Striving for Diversity in Public Radio

Jun 25, 2017

During lunch at the PRNDI Conference on Saturday, while conferees ate a plain dish of chicken and rice, NPR's Keith Woods delivered a well-seasoned speech about diversity in public radio newsrooms.

Woods, NPR's Vice President of Training and Diversity, began with a discussion about his experience leading Code Switch, the network's team covering race, ethnicity and culture . He mentioned the people he's worked with, like Maria Paz Gutierrez, Karen Grigsby Bates, Gene Demby, Shereen Marisol Meraji and pointed out that they contributed "unique," contextualized coverage for what was happening in America.

"Just reading their names, I feel like I've told you a story about diversity," Woods said. 

He offered examples of their work: Leah Donnella's "Black, Jewish And Avoiding Synagogue on Yom Kippur" and Gene Demby's commentary on black fatherhood.

"Diversity doesn't mean hiring a bunch of people who do personal essays," Woods said. "Sometimes with diversity, what you get is good journalism."

He alluded to NPR's recent report of its newsroom diversity numbers, which show that 75.4% of its staff is white.

Woods went on to explain why public radio fails to completely figure out the "chronically unsolved puzzle" of diversity.

One problem, he said, is paradoxical. 

"Not every female you hire is interested in reproductive rights," Woods said. "Not every black person you hire is going to want to cover the latest Black Lives Matter protest."

But, he said, that doesn't mean newsrooms shouldn't cover those stories. 

"If the newsroom doesn't cover a [story that has a] piece of my identity, my genealogy, you're losing me one day," he said. 

Woods offered ways to diversify applicant pools. One is to offer paid internship programs. Another is to craft fellowships specifically for people of color, women and members of LGBTQ communities. (When Woods asked which stations currently have a program like that, it appeared that about a handful did).

"When NPR started paying interns around 2011, the applicant pool dramatically changed overnight," he said. 

Deanna Garcia, who leads Pittsburg member station WESA, offered her perspective to the diversity canon. 

"As a woman of color and as someone who identifies as LGBTQ, it often feels like when we raise a concern we're not listened to," she said. "And we don't want to feel like a token in your newsroom."

Woods' advice was to start by listening.

Jen Chien, a managing editor for KALW in San Francisco, suggested that good journalism and humanity go hand in hand.

"Being a good journalist starts by being a good person," Chien said. "And being a good person means educating yourself about your own privilege, your own bias and your demeanor."