Q&A: When will public media be public media for all?

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The 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, made a promise: public media would serve people of color. 

Fifty-three years later, that mission remains unfulfilled. In 2012, 87% of NPR’s audience identified as white. While that isn’t updated data, NPR’s newsroom was 70.9% white in 2019. That’s compared to the U.S. population, where white people are 60.1% .

But making public media for the public doesn’t just end at representation; the work needs to include financial and mental support for non-white employees.

So for over a year, a coalition of folks within public media spaces — including J.C. Polk, formerly with KPBS, and Ernesto Aguilar, from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters—  have been sharing their experiences, brainstorming a list of intentional, anti-racist action steps, and figuring out ways to make public media truly reflect the audience it was intended to serve.  

On Oct. 1, the coalition went public with those action steps, under the name Public Media for All. Around a month later, on Nov. 10, it held a “Day of Activism/Action and Education” to provide space for those in public media, particularly non-white employees, to share their experiences. 

Public media organizations and stations that are committed to implementing Public Media for All’s action steps toward a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive public media are listed on the coalition’s website. Among them are NPR, Capital Public Radio, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Public Media Women in Leadership, and The University Station Alliance.

The Objective sat down with Polk and Aguilar to talk about the Public Media For All movement, the ways public media falls short of its mission, and house restoration. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” mean to you, given that those words have been thrown around a lot this summer?

J.C. Polk: I think for me, it’s funny — not funny, haha, but funny, because you’re right. DEI [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion] in itself has been almost like branding. 

The stations that I’ve had the privilege and pain of working for come from a long history; they were founded back in the 50s and 60s, and a lot of the virtues and values have still held strong. You’ll hear them say, “Our values have allowed us to stand the test of time. We don’t turn with the tides.” But some of those values have not evolved. 

I’m proud to say I’ve always been a member of the station I was with. But I’ll never forget one of the pain points for me not only as an employee, but as a member: How often did I see people in public media spaces that looked like me and talked about the issues and things in my community?

We are only as rich as those who we serve. And if we begin to not reflect those we are facing, then it doesn’t become inclusive. If it’s a monolith of the same programming, leadership, management, values, therefore there is no diversity. But when I speak to people in other stations and other individuals about those principles, I change that language [DEI]: it’s more about being socially reflective. Because if you do that, you’re passing an invitation to include people.

Ernesto Aguilar: For me, the question of DEI is really about how do we represent the identities in our communities? How do we ensure that there is fair treatment? How do we ensure that there is equal access to power and equal opportunity? And then also, how do organizations create a culture of belonging? 

We need to understand that the conversation about DEI isn’t a conference session. It’s not a webinar, it’s not a training. It’s not a brown bag lunch or something that everybody reads once a year. This needs to be woven into the fabric of all of our work. 

What does public media mean to you? What are some experiences that have really reaffirmed the love that you have for public media and made you feel like more committed to making a better one?

JC: I’m originally from North Carolina. For those in the mountains who don’t have cable access, public television was all they had. I started in public television, and we would always say that we’re reaching everyone of all ages and from all walks of life.

One of the great terms that I always hear is that [public media] it’s a public space, it’s where ideas are exchanged without judgment — it cultivates ideas and educates everyone. I think public media today is somewhat aspirational. But unless we begin to address the things that public media for all are talking about holding people accountable, then we’re going to fall short of what public media really should be.

Public Media for All, too, is aspirational, because part of our goal is to call out, and to make sure that we highlight some of the contradictions to the term public media, in the way of not being totally diverse, not being equitable, and not being totally inclusive. 

Ernesto: I am from East Houston. I came from a community that is not what you consider a traditional public media audience. I was a teenager, my parents didn’t let us up after nine o’clock because my dad was in the military, but I was listening to the radio and I discovered public media on accident. I had my life transformed by it. I see the meaning and the importance of this space for changing the lives of underrepresented communities because I came from that community. 

But I think what’s held back public media, to those ideals that JC talked about, is a culture of fear, one in which organizations feel like their fortunes are based on doing what they’ve always done, serving the standard audience that they have served for 20, 30 years. The demographics beyond the other country are changing, but also audience tastes are changing. Racism is a mainstream conversation, right now, on big commercial media outlets, I can find it on YouTube, I can find it on any digital publication. People want to have these conversations and are now accustomed to having these conversations and wanting to have a wider conversation about inclusion, and how black voices are brought into the conversation, how Latino voices are brought into the conversation. 

