A Study in Synergy

Nike Money Buys a WNYC Talk Show

WNYC radio thinks it has a hit on its hands with Satellite Sisters, its new Saturday talk show for women. The show stars five sisters, ages 35 to 44, who get together for what they call "free-flowing and witty" gabfests on the "challenges, fears, and successes of daily life." The show debuted on Public Radio International this month and has been picked up by 20 NPR affiliates.

Liz Dolan, a single, 42-year-old marketing consultant, is financially savvy—so much so, as she boasted on the air Saturday, that her major decision last week was "not to acquire anything else." But if it weren't for Dolan's investments in the favor bank, she might never have added this particular pearl to her necklace. By her own admission, she and her sisters are "unqualified," with no entertainment experience whatsoever. Indeed, the show might never have come about if Dolan had not steered $5 million into the hands of Laura Walker, the president and CEO of the WNYC Foundation.

Dolan wasn't always the free spirit she paints herself to be now. From 1988 to 1997, she was vice president of global marketing for Nike, which meant, in effect, wiping the shit off the swoosh logo day in and day out, while the company moved its factories around Southeast Asia in search of the cheapest labor force. It was in the capacity of gift-giving-to-enhance-the-corporate-image that Dolan and Walker made their first broadcasting deal.

In 1991, Walker was a rising executive with Children's Television Workshop, and CTW was trying to raise $20 million to produce Ghostwriter, a TV show designed to promote children's literacy. Nike jumped in with a $5 million pledge, which was billed as the largest single corporate donation to a children's TV show, ever. In 1992, Nike pulled strings to have the show broadcast Saturday mornings on Fox TV—an idea brainstormed by Nike execs, according to an interview Dolan gave that year.

Next stop: public radio. In 1995 and 1996, Nike was an underwriter for NPR, according to an NPR spokesperson. Meanwhile, in late 1995, Walker left CTW to head up the WNYC Foundation, which was formed to purchase the frequencies 820 AM and 93.9 FM from the city. In her new job, Walker faced many challenges, including raising $20 million to pay licensing fees.

By 1997, Dolan had an idea that would serve them both. That year, Nike was getting reams of bad publicity for its Asian sweatshops, where female workers were being paid inadequate wages, forced to work overtime, and physically and sexually abused. While she was not the point person on sweatshops, Dolan was occasionally dragged into service. In 1996, she told Nightline that Nike was unable to guarantee against child labor in Pakistan. In May 1997, when an activist group reported that a Vietnamese Nike factory had laid off 700 workers, she explained that the factory had postponed hundreds of hires "due to a natural ebb in the manufacturing cycle."

The bad publicity peaked in June 1997, when the press widely dismissed a Nike-commissioned report on its third-world factories as a whitewash. That same month, Dolan left for a summerlong vacation, and come September, she resigned abruptly, denying that Nike's PR disaster had any effect on her decision. "If anything," she said at the time, "it made it harder to leave. . . . I've never been one to shrink from battle."

According to past interviews, Dolan hatched the talk show idea in 1996, before she left Nike—then started working on it in earnest in 1997, when she "chucked it all . . . to get a new life." By then, it was payback time, Dolan told the trade newspaper Current last year. Given the millions she had channeled from Nike to CTW, Dolan reasoned, "[Walker] owed me at least one pitch meeting—she had to listen to one idea and give us an honest reaction." Current reported that Walker "liked the idea and . . . could see potential revenue from a national underwriter."

As for the sweatshop allegations, Nike says it has since cleaned up its act—and so has Dolan. Today, she appears free from the taint of the swoosh, if not the benefits: She is a partner in Dolan St. Clair, a sports marketing company, and in Mudbath Productions, which coproduces Satellite Sisters. She sits on the Nike Advisory Council and on the board of the Boys & Girls Club of America (which, like CTW, received a $5 million grant from Nike).

It's Dolan's piggybacking on Nike philanthropy that sticks in the craw of her critics. On July 1, Patricia Garfield posted a message on the sisters' Web site, stating the rap against Dolan. "She was head of publicity for Nike," Garfield wrote, "a corporation which has come under increasing fire for . . . sweatshop conditions in Asian factories." And during that time, Garfield said, Nike gave "millions of dollars" to CTW when Laura Walker worked there. "Back-scratching?" her post concluded. "You betcha."

Jeff Ballinger is the director of Press for Change, a labor rights group that has stalked Nike for years. He says he applauds WNYC's decision to back a show featuring women's issues—but questions giving that slot to a woman who "spent a great deal of time defending a company that doesn't want women to have any voice." To cite a current example, when Ballinger interviewed Nike factory workers in Indonesia last year, the women said they were denied seniority pay.

A Nike spokesman dismisses Ballinger's claims as anecdotal, pointing to the company's push for reform and the rise of the female managerial class in Indonesia. Of course, Nike thinks it has done more than anyone to promote women's rights—in a current Nike ad, track star Marion Jones demands equal pay for women athletes. But when it comes to substantive impact, critics say, Nike and WNYC's attempts to empower women amount to no more than lip service.

A WNYC spokesperson said there is no connection between Nike's gift to CTW and WNYC's decision to back Satellite Sisters. She would not disclose how much WNYC has spent on the show, but said listener response has been "overwhelmingly positive." Liz Dolan was "unavailable for comment."

If Dolan wanted to bury the Nike connection, she failed miserably. One of her regular guests is Rick Anguilla, whose qualification for being on the show, she says, is being a "good dad." But Anguilla also happens to work for Nike in investor relations. In 1998, he assured The New York Times that Nike had not forced Liz Dolan out. Apparently not. She's too good at playing sleazeball.

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