Thanks to Jayson Blair and his devilish delight in concocting news stories, The New York Times suffered a public relations fiasco last year that exceeded even its fiercest critics’ dreams. Its own enabling behavior helped cause the episode, the paper acknowledged, but at root, it insisted, it was the victim of a trusted employee gone bad. The same cannot be said of the paper’s post-Blair performance with another staff member, a 25-year veteran announcer on the Times Company’s classical music station, WQXR, who was summarily fired last August for having made what was termed an “inappropriate” remark off the air to a colleague and friend at the station.
Exactly what Gregg Whiteside, the morning voice of WQXR’s Bright and Early show at 96.3 FM since 1978, said is still unclear. Reportedly, the offending remark was anti-Semitic in nature. But what is uncontested is that, unlike Blair’s fictions, which he intentionally foisted upon a believing readership, Whiteside’s words were never heard by the public. Nor, like so many other wayward media commentators found guilty of making prejudiced remarks, did he even aim them at his listening audience. Instead, they were words uttered on an off-air microphone that somehow filtered through the walls of a jerry-built studio constructed on the Times‘ third-floor editorial offices. The booth had been moved there just months before from WQXR’s main studio and offices on lower Fifth Avenue. The reason for this relocation, according to staffers, was to better allow Times-ian accuracy when Whiteside, broadcasting from the main studio, introduced his colleague, newsman Sam Hall, with the words: “Here now, from the newsroom of The New York Times . . . ”
Off-color language and offensive jokes are hardly unknown in a newsroom, even that of the august Times. But whatever Whiteside’s offending words, they fell on the ears of someone nearby who later complained. The complaint, in turn, was routed to the Memphis (!) headquarters of the Times Company’s broadcast group. Termination, managers decided, was the only solution.
The abrupt firing set off a storm of protest by loyal listeners who raked the paper for choosing political correctness over quality and loyalty. They wrote petitions, letters, and even graffiti on the sidewalk outside the Times‘ West 43rd Street headquarters. They filled Internet protest sites with anguished messages in which they tried to explain why the loss of Whiteside’s smooth basso voice, introducing works from Bach to Wagner, nattering on about sports and the weather, mattered so much to them.
Some registered their rage, demanding reinstatement and threatening boycotts. “Has The New York Times sunk this low?” asked listener William Feingold. “QXR should be put off the air for this.”
Another fan, Dolores Crawford McLaughlin, wrote: “I am appalled that the powers that be have fired him. And if something isn’t done about it, I will never listen to your radio station again.”
Listener Robert Schneider said Whiteside “was the best announcer you had. And short of him being convicted of a crime, you had no right to terminate him without explaining why to his faithful and devoted listeners.”
Some were plaintive. “WQXR was our station since 1939; we hardly ever moved the dial,” wrote Harry Casewitz. “Gregg Whiteside was our attraction these last many years. His knowledge of music, his humor early in the day, were a great start for any day,” he added.
“I’ve listened to QXR all my life,” sighed Barbara Hoffman, a classical music writer. “These Gregg-less mornings just aren’t the same.” Listener Matthew Culen nicely summed it up this way: “He has been our radio friend for decades.”
Just why the loss of a radio DJ—albeit one on a highbrow station with a quarter-century on the airwaves—should spark such an outcry is one of those peculiar New York stories. Maybe it has something to do with the way New Yorkers drift daily past so many nameless faces, thus making a faceless name with a familiar voice a reassuring anchor in a cold world. Or it may have to do with the way his voice filled the dark and solitary early hours when Whiteside first came on the air (his show started at 5:30 a.m.). Or perhaps it was simply that the voice was comfortingly there for so long. “In a city where a block changes overnight, he was a constant,” said Ross Neher, a Soho artist who was so upset by Whiteside’s removal from the air that he looked up the broadcaster’s name in the phone book to leave a message of sympathy and support.
But whatever their reasons, more than four months after Whiteside went off the air, his former listeners are still mourning his loss, punching out unanswered e-mails to WQXR managers, and demanding that someone, somewhere get to the bottom of what happened. Hence this column.
Partly, it is the murkiness behind Whiteside’s firing that has stoked much of the fans’ anger. WQXR station manager Tom Bartunek, who dropped the ax, won’t discuss it, ducking calls last week to his office. The Times, the station’s owner, also won’t say. Immediately after the firing last summer, a Times spokesman named Toby Usnik issued a terse statement: “Mr. Whiteside is no longer on the staff of WQXR because of inappropriate comments he admitted making.” Asked last week about the matter, Usnik offered to take written questions, and then, having received them, provided only this brief note: “Our past statement stands. We have nothing further to add on the subject of Mr. Whiteside.”
Whiteside himself talks openly—and only—about the pain of separating from his morning microphone in the studio booth. “It wasn’t just a job, it wasn’t just a career, it was my life,” he says. “I couldn’t even recognize my name without ‘WQXR’ attached to it.”
A former actor, he is passionate and dramatic, the qualities that endeared him to his audience. Before taking up radio, he traveled the world, working on the stage in Australia and serving in the Peace Corps in Korea. He was a child care counselor in New York, when, on a whim, he called WQXR and asked to be considered as an announcer. He was hired and, he believed, he had found his calling. He recorded ads for the Metropolitan Opera (which still air), and broadcast live from Avery Fisher Hall and Vienna.
He now has what he calls his “prisoner of war speech” for those who ask him about the final episode: “I worked for WQXR for 25 years. I love my listeners. If I could have gone back and cut out that 60 seconds of whatever I said I would do so. I would apologize abjectly and profoundly to whoever was offended.” Beyond that, however, he will not go. The reason, as he has explained to friends, is that after being fired without severance and being told to clean out his locker, give up his keys, and leave the studio, he initially vowed to fight. Prudence and family needs (he and his wife have a 15-year-old son who is a piano and violin virtuoso) soon took precedence over valor, and he later accepted a financial settlement which included a firm nondisclosure agreement. Such stipulations are standard fare, the price of fair compensation being silence.
Whiteside later told friends that when station manager Bartunek called him into his office on August 12, he assumed it had to do with upcoming shows. Upon arrival, however, Whiteside was asked if he had ever said anything that could be considered anti-Semitic. In a burst of candor that did little to preserve his rights to challenge the accusation, the announcer responded that he and Hall often bantered off the air. “I could have said anti-anything, anti-anyone. It could have been 100 different things,” he reportedly told the managers. It was, he explained later to his friends, the way he loosened up, got ready for the next round. “I’m an actor,” he said. “It’s what we do when the curtain is down. It’s a way of getting the chemistry going.” Such rants never included ethnic slurs, he insisted, but they were “often wild, probably outrageous,” he said. “But to say something intentionally to hurt someone? I wouldn’t, couldn’t ever do that.”