After WNYC, Leonard Lopate’s return to WBAI is met with protest

Leonard Lopate speaks on February 19, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Kim/WireImage)

Lopate At Large, a new, hour-long daily show hosted by Leonard Lopate, premiered yesterday on WBAI, a progressive radio station that is owned by the Pacifica Foundation and based in Brooklyn. Lopate began his career in radio at the station in the 1970s, when he hosted both a gospel music and a late-night call-in show.

The longtime radio host gave a glowing introduction to his first guest, veteran journalist Clyde Haberman. Haberman said he was “delighted” to be on the show, and then tossed an easy pass to Lopate–who was suspended and eventually fired from WNYC last December, where he worked for more than 30 years, amid allegations of “inappropriate conduct.”

I am among those who are still very mystified by what happened at WNYC and I won’t push you on going into that,” said Haberman. “But it’s left a bad taste for many New Yorkers.” It was an apparent attempt to give Lopate an opportunity to address his controversial departure.

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Lopate blew right past the prompt, instead launching into a familiar conversation about the challenges facing the American and international press corps. A listener could have easily been fooled into believing the broadcast had come from Lopate’s old studio home at WNYC. Over the course of the hour, they talked about White House hostility, the physical dangers journalists from around the world face (including a fleeting mention of harassment), the evolving notion of journalistic objectivity, and the changing politics of newspapers.

Nowhere in the hour-long show was Lopate’s previous conduct addressed—and neither did a press release announcing the launch mention it. It was a missed opportunity: by the station, to address the hire directly to its listeners, who provide 100 percent of its financial support; by Haberman, to push the host to clarify; and by Lopate, for declining the opportunity to be transparent.

WBAI approached Lopate and convinced him to come back on the air, according to a press release published by the station. The show seems intended to resemble Lopate’s old one, and will air weekdays from 1 to 2pm. On WNYC, Lopate often hosted guests to talk art, music, culture, and the news of the day, and featured listener call-ins. Lopate at Large is likely to mimic this format, though the inaugural broadcast featured no calls.

Lopate, who worked at WNYC for more than 30 years, was suspended from the air on December 6, 2017, alongside Jonathan Schwartz, pending an investigation into “inappropriate conduct.” Station management did not immediately disclose details concerning the nature of the conduct, but reports say that Lopate had been made to take one-on-one anti-harassment training in February of 2017 after previous complaints of inappropriate comments and bullying. The complaints were substantiated by an investigation according to WNYC.

Lopate is just one of the many men accused as part of the #MeToo movement who are now beginning to appeal to the media community and the public for a second chance. In recent months, Charlie Rose, Tom Ashbrook, Matt Lauer, Louis C.K., and Garrison Keillor have also attempted comebacks.

Currently, WBAI producers do not get paid for their work hosting and producing their shows. But WBAI’s General Manager Berthold Reimers confirmed that Lopate and his producer will both be paid.

“We’ve been evaluating and contemplating it for a long time,” he says. Despite laying off most of its staff in 2013 to cover basic operating costs, the station is still financially struggling. The station, which is located in a small office in Brooklyn, uses four bath mats tacked to the walls to dampen the sound.  A cluster of red Christmas lights serves as the signal for when shows are “on-air.”

Reimers cited Lopate’s strong audience numbers–a few thousand downloads per hour of his show on the small, NPR-affiliate WHDD–as the reason for the six-month contract.

“You know at WBAI, I don’t think we have 5,000 people listening for the whole week,” he tells CJR. “Once we have all these people listening to us for him, this is ultimately an easy form of marketing. There should be no question that our numbers go up for all the other shows because of their quality that no one knew about.”

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During Lopate’s first show, Reimers said the number of web listeners was 32 percent higher than WBAI’s most popular broadcast online, Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now. If that continues, Reimers says it could help raise WBAI’s profile, allow it to apply for funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and increase the audience for other shows on the station.

Some producers at WBAI have questioned the hire and say it is in opposition with what they view as the station’s fundamental values.

“I felt a great sense of betrayal of what my interests are in the #MeToo movement,” producer Fran Luck tells CJR. The theme of Luck’s show, Joy of Resistance, is multicultural feminism and it often covers the wider effects of misconduct in the workplace. “This is not a small matter, even if what Leonard Lopate did wasn’t on the same level as what Harvey Weinstein did,” she says. “He was obviously a problem for a lot of people he worked with, but particularly for women.”

Jay Smooth told listeners on Friday night he was “vehemently opposed” to the decision during the most recent edition of his long-running hip-hop show, The Underground Railroad. “If this show is still airing as of Friday, I’m definitely not going back on Friday,” he tells CJR. “The question for me is, have we gone past the point that I want to go back at all?”

Producer Mimi Rosenberg describes the welcome Lopate received from WBAI as “quite disturbing.”

“I don’t believe for one second our audiences of beleaguered, impoverished, discriminated communities, who we should be representing the voices of, are crying for Mr. Lopate to come on the station,” she says.

During Yusuf Lamont’s late-night show, Creative Unity Collective, he called the decisions “incredibly short-sighted” and “patently destructive to . . .  the mission that is WBAI.” Off the air, Lamont was more explicit about his feelings. “Uncool is not the word for it. It’s bullshit,” he says.

Smooth says producers did not receive any kind of email or other communication from management about Lopate’s hiring and his new show leading up to its airing on Monday. He read about it in an email that went out to listener-subscribers.

While several producers CJR spoke to were opposed, Reimers says he has received private emails expressing support for the hiring of Lopate, including the chair of the board, national board members, and other producers.

When asked about specific conditions to protect staff, Reimers says WBAI and the Pacifica Foundation both have zero-tolerance policies regarding sexual harassment and assault. “I have no doubt that we would not have any problems and if there were any problems, action would be taken swiftly.”

But Smooth expects there will be other, negative consequences extending far beyond the length of Lopate’s initial deal. “The idea that management would say, ‘It’s just a six-month contract.’ You think you can lease your soul to the devil for six months and then get it back?” says Smooth. “The damage is done.”

Disclosure: One of this article’s authors, Alexandria Neason, appeared on Leonard Lopate’s show on WNYC in 2017.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the non-profit that supports public radio and television. It is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, not the Center for Public Broadcasting.

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Karen K. Ho and Alexandria Neason are CJR staff members. Ho is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @karenkho. Neason is CJR's Senior Staff Writer. Follow her on Twitter @alexandrianeas.