Public radio's #MeToo problem: Harassment claims cloud NYC's flagship station

New York's venerable WNYC has handled accusations against John Hockenberry and other hosts in dreadful fashion

Published December 19, 2017 4:58AM (EST)

John Hockenberry (Getty/Astrid Stawiarz)
John Hockenberry (Getty/Astrid Stawiarz)

This article originally appeared on target="_blank">Insider NJ. Republished with permission.

It is widely understood that sexual harassment in the workplace is about men disrespecting women. What is not fully appreciated or acknowledged is the connection between that dynamic and the longstanding economic exploitation of women. While we abolished slavery, the historic and persistent underpayment and even nonpayment of female labor endures to this day.

This is a massive hidden subsidy that helps fund the overcompensation at the top for so many corporate executives, along with the profits for many companies.

It’s helpful that the raging debate over workplace 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. That story 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, taking the risk that in the long run being transparent about what had occurred would both help preserve the brand image, while sending an internal signal that there would be zero tolerance for such alleged behavior.

Those transparent responses stand in stark contrast with how management at my former employer, New York public radio station WNYC, chose to handle sexual harassment and bullying allegations leveled against John Hockenberry, longtime host of "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 fêted internally at the station with a farewell party.

It was not until earlier this month that the public  learned about the multiple allegations 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 it was good experience for blowing the lid off at WNYC, one of the nation's biggest and most prestigious producers of public radio programming, 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 broke, she decided to find out whether her Hockenberry experience was unique. It was not.

Kim 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 fact that three female hosts of color had been forced out in rapid succession did not appear to pique WNYC 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 worked 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 talk shows hosted by Leonard Lopate and Brian Lehrer. 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 nondisclosure agreement as part of her parting ways with WNYC. Our paths never crossed when I was at WNYC, but I worked with the two other female hosts, Farai Chideya and Celeste Headlee, who followed Udoji into the Hockenberry crucible. They were both talented professionals whom we all watched get poorly treated by management.

A few days after the New York magazine bombshell, at some  legal risk to herself, Udoji went public with her personal account of her Hockenberry experience in the Guardian, directly taking on Laura Walker, CEO and president of WNYC.

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, Hockenberry, 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 Dec. 5 Walker, who made $861,956 as WNYC CEO in the 2015 fiscal year, broke her silence on the roiling scandal during an appearance on Brian Lehrer's daytime talk 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 [Hockenberry'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 tried to press Walker unsuccessfully on what she knew and when she knew it, whether Hockenberry had received a severance package, and whether there were other nondisclosure agreements floating out there.

“Well let’s talk about what was known in the case of temporary co-host Farai Chideya," Lehrer said. "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, every day 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 protocols were not there and our policies were not there.”

Response to Walker’s appearance  generated a flood of comments online, like this 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, longtime talk-show host Leonard Lopate was placed on leave, as was Jonathan Schwartz, host of an eccentric and much-beloved show on vintage pop music and jazz. In both cases, this action was taken pending investigations into undisclosed allegations.

I spent close to 10 years at WNYC and left in 2013. As an AFTRA-SAG union member I watched as management staffed up the station's digital side, outside the union. They fueled rapid growth with a shadow workforce developed of interns, per-diem employees and so-called 1099 contract workers, who can only work 1,000 hours with one specific client before they are terminated.

Every so often, management would pull a millennial out of this shadow labor pool and give them an actual job with benefits. This encouraged the 1099 workers not to declare all of their hours, because to do so would hasten the day they'd be timed out of their shot at a job. It was a passive form of wage theft.

While WNYC was growing to the point that total annual revenue was approaching $70 million, it did so on the backs of this shadow workforce with no health care and no union protection. Granted, this shadow workforce is rampant throughout the entire 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 post Meinzer, who has since moved on, observed that 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. 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.

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 week the board of trustees of New York Public Radio, the nonprofit that operates WNYC, held its regularly scheduled meeting at the Hilton in midtown Manhattan. It 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 ... 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 half an 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 not just to leave the ballroom but to leave the floor and descend to the hotel lobby.  The public was told they could return later 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 p.m., most board members, including Walker, were gone, with only 16 of 39 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 unwilling that to exercise the independent judgment necessary to hold a public radio station’s top management accountable. Now WNYC will spend a fortune investigating itself, while keeping in place the same leadership that ignored the very problems it is investigating.

I can save them a fortune on consultants. The kind of predatory and bullying behavior that has 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.

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 both union and non-union employees of the station. Right now, the station's board bares no resemblance to the broad and diverse public WNYC purports to serve.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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