Originally published September 22, 2020
Our Public Statement
After six years, the Counter Stories Crew has decided to end our partnership with Minnesota Public Radio effective immediately. At the inception of our relationship with MPR, we came together to: (1) bring voices of color to MPR airways and engage new audiences across the country via NPR, (2) provide our perspectives as members from our respective communities, and (3) help raise issues that affect communities of color to the forefront with nuance and complexity. However, over the last six years, we have seen MPR downplay our efforts and impact, overlook our ideas, and, probably most importantly of all, had members of the newsroom dismiss and ignore our concerns and our contributions. Despite the fact that our podcast achieved recognition on numerous national media lists and received a national award, the environment created by MPR News has not been one that is welcoming or inclusive. Notwithstanding, we support the work of MPR’s newly selected President and the difficult challenges he has inherited as MPR’s first leader of color. We feel, however, that it is time to produce this valuable look into the nuanced intersections of BIPOC communities on our own terms with full editorial control and decision-making power. While we offered MPR the opportunity to redefine our relationship and purchase our content, MPR declined to do so instead wishing us luck on our new venture while offering to help market the new iteration. Our plan is to launch our podcast independently in the near future.
In 2014, our journey with Counter Stories started when a series of conversations with former producers and news directors at MPR led the organization to pilot a new type of content: hearing from various perspectives in Hmong, Latinx, Native, and Black communities. We talked at length about our issues with MPR’s coverage of our respective communities and about our experiences in the media landscape. We also discussed that a podcast by communities of color needs to speak to these communities and not be beholden to whether white audiences understand or engage; an issue that often marginalized content on dominant culture.
This led to an idea for a space at MPR where BIPOC community members not only decided upon the direction and scope of the content, but would use this space to grow and change the lens and perspectives of current day reactions to the news cycle. We would expound, with nuance, on what was happening in the world with the many perspectives in local communities of color and possibly bring in new audiences as a result. We even discussed the racial patterns that we see and hear from journalists who seem to ask good questions, but not the questions that would be asked by and from our various communities.
It was a novel idea that was met with serious skepticism by the, now, hosts of what became the Counter Stories Podcast, as we were weary of working with a predominantly white institution. We believe it was this willingness to challenge dominant narratives in new ways that was the heart of the chemistry that then producer Chris Roberts and Mickey Moore said they loved when inviting us to participate. The group made sense: a law and public policy expert, a college professor, a journalist and filmmaker, and a critical race theorist and youth worker with a clergy background. In one room we harnessed the power of BIPOC community members with a wealth of history, connection, expertise and above all, no agenda other than complicating the narratives of people of color in service to more rich and full representation. So, we taped a few pilot conversations to see what made sense. We even took a tenant from critical race theory, “counter-storytelling” for the name. Even at the beginning, we spelled out clearly that we did not want this to become a quiet space off to the side of the organization and insisted that MPR participate by adding a consistent voice, preferably of color, from the company so that we can ensure that we weren’t scapegoated when we deal with difficult topics; a pattern that we have all faced in predominantly white institutions.
Unfortunately, over these years we have seen an environment that is all too familiar to BIPOC communities in the media. We, as contributors, have consistently asked for deeper dialogue with MPR on how we can utilize the strength of Counter Stories to change the landscape and offer fresh perspective only to hear little or no word in return. We have constantly pushed for deeper community engagement through our producers and MPR panel members and watched as they struggled to get buy in. The few times we have gone to do our show outside of the studio we experienced enthusiastic support and growth in the community garnering a national award from the Association of Black Journalists. We have even offered to help reach out to our communities and help build relationships which only a few staff have embraced. We helped bring in and offer guidance on interesting stories and have brought many community perspectives to our own show because of our relationships. What we encountered, however, was a culture that seemed to only engage with us out of pressure from us or the community, not the innovation and opportunity that birthed the project.
