NPR, Race, and St. Louis

In 1998 I was working seven days a week between receiving at Linens ‘N Things in Town and Country, MO and announcing on weekends at 90.7 FM, KWMU, the NPR affiliate in St. Louis, which was actually on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis in North County. The campus is less than two miles south of here. The radio station has since moved to Midtown St. Louis, in the Grand Center area.

I was 34, married, and our first child, a boy was born in March of that year. I didn’t get a lot of sleep in the spring of 1998.

About a month after Bryce was born the general manager fired the award-winning news director in a controversy over reimbursements that was really a personal dispute. Some people thought the firing was illegal. Two news persons on staff quit in protest. (It developed later that the general manager was corrupt, and probably had a personality disorder.) There were three news openings at a place where I already worked on air!

KWMU needed a news director and two reporters. I was a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, and had been a news director in two small markets for five years. I was a good broadcaster after a steep learning curve my first year on the job at KURM Radio in Rogers, Arkansas.

I immediately applied for one of the reporter positions. They gave me a cursory interview in the spring. The openings lingered into the summer, at which time they interviewed me again in a more serious setting.

I badly wanted this job and thought I had the inside track. I was right where I wanted to be–on air in my home town, with the tantalizing opportunity to do hard news in a media environment of fluff, distractions, lies (thanks, Rush,) and rampant commercialism. It was the go-go late ’90’s; “irrational exuberance” and all that.

I came in to work one Sunday morning six months after the upheaval in the newsroom and saw tacked to the bulletin board a notice about what they had done with the openings. They had hired two White men from out of town and promoted a White man from within to the news director job. No one called me in personally to say I hadn’t gotten one of the three jobs. (One of the men left within a year; the other went to KMOX more than a decade ago).

I was crestfallen, and fell into a deep funk. My drinking increased. I became distant and grim. Due to my schedule, I had lost social connections to my friends from earlier days and became embittered. I began to believe that both of my jobs were dead ends, and I had no days off for almost six years. I worked every major holiday at the radio station in my time there. (I got vacations!)

In the second interview, they asked me what I could bring that was different from the other applicants, and they also asked me what I thought the station needed to be better. I had planned ahead of time for this and I was sure I had a winning angle. I said, “We need to hire more Black people, and we need to cover the Black community better. We’re right here in North County and we are missing out on an important opportunity to gain listeners and credibility with that audience.” The committee stared blankly.

I don’t think I have to go into the NPR stereotype to convince you that the Black audience for public radio in St. Louis in the late 1990’s was minuscule. Everyone knew it; it didn’t matter to many people, and the ones it did bother weren’t bothered enough to do much about it.

The people who interviewed me that day are good folks who are actually pretty progressive. However, not only did my comments not help me, I’m of the opinion that they likely hurt me in my attempt to land one of those jobs.

About a year later I was wandering through the newsroom one Sunday afternoon and I saw a stack of resumes. (They were advertising another news opening). I began to leaf through them. Two in particular leaped out at me from the stack. They were the resumes of Black women, I assumed, by their names. I don’t remember their actual names but I’ll call them Latisha and Jackee.

Their resumes were better than mine. Both were working in mid- or major-market television at the time. KWMU had some prestige as a serious news operation and these were the kind of applicants they were getting.

I don’t know if they ever came through for an interview, but I do know that neither of them ever worked at St. Louis Public Radio. I kind of waited for a year to see if either of those women was hired.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that these two applicants were deemed poor fits for the culture of our newsroom. I say this because the radio station was lily-White by 1998 except for one weekend announcer, Rod Milam, a friend. You see, they weren’t just regular Black, like a Joe Jones, they were “really Black”, because of the names their parents gave them. It would be funny if weren’t so sad.

Competition from the Internet and the local paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch forced KWMU’s hand. They had to catch up and diversify their staff and on-air offerings to retain an audience that was changing and finding other places to get news.

In the mid-2000’s they added a show called “News and Notes with Farai Chideya”. Ms. Chideya is a brilliant writer and documentary maker who brought a refreshing sense of mission to the radio show. She interviewed people we had not heard from in-depth before, and it had a decidedly Black focus. The show was like none other aired in this market. I loved it.

The network poobahs, or someone locally, decided that Ms. Chideya’s show was too radical, too left for public radio. We’d heard there were complaints about the show from some donors to the station.

They yanked “News and Notes” off the air and replaced it in 2009 with a trivial, center-right program, still focused on Black “issues”, helmed by Michel Martin. The show was clearly lip service to Black people, and some took it as an obvious ideological rejoinder from above that was supposed to end the complaints from White listeners.

Around the same time, to mollify us in our sorrow about Farai, KWMU added the two-hour “Tavis Smiley Show” on Sunday nights from 7 – 9. Complaints, harassment, and hate flowed in, especially about the second hour, in which Tavis reviewed recent events with the widely respected public intellectual Cornel West. He was one of my favorites at the time. I had purchased his book “Race Matters” in 1992, and read him in The Nation.

The second hour of the show was dropped. Tavis is still on here for one hour a week.

These are all things I know and are true about the NPR affiliate in St. Louis. Then Ferguson happened.

KWMU, and the St. Louis American, the free weekly centered on the Black community (and edited by a White man) do the best job of covering Ferguson. Kudos go to Stephen Deere of the Post-Dispatch, as well. (I’m a little mad at him right now for not MENTIONING ME in a long piece on the city council situation, but he’s OK!)

KWMU does a good job, but they do an even better job because they have diversified their staff. Jason Rosenbaum is expert on the problems here, although even he would tell you he probably needs to spend more time in Ferguson. We see a rotating cast of White women who are indefatigable–Rachel Lippmann, Camille Phillips, and Stephanie Lecci among them.

Things are tight and these folks don’t make a lot of money. KWMU will use anyone to cover Ferguson if he or she is interested, it appears, based on my personal knowledge of how the place works. The reporters we see seem to enjoy what they do.

A Jewish man and women: marginalized or historically disempowered groups. KWMU airs, uses, and otherwise benefits from copy and materials generated by individuals who would have been de facto barred from those jobs 40 years ago, and it wasn’t even planned.

How can it be that only minorities or women at the station are interested in Ferguson? Who knows why we don’t see any white, Anglo men who are reporters at the station in Ferguson? Could it be that through their fear, discomfort, guilt, or insecurity, the White men have tacitly disqualified themselves from carrying out a task at which they purportedly excel? How are we to cover for the guys who won’t cover Ferguson?!

They do it by hiring different kinds of people who are good at what they do and know how to do it better than the guys who came before. The station now has a robust website. The reporters have more to do than they did in the past; all of them must take photographs, and they have a wonderful new hire, Carolina Hidalgo, from New York, who adds incredible flavor to the website with her photography. “Radio photography, lol!” my friend Tony tweeted the other day after seeing her photos of the Ferguson City Council meeting.

St. Louis Public Radio is a much better operation than it was when they hired me 20 years ago. They came far too late, and have moved far too slowly to diversity in hiring but they are on the right path. Geri Mitchell is kind of lonely as a Black on-air person at the station, but she is excellent and a breath of fresh air as the morning host. She had a knee replaced over the holidays and it was good to get her back in the middle of January.

I believe in competition. KWMU had to do this to become more nimble and versatile, more profitable, more competitive.

Those who say they don’t see race, and that it shouldn’t matter, are lying through their teeth and dead wrong, respectively. In the case of NPR, race, and St. Louis, did I prove it?






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