The Feature

WNYC supporters waver amid harassment crisis

December 15, 2017
The public gathers for the first part of Thursday night's board meeting.

Thursday night, in a ballroom at the Hilton in midtown, Naomi Tarantal stepped up to the microphone. It was a bit after 6 pm. She had been waiting close to an hour and a half for the opportunity. With equal parts concern and frustration, the lifelong New Yorker and longtime WNYC listener (and sustaining member) expressed her concerns about the organization’s handling of harassment allegations against John Hockenberry, the former host of WNYC’s The Takeaway, which were reported earlier this month in New York magazine’s The Cut.

“I’ve been donating for years and years,” she said. “I expect better than this.”

Tarantal was one of roughly 40 members of the public who showed up to New York Public Radio’s Board of Trustees meeting, the first since harassment allegations rocked the organization (NYPR is the owner of WNYC and other stations). In her story for The Cut, reporter Suki Kim published her investigation into the alleged sexual harassment and bullying by Hockenberry during his time at The Takeaway. The public radio icon stepped down from his role in August, seemingly on his own terms and with no future plans set in stone. A few days after Kim’s story broke, WNYC announced that two more hosts, the long-tenured Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz, had been put on immediate leave pending an investigation into unrelated allegations of inappropriate conduct.

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WNYC’s internal shakeup comes at a time when the so-called “Weinstein Effect” has breached the media landscape. Within public radio, the catalyst was a Washington Post story in late October about sexual harassment accusations against Michael Oreskes, NPR’s former senior vice president of news and editorial director (and also a former CJR board member). His resignation followed, as did a barrage of other investigations into misconduct within public media, some involving high-profile personalities like Garrison Keillor of public radio darling A Prairie Home Companion and Tom Ashbrook of NPR’s well-regarded On Point.

I’ve been donating for years and years. I expect better than this.

This reckoning isn’t unique to public radio. But the fallout from that reckoning is; listeners feel more personally connected to their stations, and so the recent disclosures hit much closer to home. They expect more from the leadership behind their go-to source of news. As one WNYC listener said at last night’s board meeting, “I think you’ve forgotten the public in public media.”

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Since the Hockenberry news broke, the relationship between New York Public Radio and its listeners has been fraught. Last night’s board meeting did nothing to mitigate that. Leading up to the meeting, listeners excoriated the board and management for its handling of harassment in the workplace: Why didn’t management address the allegations years ago? How could they do nothing when they knew about it? They tweeted. They commented. They called into the station. Some demanded NYPR CEO and President Laura Walker’s resignation; others proposed more transparency about where their dollars are going.

At the public board meeting, a handful of WNYC members voiced many of those same concerns. Dozens of people filed into the hotel ballroom at 4 pm to hear from the board, especially Walker, about their plans. 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. 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.” He talked about the importance of inclusion and diversity and safety within the WNYC newsroom, proclaiming that words and promises are not enough. He then deferred to Walker who explained how they would move beyond just words and into action. “I want to say how profoundly pained and sorry I am,” she told the crowd.

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Walker’s arrival at the mic provoked a response from attendees. As she outlined her plan, some hissed and muttered under their breath. Others rolled their eyes and shot knowing glances to their neighbors. There was a soft chorus of sighs strewn throughout her report. They see the plan as a hodgepodge of reactive, bare minimum action items. To start, they’ve hired Howard Z. Robbins, an attorney with Proskauer Rose, to re-evaluate human resources policies and procedures within the NYPR ecosystem. They’ve also engaged with Madhulika Sikka, the former Executive Editor of News at NPR and current PBS Public Editor, to examine issues of diversity, inclusion, and representation, among other things, within the WNYC Content division. Walker also cited the launch of a new employee steering committee, as well as the potential hiring of an ombudsman, as part of this strategy.

You should be setting the standard, not following the standard.

Around the 30-minute mark, Walker transitioned the meeting into the private executive session (per standard practice, according to NYPR), and members of the public shuffled out of the ballroom, only to come back an hour-and-a-half later. For many attendees, the meeting’s structure was a point of contention. It was far from accommodating, with a major gap between the public listening and public comment sections. Some stuck it out at the hotel cafe or nearby restaurants. One woman told me she stopped by the Museum of Modern Art. Others had to leave, instead channeling their complaints into written notes.

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Tarantal was one of the WNYC supporters who stayed for both sessions. Just past 6:15pm, she and around 30 others returned, slowly forming a queue behind the mic to air their grievances. By then, most of the board members, including Walker, were gone; only 16 members were present (NYPR spokeswoman Jennifer Houlihan Roussel says Walker and two other board members met separately with staff at that time). For the listeners in that room, Walker’s absence spoke volumes. Each attendee got two minutes at the mic, with a few returning several times to voice varying concerns, from the use of nondisclosure agreements at WNYC to the lack of transparency involving investigations into Lopate and Schwartz.

One of Tarantal’s big criticisms was the leadership’s use of jargon in their plan: “I have no idea what it means when [Walker] used this terminology.” An enthusiastic 30-something listener with a scruffy beard begged the board to “be bold” as they addressed their failures: “You should be setting the standard, not following the standard.” An older man, Charlie, who described himself as a decadeslong supporter, choked up as he expressed outrage over the use of NDAs and begged the board to “go after the bastards” who do these things. And Julia Furlan, a former WNYC employee and one of the younger faces in the crowd, criticized the board’s attitudes toward modern workplace norms: “I’d really like 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.”

The board maintained a “listen-only” decorum and scribbled notes during the public portion of the meeting, despite repeated requests from people to answer questions as straightforward as, “How are members of the Board of Trustees selected?” When the meeting wrapped up at 7pm, there was an air of disappointment, a cloud of skepticism, and a mist of betrayal as attendees trickled out of the room for the final time that night.

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Meg Dalton is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut. She's reported and edited for CJR, PBS NewsHour, Energy News Network, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @megdalts. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.