ABOVE PHOTO: William J. Marrazzo, President & CEO, WHYY-FM
WHYY-FM, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) radio outlet in metro Philadelphia is supposed to belong to all of us. That is, it’s supposed to be “owned” by all of us who pay the federal taxes WHYY receives in the form of public grants.
In addition, WHYY’s on-air programming is supposed to reflect the needs and tastes of its listening area, i.e.–southeastern Pennsylvania; Delaware (where it’s licensed); and southern New Jersey.
According to the latest U.S. census numbers, the Philadelphia metro area is one of the nation’s most racially and economically diverse urban centers- with 21 percent African American, 8.3 percent Hispanic and 5.2 percent Asian American racial breakdown.
PHOTO: More than Muppetts- To most African American television viewers the mention of PBS (the Public Broadcasting Service) triggers visions of the cute and fuzzy creatures that have made “Sesame Street” an international icon for the past half century. But PBS- affiliated television and radio stations are much more than a collection of entertaining and educational puppets or occasional specials on American history. Every day millions in public tax dollars are spent to broadcast images and information from dozens of PBS affiliated stations across this country. Typically, PBS draws its audiences from among the highest income earners and those with the strongest educational backgrounds.
And, finally if you thought an institution which relies on a combination of public financing and widespread philanthropy would employ a workforce reflective of its broadcast market, think again. Not only is WHYY’s Board of Directors comprised almost totally of whites, but so is its corporate elite, some of whom earn salaries in excess of $500,000 a year.
In the 21st century, this so-called “soft bigotry” has replaced the outright de facto segregation of previous generations. In today’s world, this “Main Line segregation” doesn’t post “No Colored” signs. They just don’t circulate job openings where people of color gather, go to school or congregate regularly. Evidence found in WHYY’s “public file” shows they also carefully select all on-air talent and limit the diversity of guests who are allowed on their shows originating from their studios in the city’s Historic District.
But why should you care? Communities of color in this region have never exhibited any affinity for WHYY’s programming menu of talk fests, classical music, national and international news, along with shows on gardening, auto repair, science and psychology.
We at the Philadelphia Sunday SUN believe our readers should care because every day the electronic and online media in this country broadcasts or streams news, entertainment and talk shows that define our work choices, political options, educational opportunities, health options, investment possibilities etc. In other words, the things on which contemporary civilized life depends. As a media consumer, the SUN believes you should care what’s being beamed at you, because even if you are not watching or listening, you can be assured that someone who has the power to decide these important matters for you is watching and listening to all that stuff you think is irrelevant. Welcome to the 21st century.
Unlocking the door to WHYY Entering WHYY’s radio and television studio headquarters across from the National Constitution Center in the city’s Independence Mall is like visiting a showroom designed by Ikea. First- there are acres of open space interrupted by only an occasional table or desk set. The gleaming metal stairways, bannisters and ultra-large windows allow waves of sunlight to bathe the interior’s blond wood tables, chairs and cabinetry. The atmosphere is definitely Scandinavian modernism. Behind this placid façade though is a 24-hour news and cultural arts video and audio broadcast outlet that each year raises and spends around $27 million.
WHYY-FM attracts more than 410,000 radio listeners weekly and more than 90,000 website visitors per month.
Within walking distance of WHYY’s headquarters are monuments to the area’s rich multicultural heritage: Chinatown, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, The President’s House memorial honoring the slaves who served the original First Family and the fashionable townhomes of Olde City.
But that’s where the diversity ends. WHYY’s potential audience may resemble the rainbow of ethnic strands found in today’s urban melting pot, but its workforce is more aligned with towns in Idaho or Vermont, two of the whitest states in the country. So too is its programming. Not one of WHYY’s regular on-air personalities is African American, Latin or Asian. Not one.
There are nine persons listed as top executive staff, from President and CEO to V.P. for Technology. All are white. [See chart for their salaries.]
Ditto for its board of directors. Twenty-seven of its 29 board members are white.
And when WHYY recruits new employees rarely does it place want ads in any of the area’s black newspapers. WHYY does utilize a long list of sources for job referrals, but that list doesn’t include institutions like the Urban Affairs Coalition, HBCU’s Philadelphia Urban League or Opportunities Industrial Center (OIC) or the NAACP. Similarly, the Hispanic and Asian language press and their community groups were also woefully underutilized, as noted in an inspection of WHYY’s public file which is open to all.WHYY’s license to operate from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) expires April 30, 2014. Because of the lack of minority inclusion in management, hiring and on-air talent, the publisher of the Philadelphia Sunday SUN–an African American weekly newspaper for the past 22 years– has filed a petition with the FCC to deny a license renewal to WHYY-FM.
We know we face long odds. But after a number of meetings over the years with the station’s top management to address our concerns about racial inclusion and diversity of programming, the petition to deny was our last option.
A Weak FCC aids and abets the problem In the past two decades, the FCC’s role in policing radio stations, especially in the area of employee diversity, has been dramatically eroded. Ownership has also been drastically affected with only a handful of broadcast properties still in the hands of blacks and Latinos.
