CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Diversity in Central Florida

Joel Kaplan

April 24, 2013

For some time now, civil rights activists in Central Florida have been upset at what they see as a lack of diversity at the public radio station in their community, WMFE.

In February, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, the Democrat who represents the area, wrote a letter to Derek Blakeslee, the chair of the WMFE board of directors.

"The African American community in Central Florida has long endeavored to become included in the local programming of our primary public radio system," she writes. "For more than three years through public initiation, meetings have been attended and proposals have been offered. Unfortunately, little progress has been seen."

The letter goes on to say that while NPR in its national programming has demonstrated its commitment to diversity, WMFE has offered little diverse programming.

Jonathan Blount, a member of the Central Florida Association of Black Journalists, forwarded Rep. Brown's letter to the NPR ombudsman who in turn, sent it to me.

Mr. Blount said that there have been several years of discussion with the radio station about diversity and inclusion in terms of hiring African Americans and running local programming of interest to African Americans. He said the lack of diversity at the radio station means the station has no relationship to the minority market.

"These people don't have any black friends, they don't have any black relationships," Mr. Blount said. "They don't have any attention to the black culture; they don't have any relationship to the black community. I keep educating them that Florida is the No. 2 market for African Americans right now in the nation. And we have an influx here in this market of incredible people of color who have strong portfolios and backgrounds and education and experience who are running franchises and a bank here.

"All over the place you have people running million-dollar African American companies here. You've got all these new African Americans here who are public broadcasting listeners. They're intelligent, educated and learned. They're a part of the audience and they're missing the boat because these people would be strong supporters and would help expand the listening base if they were included.

"This isn't mercenary outreach, I'm not asking for them to just do something that's good for black people. It's a win-win opportunity for everybody. It's such an emerging majority population, and it's emerging everywhere but here. It doesn't emerge in public radio and it hasn't emerged in public radio and television and so it's a continuing struggle. People come into this market and they can't believe how black it is. Every other market is been there, done that. But down here we're still fighting the racial war of the '50s."

In response, Mr. Blakeslee, who has been on the WMFE board for six years but is in his first term as chair, said that the letter he received was the first correspondence that has been received from the congresswoman. He rejects the notion that the station is not diverse or inclusive.

"We really do meet all these things," Mr. Blakeslee said. "We have a diverse board. We're in flux right now because we don't have a GM. We're looking to hire. But we had an interview with our first finalist. Our finalist is an African American."

Mr. Blakeslee said that there is an African American board member and the chair of the search committee is Hispanic. He acknowledged that there are no African American staffers, but said that is in part the result of a recent hire having turned them down for more money elsewhere.

"Central Florida is a very diverse community," Mr. Blakeslee said. "We are not a white/African American community, we're a white/Hispanic/African American community, and it's a very big mix. It's a little bit of everything, and to me, about 90 percent of our programming is NPR anyway.

"We don't have a tremendous amount of local content, but we are starting to gear up to do more, and we're starting to hire three new reporters. And again, the first reporter who we offered a job to and accepted it was an African American. And then she came back and the Georgia public radio out of Atlanta offered her more money. We just hired a health reporter, and our health reporter is Hispanic.

"I guess I feel like we're sort of under attack, but we really I think we're doing everything correctly and we're paying attention. It's not like we're doing everything and we're not going to worry about it. We think we're doing everything and paying attention to it and making sure we're, not keeping score cards, but looking at it every now and then and making sure that we are doing it.

"When Mr. Blount says, 'We don't think you're doing enough,' that's when we went back and said let's really go analyze and see. And if we tell him that we think we are and really go back and see and then we can walk that walk. And the answer when we went back and did homework was 'yeah, we really are, we are out there doing things'. Can any of us do better? Probably. Always. But again, our history of what we typically receive as far as feedback in the community has been very positive.

"Our ratings are getting close to where we're the top news program in Central Florida, which for a public radio station is fantastic. Especially one that's in turmoil, searching for a GM."

But Mr. Blount rejects the notion that the station is presenting diverse programming and said that WMFE's effort to hire a black reporter is insufficient.

"It's not about that," he said. "It's about a program. It's about establishing a strategic campaign for inclusion that includes some adaptive benchmarks that will ensure establishing a certain amount of programming that will appeal to this diverse audience.

"It's not going to happen by osmosis and it's not going to happen if people make certain meaningless gestures. There's nobody at the table that's advocating for us. The squeaky wheel still gets the oil. That's why I speak a little bit."

During lengthy conversations with both Mr. Blount and Mr. Blakeslee it seemed that both men are talking past each other. Despite Mr. Blount's concrete recommendations for making the station more diverse, Mr. Blakeslee said he is unclear what more needs to be done. "I just don't know that we're ever going to meet his goals or expectations," Mr. Blakeslee said.

Mr. Blakeslee added that the WMFE board was unhappy with the letter from Rep. Brown.

"The board's reaction was very strong," he said. "If she wants to send us a letter like this then let's have her meet with us so we can tell her exactly what we are doing."

Chester Glover, a caseworker in Rep. Brown's Orlando office, said the congresswoman would be happy to meet with the board.

Given the opposing viewpoints on what is happening at WMFE, such a meeting could be productive.

What might also be productive is a meeting between the board and community activists like Mr. Blount where both groups could talk to each other as opposed to past each other.

They might even consider broadcasting such a meeting over WMFE.

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