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‘Part of the further fracturing of American society’: GBH’s suspension of ‘Basic Black’ seen as troubling media trend

Callie Crossley, center, is a former host of GBH’s “Basic Black," a TV program that the station announced it was taking off air, citing low viewership that didn’t cover its costs.Courtesy of GBH/Meredith Nierman

One segment aired the challenges of businesses owned by people of color during the pandemic. Another episode was devoted to breast cancer being harder to treat in Black women. One show was about “quiet quitting,” and whether people of color can afford to do the bare minimum on the job.

Those and other compelling discussions of issues that showcased the concerns and intellectual debates in Boston’s communities of color were the staples of “Basic Black” on public television station GBH, which described itself as “Putting the soul in public media since 1968.”

But after GBH suspended the TV program on Wednesday as part of cost-cutting measures, longtime viewers and contributors worry that its audience won’t find that type of programming anywhere else.


“We relied on ‘Basic Black’ for years to have our perspective,” said Michael Curry, chief executive of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers who served as president of the Boston branch of the NAACP. Curry, a frequent guest on “Basic Black,” added it gave experts and influencers who weren’t often seen in mainstream media “an opportunity to share their perspectives.”

The show will no longer air on TV, GBH announced, but station executives said it would be reinvented as digital-first programming. GBH also suspended production of two other TV programs, citing low viewership that didn’t cover its costs, and laid off 31 employees, including two producers who worked on “Basic Black.”

Originally called “Say Brother,” the show was launched in the crucible of 1968 — the year of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and passage of the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1968. “Basic Black” set out to diversify public programming and highlight the perspectives of people of color in Boston and beyond. Until its cancellation, “Basic Black” was the longest-running program on any public television station focused on people of color.


“This show survived a pandemic, it survived the violence that we saw throughout Trayvon Martin, George Floyd — and now it’s gone,” said Andrew Leong, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and regular guest on “Basic Black.”

“Basic Black,” which featured a panel discussion typically among four guests and a host on a set with a backdrop showing Blue Hill Avenue and the African Meeting House, aired weekly on Fridays at 7:30 p.m. on GBH 2. Programs this year delved into the experiences of Black LGBTQ+ people in Massachusetts, the representation of people of color in the media, and an examination of what Claudine Gay’s resignation from Harvard said about women of color in leadership and diversity in education.

In addition to “Basic Black,” GBH said it would suspend production of “Greater Boston” and “Talking Politics.”

“We are proud of the work that went into these shows and their respective histories,” GBH chief executive Susan Goldberg wrote in a message to employees on Wednesday. “But for now we are stopping production because, as audience behaviors have changed, these shows no longer draw enough viewers to justify the cost of making them for television.”

The layoffs and programming changes come after GBH management warned employees of layoffs earlier this year as it faced a budget deficit due to flat revenue and rising costs, the Globe previously reported.


Goldberg added that GBH would reinvent its canceled television programs, including “Basic Black,” as “digital-first programming.”

In an interview Thursday, GBH News executive editor Lee Hill emphasized “Basic Black” would return in a digital form, most likely on YouTube. He didn’t rule out a return to broadcast TV.

”I know it’s had a very long history in this city . . . documenting a city that has a very complex narrative when it comes to race and race relations,” Hill said. “What we’re essentially trying to do is build upon that history, not erase it.”

Hill added that the show typically takes a roughly five-month hiatus around this time each year. He hopes the program will return in some form in the fall, but wasn’t sure how long the digital reinvention will take.

But two current GBH employees and one worker who was laid off, who spoke to the Globe anonymously because they feared retribution, questioned how GBH would bring the shows back in any form, citing the loss of production staff and the lack of concrete plans going forward.

Curry, who serves on GBH’s board of advisers, is hopeful the station will reinvigorate “Basic Black” for an online audience and added he’s thankful the station has several leaders of color in its ranks.

“To GBH’s credit, no other station has invested in our stories and our content makers as they have,” he said.

Across the GBH organization in 2022, 24 percent of workers were people of color and 8 percent were Black, according to the GBH website. Comparatively, 34 percent of people in the Greater Boston area were people of color and 10 percent were Black, according to 2022 Census data.


GBH headquarters in Brighton. Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Kim McLarin, a novelist, former journalist, and professor at Emerson College who hosted the program for a year, said the show “put Boston on the map and improved Boston’s image to the world and to Black America.”

“I’m glad it will exist in some form, but it’s part of the further fracturing of American society and how we connect and what narratives we hear,” McLarin said.

The show resonated beyond the Black community. McLarin recalled being recognized by a white “Basic Black” viewer at an airport in Dublin who said the show gave her an insight into Black perspectives.

“That will not be recreated on a digital platform,” she said. “Coming at this particular time in our society, when we are in danger of losing our democracy and fracturing along racial and class lines and political lines, it’s a terrible time for this to happen.”

While mainstream TV news covered Prince’s significance to Black culture when he died in 2016, “Basic Black” made space for Leong, who happened to be a guest that week, to share his thoughts as an Asian American.

“That’s an example of the kind of space, the kind of license, that allowed for us to bring on these different voices to represent a diversity of views on any particular topic,” Leong said. “That is going to be missed.”


And while other news shows might feature one Black speaker at a time to discuss a current issue, the show’s format of often including several Black guests and other people of color showcased a diversity of opinions. For instance, in one episode in 2021, Black scholars debated the significance of Juneteenth, and whether the holiday is a celebration of emancipation.

The stoppage of “Basic Black” and other shows at GBH comes at a time when media organizations across the country are cutting back programming and laying off staff. Many of the hardest hit organizations are local news outlets.

The show helped make better citizens in Massachusetts, McLarin said, and called on GBH and other public media organizations to see diverse communities as part of their audience that they should serve.

“I want [media outlets] to take seriously their role as important parts of our democracy and their role in building better citizens and serving the public good,” she said. “Profits should not be the primary motivator.”

Aidan Ryan can be reached at aidan.ryan@globe.com. Follow him @aidanfitzryan.