Two episodes of a travel show about Afro Latino communities in the Americas mark a personal triumph for a Black journalist who produced them with her own money and sweat. Against a backdrop of inequality in U.S. media, we asked if her journey to air on public television was too long.
In 2020, this most interesting of years, the word “inequality” has risen to the top of our collective consciousness, right up there with “pandemic” and “democracy.”
We’ve been thinking and talking a lot about the word, especially since the death of George Floyd on a street in Minneapolis this summer, under the knee of a police officer. That death, and others involving police and people of color, pushed us to reconsider how institutions — from the White House to our workplaces — view large swaths of this nation’s diverse population.
The Public Broadcasting Service understands the gravity of the word and the necessary conversation that surrounds it. PBS has held two companywide town hall meetings to address the diversity of its staff and in the hours of important content it provides to hundreds of public broadcast stations around the country. Lectures by experts in workplace equality and inclusion had audiences of hundreds. This is healthy introspection. It will help PBS identify what yet must be done to ensure it reflects the nation’s demographic and social diversity.
Let me explain why I’m bringing this up in a space reserved for examinations of viewer concerns and questions about PBS content.
Viewers and readers have increasingly placed race at the center of notes and letters sent to us, by design or by allowing raw emotion and commentary to betray racist sentiment about PBS personalities and journalists. There are viewers who, in notes to us, say they believe our society is not racist and that PBS public affairs programs pay too much attention to inequality.
That previous sentence could easily become a 10-part documentary series.
An ongoing conversation
Inequality was at the heart of a recent conversation I had with a group of Afro Latino journalists from throughout the U.S. and Latin America. In a Zoom forum, we considered questions of what a summer of racial reckoning means to a community for whom discrimination has known no boundary of time or geography. Throughout Latin America, people whose ancestors were brought to the New World as slaves are routinely marginalized and have endured persistent and acute racism. In the United States, ethnic and cultural differences that don’t fit neatly into black and white boxes often leave out people who are proudly Black AND Latino.
The online discussion reminded me of the daily challenges in front of my own Afro Mexican, Hatian Mexican and Puerto Rican-Mexican nephews, nieces and in-laws. The forum produced numbers we all should seriously consider: One of every four Hispanics in the United States identifies as Afro Latino, according to the Pew Research Center. Today, that’s at least 15 million people.
Before the forum, one journalist asked me to name a PBS program centered on the vast Afro Latino population of the Western Hemisphere. I stumbled, paused and recalled that Henry Louis Gates had taken PBS viewers to explore the history of some Afro Latino communities in the Americas. I also remembered a note I’d gotten, coincidentally not long before the online forum, from veteran journalist Kim Haas, asking for advice on how a show she is producing for public television might find a broader audience.
Haas has years of experience reporting for local English-language television and for Telemundo, one of the nation’s leading Spanish-language broadcasters. And through most of the last decade, she has poured her own money and time into developing “Afro-Latino Travels with Kim Haas,” which introduces us to food, music and cultural traditions of people in places not usually on tourist itineraries. The shows are vivid reminders of the deep reservoir of diversity in the Americas.
I thought it was a triumph that her show had won support from local public broadcasters in places like San Francisco, Chicago and Miami. Haas thought so too, but she confessed that what should have been a pure sense of accomplishment was tempered by the realization that she doesn’t have financial support to meet her goal of a full season of shows.
“I can’t imagine that a show like mine doesn’t have a place on public television,” Haas said, describing for me the long road to air for her passion project. “It is all about connecting a potentially large number of viewers to their roots in Latin America, and I’m doing it in a fun way that also teaches us something about ourselves.”
“I want this show and future episodes to be part of this larger movement to bring greater awareness, and recognition to Afro Latinos,” she added. “They have been ignored and under-represented for too long.”
How Rick Steves became Rick Steves
I told Afro Latino colleagues about Haas’ new show, which was about to air two episodes in several major U.S. television markets. The response was quick: “So how does Kim get the kind of attention that PBS pays to, say, Rick Steves? How did Rick Steves become Rick Steves?”
The implied suspicion was clear: Rick Steves being white and best known for taking us on intimate tours of Europe gets celebrity treatment from PBS, while a show about Afro-Latinos struggles to stay on the air.
I dug deeper to see if reality matched this suspicion.
Exploration yielded surprising commonality between the origin stories of Haas and Steves. I also discovered that, despite the number of travel shows with substantial audiences that air on public television, PBS does not directly produce them. Like the majority of PBS programming, travel shows are usually products of independent personalities and producers who have to work hard — or hire professional fundraisers — to cover costs and pay guides, writers and camera operators. Primary support often comes from individual donors, non-profit foundations and corporate sponsors — even tourism bureaus of foreign governments.
