Is MPR for Black folk?

Two radio veterans hope to attract more diverse listeners

Jonathan Blakley
Jonathan Blakley

After nearly six months as Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) program director, veteran newsman Jonathan Blakley is overseeing “a variety of new podcasts [and] new voices.”

MPR isn’t just for the so-called purists, stated Blakley in a recent MSR interview at MPR’s St. Paul headquarters. His overall goal since assuming his duties last November is to bring fresh voices over its airwaves as well as to help dispel the oft-entertained notion among many Blacks and other people of color that public radio is too highbrow for them.

“I get to select a lot of folk,” said Blakley of his job.

Six new podcasts MPR now features include Counter Stories with regular panelists of color each week “on life and the news in Minnesota, from the perspective of members of the state’s communities of color.

“We want folks who sound like us,” noted Blakley. “The podcast[s] you are going to hear from MPR or NPR will have a little more depth.”

Blakley has worked in public radio for 15 years. “I’ve been in radio going on 22 years. Radio isn’t just the high ground or for the affluent. Radio is for everybody, and it’s free.

“No one is going to want to listen to a radio station that doesn’t feature people that doesn’t sound like them,” he explained. “It’s getting beyond just the specials” such as Black History Month programming, he said, “but making sure that we interview people from this community — we have to talk to them.”

Radio virtually has been in his blood for as long as he can remember, admitted the Detroit native. “My dad gave me a transistor radio, which I still have. I keep it in my house as a reminder of why I am in this medium.

“When I was coming up as a young broadcaster in college, you wanted to work at CNN,” recalled Blakley, who after graduating from Western Michigan University helped launch an all-news station in Kalamazoo, Mich., worked at another all-news station in Detroit, was a producer at NPR’s Baghdad bureau tasked with managing the Iraqi staff, and taught in Ghana for a year as a Fulbright lecturer.

Now, he’s programming a news operation that each week reaches over a half-million listeners — at least 95 percent of Minnesotans can get the MPR News radio signal. “We are not just broadcasting on KNOW [91.1 FM] but across the entire state. MPR is one of the jewels of the public radio system because of its reach and because of the number of people we reach,” said the program director.

Toni Randolph
Toni Randolph

Veteran journalist Toni Randolph joined MPR News in 2003. The Buffalo, N.Y. native was a news director at her local public radio station and covered state politics at a Boston, Mass. public station. MPR named Randolph new audiences editor in 2010, and she “works to ensure diversity in the voices used to tell stories on MPR News,” which includes her work with high school and college students in the Young Reporters Series in producing stories to air on MPR.

She also has been involved in the University of St. Thomas’ ThreeSixty Journalism high school program that honored her last November. “Some of them have an interest in journalism when they come to me. But others are just thinking about it for the first time. Hopefully they will get the bug, and they would want to continue down this road,” she said of the students.

Both she and Blakley are equally committed to “good journalism” and doing it effectively on radio as well.

“The cool thing about today’s digital world is the immediacy and accuracy in telling stories,” said Blakely. Everybody wants to be informed, including today’s young people who he says seemingly want more entertainment than news.

“I think we might underestimate the younger generation” because they do get the news from other sources, added Blakley, citing his college-age niece as an example: “Just because she doesn’t own a radio doesn’t mean that she’s not tuned in. She’s getting her news from her cell phone, and she’s listening to NPR — not all the time, but when she wants to know what is going on, she will read it or listen to it.”

“We have to be aware of all these other platforms where we can make what we do on the radio accessible to people when they are not near a radio or don’t have a radio,” added Randolph.  “What I do to produce a story is kind of the same, but I am aware of the other platforms where it will be consumed.

“You are aware that there are different ways people can hear and see the stories that you are doing,” Randolph continued. “They are on the Web; they are listening to it. And if they want more…they are going to click on something to get that more, and we need to have that ‘more’ there.”

Neither Randolph nor Blakley ventured to predict what forms journalism may take other than their belief that radio will always be there. “I think journalism always will be around. That could change in 10-15 years, but how we are consuming it might change — where we get it and how we get it,” said Randolph.

“I think there always is going to be room for people to let other people know what is going on. People want to be informed. They want to know the news and what is going on in their community and in the world.”

Blakley says MPR “needs to be listening to the community.” He also suggested to Blacks, other people of color, and anyone else who doesn’t regularly listen to MPR, “Don’t just brush us off because of the perception… Listen to us for 15 minutes.

“Radio is always going to be free — it’s always going to be in your car. At least for the foreseeable future, any car you buy always will have a radio,” concluded Blakley. “I don’t know how long it is going to work, but it works now. It works because you get what you pay for.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Blakley was NPR’s Baghdad Bureau Chief. It has been corrected.

One Comment on “Is MPR for Black folk?”

  1. Excellent article Mr. Blakley, & you as well Ms. Randolph. The message I got was that you both are committed to promoting good radio journalism, particularly as it relates to young people of color, & how they relate to it. The things that left an impression on you will probably make lasting impressions on those who tune – in to your stations revitalized, targeted programming.
    “Good Luck” to you, & your efforts to make a difference in how radio journalism affects those who listen to it.

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