A Confrontation in Public Media

In 2017, as #MeToo swept across the journalism industry, leaders in public media–including those at WNYC (where I work), WBUR, Minnesota Public Radio, and NPR headquarters—were exposed. If the stories of harassment at major news outlets felt less than surprising, the fact that the dulcet, if sometimes dull, world of public radio could be abusive came as a shock to many listeners. Pearls were clutched; people were fired. Station managers apologized, pledged to “do better,” and increased investment in mandatory discrimination and harassment trainings. 

Recently, however, yet more accusations—this time mostly grounded in racism and discrimination—have surfaced across public radio. In June, staff at WAMU, in Washington, DC, started speaking out on Twitter about high turnover among people of color; soon, stories of harassment at the station made local news. In August, a PRX staffer named Palace Shaw circulated a public letter explaining why she—and three other Black women that year—had left the station. Staff at St. Louis Public Radio produced a similar letter, writing that of about twenty journalists of color hired since 2013, more than half had left. In September, NPR’s union released a series of demands to combat what it called the “overwhelming whiteness” of the organization. Morgan Givens, a former producer at WAMU, described the recent developments as a #MeToo surge that never subsided. “Not to make this about covid,” he told me, “but you know how they say we’re in the third wave when the first never ended? I feel like the first wave has not crested yet.”

Public radio has a problem. In 2019, NPR’s newsroom was more than 70 percent white. The same year, 83 percent of the voices heard on its national shows were white, too. According to the most recent State of the System report by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in 2018, just 23 percent of people working at member stations identified as people of color. That’s almost a full percentage point decrease from the previous year. The CPB doesn’t break down its diversity count by position, which means that noneditorial employees are included; in a 2017 diversity report, for instance, KQED declared that 100 percent of its janitorial staff were people of color. By the CPB’s metrics, those employees could “count” toward diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) numbers. 

“A lot of stations seem very concerned about how they’re perceived rather than what they do,” Sachi Kobayashi—a founder of Public Media for All, a collective of workers aiming to diversify the industry—said. Kobayashi, who is thirty-five, has been in radio for almost a decade and is now the director of member acquisition at Oregon Public Media. In May, inspired by staff at the Philadelphia Inquirer who organized a “sick-out” to protest racist practices in their newsroom, she reached out to colleagues at stations across the country who had been vocal about DEI initiatives. Together they came up with Public Media for All’s “Day of Action,” which will be held Tuesday, November 10.

On that day, people of color are invited to call in sick. White allies are encouraged to hold their managers and coworkers accountable by having tough conversations about race in the workplace. The collective drafted a set of recommendations, asking public media managers to address salary disparities, to pay interns, and to conduct regular, anonymous surveys on office culture. One suggestion was notably excluded from the list: a commitment to hiring more people of color. “This is not a problem that we can hire our way out of,” Kobayashi explained. “Most of the positions that stations are hiring for are young, and you can’t hire young people of color to come into a legacy organization that’s been overwhelmingly white for decades and expect them to do the work of fixing it.”

 

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PUBLIC RADIO’S FOUNDING MYTH is one of goodness and decency; its purpose is delivering information in the interest of the American people. But as public radio has grown in power and funding, its institutions have struggled to retain and promote women and people of color. Time and again, stations have protected employees accused of harassment, bullying, or discrimination, while pushing out those who complain. As Alicia Montgomery, a veteran of the public radio world, told me, “What’s really at the heart of this is abuse of power.”

Now the executive producer of Slate’s podcasts, Montgomery, who is forty-nine, is the most high-profile journalist to comment publicly during the recent spate of accusations. She grew up on public radio—“I was a Backseat Baby,” she said—and worked in media for decades, mostly at NPR headquarters. Many of her positions came with challenges. At WAMU, where she was news director, she soon learned that there was a serial harasser who had been the subject of HR complaints for more than five years; apparently it was an open secret. Montgomery butted heads with J.J. Yore, the general manager, who she felt wasn’t doing enough to fire the harasser. (In interviews with the Washington Post and WAMU, Yore claimed that HR prevented him from firing the man. When reached for comment, Matt Bennett, the chief communications officer at American University, which owns WAMU, told me, “Department leadership and managers, including at WAMU, have responsibility and authority for disciplinary actions.”) 