Your question also made me think about something my mom told me once, which is always show compassion, because on your last day, giving all that out is not something that you end up regretting. And for me, this really reaffirmed my faith in public media in a lot of ways. To JC’s point, there have been some maddening moments. There have been some frustrating conversations. People sometimes don’t get it. But I am heartened by the people who understand. And even for those who haven’t figured it out, us all wanting to work on this together to try to figure out how we build a medium that is stronger and more vibrant and relevant is something they take to heart. And even if they don’t have all the answers, even though they haven’t figured it out, they’re compassionate and vulnerable and open enough to say, I don’t have all the answers, but I know this matters. And that to me has been so beautiful.

JC: Positive ones [experiences with public media] that roll off my tongue with ease are the enlightenment, the education, and the inspiration to be able to invest personally into an institution or a station or community that affects so much change. 

I’ve had the privilege of being on the East Coast at UNC TV, which is in the south. I’ve worked in San Diego with KPBS. You impact people on a one-to-one level without the noise and the interference — here in San Diego, to be able to get an Uber on the way to work and have someone say, “Oh, you work at KPBS! That’s how I learned English.”
That may seem random, but it’s happened multiple times. KPBS is an institution in San Diego. If it’s done this not operating at 100% of what it could possibly be, just imagine for a second what it could be if it began to take these best practices of diversity, equity inclusion, and applying them in his culture. 

How awesome could it be if it reached out to every different type of community? If it was a Somalian community that had its own show, for example? 

Even in Carolina, to know that you’re in the South, where racism was bred like cotton in a field, to know that having a statewide public media station can also talk about having the highest volume of HBCUs in the HBCU system, like to know that UNC TV can actually affect what goes on at those institutions of higher learning for those who might not otherwise have a chance to be able to learn and be inspired and educate. To know that that impact is still possible, that it’s realistic and feasible, that alone for me is inspiring. 

Having someone say, “Hey, tell me about public media,” you wear it almost like a badge of pride. 

The action steps you’ve outlined on the Public Media for All website focus on working with the current public media structures. But some folks believe that public media needs to be completely rebuilt in order to truly serve the public. What’s the balance that you see in those two reforms versus revolution strands and how do those converge in Public Media for All?

JC: It may sound cheesy, but I think you have to have both. I tend to think, why not flip the table over? Why do we have to wait?

But the beauty of having a coalition is that you’re able to be around people who all have similar goals and desires, but you’re able to say, “Well, hey, let’s be strategic about how we’re going to do this. Yes, let’s be purposeful about having a day of action, but let’s also figure out what are going to be the tangible items that we want to share with everyone? What is going to be encompassing that day, is that just going to be a day of just venting? Or is that going to be a day of sharing stories of triumph or stories of trials and tribulations and giving people resources and access to this type of thing?” 

I’m familiar with the civil rights movement in the South, and we had both [reform and revolution], right. And when you go back, you look at the ‘60s, some folks were more revolutionary than others, who were more, you know, nonviolent, but I think it’s almost like a great recipe. 

I get into conversations with my peers about having a seat at a table, or building your own table. Then when I sit there and I think about having family dinner, I just want to have family dinner. We all have to sit around the table. It can be all of us in different places. But for the most part, let’s just make sure that we’re in the room so that we can exchange ideas. 

Ernesto: Issues and struggles are independent of whether you are a legacy organization or a new organization. I think it’s important to keep in mind that the struggle for equity and inclusion and fairness in organizations is always and forever. In a lot of places, it’s a continuing struggle that every organization is going to have to go through. 

On the other front, for me, I think it’s important for us to remember that public media is not the proverbial theirs. It is ours. It was founded for the public’s interest, it was founded for all Americans extensively. If these organizations founded 10, 20, 50 years ago have lost their way, it is incumbent upon those that were transformed, or who care about the state of these media, to say, “We’re going to help these organizations return to their missions.” 

It’s time just to remember that we own the airwaves and are a part of the FCC as the public, we are the community. We have a say and should have a say, as workers, as listeners, as donors, as people who are passionate about this space to say, this is time to return home.

I know that a lot of newsrooms tend to shy away from the term activism, you know, like, you know, reporters or people who are part of the editorial side of the newsroom, shouldn’t be protesting shouldn’t be going out to advocate for causes that they cover. This is literally, you know, something that you’re covering by virtue of being in public media, you know, you’re covering it.

So, I’m curious: Why did you all think it was important to use that language and to say directly that November 10th was a day of activism?

