Handling of Sexual Harassment and Bullying Claims Casts Shadow Over WNYC

How do we get the “public” back in New York & New Jersey Public Radio?

It is widely understood  that sexual harassment in the workplace is about men disrespecting women but what is not fully appreciated or acknowledged is the connection between that dynamic and the long standing economic exploitation of women. While we abolished slavery, the historic and persistent under payment, and even non-payment for female labor endures to this day. 

This is a massive hidden subsidy that helps fund the over-compensation at the top for so many corporate executives and the profits for most companies.

It’s helpful that the raging debate over work place  sexual harassment was sparked in the media complex by the Harvey Weinstein case because it is through that complex that we reflect on ourselves and our times. It set off a blaze of truth- telling that shows no sign of dying down. NBC, CBS, PBS and even NPR have all been burned, with major personalities and top executives being shown the door for crossing certain boundaries. 

In those four cases it was management that made the announcement, and in the process took the risk that in the long run being transparent about what had occurred would both help preserve their brand image, while sending an internal signal that they truly had zero tolerance for such alleged behavior.

Those transparent responses stand in stark contrast with how my former employer WNYC’s top management chose to handle sexual harassment and bullying allegations leveled against John Hockenberry, who hosted the Takeaway, the station’s nationally distributed daily news show. Hockenberry was sent off with full on air honors in August from the program he had anchored since 2008.

Last August Hockenberry was permitted to take a valedictory lap on his radio program and feted internally at the station with a farewell party.   

It was not until earlier this month, that the public  learned about the multiple allegations that had been made against the host when Suki Kim broke the story on New York Magazine’s website. Kim, an acclaimed novelist and journalist, came into contact with Hockenberry in 2014 as a guest on his show. Kim had spent a year living undercover in North Korea teaching English to  North Korea’s elite and her subsequent book offered an unprecedented look into the world’s most insular nation. Evidently, good experience for blowing the lid off of WNYC (New York Public Radio and New Jersey Public Radio) where truth and transparency can appear hard to come by.

Kim’s own experience with Hockenberry, who is married and has five children, prompted her to file a complaint with the station in February 2017. After the Weinstein story brke, she decided to see if her Hockenberry experience was unique. It was not. 

She described two categories of abuse she documented. “First, there were unwelcome sexual overtures, physical and verbal, directed at the younger women who worked on the show as low- to mid-level producers, assistants, and interns. For the most part, these women did not report their experiences to WNYC management for fear of endangering their jobs. The second group of grievances came from the women of color who served as Hockenberry’s co-hosts — “The Takeaway” was explicitly founded, in 2008, to bring more diverse voices to public radio. These women, his putative equals, didn’t describe sexual run-ins with him, but, instead, bullying behavior that undermined their performance.”

Kim’s account included an interview with former Takeaway producer Kristen Meinzer, who described Hockenberry forcing a kiss on her as she sat at her desk back in 2014. Several interns and assistant producers, who did not want their names used, confirmed a range of  sexual harassment including inappropriate touching.

The succession of three  female hosts of color all being forced out didn’t appear to pique WNYC’s management’s curiosity. They had invested heavily in Hockenberry and had launched the program as a partnership with Public Radio International, the BBC,  and the New York Times. They were aiming to challenge NPR’s Morning Edition.  For some of us who were working at WNYC the whole undertaking had a grandiosity to it and a hard to justify price tag.

Upper management was cautioned that building a show around a high priced star was counter to a successful public radio culture that had organically produced the Leonard Lopate Show and the Brian Lehrer Show. And then there were the optics of picking a third white man to drive a show that was being pitched to sponsors and stations as being more diverse than NPR’s standard fare

The first female Takeaway host was Adaora Udoji, who ended up signing a non-disclosure agreement as part of her parting ways with WNYC. Our paths never crossed when I was at WNYC but I did work with the two other  female hosts, Farai Chideya and Celeste Headlee that followed Udoji into the Hockenberry’s crucible. They were both talented professionals  who we all watched get poorly treated by management  

A few days after the New York Magazine bomb shell, at some  legal risk to herself, Udoji went public with her personal account of her Hockenberry experience in the Guardian.

