Prominent activist, scholar, and former Albany Common Council member Barbara Smith left her spot as a panelist on public radio network WAMC’s weekday talk program The Roundtable in June, citing the show’s lack of progress in increasing its panel’s racial diversity despite her efforts.
Smith first explained her decision publicly in an Aug. 12 Facebook post. From the start of her appearances on the show in early 2015, Smith wrote, she “wanted to help increase the panel’s diversity,” recommending that same year one “highly qualified media professional” of color.
“In November of 2016,” Smith continued, “I recommended four more individuals who are members of the Latino/a, Trans, Muslim, and Black communities.” When a regular panelist left the current events show in May of this year, “[s]everal white panelists were added…but none of the individuals I had recommended,” Smith wrote.
“As a matter of principle I decided to leave,” Smith went on. “I very much enjoyed being on the Roundtable and having the opportunity to speak out in a highly public forum about important issues and events, but I could not continue to do so in opposition to my values.”
At the time of her departure, Smith had been appearing on the show every Friday, she told The Alt in a phone interview on Tuesday. Hosted by senior director of news and programming Joe Donahue, The Roundtable typically features three panelists per show.
“It was a very difficult decision [to step away from the show] because it was something that I valued doing,” Smith said over the phone. “At a time when our nation is facing a level of racial warfare, Nazism, white supremacy, racial threat, and chaos….the insight of people who are in different relationships to the injustices—those voices are more important than ever.”
The panel’s lack of racial diversity during her tenure was not a matter of opinion, Smith added.
Host Joe Donahue said in an email that Smith was “not the only regular panelist of color” during that time frame, but declined to name others. The Alt reviewed The Roundtable’s online show posts from April 3 through Aug. 16 and identified 16 panelists who had appeared more than once during that time period; we were able to identify one additional person of color in this sample, other than Smith. (Donahue did not respond to emails seeking to verify our findings.)
“I do not wish this to be inflammatory,” Smith told The Alt over the phone. “This is not about me. This is about a decision that I made about a situation that I was in that reflects concerns and issues that many people have and that are important for us to address.”
A career educator specializing in African-American studies, literature, and women’s studies, Smith hopes that her decision can also serve an educational purpose, highlighting the need for institutions to “be proactive around inclusion.”
In an email, host Joe Donahue lauded Smith but also defended the network’s record on diversity more broadly.
“Barbara Smith has always been a valued member of our Roundtable Panel,” Donahue wrote. “She is always welcome on our program and we were saddened when she left her regular slot. WAMC is the most progressive radio station in the region. Our high listenership and record fund drives indicate the loyalty and diversity of our audience.
“We always welcome suggestions from contributors and did so in this case. We are very proud in the on-going repertory company of panelists who reflect diverse opinions and backgrounds. We are always working on bringing in new members with different perspectives and areas of expertise. I would also note, when you look at the diversity of voices throughout all our programming—we remain unrivaled.”