How "public" is New York's flagship public radio station? WNYC's transition to corporate behemoth

Laura Walker, the CEO behind New York's WNYC, makes nearly $1 million and sits on the Tribune Media board

Published July 28, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)

Laura Walker (YouTube/Future of StoryTelling)
Laura Walker (YouTube/Future of StoryTelling)

This article was originally published at City & State New York. Used by permission.

Laura Walker, the president and CEO of New York Public Radio -- which owns and operates WNYC, the major public radio station in America's largest city -- has been buffeted by a wave of bad press following accusations that she stood by as the host of a popular show bullied and sexually harassed female colleagues and guests. On her watch, John Hockenberry, who hosted WNYC’s “The Takeaway,” berated and bullied three accomplished African-American co-hosts – Adaora UdojiFarai Chideya and Celeste Headlee – according to a New York magazine exposé published in December. All three women appealed directly to Walker to intercede. All three left the station in short order.

Several other women who worked for Hockenberry described sexually charged comments, online messages and inappropriate physical advances in the story, including two instances in which he allegedly kissed colleagues without their consent. Hockenberry, who retired last summer, issued an apology for his “rude, aggressive and impolite” behavior that “was not always appropriate” and made colleagues “feel uncomfortable.”

Apart from the discomfort and distress suffered by the victims and the ensuing calls for Walker to resign, the allegations undermine the “halo effect” that New York Public Radio relies on to draw listener and advertiser support for its $100 million annual budget. As an affiliate of National Public Radio, the station markets itself on the presumption that as a nonprofit alternative to the corporate media, it is driven by the public interest instead of a self-serving profit motive.

That reputation can appeal to sponsors. As NPR wrote in 2011, “The ‘halo effect’ is the positive association and shared values that NPR listeners attribute to the companies that sponsor us. Listeners have a higher opinion of those sponsors just because they support public radio.”

According to NPR’s research, 74 percent of listeners had a more positive opinion of a company that supports public radio and 66 percent preferred to buy from companies that support public radio.

But WNYC is a long way from its humble roots as a truly publicly owned radio station. In 1997, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani decided to sell the station, which was owned by the city and had fewer than 100 employees, to a nonprofit foundation led by Walker. That foundation was established in the 1970s to help insulate the public broadcaster from the ups and downs in municipal appropriations it had to deal with based on the city’s roller-coaster finances. Two years before the sale of the station, the foundation hired Walker.

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Today, close to 600 people work for New York Public Radio’s many channels and programs: WNYC, WQXR, New Jersey Public Radio, several web streams and dozens of podcasts.

So how well is it living up to its high-minded reputation? At what point does its increasing reliance on tens of millions of dollars in commercial sponsorships shift its institutional motivations? In other words, just how public is New York Public Radio?

The scrutiny that came with WNYC’s #MeToo moment also exposed the ways that the public radio nonprofit has more in common with for-profit media corporations than many WNYC fans realized – in particular, how the nonprofit compensates Walker, its top executive, and gives her carte blanche to sit on the board of directors of a for-profit company.

In December, the New York Times reported that Walker was earning $768,000 from her salary with New York Public Radio and an additional $200,000 as a board member of the Tribune Media Co. Walker’s total compensation is now $954,582, including a $150,000 bonus, according to the latest IRS 990 form covering July 2016 through June 2017. The second-highest compensation package was paid out to Corey Boutilier, the senior digital sales manager, who handles podcast sponsorships. He was paid $559,612, with a base salary of $75,628, and the bulk of his compensation came from a formula based on “the sponsorship revenues of the station.”

All told, 132 individuals earn in excess of $100,000, according to the IRS filing. The top 13 earners below Walker collectively were paid more than $4 million, which included close to $400,000 in bonuses. (Starting this year, the Securities and Exchange Commission requires publicly traded companies in the United States to disclose the ratio of pay between their CEO and the median pay earned by company employees. Nonprofits have no similar requirement.)

Some longtime listeners aren’t thrilled about the high salaries. “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,” Linda from Queens wrote on the comment page for “The Brian Lehrer Show.”

“I thought it showed a gross lack of judgment about how to handle so much contribution money that comes 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.”

Apart from her compensation, Walker’s position on the Tribune board also gives her a central role in what would be one of the largest TV station deals in American history. Tribune Media’s controversial acquisition by the pro-Trump Sinclair Broadcast Group would give Sinclair access to 72 percent of American households, the largest reach of any television company. The deal has prompted scores of angry online comments. While critics contend the deal will be bad for local news, Walker and the other Tribune board members, as stockholders, stand to profit from the potential windfall.

Opposition is fierce and ranges from the United Church of Christ to labor unions like the Communications Workers of America who see the deal as a threat to what’s left of the nation’s local TV news and a concentration of TV station ownership in the hands of right-wing ideologues with a partisan agenda. Even Ajit Pai, the business-friendly chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, came out against the pending acquisition last week – which might prevent it from going through.

