"It was so frustrating not to have an outlet": Post-"Tell Me More," Michel Martin talks Ferguson

Now that "Tell Me More" is off the air, Martin continues the dialogue with a series of live shows for NPR

Published September 19, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)

Michel Martin    (NPR)
Michel Martin (NPR)

Just weeks after the last episode of NPR's "Tell Me More" — Michel Martin's groundbreaking, seven-year radio program about race and gender issues — St. Louis Public Radio asked her to come down to Ferguson to facilitate a discussion with the grieving community. That Martin's voice and "Tell Me More"-style dialogue was so essential highlighted the importance of the show that, nonetheless, NPR took the off the air.

Executives at NPR have said that "Tell Me More" isn't coming back, a decision of which Martin remains critical. Martin now works within NPR's new Culture and Identity unit. But on Friday, the journalist embarks on a 10-event series of shows across the country with NPR that will attempt to continue the same type of dialogue and further engage the community that she committed herself to in "Tell Me More." Five of the ten (with more coming, possibly) have been announced New York City, Charlotte, Washington D.C., Dallas and Miami, drawing experts in to talk about theater, voting rights, women and leadership, football and ethics and children and immigration, respectively, over the next several months.

The first event, in New York, will feature a conversation with award-winning playwrights Bruce Norris ("Clybourne Park"), David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly"), Lydia Diamond ("Stick Fly"), Kristoffer Diaz ("Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity") as they talk about questions of identity, race, class and who gets to participate in various circles (and why), all themes tackled boldly in their plays. Martin observes that "The kind of things that people are saying to each other on Broadway stages, on theater stages, are the kind of things we do not say to each other in real life, at the moment" — not even on TV. Tony Award nominee Stephen McKinley Henderson will perform an excerpt from late playwright August Wilson's "American Century Cycle." Playwrights Dennis A. Allen II, Mona Mansour and Carla Ching will also join in. NPR will be live-tweeting and streaming the event, which will also inspire several weekend stories on their site.

Of course, "Tell Me More" cannot be replaced, nor can it be perfectly replicated on the stage. But Martin's hope is that the evenings will amplify local conversations and draw in a community in the vision of "Tell Me More." Whether there is long-term potential in the live-series format or not is unknown, however. In a statement emailed to Salon, NPR's Director of Editorial Initiatives Lynette Clemetson said they'll be evaluating the series as it develops with "a range of metrics" along with "basic journalistic rigor, curiosity and the power of listening to figure out how to reach people where they are."

For Martin, who spoke to Salon about "Tell Me More," her subsequent work in Ferguson and her new series, success comes in the form of not a particular metric, but with a feeling that something profound just happened. The series will work, says Martin, if these events make people "really share," be "really willing to go there" and to get out of their homes and into a community.

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation about "Tell Me More," Ferguson and her new live series, "NPR Presents Michel Martin."

“Tell Me More” would have been so valuable to have on the air this past month, as we continued to talk about Ferguson.

Yes, it was frustrating. I feel like I can say yes, it was frustrating not to have an outlet, not just for myself, but from a lot of the communications that I got from listeners: it was frustrating for people. But again, I think that’s a question for the people who made the decision.

Look, it’s not a democracy. It’s not a democracy. And as I said in my commentary, you’ve got two choices in a situation like that: You can either live with it, or you can go. And I’m trying to figure out a way to have the conversations that we need to have without that venue. And I’m not going to lie to you, I’m still working my way through it.

I was really grateful to have been invited by St. Louis Public Radio to come out to come out to St. Louis and in a dedicated forum on Ferguson, and I was very grateful for that opportunity. When people call you and say that we need you and we think you can help us, you have to go. I think we all felt really proud of what we did, and I think it was a wonderful collaboration between the member station and their reporters. So their expertise, their local knowledge, what we do, getting people to come and talk, and I feel really grateful that our public radio audience really showed out, like our listeners really came because a lot of people came because they listen to the program and they felt that it would be a value, because they knew that I would create an environment where you could have a real conversation.

