Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Non-Traditional

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As I read up on the innards of public radio while working on my book about the public radio pledge drive, I’ve found something interesting.  It has been said that it’s important that public radio continue to focus on the audience it has; a 25% or so slice of the total listening audience (described as Innovators and Thinkers) while pursuing other segments of the audience not based on their skin color but on their interests and values.  That assumes the audience members in that sought after segment make no connection between the color of their own skin and their interests and values.

It reminds me of why non-traditional casting, as a rule, doesn’t work in the theater community.  I sat on the board of an African-American theater non-profit for a year and a half.  Audiences are comfortable seeing black actors playing in productions like “Porgy and Bess”, “Ain’t Misbehavin”, “Jitney” and a number of other productions written with the black experience in mind.  They are OK with the ocassional, high star power substitution.

But a black actor in a traditionally white role is a very uncomfortable experience for many non-black audience members.  This 1998 NYT Letter to the Editor makes that argument.  Nearly 15 years later, no less than the director of the London’s Stratford Shakespere Festival is still defending its validity.  Not much has changed.

To me, it’s an example of how even if the story is a human story, skin color is the lens that determines who sits in the audience to see it.  So making the assumption that doesn’t also work in the other direction, i.e., non-whites will consume public radio on the assumption they themselves don’t view culture through the lens of their own skin color, that is incorrect no matter what any data set says.

 

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