Laura Walker was well aware of Hockenberry’s bullying behavior, as was the staff. The lack of response by management created a negative impression on the staff. One longtime producer, Kristen Meinzer, told New York magazine, she learned at WNYC: “If you complain, you disappear.”,” Udoji wrote.

She continued. “Walker also acknowledged the sexual harassment complaint by the author of the magazine’s piece, Suki Kim, in February 2017. Hockenberry stayed on the air many months after that, signing off in August. How in the world could this abuse go on for nearly 10 years across three different co-hosts and among other staff and nothing be done? How is that he was rewarded for that behavior with a show by himself in light of a reported trail of complaints?”

After Kim’s story surfaced Hockenbery, who has been paralyzed from the waist down since 1976, offered an apology in the form of a statement.  

“It horrifies me that I made the talented and driven people I worked with feel uncomfortable, and that the stress around putting together a great show was made worse by my behavior,” he said. “Having to deal with my own physical limitations has given me an understanding of powerlessness, and I should have been more aware of how the power I wielded over others, coupled with inappropriate comments and communications, could be construed. I have no excuses.” 

On December 5 Laura Walker, WNYC’s CEO and President, who made $861,956 in FY 2015, broke her silence on the roiling scandal on the Brian Lehrer Show. She refused to answer a number of questions put to her by Lehrer, citing her need to respect confidentiality surrounding personnel matters. 

“We decided not to renew John’s contract for a variety of reasons including some of what we knew about how people felt. I can tell you as I did that he was not terminated for sexual misconduct,” Walker said. “We learned about other allegations……These are very serious and this behavior cannot and should not be tolerated. And it won’t be tolerated. We need to do better. We need to do a lot better. I deeply regret that our culture and protocols did not work as they should. Such that the full extent of the allegations are just coming to light. This alleged behavior happened on my watch and I take responsibility.”

Lehrer did try to press Walker unsuccessfully on what she knew and when she knew it, if Hockenberry had received a severance package, and if there were any other non-disclosure agreements floating out there. 

“Well let’s talk about what was known in the case of temporary co-host Farai Chideya. She says she spoke to you after Hockenberry said she shouldn’t want to stay as a “diversity hire” and told her to go lose weight. If you confirm she said those things, why wasn’t that a firing offense and what action was taken?” Lehrer asked.

“Again I can’t comment on what action was taken but it was taken seriously and we did take some action,” Walker responded.  “Look, everyday for the last several weeks I have asked myself whether we took enough action and whether we should really look at our protocols. I apologize to Farai to Kristen to the women who came forward. I have a huge amount of admiration and respect for these women for coming forward at this time and I apologize that our our protocols were not there and our policies were not there.”

Response to Walker’s appearance  generated a flood of comments on line like the one from Linda from Queens. “I stopped donating years ago when I discovered that Laura Walker was making $500,000 a year while I was a poor graduate student dutifully sending in my $60 a year. I thought it showed a gross lack of judgment about how to handle so much contribution money that comes in in small amounts from people earning much, much less than her. Now her salary is double that. WNYC has given me so much companionship and food for thought that I would love to become a regular contributor again, but only if the Board of Trustees can restore trust by firing Walker and hiring someone with a salary more in line with a publicly funded position.”

The next day, long time talk show host Leonard Lopate and music host Jonathan Schwartz were placed on leave pending investigations into undisclosed allegations.

I spent close to ten years at WNYC  and left in 2013. As a AFTRA-SAG union member I watched as management staffed up their digital side, outside the union. They fueled their rapid growth with a shadow workforce developed of interns, per diems and so called 1099 contract workers, who can only work 1,000 hour with one specific client before they are terminated. 

Every so often, management would pull a millennial out of this shadow labor pool that got no health care and give them an actual job. As a consequence, this encouraged the 1099 workers not to declare all of their hours, because it would hasten the day they would be timed out of the shot at a job. It was a passive form of wage theft. 

And, while WNYC was growing to the point that it’s total annual revenue was approaching $70 million, it was doing so on the backs of this shadow workforce that had no health care and no union protection. Granted, this shadow workforce is rampant through out the media industry and the broader economy. But public radio holds itself out as something nobler and it needs to lead by example.

In a Facebook page post Meinzer, who has moved on since, observed, even though she had grabbed the brass ring of an actual job, she was still being squeezed. 