Most importantly, I found key broadcast executives who recognize that the necessary steps in the concept-to-air process in public television can be barriers to talented creators with good ideas but no connections to or knowledge of the system. Every executive I reached out to about Haas’ show, and the deeper implications of her experience, seemed genuinely interested in paving new roads for producers of color. There are ongoing conversations about how PBS can demystify its system, and attract and promote independent creators from communities now underrepresented on the service’s programming channels.
Haas’ show comes at a time when more PBS viewers are judging how mainstream media are acting on a long-professed desire to “look and sound like America.” They know we’ve not done enough to increase participation and opportunity for creative minds from Black, Latino, Asian and Native American communities. U.S. newsrooms are 70% white and male-dominated. And, according to a 2020 study of 1,300 popular films by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, only about 34% of actors, directors, producers, executives and technicians are women, from the LGBTQ community, or non-white.
Given the numbers, it should be no surprise that perceptions of inequality persist.
I’ve heard PBS viewers argue that there is not enough mainstream programming by or for people of color.
“I wanted to educate my young cousins about racism against Mexicans and Mexican Americans and was so sad that I could find almost NOTHING on the PBS app. Only a few clips for unavailable documentaries like A Class Apart and Birth of Racism Against Mexicans. I have shared many films and documentaries about the black experience but was very sad I cannot share more with them about our own heritage unless I do a lot of digging. Even then, there is so little out there…”
—Stephanie Alejandro McMillan
San Antonio, Texas
I know, however, that PBS has a rich history of documentaries and public affairs programming by and about African Americans, Asians, Native Americans and Latinos. For Latino audiences, PBS mainstays include a Spanish-language affiliate channel and, of course, the hard work of Latino Public Broadcasting, which has fostered many wonderful, on-air experiences. A recent example is Bernardo Ruiz’s “Latino Vote: Dispatches from the Battleground,” a brilliant, pre-election documentary about the complicated politics of the Latino community.
When you add in characters and storylines on children's shows — like the new “Alma’s Way,” a "Sesame Street" spinoff — representation of diverse communities on public television becomes commendable.
Room for improvement
Still, there’s room to do better. Though increasingly diverse, the majority of the adult PBS audience has historically been white. This makes it hard to shake the perception that the service’s content skews white and European.
So it’s no surprise that a group of Afro-Latino journalists would hold up Rick Steves as a prototypical PBS travel show. (To be sure, they were not being critical of Steves himself. He rightly remains the North Star for many — regardless of color or creed — who love to travel and to learn about places.)
And I bet they’d appreciate Steves’ work even more when they learn that his road to air — and to his place as a valuable fundraising partner for local stations — was long and arduous, like Haas’.
“I’m lucky that my teaching passion relates to a big market and has therefore made my show’s focus viable and sustainable,” Steves told me in an email. (See excerpts from my online conversations with Steves and Haas here.)
I found Steves’ commentary was similar to what Haas said about her show’s beginnings (education about a big subject that seems alien to many in mainstream America) and about her public television adventures, so far.
“I had the idea of a travel show celebrating Afro Latinos after traveling for many years throughout Latin America, and having Afro Latino friends share their family stories with me. I rarely see Afro Latinos (even on) Spanish-language television and media,” Haas said.
Early viewer response to Haas’ first episodes has been “phenomenal.”
Educators have reached out, she said, asking how they can incorporate the first shows into classroom lessons. “That feedback really inspires me! I’m truly living my dream and I’m very grateful.”
What must come next
Haas’ and Steves’ stories are textbook examples of how shows make it to air on public television. Their journeys are inspiring and hopefully show us what’s possible.
But I must ask the powers that be at PBS: For targeted areas (in need of expanded coverage) are there ways to shorten the pipeline?
I know there is a strong case for arduous vetting of shows. It usually leads to top quality shows that benefit viewers.
But It seems to me that the system’s executives can find ways to cast wider nets into often neglected communities of creatives and producers to land the next great PBS show.
We pride ourselves on knowing a good story when we see it. But inequality can get in the way if we refuse to step out of our comfortable networks and become more aggressive in searching for new storytellers from unmined sources.
I believe we can enrich the public media showcase by searching for talent more deeply in overlooked communities, and then become tour guides — offering advice, at least, to new creatives as they navigate production challenges and search for financing.
I know this is not easy and may require dollars that are already stretched tight. But our viewers are telling us this is important to them. Their opinion matters, right? We must listen and we must act.
PBS researcher Daniel Macy contributed to this report.