local lady with the music show who's played my friends' recordings and some of my own. Or for "Philosophy Talk" out of Stanford, or "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" with baffled Paula Poundstone and wry Moe Rocca. And yes, public radio has more diversity than elsewhere on the dial. The investigative "Latino USA" with Maria Hinojosa is run in our area, with its Mexican-American population who'd worked in auto and auto parts manufacturing, on Saturday afternoons with a a syndicated Mexican music show from California, and a local one heavy on Norteño accordions and two-step. Once I turned on an early-Sunday-morning Polish show, and the polkas sounded similar to the Norteña songs. And there's "AfroPop Worldwide", hosted by Georges Collinet, suave and aristocratic African bon vivant traveling the continent and communities of the diaspora, collecting beautiful and spirited musics. OK, these are all worthy of our annual check in their support.
But what had once seemed a paragon of inclusive trustworthiness just doesn't so much any more. NPR, you were wrong wrong wrong to cancel "Tell Me More."
Mike Mosher was on KPFA-FM radio with the Bad Subjects Production Team twice in 1996. Cartoon by Pauly Bunyansky, 2008.