As NPR Cancels 'Tell Me More,' The Erasure of Black People in Radio Continues

Radio was the first medium I fell in love with. Before I discovered the power of the written word, I spent two hours each week discussing the ins and outs of hip-hop at the student radio station where I DJed. I had dreams of climbing the radio ranks before launching a successful media career like Wendy Williams'. There was something majestic about connecting to people through the radio waves, and I wanted to leverage that connection into a syndicated radio show and eventually, a television show.

That dream ended up buried under other aspirations. I transferred to a college that had a magazine but not a student radio station, and I discarded my original dream in order to pursue another.

It was New York's Hot 97 that introduced me to the power of radio. As a hip-hop lover, Hot 97 represented everything I love. When Tupac Shakur was shot and killed, my parents and I were glued to Hot 97. It is that kind of listener dedication that has kept black radio afloat.

But radio has stayed important to me along the way, which is why I was so dismayed this week when National Public Radio announced its plan to shutter Tell Me More, a daily program that focuses its coverage on race, gender, faith, and other critical issues relevant to communities of color.

Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s Executive Vice President and Chief Content Officer, stated that the reason for eliminating the show and 28 other positions at NPR is simply budgetary.

"We're trying to make the most of the resources that we have and ensure that we keep radio healthy and try to develop audience in the digital arena," Wilson said in a statement.

But shuttering the single NPR program that centers around black Americans seems misguided, especially since it’s the third NPR series "expressly designed to have a primary appeal for African-American listeners and other people of color" to be axed.

Tell Me More debuted in April 2007 — almost two years before Tavis Smiley left NPR with his show, News and Notes , in tow. Coining its segments the “Barbershop” and the “Beauty Shop,” Tell Me More was created to speak to black Americans, who often consider those two locales central to conversing about community issues. The show covered everything from black feminism on Twitter to primetime television diversity. Host Michel Martin now joins a growing list of radio professionals who are losing their distinct platforms.

Luckily, Martin isn’t leaving NPR. She will appear at public events and contribute to the newsmagazine and website. NPR will also continue the blog Code Switch and the Race Card Project , both of which address race.

But none of that eases my discomfort with losing Tell Me More. I am well aware of the budget crisis NPR faces, but shuttering this show reaffirms just how little even the most progressive media values black voices, and how hard we still must fight in order to have a platform to speak about race in America.

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In its 2013 report on the state of American journalism, the Pew Research Center noted a rapid decline in African American radio stations. Paul Porter, co-founder of Industry Ears, a media watchdog group, attributes the accelerated decline to a specific piece of legislation. “Black radio, ownership, and voices have been spiraling backwards since the Telecomm Act of 1996,” he said to NBC’s theGrio.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 enabled companies to own an unlimited number of television and radio stations. Lifting that previous ban allowed conglomerates like Clear Channel to purchase stations in bulk, which left smaller stations reeling. Now, only 7.7 percent of radio stations are owned by ethnic minorities, according to Dr. Kristal Brent Zook, author of I See Black People: The Rise and Fall of African American-Owned Television and Radio .

A group of black media organizations recently sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission to encourage the commissioners to examine the “demise of black radio in America.” The letter read in part:

The number of independent radio station owners declined by 39 percent in the decade following the passage of the Telecommunications Act. Greater consolidation in the radio industry created large radio conglomerates that are less responsive to the information and entertainment needs of the communities they serve. And perhaps no other community has been as negatively impacted by this growing media inequality as the African American community.

Black radio used to be a media cornerstone that people of color relied on for information. As the group of black media organizations noted in their letter, "many black radio stations have historically provided the community with a voice in the fight for greater equality. African American DJs not only provided the community with the latest news and information, but they played records by local black artists that served as the soundtrack for African American empowerment."

That is best exemplified in legend Petey Greene’s historic career. Portrayed by Don Cheadle in Talk to Me, Greene’s position as a prominent D.C. host allowed him to take an active role in Chocolate City. He was responsible for the Ralph Waldo Greene Community Centre and Efforts for Ex-Convicts, which reduced recidivism by offering employment opportunities to convicted felons, and also suppressed the rising tension in D.C. after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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It was New York's Hot 97 that introduced me to the power of radio. As a hip-hop lover, Hot 97 represented everything I love. When Tupac Shakur was shot and killed, my parents and I were glued to Hot 97. It is that kind of listener dedication that has kept black radio afloat.

But these days, black radio seems to exist mostly in a past that we can’t seem to replicate. Though black Americans have syndicated programming like the Tom Joyner Morning Show , the Steve Harvey Morning Show, and the Michael Baisden Show , we no longer have a mainstream radio platform that forefronts our unique issues.

That worries me, and honestly, it should worry anyone who loves radio.