Roundtable: Informing & Entertaining a Black Audience

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Today's topic: how to provide news, information and entertainment to a black audience. Guests include: Loretta Rucker of the African-American Public Radio Consortium; Johnathan Rodgers, president and CEO of TVOne; and Pluria Marshall, publisher of the Los Angeles Wave.

TONY COX, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox.

If you wanted to launch a show, newspaper or a television network that would provide news, information and entertainment for a black audience, you have to be ready to treat the venture like a science. You have to realize that the audience is diverse from its socioeconomic and educational backgrounds to the regional differences. Sometimes the only commonality for a black audience will be that they want to hear some good news and they want to hear it from people they believe know what they're talking about.

We're joined now by three people who are dedicated to doing just that. Loretta Rucker is the executive for the African-American Public Radio Consortium. They are co-founders of this program, NEWS & NOTES WITH ED GORDON. And Johnathan Rodgers is the president and CEO of TV One. He joins us from our headquarters in Washington. And also joining us from NPR West right here in the studio with me is Pluria Marshall Jr., the publisher of the Los Angeles Wave Newspaper Group.

Thank you all for being with us.

Mr. PLURIA MARSHALL Jr. (Publisher, Los Angeles Wave Newspaper Group): Thank you.

Ms. LORETTA RUCKER (Executive, African-American Public Radio Consortium): Thank you for having us.

COX: Let's start with defining terms first. Pluria, you're sitting here with me. I'm going to put this to you first. Is there a "black" audience, black in quotes, as we once knew it back in the days when we were, you know, negroes or, you know, who are they if there is such an audience and what do they want?

Mr. MARSHALL: Black people want news and information that pretty much the same way as the general market. Yes, there is an audience. It's a very, you know, large audience. It's growing. It's diverse. It's tech savvy. It's on the Web. Our people want the same things that all of Americans wants. They just happen to want it from our perspective. They tend to want to hear us talk about us. And we're more credible to our people.

COX: What do you see, Johnathan?

Mr. JOHNATHAN RODGERS (President & CEO, TV One): On the entertainment side, we do know that African-Americans tend to consume our media differently than as the general market. We watch in fact more television than the general market. We watch television differently. We tend to watch programs that are about us and are respectful for us. And we tend to hate things that exploit us. So in the entertainment area, it's clear that there needs to be options for African-Americans' viewing. In the same way that is on radio, the African-American radio stations are distinct and of great service to their communities. Unfortunately, on the sort of news and information journalism side, the whole basis of journalism in which allegedly it is fair and balanced, has sort of led to a lot of confusion and I'm not as sure as is Mr. Marshall that the African-American audience for news and information is easily defined.

COX: What about that, Loretta, particularly from your standpoint with public radio?

Ms. RUCKER: What we've seen is that there actually is an emerging group--this group is a bit younger--who are tech savvy, as one of my colleagues said, and information seekers. These folks look for information on the Web. They scan a newspaper or two a day. They do CNN. They're kind of seekers, and I guess what we find they're looking for is perspective, perspective, perspective. There's all kinds of views out there, and we're finding that African-Americans are interested in hearing the news from the perspective of African-Americans. Charles Ogletree once said, `There's a difference from being in the middle of the circle and what you can see vs. being on the perimeter, you know, because of depth and all of that.' And so I think that particular perspective that we have to offer is also one that can be enlightening nationwide.

COX: You know, let's break this down a little bit more. Johnathan, I have this for you. It's more specific actually because you are undertaking a very big job having started a new cable television network which targets blacks, but it doesn't have a news program as of yet as I understand it. So how are black folks supposed to get information from your network, for example, and why isn't that that type of informational program isn't part of your start-up operation?

Mr. RODGERS: Well, I agree with the earlier comments that in fact what our audience is looking for is perspective, but I also recognize the fact that perspective is not a mass medium form. And we are in the mass media business. So what we try to do at TV One, where truly our essence is entertainment programming and lifestyle programming, is we do try to add perspective. So we have shows on TV One like "Sharp Talk with Reverend Al," where he gathers people in a barbershop in Brooklyn and talks about issues and current events. We do weekly commentaries from Roland Martin, the executive editor of the Chicago Daily Defender, where he puts in perspective things that are happening in the news and the affect they have on the African-American community. In addition to that, we're proud to every Sunday air "America's Black Forum" because one of the great complaints here in the nation's capital is that the African-American leaders do not get a chance on Sunday morning television.

