Since the summer of 2020, WUNC public radio has been part of a story its journalists have also covered—the response of institutions, including media, to the murder of a Black man named George Floyd by a white Minnesota police officer, and to the conversation his death ignited about racism in America.
Black people make up far smaller proportions of staff and audience at WUNC than their presence in the Triangle, whose population is 22 percent Black. The station’s Raleigh-Durham radio audience averaged 8 percent Black listeners over a recent 13-month period, said program director Terry Gildea.
The station’s audience was 12 percent Hispanic in the same period, on par with the region’s 11 percent Hispanic population.
Black employees make up 12 percent of WUNC’s 52 full-time total, according to a recent breakdown provided by UNC-Chapel Hill. Hispanic people represented 10 percent of the total, people of two or more races were 2 percent, and white employees were 77 percent.
Among WUNC’s Black employees, most have “first” and “only” stories. Leoneda Inge was the station’s only Black reporter when she arrived in 2000, and has been for most of her years there. Content director Lindsay Foster Thomas is the only senior manager who’s Black, an experience she has had elsewhere.
“It’s tiresome, and it’s 2022, and there is a reason why these spaces remain so white,” Thomas said.
Now WUNC is working on a stationwide effort called Inclusion Diversity Equity Accountability, or I.D.E.A. But change required a push.
In June 2020, as WUNC covered the North Carolina impact and reaction to Floyd’s death, six Black employees sent then-President Connie Walker a letter challenging the station to offer “a response that publicizes our values with regard to racism and racial injustice,” as some other NPR affiliates and media organizations were doing.
Beyond that, they offered eight action items for the station to address, involving internal culture and WUNC’s approaches to hiring, retention, and community relationships.
First on the list: “Hire more Black staff.”
Midday news host Naomi Prioleau, the letter’s lead writer, told The Assembly that some of the needs seemed basic: “Editors who are Black, reporters who are Black. Workshops and events that really center around getting into the Black community and making our presence known beyond our white upper-class listeners.”
WUNC’s employment gap reaches back through its history; in the late 1970s, its FCC relicensing was held up for a couple of years over formal opposition claiming violations of FCC equal employment requirements. The complaint noted the station’s full-time staff had been all white over the prior three years.
While public radio overall has been slow to address its lack of diversity and inclusion (as have newspapers and other mainstream media), some parts of the industry have seen progress. NPR’s staff was 28 percent people of color in 2019 and the network has a multilevel diversity agenda, though a wave of high-profile departures have raised flags lately.
At WFAE, recent numbers show a staff that’s 24 percent Black and 5 percent Hispanic. Last July, the station reached a high of 32 percent for Black listeners (Charlotte is 35 percent Black, and WFAE’s listening area 22 percent).
For WUNC, the staff letter became the framework for an ongoing I.D.E.A. committee and subcommittees. Every WUNC employee or manager The Assembly spoke with mentioned the effort, and all had participated.
By fall 2020, the station posted its anti-racism statement and a checklist of initiatives on the WUNC website, and the WUNC board endorsed the plan. Other steps followed: training, informal anti-racism discussion groups, and program changes, and the I.D.E.A. committee was made a permanent part of the agenda for board meetings.
Casper, the committee’s first chair and an ongoing participant, said the public checklist and subcommittee work aim to make sure that WUNC stays committed.
“We have a long way to go, without question,” Casper said, “but our goal is to take that lens to everything that we do, and to create a way to hold ourselves accountable through that lens.”
The station also established new internships across its operations starting this spring and a leadership role to broaden its summer Youth Reporting Institute into a more expansive program to discover, train and support talent outside the usual paths that bring people into public radio.
The job went to Kamaya Truitt-Martin, who’d first joined WUNC as a youth reporter and later directed the summer institute. A former substitute teacher and N.C. A&T State University graduate, she sees her mission as changing public radio, not just its image, by opening up two-way connections where WUNC isn’t established.
So far, Truitt-Martin has done training and trivia nights with historically black colleges and universities, and other outreach. She and the station have organized community conversations to learn what information Spanish speakers and local residents need, and in March they announced a new program to create audio production studios at Southeast Raleigh High and work with students there.
“There’s so much more we can do,” Truitt-Martin said, “but we might not have the people or the resources there yet.”
Melanie Sill is a Triangle-based independent journalist and former top editor of The News & Observer, Sacramento Bee, and Southern California Public Radio-KPCC. She was founding executive director of the NC Local News Workshop at Elon University.
This is part of a larger exploration of WUNC, which you can read in full here.