Media

Public Radio’s Public Reckoning

Inside the turmoil at WNYC

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WNYC, the region’s flagship public radio station, has made its first leadership change since entering 2018 under a cloud of uncertainty. On January 26, it was announced that the station’s longtime number two and chief content officer, Dean Cappello, was being stripped of his managerial duties and moved to an advisory role with no direct reports, although Cappello himself will continue to report to Laura Walker, the president and CEO of WNYC’s nonprofit parent, New York Public Radio (NYPR).

Cappello’s reassignment comes in the wake of a rough few months for WNYC. In December, in an article on New York magazine’s the Cut, journalist Suki Kim surfaced a long string of allegations of bullying and sexual harassment against the former host of the nationally syndicated news show The Takeaway, John Hockenberry, who had left the station last August. Shortly thereafter, WNYC suspended and later fired two other long-serving personalities, midday interview host Leonard Lopate and weekend music host Jonathan Schwartz, after a company investigation confirmed allegations of “inappropriate conduct.” More changes are likely as the station conducts an investigation of its workplace culture and a review of its editorial content and structure.

The #MeToo reckoning has hit public radio with full force. At NPR, senior vice president of news and editorial director Michael Oreskes and chief news editor David Sweeney resigned, both last November, following allegations of sexual misconduct. Minnesota Public Radio has severed ties with Garrison Keillor, creator of A Prairie Home Companion, after “allegations of inappropriate behavior,” and has now rebranded the show, hosted since last year by Chris Thile, as Live From Here. And in December, Boston’s WBUR put Tom Ashbrook, host of the nationally syndicated news and call-in show On Point, on leave pending investigation of allegations of abusive behavior that staffers said they had repeatedly brought to the station’s management in the past to no avail.

The stakes are high for WNYC, where I worked as a culture reporter from 2006 to 2009. WNYC claims the nation’s largest public radio audience, produces an array of national programs such as Radiolab and On the Media, is home to podcasts by Alec Baldwin and Preet Bharara, and bills itself in its on-air tagline as the place where the “New York conversation” happens.

The allegations against Hockenberry, Lopate, and Schwartz have now thrust the station into full-on damage control mode. NYPR has hired the law firm of Proskauer Rose to review its personnel practices and protocols, with Walker promising institutional changes based on those investigations. WNYC has also enlisted Madhulika Sikka, the PBS public editor and former NPR executive editor, to advise on diversity and representation issues. But as the details that surround these various investigations and dismissals demonstrate, the problems that WNYC is now confronting extend far beyond HR policy.

The unraveling at WNYC began late on December 1, when Kim, in an article for the Cut, set out a series of claims against Hockenberry, who had co-hosted The Takeaway since its launch in 2008 and became its sole host in 2012. Hockenberry, Kim said, had repeatedly made unwanted advances toward her after she appeared on the show in 2014. Kim spoke to multiple former producers and interns at the show who said Hockenberry had treated them in sexually inappropriate ways, from comments on their looks to unwanted touching and suggestive nighttime Gchats.

Kim also detailed how three of Hockenberry’s former co-hosts, Adaora Udoji, Farai Chideya, and Celeste Headlee — all women of color — had left WNYC after experiencing what they perceived to be bullying and demeaning behavior by Hockenberry, and the lack of support they felt they received from the station’s management when they complained about it. In an article for the Guardian, Udoji, who was Hockenberry’s first co-host on The Takeaway, says she brought his behavior to management’s attention “on countless occasions” to no avail; she agreed to a buyout in 2009. Chideya, in Kim’s article as well as in a must-listen, extended interview on The Takeaway, has said that she, too, voiced her concerns, but that no action appeared to have been taken.

Kim’s piece caused an uproar that made its way on air. The December 4 edition of the Brian Lehrer Show opened with a long segment on the story, interviewing Kim and fielding calls from horrified listeners. The Takeaway began a week of soul-searching led by its current host, Todd Zwillich, who took over when Hockenberry left last summer. (At the time, the circumstances of Hockenberry’s departure were left vague.) In the newsroom, journalists Ilya Marritz and Jessica Gould landed the task of reporting on their employer, and have handled it admirably. (It has since come out that Marritz was assigned the Hockenberry story sometime before Kim’s article appeared, likely after word of her queries began to spread.)

On December 5, NYPR head Walker issued her first public comments on the matter during an appearance on the Brian Lehrer Show, although she remained circumspect about the Hockenberry case, citing the company’s policy of personnel confidentiality. Asked whether Hockenberry had received a severance payment, Walker refused to “discuss any employment matters of that nature,” citing company policy. Lehrer also asked whether the station had paid money to settle any claims against Hockenberry, and Walker again refused to answer. “None of this means ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ” she said. She also refused to give details on the circumstances of Udoji’s, Chideya’s, and Headlee’s departures.