COX: So that's information as opposed to, quote, unquote, "news" that you're offering already.

Mr. RODGERS: Correct. And again not that anyone should care about it because it's sort of our business, but the raw cost of news gathering is such that unless you are doing it 24 hours, you really cannot afford to do it which is why no cable networks other than the news networks have news. I mean, TNT doesn't have news or Lifetime doesn't have news or USA Network doesn't have news. BET really made a noble attempt to do news, and they made that noble attempt over two decades almost and they probably lost millions and millions of dollars. The audience either didn't want to watch it solid and rejected it, but, you know, that was not a good indicator to us at TV One that our audience was craving a daily news broadcast--perspective, yes. A daily news broadcast of which they have numerous other opportunities to see was not something that we found that our audience wanted.

Ms. RUCKER: I completely agree because to speak to the point that the African-American audience is not monolithic, I've sat and observed focus groups where African-Americans were in a room and this group was familiar with seeing a commentator/information person in entertainment type setting but providing some tidbits of information. When we let that same group hear that same person in a newsmagazine format, they weren't interested in that. That was more information than they were interested in hearing. They preferred to hear this person in a more entertainment type environment.

So I'm saying that to say from the consortium, we are always aware that we're looking for a target audience, and we've actually identified who that target audience is. Our target audience is going to be African-Americans who are intellectually curious, you know, most of the time and who are very socially conscious. If you put one or both of these things together, then these are going to be people who are seeking information, lifelong learners, but they will be African-American lifelong learners.

In public radio, a lot of times that goes hand in hand with a certain amount of income. That's where we may stray a little differently because I've known and you've known and maybe have been people who were socially conscious doing things in the community but it didn't pay.

COX: Ethnic media began in this country in the mid-19th century as a means to get the word out to their respective groups in a way that the white media would not or could not. So fast forward to the new millennium and people like Pluria Marshall and the African-American Radio Consortium and Johnathan Rodgers and TV One. And the question is: That's not necessarily the case any longer with regard to whether or not white media is going to get the word out for black media. Is it--I mean, we don't own the franchise anymore, do we?

Ms. RUCKER: I would say we don't own the franchise, but by and large, it's very important to be one of the constructors of how that gets portrayed because without that, it may not be as authentic as it needs to be. My colleague was talking about how news is expensive, and, of course, it really is and that so speaks to the consortium because in fact the African-American Public Radio Consortium has partnered with NPR because they have a huge news and information infrastructure. So you're right. Locally stations could not provide that level of information, but then when you spread it out over a national program--and then we're in public radio. And so the majority of public radio listeners right now are white. Yet the audience for even this program, Tony, just by sheer numbers in terms of stations, 75 percent of the audience for this show is white. Twenty-five percent is African-American or maybe 33 percent. So I think the issue then when you spread it out is: What can we do to add to the national discussion so that people understand things that they wouldn't have understood otherwise? For this program, Tony, I've heard it said many times by white listeners, `When I tune in, I hear things that I would not have known otherwise.'

COX: But do we care about that? I guess that really is the question I wanted to ask. Is that what is necessary to survive both for this kind of program and this kind of approach on a network as well as what you are doing in the profit-making area, Johnathan?

Mr. RODGERS: Yeah. And what I love is what the previous speaker just said. Maybe it's the form of communication. I think, you know, we don't have a "Today" show or a "Good Morning America," but what we have is "Tom Joyner in the Morning." And I think Tom Joyner and Tavis Smiley on their nationally syndicated radio show do what I think is important for our community. They bring the issues in a form in which we are able to accept it but also we're able to deal with it. The amount of clout Tavis and Tom can bring simply by discussing issues on that radio show is how things work in our community.

COX: And we certainly hope that NEWS & NOTES WITH ED GORDON will be one of those contributors also, right, Johnathan? I'm sure you meant to say that.

