Bias okay if we do it, says National Public Radio (First in three-part series)

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Editor’s note: This article appeared in December on the website of National Public Radio. The piece carried a self-laudatory headline:“NPR’s ‘Code Switch’ is an overnight sensation 7 years in the making.” The County Compass offers this NPR commentary for our readers with no other critique.                                           

By Kelly McBride, Public Editor | National Public Radio | Commentary

Kelly McBride

WASHINGTON, D.C. –  NPR assembled a team of journalists in 2013 to plow new ground at the intersection of race and culture. In 2016, the ‘Code Switch’ team launched a podcast. Apple named the show ‘Podcast of 2020.’

Rightly so. Perhaps no other news team was better prepared to address all three of the year’s biggest stories: The fourth year of President Donald Trump’s term in office; a global pandemic that disproportionately kills people of color; and, the global response to George Floyd’s tragic death on video under the knee of a policeman.

What transpired at Code Switch between its birth and the appalling 2020 is a lesson in how innovation happens at NPR. It’s not a fairy tale. But it is unique to public media. I’m fairly certain that Code Switch would not have survived in a commercial newsroom.

Audience first

Code Switch was not created for NPR’s audience — at least not its longtime core audience. NPR’s stated goal of diversifying its predominantly white audience is an old one, although different administrations have demonstrated varying levels of commitment and success.

Code Switch was conceived in 2013 as a news product specifically for people of color. The starting point for the content — the reported stories, the daring conversations — was to aim it at people who are not white. Yes, white people are in the audience, but they are the bonus listeners; no need to adapt scripts or edit for them.

Matt Thompson is now the editor-in-chief at Reveal, the Center for Investigative Reporting. But in 2013, he worked at NPR in charge of hiring the team that became Code Switch. (Long before that, we worked together at Poynter.) He dug up for me some of the original documents, which still seem relevant.

“The team must develop a voice and style that enrich NPR by standing out, not by blending in,” he read. “If we get this right, we will catch the attention of a diverse new crowd causing everyone who’s familiar with the public radio stereotype to marvel, ‘This is NPR?'”

The project was greeted with accolades from the journalism community and watched closely by other journalists looking for best practices in tricky terrain. The podcast was always part of the original design, but it was three years before the staff was large enough to support a weekly show.

“For many years, especially in the early years, we felt like this was a side project that nobody cared about,” co-host Shereen Marisol Meraji said. “But I also think there’s something pretty awesome in the fact that people weren’t paying very close attention to what we were doing, because we could make something that felt very much like us and not what NPR wanted it to be.”

Serving the nonwhite audience remains unabashedly the mission today. Code Switch hosts Meraji and Gene Demby made that point in a late 2020 interview with the Public Editor Team. They assume their audience is not just discussing race, but living with deeply personal realities every day — and they create the show for a conversation that is nonstop and not academic.

What does that look like? There’s a whole episode called “Hold Up! Time For An Explanatory Comma” that explores the phenomenon of explaining, usually with a dependent clause, the cultural significance of someone or something that everyone in that culture clearly understands.

For example, if you have to explain the significance of Tupac Shakur, you are probably writing for a white and/or older audience. When journalists do that, it’s a signal to everyone in that culture that this journalism wasn’t created for them.

When news about a racist event breaks, Code Switch aims to be the second or third level of conversation, not the first report. Demby explained that he resists being the first to offer analysis on a news story.

“There’s always some big enough controversy around race in America that you could sustain a cycle of outrage around. Some messed-up thing happens in America around race every day,” he said. “But that doesn’t allow you to do more contextual, but broader and deeper stuff.”

The difference is tangible. While NPR’s news magazine shows attract an audience that is much whiter and older than the U.S. population, Code Switch’s audience more closely mirrors the country, Meraji said. It’s still 60 percent white.

Weekly downloads for the podcast peaked in June, after Floyd’s death, and then fell a bit, stabilizing at a healthy increase of 110 percent over 2019 numbers. NPR doesn’t release podcast data for individual shows.

Next week: NPR explains why taxpayer-paid funding is essential to this new format.

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