NPR and Diversity— NABJ Says NPR Must Do Better

The National Association of Black Journalists is questioning NPR's commitment to diversity after NPR let go one of only two African American males in newsroom management.

Greg Peppers, the executive producer for NPR's newscast unit — which has the largest NPR audience — left his position on Oct. 16 after joining NPR in the 1980s. That unit puts out 37 newscasts a day, seven days a week. News reports say Peppers was fired, but NPR's policy is not to release information on personnel matters.

The same week, NPR announced the retirement of Walt Swanston, an African-American woman, who has been NPR's director of diversity since 2003. While it looked conspiratorial, it wasn't. She is retiring for health reasons.

In reaction to Pepper's leaving, NABJ president Kathy Y. Times wrote that her organization "is saddened to learn that National Public Radio has fired one of its few remaining black managers."

According to NABJ's figures, of the 68 people on NPR's corporate team, only eight — or 12 percent — are people of color. Four African Americans. Two Hispanic Americans. One Iranian American. One of South Asian descent. (NPR says those figures are incorrect but acknowledges there is a problem.)

"It is NABJ's belief that actions speak much louder than your words," said the NABJ letter on Tuesday. "It is not enough to provide internships for young people or hire them into entry-level positions. Diversity must also be reflected among the managers who decide what news gets covered and who gets to cover it."

NPR's President and CEO Vivian Schiller reacted Thursday by publicly releasing NPR's staff composition for the first time. Of the 34 people NPR identifies as executive and upper management, only 4 — or 11.8 percent — are people of color, according to NPR figures.

"I couldn't agree more that NPR must increase the diversity of its staff — particularly in management and editorial," wrote Schiller in response to NABJ's letter. "I am on the record with the media and our employees, stations and board in acknowledging that NPR must take a leadership position in diversity, just as we do in high-quality journalism and digital innovation." (NPR's Diversity Policy.)

Out of 754 employees, NPR has 506 management, editorial, production and on-air positions. Of these, 114 — or 22.5 percent — are staff who self-identify as people of color, according to Schiller's response. More than 22 percent of the 58 programming managers are people of color.

NABJ noted that the minority population in the U.S. is about 32 percent.

At NPR, 27.3 percent of the 754-person staff are people of color, according to Schiller's letter, which might seem to nearly mirror the U.S. population. But NPR's figures also show what most staffers at NPR already know — the highest percentages of people of color are in clerical (64.2) and administrative (30.9). Here's the chart.

Out of 32 million people listening to public radio — not just NPR — on 800 stations, 12 percent are African Americans and 10 percent are Hispanics, according to Arbitron for spring 2009. [These are corrected figures as of 12:15 p.m. 10-30-2009]

For NPR's flagship programs — Morning Edition and All Things Considered — the listenership is lower. Five percent of the audience listening to those shows is African American and 4 percent of the audience is Hispanic, according to NPR-provided data (That compares with an audience share of 18 percent African American and 25 percent Hispanic for all of radio).

NPR needs to do better in diversifying its staff, especially in management. Another concern not addressed by NABJ or Schiller is that the only on-air African American male is Juan Williams, who is not a staff employee. Over a year ago, NPR's management put him on contract as a news analyst.

The lack of diversity within NPR's management was apparent to me when I first joined NPR in October 2007. Since then, there have been diversity meetings, committees, surveys, and they all conclude the same thing: NPR must focus on diversifying its staff, especially if NPR wants to better reflect the population and continue to expand its audience.

Schiller recently put together yet another new committee to explore how to better diversify the staff. She joined NPR only 10 months ago, and I hope she has more success.

A news product that doesn't accurately reflect the changing demographics — including ethnicity, age, socioeconomics, gender, sexual identity and politics — of the country loses its relevance.

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