American Public Media has fired Garrett McQueen, Minnesota’s only Black classical music host and a national advocate for diversifying the field.
Heard across the country on the radio show “Music Through the Night,” McQueen said he was fired Thursday because he switched up the playlist that had been set for his program.
“The playlist wasn’t as diverse, wasn’t moving forward to my speed,” McQueen said by phone Thursday. “In response to that, I went against programming protocol for the past several months.”
Instead, he sometimes played music that “spoke to the moment,” he said, including works by Black composers.
McQueen, one of few on-air personalities of color in local public radio, considers himself an agitator, challenging the norms of classical music.
In a statement Friday, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) President Duchesne Drew and American Public Media (APM) President Dave Kansas said their decision “was not sudden and came after several conversations with Garrett over the past year regarding programming changes.”
Those warnings, they said, were not tied to McQueen’s choice of music, but the “manner in which he made changes.”
“We have a process in place for changing playlists,” they wrote, “and that process exists to maintain our more than 200 partner stations’ compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and to ensure royalties are properly paid for the music played.”
A Memphis native and professional bassoonist, McQueen came to Minnesota in 2018 to become an overnight host for Classical 24, a service coproduced by St. Paul-based APM and Public Radio International and aired on stations across the nation. With fellow host Scott Blankenship, he created a podcast called “Trilloquy” — spotlighting and interviewing composers and musicians from groups historically underrepresented in classical music.
“Trilloquy’s” first season was a product of APM but, amid cost-cutting, McQueen and Blankenship took ownership of the show and have been producing its second season independently. The pair will continue with the podcast, McQueen said.
McQueen posted the news of his firing Thursday on Twitter and Facebook and was flooded with messages of surprise and support.
“What?!?!?” replied MPR host Cathy Wurzer.
“You were the only bright spot of hope on the Classical MPR front,” composer and multi-instrumentalist deVon Russell Gray wrote. “They’ve lost my ears for a second time now. Shameful.”
“Nowhere else in the country is there a host who tied together classical music with current struggles for justice, and MPR is beyond fortunate to have had him in that position,” composer Judd Greenstein wrote in a petition to APM and MPR leaders to keep McQueen on the air.
A spokesperson declined a request Thursday for an interview with an APM leader.
“We are proud of the programming we delivered with Garrett and are grateful for his work bringing the powerful experience of classical music to listeners across the country,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We continue to support his efforts to increase diversity and inclusion in classical music, and we wish him all the best in his next steps.”
In the letter posted Friday, the APM and MPR executives said 24% of the music played on Classical 24 features a composer, conductor or soloist who is a woman and/or a Black person, Indigenous person, or person of color.
“We are committed to increasing this number,” Drew and Kansas wrote.
APM took McQueen off the air in late August, McQueen said, and gave him two written warnings. “The termination today was a bit of a blindside,” he said.
McQueen said he felt a personal responsibility as Classical 24’s only Black host to grapple with the racism embedded in classical music and the social justice movements erupting outside MPR’s studios.
Two years into his time with APM, he was frustrated by the lack of progress in diversifying the playlist. He estimated that he swapped out a quarter to a third of the music programmed for him during a typical shift.
On a recent episode of “Trilloquy,” McQueen talked about being taken off the air. With the recent death of civil rights leader John Lewis, he told Blankenship, many people are using his phrase “good trouble,” praising the protests and sit-ins of the past.
“We talk about all these people who we revere for breaking rules, but we ourselves refuse to break rules,” McQueen said. “I don’t feel like I did something wrong just because I did something against the rules.
“I am falling in line with what I feel my purpose is.”
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168