The next day, the station reported in its newscasts that it had suspended Lopate and Schwartz. Two weeks later, both men were dismissed for violating what were described as the station’s “standards for providing an inclusive, appropriate, and respectful work environment,” according to a company statement. In a report after their firings, Marritz and Gould detailed a series of allegations against both men, including reports of bullying, volatile behavior, and sexually inappropriate comments, stretching back over twelve years.

The issues at WNYC are reflective of a larger cultural problem that exists across public radio. Despite the spirits of social consciousness and diversity baked into the missions of stations like WNYC around the country, most of the on-air stars that dominate the industry are male, typically white, and have been entrenched for decades. The women and people of color who do work in the business — and there are many — are often relegated to rank-and-file positions and still remain conspicuously marginalized. This has led to an unhealthy power dynamic that is pervasive throughout public radio — as well as programming that often fails to capture the vitality and complexity of the communities the stations aim to serve.

The tale of The Takeaway is a devastating illustration. The show was launched on a grand platform of diversity. The initial concept, supported by large grants from the Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), was to create a four-hour rival to Morning Edition that would be both more lively and more diverse. The press release for a $1.35 million CPB grant in 2009 touted The Takeaway’s “diversity and dialogue,” its “unique cultural perspectives and diverse voices,” and its “ambitious goals of diversifying and growing the public radio news audience.”

In actuality, by that time, Udoji had already left the show after eight months. Chideya, who succeeded her as co-host in 2009, lasted just four months, during which she said Hockenberry derided her as a “diversity hire” and told her she should “go lose weight.” (Chideya cited these instances in Kim’s article and in subsequent interviews.) Headlee, the next co-host, lasted until 2012. She told Kim that she made formal complaints to the station about Hockenberry’s acts of “sabotage,” including interrupting her on-air and taking over her interviews. The station sent her, and not Hockenberry, to receive “radio personality” coaching, and eventually did not renew her contract.

Soon the four-hour format was deemed a flop. The Takeaway went to a one-hour format in 2012; Hockenberry not only survived, but emerged as its sole host. Any trace of “diversity” was scrubbed. Hockenberry helmed the show alone for five more years, earning $403,613 in fiscal 2015.

At its best, WNYC is a New York treasure. Its newsroom is a bastion of excellent journalism in a time when other outlets are cutting local reporting or folding altogether. Talent like Marritz, or stellar urban-policy reporter Cindy Rodriguez, or Alana Casanova-Burgess, a bilingual producer-reporter who recently did one month of powerful reporting in Puerto Rico, deserves much more space and airtime to shine. Meanwhile, Lehrer’s show remains an unsurpassed civic forum. And year in, year out, the station is home to top-notch reporters, producers, engineers, and interns, many of whom have fanned out elsewhere in the industry, particularly with the growth of podcasts.

But the current upheaval has revealed how much more it could be. Walker’s statements have been particularly tin-eared. When she appeared on Lehrer’s show, he noted “the impression that leaves” — referring to the departures of Udoji, Chideya, and Headlee. Following up, Lehrer pointed out that WNYC’s “editorial power structure does remain largely white.” The station, Walker replied, “not only values diversity but has championed the importance of respecting people of color at this difficult time in our country’s history.” Still, she noted, “We must do better. We must start here.”

Walker added that in her view, WNYC has “made a lot of progress in bringing more voices of diverse backgrounds on the air.” By way of illustration, she offered a recent segment by Jami Floyd and Rebecca Carroll, two of the station’s few women of color on the air, and The Takeaway’s coverage of “racism in America over the past year.” She also touted two offerings from the station’s podcast shop, WNYC Studios: 2 Dope Queens, by the Black comedians Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, and the LGBTQ-themed Nancy, by Tobin Lowe and Kathy Tu. Walker’s mention of podcasts was particularly telling; beyond the air of tokenism in Walker’s comment, podcasts don’t usually have the same impact that on-air shows do and rarely involve large-scale investment in reporting. Relying on a self-selected audience, podcasts are a form of narrow-casting, not broadcasting: perfect for the on-demand economy, but not so great for strengthening the foundation of broader civic connections and community-building on which much of public radio is built.

Civic life, ultimately, is what public radio is about — or so we are told over and over during pledge drives. Community, accountability, transparency are all part of the sell for public radio, and WNYC is no exception. Through visible changes in management and audible changes in content, WNYC can not only make good to its staff and listeners, but set a much-needed example of renewal for all of public radio.

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