By Stephanie Foo
Stephanie Foo, one of AIR’s New Voices scholars, was asked by AIRblast to pose a question to some of her colleagues: “What do new pathways into public media look like?” This essay first ran in the April 2011 AIRblast.
Most of my friends have no idea what I do.
They know that I make radio, but they think that means I play Top 40 hits and say “Goooood morning!” live in a really deep voice. I put up a Facebook picture of Ira Glass and me chillin’ together recently. One person commented, “Who’s that, your new boyfriend? He’s cute!”
This should come as no surprise. Public radio has a reputation for being old, elitist, and whitewashed. Many of my friends are minorities or come from low-income backgrounds. They think that “Fresh Air” is a kind of Febreze.
Until recently, most program directors at public radio stations were just fine with that. To even engage in competition with mainstream media and its flashing lights and screaming cacophony seemed to compromise the integrity of public media. The thought was, “We don’t need the MTV audience.”
Except … increasingly, we do. With the new threats that public radio is facing, especially financially, we can no longer ignore large swaths of the population. It is projected that minorities will outnumber Caucasians in a single generation, so embracing diversity and people of all ages is simply a sustainable business practice. Exclusivity is for Prada and Chanel, not journalism. And we don’t need to dumb ourselves down to achieve this. On the contrary, I believe that attempting to make public radio more inclusive will result in more modern, relevant, and accurate journalism.
Getting minorities and young people to tune in isn’t as difficult as you may think. Forget the w-w-wacky ways of announcing your call sign. Here are five critical steps to diversifying public radio.
1. Revamp Hiring Practices.
One of the reasons why minorities don’t listen to public radio is that they rarely hear their own voices on it. This is first and foremost an issue of hiring minority hosts, reporters, and producers.
It’s difficult for anyone to break into the public radio field, let alone the young and broke. After college, I was unhappy in print media and decided to try to land a public radio internship. But during my quest, I learned that you’ve got to have a substantial amount of money in the bank for expensive recording equipment, Pro Tools, an Mbox, a graduate degree, and a willingness to quit a full-time job for an internship that may or may not lead to a radio position. I once had a producer insist that I pay him a $500 deposit to be his intern.
My current employer, “Snap Judgment,” [ed. note: Foo left “Snap Judgment” for “This American Life.”] implements many hiring practices that I believe encourage diversity. We pay our interns and we don’t necessarily require previous experience in radio or Pro Tools. Don’t sweat it. Your interns will learn editing programs quickly. They grew up in front of a computer. Instead, focus on searching for what is harder to teach: dedication and drive, and the ability to tell a story in any format, whether that may be performance, print, film, or sound.
Taking risks with our staff has paid off. We have a diverse, opinionated group of producers with wide-ranging talents. Our video producer, Will Urbina, had no idea what “RadioLab” was when he started, but he creates brilliant videos that showcase our stories visually. Producer Anna Sussman had never added sound effects to a piece, and now she scores epic, vivid stories. I’d never so much as pitched a radio story, but after a year of working here, I’ve produced 52.
Even if the number of minority producers increases on a local level, do consider how critical it is to hire minority hosts for national shows. Think television: not everyone may know about a smaller show like “Brothers and Sisters,” but everyone knows “Oprah.” Until we integrate youth and minorities into the “Oprahs” of public radio, youth and minorities will not listen to public radio.
2. Become Part of the Community.
Engaging with the community is an area where public radio could definitely take a hint from commercial radio. Stations could host tables at block parties, barbecues, battle-of-the-bands contests — events where you can have a whiskey sour with your favorite host at the local bar.
Martina Castro, managing editor of “Crosscurrents,” a radio news magazine at KALW in San Francisco, says, “We need to make our content valuable and relevant to more communities, and often that means going to them and finding out what that means to them, rather than guess on our end.”
Too often, reporters can be “tourists” in minority communities or interview academics rather than the populations themselves. This is poor journalism. It neglects to obtain first-person sources and fails to cover as many viewpoints as possible. Assigning reporters to beats in minority and low-income communities helps the station build integral relationships and feature real, un-exoticized minority voices and stories on the radio.
Says Martina: “The beats have really helped our ability to dig deep into a topic and community. Our transportation reporter, Casey Miner, has covered so many different aspects of transportation issues in the Bay Area, stories you would never think of. And our criminal justice reporters, Rina Palta and Ali Winston, are also really getting to the point where they are breaking stories and, I think, making a difference in their coverage of Oakland gang injunctions.”
