Mutual Aid and the “Messy Middle”: pushing public radio toward antiracism
By Andrea Wenzel
This piece is an excerpt from Andrea Wenzel’s full report on public media and antiracism efforts. It was published last week by the Tow Center and CJR. Wenzel is one of Tow’s senior research fellows, an incoming assistant professor at Temple University's Klein College of Media and Communication, and a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Across the US, a number of public media stations have been undertaking initiatives with the aim of making their newsrooms and their journalism more inclusive of Black, Indigenous, and people of color and other marginalized communities. These initiatives have taken a variety of forms, including tracking the diversity of their sources; diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) workshops and trainings; and community engagement initiatives.
WHYY public media in Philadelphia has implemented all of these DEI and community engagement projects, some of which I’ve chronicled in a past Tow Center report. One of WHYY’s most recent undertakings tackles a new dimension of the questions of how to make local journalism more inclusive and what role public media can play in this effort. The News and Information Community Exchange, or N.I.C.E., connects “grassroots content creators” for what it calls a “mutual aid journalism collaborative.” According to WHYY, the goal of N.I.C.E. is “to organize, support, and develop grassroots news and information content creators who serve their communities and who, in turn, share content, sources, wisdom, and audiences with WHYY and each other.” The project is coordinated by a community organizer role, a first for WHYY. N.I.C.E. partners include a mix of community and ethnic media journalists, podcasters, bloggers, and social media influencers. Partners, who receive a stipend, have regular meetings that include skills training as well as discussions about potential collaborations with each other and WHYY.
Since January of 2021, I’ve followed the project, which is funded by the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund. I wanted to understand how this initiative fit with WHYY’s wider objectives of building a more inclusive and antiracist news organization. Was the project contributing to WHYY’s efforts to more holistically represent and tell stories with and for communities in its broadcast region? How was it navigating expectations, values, and practices in a project that brought together professional journalists from a range of backgrounds with other kinds of community storytellers? And what big questions did this work raise about the possibilities of reforming public media versus building it anew?
“Real journalism,” collaboration between partners, and managing expectations
By expanding who is considered a “real journalist,” the N.I.C.E. project complemented WHYY’s broader work to expand who gets to tell local stories and to be heard on the public media airwaves. At the same time, the more fluid, ground-up structure of the N.I.C.E. project had some inherent inefficiencies, and it could be challenging to establish and maintain expectations.
From the WHYY side of the network, organizers sought to encourage collaboration among N.I.C.E. partners. WHYY managers were explicit about wanting to avoid the pitfalls that could arise from a larger media organization “bigfooting” grassroots content creators. They emphasized the need to be mindful of power dynamics. N.I.C.E. partners had varied degrees of trust in the relationship, and expectations had to continuously be negotiated, particularly around on-air opportunities at WHYY.
N.I.C.E and the newsroom
The premise of much engaged journalism work is that building stronger relationships between news organizations and communities will allow an outlet to produce coverage that more fully represents communities and which community members can trust. However, as at many news organizations, the people whose positions are explicitly devoted to community engagement at WHYY are not the people who are producing the bulk of the station’s news coverage.
And while nearly everyone spoke in positive terms about the station’s engagement work and the N.I.C.E. project, some suggested resource challenges prevented them from fully acting on the insights brought by the community engagement team. Some staff suggested there was a danger of overpromising what they could deliver to communities because building meaningful relationships with communities required funds for news production as well as community engagement projects and events, not to mention the challenges of not only diversifying newsroom staff but supporting, compensating, and retaining talented BIPOC staff.
Staff members said they wished there was a way to communicate to funders that building meaningful relationships with communities required funds for news production as well as community engagement projects and events.
The messy work of repairing while building
Most of the WHYY staff and N.I.C.E. project partners I spoke with acknowledged that WHYY was engaging in an effort to shift the culture of its public radio station and to develop stronger connections with BIPOC and other historically marginalized communities. Many pointed to ways in which the station’s commitment to antiracism and cultural competency was now infused throughout the newsroom and community engagement initiatives — with a greater representation of BIPOC staff and key editors, with more on-air talent that “sounded like Philadelphia,” and goals for source diversity, cultural competency, and engagement integrated into staff performance reviews.
But many also acknowledged that WHYY was at a “messy middle” point in the process. Managers consistently reiterated that the work of antiracism, cultural competency, and community engagement needed to be viewed in terms of structural change and as part of the ongoing work on the culture of the news organization and its journalism. At the same time, some expressed uncertainty about the momentum of these goals were these managers to leave. Others referenced the structural tensions due to the station’s membership-based business model, and assumptions that were made across the organization about how to appeal to potential large donors (who had traditionally been assumed to be white), and how resources were prioritized accordingly. Nevertheless, staff in various roles expressed optimistic sentiments that things were headed in the right direction. The N.I.C.E. project also reported building momentum. More partners had begun collaborations, more were being featured in WHYY content, and several had arranged content-sharing agreements with WHYY.
At the same time, there remain unresolved questions. One of the key objectives of the project was to strengthen the news infrastructure of the region by supporting grassroots content creators. Because the project assumed these creators already had a connection with their communities, in some ways taking the influencers themselves as proxies for communities, there was less emphasis on how N.I.C.E. partners might develop engaged journalism skills or assess those information needs. Going forward, they might build on this work by exploring other ways to strengthen two-way feedback loops to ensure they continue to develop relationships with parts of their community they may not already be connected with.
The ambitious scope of change that the project seeks to achieve will almost certainly require more than a two-year funding cycle. But its early accomplishments, despite limitations, point to a shift in the role a public media station might play going forward. Any work in news organizations that continue to be majority-white spaces will always be in a “messy middle” at best. There will always be work that needs to be done to counter the influence of whiteness and to work in the direction of antiracism, but the more organizations can implement structures and processes that normalize openly doing this work as a part of daily journalism, the more that messiness may be a space of productive discomfort.