I’m also really grateful for this opportunity, our first in our kind of planned series. One of the reasons that this topic intrigues me is that theater, interestingly enough, has become a place to talk about these issues.

We’re focusing on Broadway, but it’s really about theater on Broadway and one of those playwrights who will be part of our conversation, Kristoffer Diaz, said in a TEDx talk that he gave on Broadway, that ironically Broadway has become the place to talk about race and class in a way that you really can’t do in some other venues. I know that TV has become really exciting; we’re going to talk a little bit about that, too. But the kind of things that people are saying to each other on Broadway stages, on theater stages, are the kind of things we do not say to each other in real life, at the moment. And I think that’s one of the things that excites me about that, is that’s the conversation we’re about to have.

So it’s very “Tell Me More,” if I can put it that way. ... It’s the kind of thing we talked about on “Tell Me More,” and they’re being talked about on the stage.

It's interesting that theater is where these stories thrive, because that’s historically been one of the most inaccessible forms of art. But there’s something so compelling about people telling their stories themselves, in a live setting. 

It’s so funny, because when I was doing the show and working with my team, people would do drafts of scripts because a bunch of content would be pushed out. I had to have help with that. But a lot of people love that word “explore” here. And I hate that word, nobody says that in real life. But I mean, one of the things I’m interesting in “exploring,” because I can’t think of a better word, is: What does it mean to get people out? We’re focusing the event series very much on things that are in the news and being talked about in the news. But I’m really interested in the whole question of what it means to get people out to come together in a space, together.

One of the reasons I enjoy being in radio, and enjoy the broadcasting experience, is by definition it’s broad. It includes people and it’s accessible. You don't have to be famous, you don’t have to be rich: if you can get a radio, you can hear a real conversation. All you need to do is turn it on.

In fact, I remember honestly 9/11 was such a powerful experience for me in shaping my thinking about this, because I was working for ABC News at the time, and I remember we were doing the co-production with Oregon Public Broadcasting on a series about arts and culture. ... We had just shot the first episode on September 10, and we were on our way to shoot the second when we … we were headed downtown to our Angel Orensanz Center. We knew something was wrong but we didn’t know what. And what was really powerful for me was that there was a truck pulled over, and the radio was turned up, and we were all gathered around it trying to find out what happened. You know? That image stays with me -- that you don’t even have to own the radio to be able to participate and hear what’s happening in your world.

One of the things I liked about my show was that it wasn’t just pushing information at people; it was a community. People would say to me all the time, “I didn’t even know I was interested in that.” You know, or, “I’m hearing people that I don’t get to meet in my real life, I don’t have any access to this.” So one of the things that I’m wondering that we can accomplish with this series is: What if you could actually bring the community together? What if I come to you -- can the community come together?

That was one of the amazing things about what happened in Ferguson is that there were people came out because they’re public radio folks, and they do their pledge, and they have lots of degrees and were interested in civil discourse. But there were also people who came out who came out just because we were doing something important that they wanted to be a part of. And we brought those groups together. And I’m not going to overplay it, I mean obviously, did we change the world overnight? No. But I remember one of the most moving things that I heard that night was of course, on the sidewalk after the event was over when people were going home, this young African American woman said, “This is the most white people I’ve ever seen as a part of one of these conversations.”

You described it as a format you’re tinkering with. Do you see this as having long-term potential? And how would you assess its success?

My benchmark is: Did we have a real conversation? That’s what I’m interested in. Did people walk away with something? And so in terms of will it be a long-term thing, I don't know.

I guess my radar is for people who are really, really willing to go there. And really tell you something and really share and really be a part of it. That’s what I’m going for. My measure of success will be if I really feel that we had a real conversation, and if I feel the people, whoever comes, feels that they had a real conversation and that it was really worth putting aside Netflix for a minute to come out and be with people.

What are some other issues that you would have like to address if you had more time?