No where is the FCC’s lack of authority more evident than in the reporting requirements on the make-up of each station’s workforce. Once called “EEOC” reports these annual documents used to tell the public the actual racial make-up a station’s workforce.
However, for the past 13 years small and large (over 100 employees) stations have not been required to list their individual hires by race. This means that in each public file the last year such postings had to be included was for 2000.
There were 173 full-time male employees listed on WHYY’s report that year; 16 were black or 9 percent. There were no Hispanic males and only two Asian Americans. As for women, 71 white women worked for WHYY in 2000, with most of them listed as either “professional” or “office & clerical” workers. In 2000, there were 19 full- time female employees who were listed as African American, with 12 listed in the “office & clerical” category. One Hispanic woman was listed as “professional” as were two Asian American females.
The most current employment data from WHYY is contained in three reports called “Recruitment Activity April 2004—March 2005”; “April 2005—March 2006”; and “April 2006—March 2007.”
Far from comprehensive, these reports simply list the job title of the vacant positions at the station, the total number of persons who were interviewed, sources of the referrals utilized for each position and the referral source which resulted in the hire. There is no indication of the race or gender of any of the persons interviewed or hired.According to documents in its public file, WHYY used the Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s oldest and largest African American newspaper, for job referrals a total of six times between April 2004 and March 2006. There is no evidence the station ever utilized the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, Urban League, Urban Affairs Coalition or the NAACP during that same period. The same goes for Spanish and Asian language newspapers or their affinity organizations.
According to one FCC official, the old EEOC form listing race and gender are still required for larger stations like WHYY, but they remain hidden from public view until the agency can resolve how they are to be released. The FCC has been arguing about this procedure since 2004 the federal official explained.
but woefully inadequate For most African Americans, any mention of PBS programming immediately invokes images of “Sesame Street” and the adorable furry critters who have delighted children around the world for generations. Thus, a few years ago, when veteran author and PBS journalist Tavis Smiley raised serious questions about the diversity of his network’s nationally televised programming, few black opinion leaders or civil rights organizations took up the issue in support. Staying below the radar allowed public television (and its kissing cousin–public radio) to largely escape serious inspection or widespread criticism.
This strategy was equally beneficial to WHYY’s local program managers for many years allowing them to remain largely unquestioned.
Then came the addition of News Works in 2011 and the leadership of a veteran print journalist Chris Satullo, both of which have significantly enhanced the station’s news coverage of the urban newscape. And a few months ago, WHYY included “The Pulse” to its line-up, featuring a regular examination of important health issues facing the local audience.
And yet even with these recent additions, listening to WHYY on any given day listeners will be hard pressed to hear the voices of Latins or Asians. Neither will they hear the voices of black political officials (other than the mayor), neighborhood leaders, educational or labor leaders or of black lawyers, doctors, bankers or ordinary working men and women.
Greater accuracy and fairness As public media, WHYY has a special responsibility to its listeners in this region. Philadelphians rely on it to offer timely reports that educate, enlighten and enrich the public and yet seldom take sides or convey advantage to any one group.
The diversity policies and practices currently in place at WHYY have not yet managed to achieve a level of newsroom diversity that reflects the demographics of the Greater Philadelphia area. Without daily interactions with diverse groups in its newsroom, important aspects of stories may go untold and reporters, producers and writers may not be aware of or able to connect to the breadth of opinions ideas, challenges and triumphs within their community.
Today, the leading centers of journalism excellence all agree that greater staff diversity leads to greater accuracy and fairness. Identifying journalistic truths is a delicate process, one that requires reports to challenge their personal biases in assembling and verifying facts.
Research by Michael Morris, the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership at the Columbia University Business School, indicates that individuals from similar racial backgrounds tend to have the same blind spots, as demonstrated in the recent controversy over Philadelphia Magazine’s article: “Being White In Philly.” Questions that could and should have been raised early in the reporting process were not discussed or addressed until diverse communities began to respond after the article hit the newsstands. The magazine lost credibility and the national furor damaged its brand.
When reporters, editors and producers from differing cultural backgrounds gather daily to ask and answer questions, complex social issues gain clarity, enabling new and exciting solutions to emerge. The news media is better positioned to report beyond the disagreement by examining the intricate web of cultural beliefs, history and values that frequently informs debates. Readers and viewers today demand to know why they differ, not just that those divisions exist.
With its current levels of diversity in the newsroom and in management, WHYY cannot meet the gold performance standards set forth today for 21st century newsrooms or achieve the level of cultural competency required to report and analyze the developing fault lines in this region.
And finally, more inclusion by the station certainly would open new gateways for its annual fundraising drives that help keep it on the air. However, a little while back when this reporter made this point to the WHYY General Manager one afternoon over lunch he as asked why he refused to feature some of the area’s best known black clergy leaders, sports figures, entertainers and scholars to its fundraising drives. His answer was immediate. He simply shrugged.