“What I did at The Takeaway WNYC Radio: booked, scripted & edited 10 segments per week for 6 years; co-hosted, engineered & edited weekly Movie Date podcasts for 5 1/2 of those years; booked & produced live events at The Greene Space at WNYC/WQXR; booked almost every A-list star the show ever had,” she wrote. “Plus: appeared on air on the The Takeaway every Friday & on other WNYC shows twice per month; served as the launch producer of The Sporkful with Dan Pashman; worked in the control room 4 months per year; attended 3-5 press screenings per week. 

She continued. “What the management at The Takeaway regularly told me: “We really can’t afford to have you clock in more than 40 hours per week. Are you making the best use of your time?”……..I hoped my value would eventually be recognized. What I’ve learned: The Takeaway/WNYC were never going to fairly compensate me for my work.

Last Thursday at 4 pm  WNYC’s Board of Trustees had their regularly scheduled meeting. It was held at the Hilton in mid-town, and drew perhaps 50 irate listeners and donors. There were more empty chairs then occupied ones. 

“The mostly white, old, and male 39-member board gathered around a large table, as members of the public filed in and took their seats,” reported the Columbia Journalism Review. “Board chair Mayo Stuntz was first at the mic: “It’s up to us, the leadership of NYPR, to ensure that every single member of our community, from host to intern, guest to listener, feels safe, heard, and valued. Full stop.” 

When it was Walker’s turn to speak she said she was “profoundly pained and sorry” for what had transpired at the station on her watch. She then announced that the station had hired Proskauer Rose, a major international law firm and several other consultants to help WNYC get to the bottom of what went wrong and how to fix it.

After the official presentation that lasted about a half-hour the public was told to leave while the board went into executive session,  per their regular order. It became apparent just how afraid New York Public Radio is of the public when security forced the listeners who had been dismissed to not just leave the ball room, but to leave the floor and go down to the hotel lobby.  The public was told they could return at around 6 pm to make their comments. 

I could not come back for the public comment session. But according to the Columbia Journalism Review by the time the remaining 30 members of the public lined up to speak their mind at 6:15 “most of the board members, including Walker, were gone”  with only 16 of the 39 members remaining. “For the listeners in that room, Walker’s absence spoke volumes,” according to CJR.

What we have here is a captive board of directors that doesn’t have what it takes  to exercise the independent judgment necessary to hold WNYC’s top management accountable. Now, WNYC is going to spend a fortune on investigating itself, while it keeps the same leadership in place that ignored the very problems it is investigating. 

I can save them a fortune on consultants.  The kind of predatory and bullying behavior that’s been described thrives in a place that has a shadow workforce afraid to speak up. Stop playing games with these young people. Give them 90 days as a probationary period, and either give them an actual job, or let them go.

And it is long overdue to get the “public” back in New York and New Jersey Public Radio with a more diverse board of trustees. The board also needs to have voting members that include representatives of union and non-union employees of the station. Right now, the board bares no resemblance to the public WNYC purports to serve.

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  • “While we abolished slavery, the historic and persistent under payment, and even non-payment for female labor endures to this day.” “We” substituted mass incarceration and other forms of sociopolitical repression like Ferguson, Missouri realities and police style executions of innocent people of color in Chicago, New York, et. al. “We” have nothing to be proud about. And wherever sexism flourishes, it’s soul brother racism is right there along side.

  • superf88

    There is no good reason for the talent pool at WNYC to be that shallow. We’ve already got British and Canadian broadcasting, and I think we all can guess who is throwing some shrimp on the barbie this weekend as they eyeball Leonard’s slot. Listeners assume that a new WNYC host or show will take 2 – 5 years before maturing into the needed pro — and that’s a maybe (NJ Transit could have done a better job with The Takeaway). Here Bob has explains why. The station must set wages to attract (or at least interest!) experienced, seasoned talent, and Bob, if you have any interest in working there again, please consider returning now.

  • Larry

    This story is so true as a former employee I must agree this well written article speaks the truth but there is so much more, so much. the untold story.

    • Well, I’m ready to read your “untold story.” What are your plans?

  • Thanks for writing this piece, and thanks for reminding us: wage theft plays a crucial role in funding management salaries in too many non-profits.

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