Throughout all of this, the communication from MPR has been woefully insufficient to establish and maintain a relationship with the Counter Stories crew, a vital and necessary component when dealing with BIPOC communities. During a round of layoffs we lost our MPR host, David Cazares, and producer and heard nothing from MPR for several weeks, particularly jarring given we were a weekly podcast at the time. We wrote a letter which prompted a meeting where we were assured that we were not an afterthought AND that MPR wanted more engagement with our content by bringing us on air. We were given another voice in Jonathan Blakley and Tom Weber who advocated for our continuance and added Jo Erikson and Julie Siple to keep us going. This team spent the necessary time to build relationships, understanding, and perspective to enrich the show and, in many ways, saved it by bringing it on air beyond the online podcast format. However again, shortly thereafter, Tom and Jonathan were gone and we were again left without direction, waiting to hear what would happen. During this time we also noticed that we were spending much more time trying to make sense to white audiences and less time on the counternarratives in our communities that we sought to engage. We were open and honest with this tension with Jo and Marianne Combs. It became a consistent and fruitful challenge. The authentic relationships with Jo and Marianne allowed us to develop some success in addressing the core issues.
It was Jo and Marianne who would become our only real relationship with the organization and worked with us to really reconnect with the stories that matter to our communities, producing the series on Missing and Murdered women, continued coverage of Racial Unrest, and even the COVID-19 crisis with the loss of Don’s Mother, an in-depth conversation with a young Latina regarding the impact of COVID-19 on new immigrants, and the Galloway family’s struggle to navigate the pandemic and George Floyd’s death.
The all too familiar pattern was realized again when Luz Maria Frias communicated to MPR about her new appointment as deputy attorney general, which was a huge accomplishment to our communities. While we knew this would be a challenge for MPR, we fully expected to be brought in to discuss the issue which is why Luz gave plenty of notice. We learned about the journalistic issue from friends in the media and our own trained journalists and producers on the show and were fully prepared to help problem-solve and chart a path forward. Instead, we heard nothing and eventually were told what would be happening. We then learned that our producer Jo Erikson, would be taking an opportunity to engage fully in a new job opportunity in Colorado and, in a subsequent meeting to which Luz was originally not invited, we learned that the organization was posting for Luz and Jo’s replacements. This again occurred with no consultation of the group prior to the decision. The subsequent meeting with newsroom leaders showed little understanding of the work and deep relationship building that goes into producing this show. As noted repeatedly on the air, as well as our meetings with management, there is an old adage in BIPOC communities: “nothing about us, without us, is for us.” Unfortunately over the past six years, the decision making regarding Counter Stories has been unilateral and non-conforming to this fundamental tenet. This pattern has caused repeated concerns with the Counter Stories Crew.
It was at this moment that we again recognized an alarming pattern: that we seem to only be engaged after decisions are made. This pattern is not only frustrating for the Crew, but is a pattern that we experience and discuss often on the podcast. While MPR absolutely has the right to make its own decisions, the consequence of how these decisions were made was that it alienated a community who, at the beginning, saw itself as an asset to an organization who seemed to be wanting to chart a different path towards inclusion.
It is for this reason that we as the crew of Counter Stories will be seeking to produce our own content going forward and end our relationship with MPR. In a season where it is more important than ever to engage the nuance and complexity of BIPOC communities, we feel that our voices would be better utilized being produced in the communities that we call home. We believe that a podcast like this needs to be rooted and produced in our respective communities free from the patterns that we have referenced herein. We understand that there are the best of intentions at MPR, but we have a duty to our communities and ourselves to decide the direction, content, and membership of a podcast that is supposed to be “by people of color, for people of color, and everybody else.”
While we offered MPR the opportunity to redefine our relationship and purchase our content, MPR declined to do so instead wishing us luck on our new venture while offering to help market the new iteration.
Anthony Galloway, Black Male
Senior Partner Dendros Group and Executive Director of the ARTS Us Center for the African Diaspora
Hlee Lee, Hmong Woman
Owner of the other media group
Don Eubanks, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe
Professor at Metropolitan State University and Cultural Consultant