Well, honestly, I don’t think that way. I think, just like you, I’m just looking at your roster of stories, and you post a lot. Time isn’t necessarily your friend. Because I’m not interested in the PhD dissertation, I’m interested in the right now today conversation. A lot of it is very much inspired by the kinds of issues that we’re covering in “Tell Me More,” to be honest. And what we’re still fascinated by, and what we think is still … percolating. So if we were still on the air, what would be covered?

And we also want things that kind of resonate with the member station, and we’re collaborating. We’re not just kind of parachuting in and saying, “Step aside, let us show you how to do it.” That’s not fun. And so we are very much collaborating with stations and saying, “What’s on your mind? This is what we see. What do you see? Does this make sense? What do you want to talk about?” So this is kind of how we developed a lot of these ideas. We’re not fully finished, we are slated for ten and so we still have a couple of things that are in the works and I don't wanna say what those are just in case it doesn't pan out.

Like for example, our New York event we were thinking about a couple of different things. And we focused on this just in part because we had just done the Ferguson conversation, which is very much about policing and relationships between law enforcement and different constituencies and how that plays out. We just had that conversation, and that’s still a conversation, which is still playing out in New York. We just had that conversation and we know that for example like at least 2,000 member stations aired the Ferguson conversation. We were thinking, hmm, switch it up. So this is one of the things that went: “What is it that’s really New York? What feels like really New York?” And gosh, you could do so many things. You could do so many things. But theater got-- Where did you grow up?


Well, did you grow up thinking a play is New York?


I grew up in New York, and for us, it was obviously a big treat. My father was a firefighter, and my mother worked in a store. So it wasn’t like we were trooping off [to the theater] but I have this distinct memory … it was just kind of that’s "New York."

I’m in New York all the time because my mother is there, but I remember we went to see "Raisin in the Sun," because I had interviews scheduled. I remember just looking around and seeing, it was like, I was hearing every language in Times Square. People from all over the place kind of doing their thing. And like the crazy singing cowboy in the underwear and those women in the body paint and all that. And like everybody’s got a story. You know that one of our catchphrases is “The Future Now.” And it was like, this is the future now. And maybe this isn’t … maybe downtown Cincinnati doesn’t look like this, but it will. I don’t mean the body paint, I mean the world at your door, right? And so we were thinking about that.

In “Tell Me More” we did cover theater that we felt kind of broke through. But just like you said in the beginning of our conversation, we were always really careful about it, because we didn’t want to have something in people’s faces that wasn’t accessible to them. That was always one of my questions: Could you reasonably see this? Can you really go to this? Is this the kind of thing that’s really only going to be like one of those plays that runs for a week, and it’s Wednesday, and you can’t go? I always thought that was mean. So we were always very judicious in the kinds of plays we covered, because I always thought it was really kind of disrespectful to people to be talking about something that they had no reasonable ability to participate in. I always thought that was just mean.

But it’s remarkable to me how many times theater pieces were just so of-the-moment that you had to talk about them. You felt like you had to talk about them. I’m thinking about Ayad Akhtar’s work, which is going back to Broadway, "Disgraced." It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for drama. And it’s just interesting to me how many times we’ve found ourselves going to see theater pieces, even though I really would have preferred not to just because I thought that’s kind of mean -- you’re in Kansas, you can’t go. But it was just so of-the-moment, it had so many things to say about the country that you had to do it.

"Clybourne Park," for example, was one of the most produced plays in the 2011-2012 season around the country, because it was saying things that people felt they needed to talk about, right? So for all those reasons I’m hopeful. It’s another way to have the type of conversation that we were having in a different way. And I’m hopeful that good things will arrive because of this.

"NPR Presents Michel Martin" starts on Friday, Sept. 19 in New York City. For a full list of shows, visit NPR's site.

A previous version of this article stated that St. Louis Public radio contacted Michel Martin during the last week of NPR's "Tell Me More." "Tell Me More" ended July 31, and St. Louis Public Radio reached out to Martin on Aug. 11. The article has been corrected.

By Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

MORE FROM Prachi Gupta

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