Ernesto: I believe that a lot of newsrooms are really tussling with this idea of activism and to what degree an employee can be civically engaged and still report back on an issue in a trustworthy fashion. Public media has been wonderful about talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion. It has been wonderful about putting together studies and collecting data, and helping frame the issue well. That has been important and essential in the sense that it’s helped really bring people together around understanding what the problems are in our space. 

But it’s time for us to act, it’s time for us to be active around these subjects, and to really ask leaders, what their vision is for this. Ask boards of directors, what their visions are for diversity, and decide that this is the time we as organizations no longer sit passively by and understand that this country is shifting with regard to ages, genders, races are all changing around us. It is time for we as organizations in public media to be part of a larger civic discourse around that. While we can continue to write and report and research and have our internal discussions about it, it’s also time for us to act as organizations in order to be relevant.

Activism to me is action that’s unapologetic, right, and purposeful. 

For all of us [in the Public Media for All coalition], at some point we all had to make the decision: Is this going to be the hill that we die on? Because this is the type of thing that once you say, “Hey, here’s what I want to talk about. Hey, can we have a conversation about this,” knowing the climate and the culture — this is not work for the weary. This is tough work. There’s no thin skin allowed here. You’re going to be told no, you’re going to be having apprehension, you’re going to be marked as that person. And you have to be able to brush that off, spin around, come back. And that’s why the coalition is so powerful, because it’s not just one individual. It’s a group of people who have shared experiences that believe in what public media can be. With the confidence of a coalition of like-minded people, it allowed us to be able to say, “No, we don’t have to be apologetic if this is what we believe is correct and true,” with the invitation to others to contribute. 

What’s been the reception that you all have received so far and what are some of the requests you’ve gotten from organizations in terms of talking through some of the Public Media for All action steps?

Ernesto: We went public October 1 — there were eight of us, self-financed, and we’re still self-financed. This grew beyond all expectations.

The big conversation for us now is to figure out how we can support and sustain the work beyond one year, three years, since it’s an ongoing commitment to transform public media.

JC: The reception on the 10th exceeded our expectations, but more people have reached out than we have the capacity to individually help right now. We have a long list of stations that have reached out to us that we’re working diligently to make contact with, to find where they are in their work, provide them with more resources, and stay in contact to maintain the momentum. 

We’re still developing what that strategy is going to look like. But the beautiful thing about it is we are not providing a panacea, but opening the platform for further conversation. We’re inviting people to the table to say “Hey, come do this with us.” This is something that when you start to build it and look at it, you have to recognize it’s ongoing. We’re having conversations with multiple stations to introduce ourselves to them as a coalition, sometimes two or three a week, and to get information to make sure that if stations are looking at the deliverables, we can hold them accountable to what we and they are promising to do.

Ernesto: When we talk about accountability, everybody thinks in a very punitive way. They’re afraid of like being called out on Twitter or just being shamed publicly. They don’t want to necessarily get in to the movement because they’re afraid that if they fall down, we’re going to automatically point at them. But I mean, all of us had to ride a bike and we fell down a lot. 

This is, for many organizations that have never really thought deeply about putting DEI into the DNA of the organization, a brand new thing. We understand that there’s going to be a lot of challenges along the way and we want to try to help support our organizations and lift them up as much as possible.

Why do you think Public Media for All is important in this particular moment?

Ernesto: Public media is very open about doing things like calling up the president. We can talk about abortion, we can talk about LGBTQ+ rights, we can talk about a lot of different topics. I’ve frankly had editors tell me that race is a political conversation. Luckily, I’d say that those are the minority. I don’t think that there are a lot of editors who necessarily feel that way, but we can use this as a strategic moment to say, “This is the public media we need to re-envision.”

JC: I have no qualms about referring to public media as the institution. Because it’s a structure. It has had a great foundation, like a grand, majestic mansion that sits there on a hill that’s been beautiful for years. We are the benefactors of it and have inherited this great mansion.

But now that we’re in it and lived here a little while, there are things that, over the course of time, have lost the strength and structure. The outside facade is great, it’s polished and celebrates that it’s been on the curb for 50 years. We’ve been slapping some great paint on: a couple of new logos and brandings. But the danger is that, at a certain point, if we allow that internal structure not to be strengthened, all we will be sitting on is this facade crumbling from inside.

It’s one of those things where you say you do it now or you do it later. Are you going to adapt and evolve, or are you going to be made to come back now and build from the bottom and do a disservice to all this history that you’ve had? The work we’re doing through Public Media for All is, simply put, inevitable.

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