For those familiar with the infamous entitlement and machismo of big entertainment, the accusations, and subsequent takedowns, of the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, and Matt Lauer, to name a few, were not that shocking.
But for stalwarts of the nation’s most revered public radio shows, the latest names felt like a familial betrayal. Garrison Keillor? John Hockenberry? Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz? Seriously? These names have symbolized integrity, trust, and character for decades. But what we might not have realized is the sound of these voices we trust contain within them structures of power that reinforce systems of exploitation, oppression, and male dominance.
In her book Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, Susan Douglas notes, “boys and men have found in radio not only a hobby but also a medium that validates their aesthetic and emotional needs.” As she later explains, radio is a “medium in which boys really feel they can be boys without apology.”
The initial vision of public radio, Susan Stamberg recounts in This Is NPR: The First 40 Years, was to sound more relaxed and easygoing than the announcer voices of the past, like that of Edward R. Murrow. She says that Bill Simmering, “NPR’s tall skinny, and too pale program director,” told her: “We’re going to talk to our listeners just the way we talk to our friends—simply, naturally. We don’t want to be the all-knowing voices from the top of the mountain.”
But the reality of public radio would not embody this egalitarian ideal. One of the biggest issues with the new “old guard” is what happens on-air, in plain sight, and not just what happens behind closed doors. Programs like "A Prairie Home Companion" simply made space on the airwaves for white male voices that were counter to the loud, angry, white male, overtly misogynistic voices of other talk radio hosts. Although they represented a different aspect of American white maleness, they marginalized femininity, poor people, people of color, and people with accents—a structure and style that haven’t changed much through the years.
Host Robert Conley, a calm, white male voice, introduced the stories of the day. The first clip was the voice of an African-American woman “we call Janice,” who explained what her life was like as a drug addict. Conley came back to tell us more about Janice and then revealed that we’d also hear from a farmer and from anti-war protesters.
It’s a structure that presents the role of the host as the ultimate authority, one that contains in it messages about social identity, legitimacy, and honesty. The host’s voice is the core, while others’ voices are periphery and spectacle, like those of Midwestern farmers, black women, poor people, and foreigners.
As of 2016, efforts to diversify the NPR newsroom, and the portrayals of different voices, had made little headway. A piece published by the NPR Ombudsman in April of 2017 reported that, “according to NPR's human resources department, of the 350 employees in the news division as of Oct. 31, 2016, 75.4 percent were white. Asians made up 8.3 percent of the staff, followed by blacks or African Americans (8.0 percent), Hispanics or Latinos (5.4 percent), those who identified as two or more races or ethnic identities (2.6 percent) and American Indian (0.3 percent).”
The breakdown along the gender lines in those reports was more promising: 55 percent of newsrooms were populated by women. Yet the vast majority of top executives in the NPR newsrooms were male.
Arguably, even though the majority of NPR news teams are female, the standards of presentation remain pretty much the same. And it’s even more difficult to gain legitimacy for reporters of color and women in the newsrooms of member stations, like KUT, Austin, Texas NPR station, where I work as a host and executive producer. According to senior editor Ben Philpott, in the 15 years he’s worked for KUT, only one black woman has held a full-time reporter position. She was hired on December 4, 2017.
As listeners, we may not have even noticed the imbalance of power in this representation.
The voices on NPR—Bob Edwards, Scott Simon, Garrison Keillor—give us the illusion of security. We could trust them. They would protect us.
They sounded so smooth as they lulled our critical minds to sleep. We didn’t realize that the bastion of grassroots media and integrity were “publicradiosplaning” issues that impacted women, immigrants and voices of color.
But isn’t it the institutions we value most that we must also scrutinize the most critically?
We can no longer suspend our disbelief that a capitalist, patriarchal virus has not infected every aspect of our life and society just because we give $10 a month to our local NPR station. It’s important that we put our mouths where our money is.
We, as listeners, supporters, or as public radio employees, must demand more from NPR and our local NPR affiliate stations. We have to tell our local station program directors and general managers that we want more locally produced content, more hosts that are women and people of color, and more community-based programs that are the heart and soul of public radio. And we must take a more critical look at how it assigns value to people, stories, and, literally, voices, through the accents and aesthetics of its programming. And we have to support them in this process.
We must hold them accountable for making these changes by talking openly and honestly with our program directors, general managers and news directors about programming decisions and representation in regards to race, class, and gender inequality.
At risk is more than the random “driveway moment.” In this fight, we'll be defending the relevance of public radio itself.