By SUZANNE GAMBOA
LAS VEGAS (AP) _ National Public Radio, criticized in recent years for a lack of diversity of its staff and coverage, is using a $1.5 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to put together a six-person team to report stories on race, ethnicity and culture.
The national radio program producer and digital news provider was accepting the two-year grant Thursday at UNITY 2012 Convention in Las Vegas, where hundreds of minority and gay and lesbian journalists gathered for the quadrennial convention assembled by UNITY Journalists Inc.
NPR said in a news release that it is using the money to ”launch a major storytelling initiative focused on the racial, ethnic, ideological and generational issues that define an increasingly diverse America.” The team will include two digital journalists, a correspondent, two reporters and an editor. The team will have a web site and blog within NPR.org.
Gary Knell, NPR CEO and president, said this team approach on race, ethnicity and culture would help ”turbocharge” coverage with deeper stories that can make a difference. The grant allows NPR to invest in people who will come to work with race and ethnicity coverage as their first order of business every day, he said.
”There’s still too many people who are not really aware of public radio in this country and my hunch is many of them might be minorities who haven’t discovered public radio and who we think would be more amenable to tuning in and becoming supporters if they knew the content was more accessible and really aimed to a demographic, that speaks the issues that are of critical importance to Hispanic, African American, Asian American and Native American audiences,” Knell said.
Scrutiny of NPR’s record on diversity has heightened since the October 2010 firing of commentator Juan Williams, who said on a Fox News Channel that he gets nervous on a plane when he sees Muslims. A recent investigation by NPR’s ombudsman found that 87 percent of NPR’s audience is white and 23 percent of its newsroom staff _ reporters, editors, producers and managers _ are racial or ethnic minorities.
Knell, CEO of Sesame Workshop before joining NPR last year, said since he was hired he has been trying to promote diversity in NPR and its audiences in four areas: geographically by doing more stories outside of Washington; demographically by making stories more relevant to different age groups; around thought by bringing in more diverse political voices and around race and ethnicity.
Gregory Lee, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, has met with Knell on diversity. He said he recognizes it takes time to change a culture. The grant will be a chance for NPR to hire journalists capable of working on the stories that will reach more diverse audiences. Although Lee was attending the convention, NABJ ended its partnership with Unity Journalists following a revenue sharing dispute with UNITY Journalists Inc.
”I hope this project serves as an example that these issues should be discussed and covered,” Lee said. He added that he hopes to see the journalists and content integrated within the organization’s overall coverage, not pushed to a corner.
NPR assured that the race, ethnicity and culture team’s work will influence its daily coverage across beats and media platforms. The majority of NPR’s finances are from program fees, dues paid by member stations and corporate sponsorships, according to a report on its web site.
NPR does not receive direct federal funding but it competes for grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and from federal agencies, which annually total about $2 million to $3 million.
A Corporation for Public Broadcasting spokeswoman could not be reached by phone or email for comment. Patricia Harrison, President and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, said in a prepared news release that increasing service to diverse audiences “is a consideration in virtually every investment we make.”