United States Project

An Atlanta radio host complained of gender discrimination. Then she was restructured out of a job.

June 18, 2019

One afternoon in June 2018, as Alison Tyler listened to the radio on her drive home from work, she realized a familiar voice had disappeared from Atlanta’s airwaves. Amy Kiley, host of All Things Considered on WABE-FM (90.1), wasn’t in her usual afternoon drive-time slot. Later, Tyler wrote to WABE, wondering what happened to Kiley. No one could give her a straight answer. In the days following, other WABE listeners noticed that Kiley’s stories had vanished from the station’s website.

When an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter inquired, WABE, whose weekly audience numbers nearly 500,000, offered a vague response, citing the station’s plans to restructure its newsroom. While WABE was cutting four positions, a statement read, four senior-level roles would be created to “position the station for continued growth.” WABE added that those new positions would require future employees to bring “new skill sets and additional experience levels” to the station.

But internal documents and conversations with station employees reveal a different narrative of Kiley’s dismissal, one that’s more complicated, and much more contentious, than a simple restructuring.

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Two months after the restructuring, Kiley, who had previously described a toxic workplace to station management, filed a formal charge of sex-based discrimination with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The week after Kiley filed her charge, WABE leadership moved Kiley’s former boss, news director John Haas, out of the newsroom.

Management at WABE, a nonprofit station whose license is held by Atlanta’s public school system, did not answer questions about either Kiley or Haas. Through a WABE spokesperson, Haas declined to comment. Kiley, too, declined to speak with CJR about the EEOC charge, which is still pending. In addition, the station has yet to explain to listeners why it removed at least 30 of Kiley’s stories from its website. WABE spokesperson Hilary Silverboard justified the removal of the stories because Kiley “was leaving the station and would no longer be on our air.” But when CJR asked specifically why her stories were gone, even as those of other journalists laid off in the 2018 restructuring have stayed on the web site, Silverboard did not respond.

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“Of all the realms of media that have been shaken by the #MeToo movement,” New York Times reporter Ben Sisario wrote in February 2018, “perhaps the most surprising has been public radio, the home of virtuous journalism and thoughtful, warm-voiced commentary.” Sisario’s story followed the dismissal of “On Point” host Tom Ashbrook for fostering what co-workers said was a toxic work environment. Unlike the case of Ashbrook—or the half-dozen other #MeToo incidents involving public-radio figures—Kiley’s claims of bullying and pressure stand apart because they involve one of the most important signatures of any radio journalist: her voice.

In recent years radio journalists have called out the problems inherent in forcing women to conform to a narrow “NPR sound” that often skews white, straight, and Midwestern. In a 2014 NPR story titled “Talking While Female,” reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin wrote that women in positions of power are often “advised to modulate their voice pitch and speech patterns to match their male counterparts.”

According to her complaint, Kiley claimed management forced her to ‘lower the pitch of her voice on air’ because it didn’t align with the ‘public radio expectation that hosts talk naturally and not artificially change their voices.’

In a Twitter thread last month, Gabe Rosenberg, a digital news editor with the Ohio-based WOSU, criticized male listeners for their complaints about how his female colleagues have “mispronounced a word or even THEIR OWN NAME and how it ‘hurts their credibility.’” (Rosenberg is a former CJR intern.) Anne Hoffman, a radio journalist who’s freelanced for Philadelphia’s WHYY, remembers how a moment of pride—publishing a nationally syndicated story—was colored by a commenter who described her voice as that of a “bratty hipster” with “hideous vocal fry.”

“It can make you afraid to speak and afraid to take up space,” Hoffman says. “With a lot of women I know, it’s understood this is going to happen. And if you took it on every time, you would have to probably leave radio. So you brush it off.”

When WABE hired Kiley four years ago, she was embraced by the newsroom. A bilingual radio reporter who hosted the local cut-ins for All Things Considered for the Florida-based WMFE, she joined the Atlanta station as part of a hiring spree to expand local news coverage. Later that year, a chance to host ATC opened up following the retirement of one of Atlanta’s longtime hosts.

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While Kiley held down the on-air afternoon slot, reporting stories in her time off the air, WABE management began to lose confidence in her voice. According to her complaint, Kiley claimed management forced her to “lower the pitch of her voice on air” because it didn’t align with the “public radio expectation that hosts talk naturally and not artificially change their voices.” The station also hired a male consultant who described Kiley’s vocal delivery as “green,” “inexperienced,” and in need of “polish.” In response, Kiley says WABE sent her to see a vocal coach who called her “baby girl” and told her it was “time to be a woman.” In her complaint, Kiley wrote, “I told my supervisor I objected to this sexist practice, but the pressure continued.”

Kiley had previously filed an internal complaint in September 2017. A few months later, Haas dinged Kiley on her employee evaluation by giving her a “marginal” rating—the second-to-worst rating on a four-point scale—in categories that assessed her analytic skills, judgment, and motivation. Haas also noted in the evaluation that the station had received a listener survey in which respondents had “many comments” about how her voice “lacks authority.” Haas wrote in the evaluation that Kiley “comes across as just a host who just reads and lightly edits scripts.”

In early 2018, Kiley asked HR to revise her annual evaluation given that some of Haas’ complaints were based on her age and gender. Unsatisfied with the response, Kiley sent WABE’s top HR official an addendum that called the evaluation “discriminatory and partly inaccurate.” On June 6, 2018, WABE eliminated Kiley’s position. The following day, Haas transferred her recorder, microphone, and headphones to an intern.

In a response to the EEOC, a lawyer representing WABE called Kiley’s allegations “completely meritless.” WABE said in its response that it hired Kiley in part because Haas liked her “lower tone and pitch,” which he had heard in her Spanish-language coverage at Central Florida’s WMFE. Now at WABE, he “wanted to help her unlock that ability to vary her vocal range,” according to WABE’s response.

Internal documents and correspondence—including multiple drafts of Kiley’s contested evaluation—show Haas had concerns beyond her voice. He expressed displeasure with Kiley’s work ethic and her response to constructive criticism. He also told station management that Kiley would get “defensive,” and occasionally ended up “playing the victim, instead of acting like [an] enterprise journalist.” As Kiley pressed for changes to her review, Haas pushed back, telling station leadership that Kiley “continues to purposefully bend information and reformulate the narrative in written documentation to bolster future legal action.”

“It is also apparent she will sue [WABE], and will name me in the lawsuit,” Haas wrote in a May 2018 email. “By delivering the stripped-down evaluation I emailed earlier this week, I am wary that it makes it appear that I was in the wrong for the original review of her performance…which I resolutely stand behind.”

On August 13, 2018, one week after Kiley filed her charge of discrimination, Haas left his position as newsroom director. According to information obtained through an open records request, Haas moved to a new position inside the organization—director of cross platform/multimedia content strategy—with a low-six-figure salary that nearly matches his news-director compensation. Kiley has since found work at Georgia Public Broadcasting. Her work for WABE’s competitor came with a higher salary, though instead of working as a host for “On Second Thought,” GPB’s morning talk show, she works behind the scenes as a senior producer. Her WABE stories, meanwhile, remain off the station’s website.

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Max Blau is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes narrative and investigative stories for newspapers, magazines, and digital media outlets. You can find his recent work published in Atlanta, Politico, and The Washington Post.