January 2018

Et tu, Public Radio?

The Diversity Industrial Complex makes overtures toward diversity without acknowledging that the conversations and demands of marginalized communities have moved well beyond mere tokenization.

This is the first of two essays from Kimberly Springer on the impact of the Diversity Industrial Complex. Check out her second essay here

by Kimberly Springer 

When does a “moment” become a “movement?” More than linguistic nitpicking, this question is critical right now because Americans are inside both the #MeToo “moment” and #TimesUp “movement” spaces simultaneously. The result is the shaking of new foundations that are yet to be solidified across several industries when it comes to dealing effectively with discrimination in their ranks. For example, accusations of sexual harassment at the national and member station levels stunned public media audiences and employees. National Public Radio (NPR), American Public Media, and local public radio stations are left grappling with sexual assault and harassment allegations against long-time male program hosts. As in Hollywood, women in public media are stepping forward to add their voices to the #MeToo chorus of those recalling and speaking out against a multitude of forms of sexual abuse.[1]

Also shocking to public radio’s predominately white, educated, middle-class liberal audiences were accusations of racial discrimination and bullying, specifically against African-American women program hosts at WNYC.[2]

What I want to do in this essay is not rehash the allegations, but instead take a look at the conditions that fostered racialized sexism, harassment, and bullying, as well what makes current institutional correctives so ineffective. In particular, I want to outline the contours of a sociopolitical and economically motivated money spinner at work in public media: the Diversity Industrial Complex, or “DIC.”

Anita Hill testifies against the nomination of Clarence Thomas in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Courtesy of WBUR.

My relationship to public media has always been fraught. When NPR broadcast Professor Anita Hill’s testimony against the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas, I was introduced to the power of public radio. Hearing her voice, I held on to the idea that public media held more progressive ideas about diversity and inclusion in both staffing and news content. I worked in three local member station newsrooms: as a news resident, series producer, and scriptwriter for WAMC Northeast Public Radio; as an intern and later as Ann Arbor-based Michigan Radio’s first social media producer; and, most recently, as engagement producer for St. Louis Public Radio.

But, first, a recap of allegations of sexual harassment in public media: following the Harvey Weinstein allegations in the media, CNN reported that NPR fired its senior vice president of news, Michael Oreskes, for two sexual assault and harassment claims committed while he was at The Washington Post and a third claim an NPR staff member had lodged.[3] Soon after, Roger LaMay, NPR’s board chair and general manager of Philadelphia member station WXPN, stepped down from the board for reasons that may (according to an NPR unnamed source) or may not (according to LaMay) have been related to a sexual harassment claim.[4]

In December 2017, New York Magazine’s fashion and beauty vertical The Cut ran an explosive article by journalist Suki Kim detailing unwanted and excessive attention directed at her from John Hockenberry, host of WNYC’s The Takeaway.[5]  In addition to harassment, Kim’s article also detailed Hockenberry’s racist bullying of three different women of color co-hosts—Adaora Udoji, Farai Chideya, and Celeste Headlee—at various times during the program’s run. Though he had already left the program’s hosting spot, questions arose as to why Hockenberry had left a successful show and had done so in advance of any expected retirement date. Within the same week, WNYC also placed two long-time hosts, Jonathan Schwartz and Leonard Lopate, on administrative leave while they investigated accusations against the two men for “inappropriate conduct.” Both men were subsequently fired.[6]

Why have these revelations of discrimination shocked the public radio audience’s liberal sensibilities? Though I won’t speak for all women of color, I can confidently assert that most of us were neither surprised nor shocked that white men in public media institutions would behave abhorrently. If anything, we were left wondering why it took so long for this type of racialized sexism to register on the public’s radar. On her podcast, In the Thick, reporter and host Maria Hinojosa articulated what racialized sexism looks like in this context: “If you’re a woman of color specifically, now we’re talking about misogyny, degradation, racism and this kind of thing that feels a little bit more…fluid than, for example, I’m gonna stick my tongue down your throat.”[7]

New York Times reporter and podcaster Jenna Wortham wondering why racism has, once again, taken a backseat to sexism. Credit: @jennydeluxe | Twitter

Throughout graduate school and well into my teaching and research career in higher education, I gravitated toward public media as a quicker way to turn information into knowledge for audiences. I believed public media audiences to be more receptive to diverse and nuanced reporting than mainstream news consumers. I held on to the idea that public media was a more progressive space for diversity and inclusion in both staffing and news content. Partly, I came to this understanding through reading and teaching media studies courses about the legislation that brought publicly funded radio and television into being in the U.S.