In March, Deadspin posted a video compilation of TV anchors at stations owned by Sinclair reciting the same exact message about their journalistic independence. The stations had all been told by Sinclair to read the message on the air. In dozens of video segments spliced together, the anchors collectively decry “the sharing of biased and false news” and the publishing of stories “that simply aren’t true.” The video, which ran under the headline “How America's Largest Local TV Owner Turned Its News Anchors Into Soldiers in Trump’s War on the Media,” quickly went viral.

Robert McChesney, communications professor at the University of Illinois and one of the nation’s leading experts on corporate media consolidation and public broadcasting, described Sinclair as “the Fox News of local television,” saying it pushes the political agenda of its owners, “which is a far-right, rabidly pro-Republican, pro-business worldview, as sort of a neutral news.”

“They are taking advantage of the decline of journalism,” McChesney said. “They are participating in it and they are using the collapse of journalism to replace it with their sort of home-brewed propaganda to push their political agenda. And it just so happens that the same regulators that are making it possible for them to build an ever-larger monopoly are the political beneficiaries of the work they do with their pseudo-journalism.”

For Walker to hold a prominent leadership role at New York Public Radio while also serving on the board of Tribune – which could unite with Sinclair if the pending deal survives – is a profound conflict of interest, McChesney said.

“The idea that you have someone leading the flagship public station in the country, in the largest city in the country, on the board of a commercial media company, which basically runs counter to the principles of public broadcasting, they are a whole different thing – it seems really weird,” McChesney said. “Like, ‘Pick a lane, lady.’”

According to NYPR, it was the nonprofit’s board of trustees, which itself is dominated by the corporatist 1 percent, that encouraged Walker to seek the Tribune directorship.

“There is nothing unusual about CEOs of public media organizations sitting on a corporate board. To the contrary, it’s quite common,” said Jennifer Houlihan Roussel, an NYPR spokeswoman. “Neal Shapiro of WNET sits on the board of Gannett; Jarl Mohn of NPR sits on the board of Scripps Networks Interactive; and Goli Sheikholeslami of Chicago Public Media was just elected to the board of Patreon, to name just a few.”

Houlihan Roussel argued that the position doesn’t detract from a CEO’s job. “Rather, connecting with other peers and serving as the public face of an organization is actually part of the job,” she said. “That said, Laura works on her board responsibilities on her own time, and uses vacation days for Tribune Media board meetings and all attendant travel.”

The board encouraging Walker to join a high-profile corporate board tracks with its membership. WNYC is governed by a 37-member board of trustees that is heavily weighted to the wealthy and powerful, some of whom have played key roles in other major media mergers, the very kind of transactions public interest, labor and consumer groups have fought for years.

NYPR board of trustees Chairman Mayo S. Stuntz Jr. is an operating partner at Bessemer Venture Partners, a venture capital firm, and, according to Bloomberg, a director of the Barrington Broadcasting Group, which while he was on the board back in 2013 sold Sinclair 18 local TV stations for $370 million. (Stuntz did not return a call on that Sinclair deal.)

Bradley A. Whitman, NYPR board’s vice chairman and treasurer, is now with Morgan Stanley. Before the 2008 financial collapse, he was at Lehman Brothers for 16 years. Among the deals he advised on were Sprint’s $47 billion takeover of Nextel.

Another NYPR vice chairman is John S. Rose, who is listed as the senior partner and managing director of the Boston Consulting Group and previously was executive vice president at the record label EMI Group and a director and co-leader of “the global media and entertainment practice” at McKinsey.

Post-Hockenberry, the board has committed to diversify its makeup. “We are also looking inward, as a Board, to make sure we have the right structure, policies, tools and processes to provide oversight, manage risk, and hold management accountable,” Stuntz wrote in his letter accompanying the release of an outside counsel report into how management handled the events leading up to the Hockenberry controversy.

In April, the board added two new members who are people of color, but certainly will fit in well with the pro-Wall Street bent of the existing board. Anand Desai is the CEO and portfolio manager of Darsana Capital Partners. He is a board member of the Horn of Africa Education Development Fund and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Also added was Timothy A. Wilkins, a partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, where he co-chairs the New York office’s diversity and inclusion committee. His area of practice includes cross-border mergers and acquisitions.

As a highly compensated nonprofit CEO and corporate media merger mogul, Walker got some pushback during an interview with one of her own employees on “The Brian Lehrer Show” in December.

Lehrer pressed Walker. “Well, let’s talk about what was known in the case of temporary co-host Farai Chideya,” the host asked. “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?”

Walker responded: “Again, I can’t comment on what action was taken but it was taken seriously and we did take some action. 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.”

Within days, WNYC suspended and then terminated longtime WNYC hosts Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz over undisclosed “inappropriate conduct,” leaving many listeners with more questions than answers.

Lopate told WNYC his firing was unjust at the time but negotiations over his severance agreement have kept him from commenting beyond that. He returned to the airwaves in May in a weekly program called “Leonard Lopate at Large” on WPWL, a community radio station in Pawling, New York, and Robin Hood Radio, a tiny NPR station in Sharon, Connecticut. He returned to the New York City airwaves July 16 on WBAI, a Pacifica Foundation station.

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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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