3. Get ‘Em While They’re Young.
Many young people are — as I was — ignorant about public radio because they were never exposed to it while they were young. So we should make the effort to pursue them.
Part of that is outreach. Aaron Scott, an OPB producer, says, “I would love to see some sort of posters and quarter-sheet flyers with a blurb encouraging youth to apply for fellowships and info about AIR … sent to minority youth centers, high school and college newspapers … not to mention their Facebook pages and guidance/career counselors.” Internship and mentoring opportunities should be easily accessible to teens interested in journalism.
Collaborating with other media spheres is an exceptional way to spark young interest. Nothing gets a high schooler’s attention faster than a viral video, and the “RadioLab”project “Words” got hundreds of thousands of views. (The directors, btw? Kids in their 20s.) The quickest way to make public radio part of popular culture is to hook up with it. Sure, let’s bring Alec Baldwin in for pledge week pleas. And Justin Bieber, while we’re at it. Let’s get retweeted by Kanye West. Let’s have Banksy design our tote bags. Let’s make a video of your host getting pinched by Ellen Page. Let’s not stop until we see kids walking down the street with NPR in diamonds around their neck and Jad Abumrad’s face airbrushed onto their XXL T-shirts. And let us not by any means assume that because a piece is interesting to young people it is somehow less than. Take, for example, the radio produced by Youth Radio and WNYC’s Radio Rookies. Kids who have zero clue about who Dan Quayle is produce heartbreakingly honest stories about the trials of youth, poverty, and peer pressure. Straight from the mouths of babes. As Shirley Diaz’s Third Coast Award-winning piece “Growing Up in the System” proves, young people can make powerful radio. It is an example of how we can beat commercial media enterprises with the quality and intimacy of our content. Her piece is more emotionally compelling, interesting, and intellectual than any reality TV show. If teens heard stories like hers on a regular basis, I believe they would pick radio over “Teen Mom” any day, hands down.
4. Value Independent Producers.
I’ve known a few freelance independent producers. One was a waitress. One had an administrative job. And one of them was a drug runner. Really.
So many independent producers struggle to find income because their pieces don’t fit into the style of most paying shows. If some of our most interesting and intelligent producers must avoid taking risks in sound and story so their pieces will air, then we are essentially admitting that there is no place for innovation in public radio. How can progress be achieved without experimentation?
REMIX Radio is providing an excellent solution to this problem — showcasing independent producers of every style and voice, and changing radio’s landscape for the better by providing the opportunity to have storytelling as easily accessible and ubiquitous as music. Program directors and shows can easily pick and choose between various topics and styles, as well as discover new and compelling producers. Independent producer and graduate student Karen Attiah pitched many stories about Africa to news stations that told her, “Stories about Africa don’t have high news value.” REMIX would allow her to pitch her stories to a whole community of stations and producers, some of whom, I’m sure, would feel differently.
REMIX currently pays 50 cents per minute. More funding toward REMIX and support for its development around the country would give us all radio that makes us sit up straight and go, “What was that? Can I make it? And what have I been listening to all my life?”
5. Make Friends (or Followers).
Lady Gaga is wearing dresses made out of plastic and our telephones tell us where our friends and food trucks are. The future is now, people.
In this age of instant gratification, radio needs to be easy to access. Everything should be podcastable and downloadable, and after your audience has spent time listening to your show, they should be able to brag about it via their Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, Last.fm logs, and Tumblr. And when they do wind up sending messages @you, it means a lot to have an organization respond. When I tweet a simple “Thank you!” to our followers, many of them are so excited to have us respond that they become regular communicators and promoters of our show.
This may seem like the most obvious of all the suggestions, but I can’t drive it home enough. In many ways, the Internet is the great equalizer. Where else can you simultaneously befriend a classroom of children in San Diego and a knitting club in Philadelphia?
Yes. Public radio needs an image overhaul. To appeal to a wider audience, we certainly need to be cooler. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a baby carrots-grade ad campaign. It just requires us to be open-minded to new kinds of producers with new backgrounds, to care about a wide range of communities, to interact with and represent them with honesty and commitment, and to take risks with the content we choose and the people whom we trust to make it.
Trust me, it’s easier than it looks. In fact, I’m doing my part right now — should I get my giant NPR bling in gold or platinum?
Stephanie Foo is a producer for the NPR storytelling show Snap Judgment. She cuts hoodlums and tape in San Francisco. Stephanie and her interviewees Martina Castro, Aaron Scott, and Karen Attiah were among AIR’s 21 New Voices scholars at the Third Coast Festival last fall.