Seeking advice, Montgomery reached out to Michael Oreskes, a senior vice president of news at NPR, with whom she had worked in a previous job. He offered to help. Only a year after she arrived at WAMU, Montgomery left, taking a position at Morning Edition, NPR’s flagship show. A month after she started, Oreskes was fired for sexual harassment. “I was one of those clueless women of a certain age who never had a problem with Michael,” she said. “And then I discovered that at least one of the people who I had encouraged to seek out Mike’s counsel was somebody who he harassed.”

That experience, Montgomery said, “shattered” her. When WAMU employees went public about the difficult conditions at their office, she chimed in, attesting to the bullying she witnessed and the complicity she experienced. “I spent twenty years of my life devoted to public radio,” she told me. “I encouraged vulnerable people to go into it.” She added, “It got to a point where if I didn’t know the exact person who you were working for, if I didn’t have duplicate sources saying that people would be safe at this job or that job, I didn’t want to refer any more people of color or young women to jobs in public media.”

 

THIS SUMMER, @freepublicradio, an anonymous Twitter account, began posting about toxicity at public radio stations. It covered the blowup at WAMU, then moved on to other cases, including at WNYC and WGBH, Boston’s local NPR station, where I used to work. (I left in 2017 after several months of raising concern about a gender wage gap that had been documented by my union; during my exit interview with HR, I was told: “We’ve heard that same thing from a lot of people.”) In just a few months, @freepublicradio has broken stories of harassment and discrimination by quoting directly, the account claims, from emails and direct messages. (The minder of @freepublicradio declined to speak with me.) When the account does editorialize, it tends to do so in emoji: a “thinking face” (🤔) above a response to allegations of racism from a station; a pair of eyes (👀) above a retweet of employees calling for a CEO’s resignation. 

Almost everyone I know in public media follows the account, or at least has read it. We tend to view it with a combination of discomfort (the account sometimes calls out the accused by name) and fascination (every journalist loves a leak). Of course, an account that polices journalism by publishing only anonymous sources doesn’t follow the same rules that the rest of us do. But it’s hard not to follow along as @freepublicradio has, in effect, made the environment of public media truly public.

An irony of @freepublicradio is that it uses the for-profit platform of Twitter to hold public institutions accountable. On Public Media for All’s Day of Action, public media’s willingness to invest in its professed values will be put to the test. Across the journalism world, when confronted by requests for equity and better treatment, managers cite money as a limitation. But when I spoke to Kobayashi, she told me that there’s dissonance between the claims of public media leaders that they’ve done their best to diversify and the funding to which they have access. “I think we’re tremendously well-resourced,” Kobayashi said. “We’ve perfected a fundraising model that other nonprofit sectors are insanely jealous of. This is not a scarcity problem.” 

So far, six NPR member stations have pledged to participate in the Day of Action: KCUR, Rocky Mountain Public Media, WUKY, KUT, Capital Public Radio, and Oregon Public Broadcasting. Within three years, they’ve agreed to enact ten of eleven action items, including a commitment to pay all interns; to ensure that staff, donors, and audiences reflect the local community’s demographics; and to create systems to combat discrimination. Kobayashi is pleased—Public Media for All has already surpassed its initial goal by getting this many stations on board. By the end of the year, she said, she hopes for many more.

THE KICKER: Masha Gessen on Trump’s bid for autocracy

Editors Note: This piece has been updated to clarify that data provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting came from its State of the System report.

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Caroline Lester is a writer and audio producer. Her writing has been featured in various outlets, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New York Times. Her audio pieces have been featured on many airwaves, including The New Yorker Radio Hour, PRI's The World, and the BBC World Service.