As it happens, 2017 was the 50th anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act. The Act spoke to the idea that publicly-funded media should be a public service to all Americans. This key declaration stuck with me: “The Congress hereby finds and declares that… it is in the public interest to encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.”[8] The Act sets a bar that public media would do well to remember as it reckons with its mission and public service at this critical time as U.S. identity discourses evolve. Who does public media want to be going forward and who will do that work? When it comes to diversity and inclusion, public media still has a ways to go in order to live up to the Public Broadcasting Act’s promise. But rather than doing the hard work of looking inward at individual and organizational discriminatory practices, some management teams have, instead, succumbed to the siren song of costly consultants and endlessly suggestive reporting produced by the Diversity Industrial Complex, or “DIC.”

Is everything we dislike a “[insert topic] industrial complex?”

Certainly not. But Dean Spade’s description of this phenomenon in Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law defines useful touchpoints: “When movement organizers, activists, and intellectuals use various terms that end in ‘industrial complex,’ like ‘military industrial complex’ or ‘prison industrial complex,’ they are pointing to this kind of multivector analysis of law, power, knowledge, and norms [emphasis mine].” A multi-vectored, intersectional analysis of institutions is the best tool we have in this #MeToo moment for understanding discrimination at individual, societal, and organizational levels. Articulating the contours of the Diversity Industrial Complex pushes us to understand: this is not a “moment” for people in marginalized communities. This dance around difference has been underway for decades, if not centuries, since the end of slavery, Reconstruction, and certainly since the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Diversity Industrial Complex makes overtures toward diversity without acknowledging that the conversations and demands of marginalized communities have moved well beyond mere tokenization. When laws against gender discrimination create an oppressive matrix dictating which black women’s hairstyles are “acceptable” in the workplace, or whether they even get hired, that is DIC at work.[9] When public media hiring committees are permitted to consist of predominantly white staff un-versed in issues of bias, power and privilege, with only online workplace sexual harassment prevention and diversity modules as their guidebook, white supremacist power is merely reconsolidated with new employees.[10] Good “fit,” being judged to have “enough” experience within a system biased toward those able to afford unpaid or low-paying internships, and plentiful industry references from other member stations now join or replace the Old Boys’ Network as a recruitment principle.

I took a screenshot of proof that I completed the required, online sexual harassment training module. An additional diversity training module was required the next year.

For many people of color in public media, silence can equal death, but it can also equal preserving one’s sanity and choosing carefully which hill you want to die on. This daily decision-making—fight the battle of microaggressions or live to fight the war against racism?—can take its toll on one’s physical and mental health. This may seem like an individual problem, but in the Age of DIC, it is an institutionally-inflicted problem with ramifications for how much of one’s wages one decides to spend on, for example, health care, or whether one decides to leave public media entirely.

It can only be through DIC that public radio stations, or any workplace for that matter, can constitute a “Diversity Task Force,” composed predominantly of hand-selected staff members who have no expertise in workplace diversity, inclusion research, or policy implementation. Such committees then feel entirely comfortable participating in what scholar-activist bell hooks called “eating the other.”[11] That is, being open to ethnic food as evidence of anti-racist, progressive politics, thus reducing racial and ethnic differences to consuming food at racially offensive and historically inaccurate Cinco de Mayo parties. Or potlucks where all staff members are invited to “bring a dish that represents their ethnicity” and, short of that, feeling free to bring something from a different ethnicity. Because, you know, it’s not cultural appropriation if it’s FOOD that is communally eaten.

