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Filling a rush order for topical radio

After Tavis Smiley left NPR, Ed Gordon sped up the start of his show exploring black issues.

March 08, 2005|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

When Tavis Smiley walked away from his National Public Radio show in December, it highlighted the problem of personality-driven programming: When the personality disappears, so does the program. Only in Smiley's case, the problem wasn't merely the celebrity vacuum his departure created for the 86 stations that carried it, but the glaring hole it made in minority-oriented coverage on public radio.

In late January, after six weeks of plugging that hole with an interim program, NPR filled the void with "News & Notes," a one-hour, weekday show that is similar to Smiley's in its African American perspective but entirely different in approach. Helmed by Emmy Award-winning journalist Ed Gordon, the format is driven by news, not the name presenting it.

One month in, Gordon is still adjusting to a schedule that's had him beginning his day at 3:30 a.m. and working 14 hours straight. "News & Notes" wasn't supposed to launch until later this year but was rushed on air to take advantage of the space created by Smiley's unexpected departure. Ordinarily, the show would have been developed over six months, but "News & Notes" was assembled in just six weeks.

"I'm probably in my learning curve, but I think we've been fooling them," said Gordon, who got the show off to a running start his first week with heavy-hitting guests Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Rev. Jesse Jackson and singer Vanessa Williams. Recent weeks have featured NBA star Grant Hill and actress Cicely Tyson.

A mix of interviews and round-table discussions, "News & Notes" covers topics as varied as politics, culture and entertainment, translating headlines into information that's relevant for black Americans. Recent shows have examined the effects of federal budget cuts, the black-white education gap and the significance of Chris Rock hosting the Oscars.

Known for his direct speaking style and interviews with big names -- including Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and O.J. Simpson -- Gordon has an impressive TV resume. A correspondent for "60 Minutes Wednesday," he formerly was a "BET News" anchor and a contributor to NBC's "Today Show" and "Dateline NBC."

Gordon's radio experience, however, has been primarily as a guest. His interest in hosting "News & Notes," he said, lies with his desire to try something new, particularly now, in an era when journalists are allowed to move fairly easily between mediums. NPR's interest in Gordon: His journalistic credibility and appeal among African Americans.

According to Jay Kernis, NPR's senior vice president for programming, "Gordon was on a very short list of top African American broadcasters" whom the organization was approaching to develop new shows -- part of a larger initiative between NPR and the African American Public Radio Consortium to build a block of programming that would appeal to a black audience.

"For a very long time, our stations were very music driven," said Loretta Rucker, executive consultant for the consortium, which formed in 1998 and represents 25 stations, most of them at black colleges and universities. "A lot of that is because although we were in public radio, some of the information programs had moderate appeal to our listeners, so therefore the least expensive and most satisfying program to do would be music."

"The Tavis Smiley Show" was the first program to result from NPR's partnership with the consortium. "News & Notes" foreshadows a handful of similarly oriented news and public affairs programs in development for next year, Rucker said.

Whether the programs will increase African American listenership -- currently 7.8% of NPR's audience -- remains to be seen. Smiley was successful in bringing his predominantly black TV audience to his radio show, but many of his listeners didn't stick around to hear anything else. Smiley was also successful in attracting some of public radio's white audience, but it wasn't a huge crossover success.

And that's the Catch-22 of minority-specific programs: Public radio's audience is 85% white. To be a success, a show must walk the fine line of appealing to its African American base but also speak to public radio's core listeners -- a goal that can be achieved by appealing to the values uniting all public radio listeners, namely a curiosity about the world and an interest in lifelong learning.

"Often things in the African American community don't hit mainstream headlines for a mighty long time," Gordon said.

"We want to be one of the leaders in saying, 'Here's some issues that black America is talking about, needs to know about and listen to.' And we also want white America and others to understand just because there's this tag that people put on it as 'black perspective' that it doesn't mean you shouldn't listen to it or that it isn't important to you."

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