Dozens of irate public radio listeners attempted to confront WNYC’s leadership about recent reports of sexual harassment at the station, and the controversial manner in which those allegations were handled, during a supposedly public, though largely closed off, meeting of the board of trustees on Thursday.
Held in a ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in midtown, the meeting was the first since a New York magazine article published earlier this month detailed numerous incidents of alleged harassment by former host of “The Takeaway” John Hockenberry, including forceful kissing and racist bullying of colleagues. Less than a week after the story broke, the station announced that longtime hosts Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz were under investigation for inappropriate conduct, and would be placed on leave from the station.
Many of those in attendance Thursday appeared personally hurt by the revelations, and had come to register their disgust with, as one audience member put it, “a station that had lost track of its own ideals.” Others showed up to demand the resignation of New York Public Radio president Laura Walker, who’d reportedly known for years about some of the complaints against Hockenberry, including a black employee’s claim that he called her a “diversity hire” and told her to lose weight. While Walker has declined to comment on which allegations were reported to the organization, three of Hockenberry’s former co-hosts — all of them women of color who ended up leaving the show — said they’ve complained to WNYC about Hockenberry’s hostile behavior.
“The thing that gets me so much is that I felt like I knew WNYC,” said Nechesa Morgan, 46. “The fact that these journalists went to management and they did nothing, that Laura knew about this for ten years and she let Hockenberry leave with accolades — I just feel duped.
“As a black woman who looked to WNYC as an oasis since Trump’s election,” she added, “the sexism and the racism is just infuriating.”
Further intensifying the group’s anger, many of those in attendance felt as though the meeting was intentionally structured to shield the executive and trustees from difficult questions. After Walker addressed the room for about ten minutes — acknowledging that “trust had to be earned,” and noting that the Proskauer Rose law firm had been hired to investigate HR practices — she called the meeting into a private “executive session.” Members of the public were permitted to return two hours later, by which point Walker and most of the 39 trustees were already gone.
“Given this was meant to inform the public and get our input, it seems backwards that folks had to wait until after the meeting to give comment,” said Suzy Winkler, a regular at the station’s Community Advisory Board meetings. “And how convenient that Laura’s not here.”
Those who did stick around for the public comment period seized on the opportunity to share a wide range of grievances with the remaining trustees. Several people said they were concerned with the status of Lopate and Schwartz, and wanted answers about what their “inappropriate conduct” entailed. (No further information was provided, as the trustees were not answering any questions.) One woman, a sustaining member since 1982, said she felt like WNYC had offered a “corporate response” by hiring attorneys from Proskauer Rose, who “don’t deserve my hard-earned money.” Through tears, a man named Charles demanded to know if the station had forced accusers to sign nondisclosure agreements in exchange for settlements.
While most of the twenty or so participants skewed older, some of the evening’s most impassioned criticism came from young people. Julia Furlan, a recent intern and temp with WNYC, spoke about the station’s reliance on contract workers, and how this practice “supports a culture that makes it difficult to come forward, because you don’t have a job or know what the rules are.” Responding to a trustee’s earlier comment about “the structural change in workplace norms,” Furlan added, “I’d really like it if you didn’t act like young people have these outsize expectations when all we want is to not get harassed and to get paid fairly.”
Despite her frustrations with her former employer, Furlan says she’s hopeful that WNYC will remain open to the guidance of listeners, and that this long-overdue reckoning might finally force the station’s leadership to address some of its deeply rooted problems.
“If they want to fix this, I really think they need to make it a mission to hire women and people of color and put them in places of power in the newsroom,” she told the Voice. “If you turn on public radio, it’s always some dude droning on and on. That’s been true for a really long time.”