This dance around difference has been underway for decades, if not centuries, since the end of slavery, Reconstruction, and certainly since the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The personal and structural politics of this #MeToo moment closely resemble interventions women of color made during feminism’s second wave, when the realities of their lived experiences (what we now call intersectionality) were ignored by mainstream, white feminists. Black feminists who were largely left out of 1980s and 1990s histories of second wave feminism are now recognized for using their experiences of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and ableism to make the feminist movement’s analysis of topics, such as abortion and unequal pay, deeper and more encompassing of all women’s experiences. The Combahee River Collective Statement is probably the best known, written articulation of the matrix of discrimination. But as I detail in Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968 to 1980, black feminists nationwide— in Chicago’s National Black Feminist Alliance, New York and Atlanta’s National Black Feminist Organizations, and the Bay Area’s Black Women Organized for Action and the Third World Women’s Alliance—explicitly described how the discrimination they experienced as black women (both straight and lesbian) was different than discrimination experienced by white people and by black men.

This sentiment animated a critical Black Women’s Studies classic text in 1982: All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave. Far from being an attempt to lay claim to being “the most oppressed” or claiming Superwoman powers, black feminist activists and theorists presaged the emergence of intersectionality in the popular consciousness. Defined by its approach to discrimination as overlapping and intersecting identities, intersectional analysis broadened the women’s movement in both theory and practice.

For example, black feminists created a real and lasting impact on the women’s movement’s pro-abortion and choice discourse by broadening the conversation to include ways in which the State denied—and continues to deny—women of color reproductive freedom through forced sterilization and intrusive social work home visits. The shift from “We want abortion on demand” to “We demand reproductive freedom” broadened the women’s movement’s constituency and effectively incorporated intersectional politics. It is in this instance, and many others, that white women declared, “Sisterhood is powerful” and black feminists asked in response, “Which women are you calling your sisters and how can more women be included in that claim?” It is a lack of specificity in language and action that echoes in the #MeToo moment. But it is a history that, to be fair, the #TimesUp movement appears to be attempting not to repeat by recognizing women of color, poor women, lesbians, and trans women as movement co-creators.

Filmmaker Jennifer Brea rightly observes that the harassment and abuse of people with mental illnesses, physical disabilities or outside workplaces remain outside the circle of inclusion. Credit: @jenbrea | Twitter

In one public radio newsroom where I worked, one would assume that because a woman was in charge—the second to become executive editor in a newly expanded public media newsroom—at the very least gender equity would exist. Alas, my time there consistently revealed how individual and organizational discrimination can result in diversity initiatives that were set up to fail.

One example I detailed in a thread on Twitter told how young women (white, Asian-American and Latinx) in their twenties were advised that their clothing choices were unprofessional. When the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) went into effect in 2017, it was intended to provide workers with protection from working overtime and not being compensated. However, these same young, female journalists’ pay was not raised above the hourly threshold. Instead, they were subjected to a paternalistic version of hours tracking and surveillance. To their credit, most of these women stuck to the FLSA requirements by not working a second longer than the allotted 40 hours per week. They also used the time they would have spent in the office on podcasting, successfully applying for prestigious fellowships, and other projects that gave them exit velocity.

After reading the Suki Kim article in The Cut, I could no longer be silent about the racialized sexism I experienced and sexism against white women I’d witnessed while working in public radio. Credit: @kspringeruk | Twitter

I raise these instances of discrimination in public media, not because I have an ax to grind—trust me, that juice isn’t worth the squeeze—but to illustrate DIC’s presumptions. Putting more women and people of color in managerial positions, in director’s chairs, and in newsrooms is heralded as the solution to discrimination in the American workplace. The result, alas, is often self-congratulatory backpatting about the number of people of color organizations have hired. Those organizations, however, evince complete obliviousness to issues of workplace micro-aggressions, pay disparities, retention, and a host of other factors that create a hostile work environment.

More people of color in newsrooms, while desirable, does little to diversify our nation’s newsrooms if organizations fail to take into account how structural, organizational, and individual biases collude to transform overt discrimination into something more insidious that appears to imitate an ethics of care. Such efforts are for nought if public media becomes a revolving door with a velvet rope policy: one in, one out. Not unlike black feminists organizing in the days of the second wave feminist movement, as the Diversity Industrial Complex morphs to accommodate surface-level changes, we need to be vigilant in asking how organizational policies and individual actions untangle, reconfigure, and bind intersectional matrices of discrimination. Because we still must ask, Which women? Which workers? Which side of history do you want to be on, Public Media?