Mr. RODGERS: Well, absolutely. But again I'm more speaking in terms of, you know, it's that sort of morning when you wake up and set the agenda for the day, what's important in our lives, and that, you know, takes in a lot of different communities and a lot of different subjects. So I think we are doing a pretty good job in radio. And I also think most local radio stations do a great job of communicating. You know, the concept of a national news broadcast, you know, for and by African-Americans, yes, will probably happen, but what I also fear is on the other side. Does that fear the rest of them to say, `OK. They have their own news. We'll just go about our business'?

COX: That's the conundrum, isn't it? You get what you think you want and then it costs you in another way. Is that what you're suggesting?

Mr. RODGERS: And I'm quite fearful of that.

COX: Let me ask--go ahead, Loretta.

Ms. RUCKER: Well, here's another angle. A lot of our folk don't get opportunities. So if they have opportunities, say it is in a program that targets the African-American audience, those people now have the opportunity if they'd like to go and work at other mainstream broadcasts. And I think from our perspective, it's both and.

COX: Let me ask all of you to comment on this because I think this is a legitimate, albeit perhaps a controversial issue to some extent, and I'm talking now about what I'll call quality of information and standards of delivering of that information. And to be more specific, I'm talking now about accuracy, about timeliness, about grammar, about layout, things of those sorts. These are relevant issues, aren't they? And how do you determine the quality of the information that you provide and how it's provided for an African-American audience. Pluria, let's start with you and then go to Loretta and Johnathan.

Mr. MARSHALL: Well, quality starts at the top. You have to have someone leading your operation that has a very clear vision of what they need to do, and then that is disseminated down to the editors and writers. And when you set that tone, typically you don't have a problem.

COX: Johnathan.

Mr. RODGERS: You know, it's interesting, Tony, because the dilemma you describe was the dilemma that's facing all sort of newspapers in America. So we all sort of have to find a way to communicate with our target audience.

Ms. RUCKER: Let me say from the consortium perspective. We are relentless on ourselves within our industry that whatever products we put out have to match the same level of quality as the top programs in the industry because, you know, as you know, we don't get that many opportunities. And so when you do, you really, really have to meeting the task. And so I think quality is an issue that we think about constantly.

COX: There are two issues that I want to hit in the time that we have left. The first one has to do with the digital divide. We spoke briefly about it and the fact that the Internet is also a competitive resources or a useable resource if you will for all three mediums that we are discussing today. Now I know that in your case, Pluria Marshall Jr., you do make use of that.

Mr. MARSHALL: Yes, we do. We provide it as a service to our readers--is not a profit center for us primarily because everyone's giving it away. So consequently it is difficult for us to put a financial model on it basically.

COX: Johnathan, are you able to use it in a profitable way? I know that you use it. I just don't know if it's profitable yet for you.

Mr. RODGERS: At the moment, it's not profitable, but it's within the business plan to be profitable. What it is now for us is it's a marketing tool, but what's interesting about the digital divide which really doesn't exist anymore is not only do African-Americans use the Internet in great numbers but we use it for real services. We use it to find a job. We use it to find a recipe. We use it to find out how to solve a medical problem. So African-Americans on the Web, I will tell you, are a very sophisticated lot.

COX: What's your experience, Loretta, with regard to you? NPR has a massive Web site and we are, as this program, a part of that, but...

Ms. RUCKER: Yes.

COX: ...is there more to it that can be done?

Ms. RUCKER: Sure. Each station at this point, every public radio station obviously has its own Web site at this point at least within the consortium. And those Web sites currently are used to provide, you know, general information--schedule and, you know, some things--program schedule and, you know, play lists and things like that and membership. It actually is profitable for public radio in terms of listeners becoming members through the Web site. But I think where everybody wants to build out is, you know, once we have a program, how much more added value, what information can we put on the Web site that we can then send our listeners to so they get value added through the Web site? That's the long range plan.

COX: Loretta Rucker is the executive for the African-American Public Radio Consortium. They are co-founders of this program NEWS & NOTES WITH ED GORDON. Johnathan Rodgers is the president and CEO of TV One. He joins us from our headquarters in Washington, DC. Also joining us from NPR West right here with me in studio, Pluria Marshall Jr., the publisher for the Los Angeles Wave Newspaper Group. Thank you all for being with us. It was a very informational and inspiring discussion.

Mr. MARSHALL: Thank you, Tony.

Ms. RUCKER: Thank you, Tony.

Mr. RODGERS: Thank you, Tony.

COX: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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