Kimberly Springer is Curator of Oral History at the Columbia University Center for Oral History Archives. Her publications include Living for the Revolution, Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980 (Duke University Press, 2005), Still Lifting, Still Climbing: African-American Women’s Contemporary Activism (New York University Press, 1999), Stories of Oprah: the Oprahfication of American Culture (University of Mississippi Press, 2010) and articles in several journals and edited volumes. She’s worked in public media and the government sector for National Public Radio, Michigan Radio, St. Louis Public Radio, the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the U.S. State Department.

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[1] Further complicating this question of the #MeToo moment: Black men. Where are their voices in this narrative of how discrimination plays out in public media? And does why does the #MeToo moment begin with Harvey Winestein and not Bill Cosby whose allegations of sexual abuse against numerous women were brought to light for many of us by comedia Hannibal Buress?

[2] Public radio, like other sectors of the media industry, tracks its demographics for membership solicitations and, ostensibly, to make programming decisions based on those demographics. Member stations, not unlike other elite forms of information and entertainment, pitch to the audience that their costly research indicates is listening. Many public radio stations characterize their typical listener as college-educated, upper middle-class women. Unsurprisingly, race is often left out of the equation by the companies public media relies on for their research (Arbitron 2012). It’s a costly version of confirmation bias that keeps programming oriented toward the sensibilities of white audiences, but attempts to be hip in awkward ways (see, for example, the rise of storytelling programming such as The Moth or game shows like Ask Me Another). Anyone outside those parameters falls into the category of a “desired” audience, a.k.a. a “diverse” audience.

[3] Stelter and Smith 2017.

[4] Folkenflik and Kennedy 2017.

[5] Kim 2017.

[6] Hsu 2017.

[7] In the Thick 2017.

[8] Public Broadcasting Act 47 U.S.C. § 396 (1967).

[9] Greene 2011, 406-407.

[10] As The New York Times notes, “Some studies have shown that these trainings aren’t particularly effective….United States companies spend $15 to $40 per employee on sexual harassment training.”

[11] hooks, 21.

Works Cited

Arbitron. Public Radio 2012: How America Listens to Radio. http://www.arbitron.com/downloads/publicradiotoday_2012.pdf. Accessed 5 January 2012.

Folkenflik, David and Merrit Kennedy. “Chairman Steps Down As NPR Grapples With Harassment Crisis.” NPR. 16 November 2017. https://www.npr.org/2017/11/16/564629232/chairman-steps-down-as-npr-grapples-with-harassment-crisis. Accessed 1 December 2017.

Greene, D. Wendy. “Black Women Can’t Have Blonde Hair . . . in the Workplace.” (Spring 2011). Journal of Gender, Race and Justice 14:2 (2011): 405-430.

Hines, Alice. “Here’s How to Deal With Men (Twack!).” The New York Times. 20 January 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/20/style/confronting-sexual-harassment-dominatrix-training.html. Accessed 21 January 2018.

Hinojosa, Maria, Julio Ricardo Varela, Celeste Headlee and Callie Crossley. “It’s Not as Simple as Sexual Harassment.” In the Thick. 7 December 2017. http://www.inthethick.org/episodes/.

hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press, 1992.

Hsu, Tiffany. “WNYC Suspends Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz.” The New York Times. 6 December 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/06/business/media/wnyc-leonard-lopate-jonathan-schwartz.html. Accessed 1 December 2017.

Hull, Akasha (Gloria T.), Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith. But Some of Us Are Brave. Feminist Press, 1982.

Kim, Suki. “New York Public Radio Fires WNYC Hosts Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz.” The New York Times. 1 December 2017. https://www.thecut.com/2017/12/public-radio-icon-john-hockenberry-accused-of-harassment.html. Accessed 1 December 2017.

Stelter, Brian and Aaron Smith. “Top NPR editor resigns amid allegations of harassment.” CNN. 1 November 2017. http://money.cnn.com/2017/11/01/media/michael-oreskes-npr/index.html. Accessed 1 December 2017.

1 comment on “Et tu, Public Radio?

  1. Pingback: The Design of the Everyday Diversity Industrial Complex – The Activist History Review

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