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WNYC’s Diversity Problem | Village Voice

WNYC’s Diversity Problem | Village Voice

photograph illustration by the village voice/Richard Levine/Alamy

There’s massive hassle at WNYC, the area’s flagship public radio station. This month, information broke that John Hockenberry, former host of the nationwide present The Takeaway, had bullied three Black ladies co-hosts off the air and allegedly sexually harassed a number of staffers. Quickly after these revelations, the station suspended two longtime hosts, Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz, pending investigation of undisclosed allegations.

WNYC (the place I labored from 2006-09, as tradition reporter) is doing injury management. Its non-profit mother or father, New York Public Radio, has employed a regulation agency to assessment its personnel practices. Laura Walker, NYPR’s President and CEO, is promising institutional modifications.

However this disaster goes past HR insurance policies. It painfully illustrates WNYC’s failure to diversify its administration, its roster of on-air personalities, and its content material. This failure has formed a piece setting the place many ladies and other people of shade really feel alienated, or worse. It poorly serves contributing listeners who anticipate higher for his or her cash, and underscores the station’s shortcomings in reflecting and addressing the entire metropolis.

A fast recap: The scandal broke on December 2, with an exposé by the journalist Suki Kim, in New York Journal’s “The Cut.” It set out the claims towards Hockenberry, who co-hosted The Takeaway from its launch in 2008 and have become its sole host in 2012. Kim described how Hockenberry made repeated unwelcome advances after she appeared on the present in 2014. She spoke to former Takeaway staffers who informed her that he sexually harassed them. And she or he detailed how the three successive co-hosts—Adaora Udoji, Farai Chideya, and Celeste Headlee—left the station after complaining about Hockenberry’s bullying and demeaning and getting little or no help from the station’s administration.

The article brought about uproar, together with on air. On Monday, December four, the Brian Lehrer Present opened with an extended phase on the story, interviewing Kim and fielding calls from horrified listeners. The Takeaway started every week of soul-searching led by its present host, Todd Zwillich, who took over when Hockenberry left final summer time underneath circumstances that weren’t defined on the time. Within the newsroom, journalist Ilya Marritz landed the duty of reporting on his employer, and has dealt with it admirably. (It has since come out that he was assigned the Hockenberry story someday earlier than Kim’s article appeared.)

Laura Walker, the president and CEO of NYPR, stored silent till December 5, when she made a perfunctory look on the Brian Lehrer Present. On the Hockenberry case, she stonewalled behind the corporate’s coverage of personnel confidentiality; particularly she refused to say whether or not Hockenberry had acquired a payout. Then she pivoted to pious speak about how the station now has a chance to do higher. The subsequent day, the station reported in its newscasts that it had suspended Schwartz and Lopate.

The #MeToo reckoning has hit public radio with full pressure. At NPR, two prime information executives are gone following revelations of sexual harassment. Minnesota Public Radio has severed ties with Garrison Keillor, creator of A Prairie House Companion, and has simply re-branded the present, hosted since final yr by Chris Thile, as Stay From Right here. And Boston’s WBUR has put Tom Ashbrook, host of the nationally syndicated information and call-in present On Level, on depart pending investigation of allegations of abusive conduct.

In that respect WNYC is just not alone. In public radio as in different industries, tongues are coming untied about harassment and abuse patterns that have been solely whispered—although typically well-known amongst weak employees—or coated up with settlements and non-disclosure agreements. And there are clearly symptomatic points throughout the public-radio business, to do with the facility granted long-time on-air stars, who’re principally white males in a career whose decrease and center ranks are extremely feminized. (Behind each nice public radio man is an uncelebrated lady. A reputation-brand present with a male host and a lady within the background, operating the manufacturing group, is a standard association.)

Within the case of The Takeaway, WNYC failed the ladies chosen to co-star with Hockenberry. Udoji, his first co-host on the present, introduced his conduct to administration’s consideration “on countless occasions,” as she writes in The Guardian, to no avail; she agreed to a buyout in 2009. Chideya complained to Walker as properly, and acquired the chilly shoulder, as she detailed in Kim’s article and in a must-listen, prolonged interview on The Takeaway.

The station additionally failed The Takeaway employees, who felt inhibited from complaining concerning the host’s bullying and sexually inappropriate conduct. “For the most part, these women did not report their experiences to WNYC management for fear of endangering their jobs,” Kim writes. As my former newsroom colleague Bob Hennelly particulars, the station’s widespread use of part-time and contract roles meant that many of those ladies have been in precarious jobs with out union safety, making their place that rather more fragile.

However what occurred at The Takeaway illustrates not solely WNYC’s office weaknesses, however its failure to diversify on-air voices and programming. If there’s any silver lining to the scandal, it’s that it offers an object lesson in how, for public media, these points are intimately linked.

Contemplate how The Takeaway started with grand variety objectives. Its preliminary idea, supported by giant grants from the Knight Basis and the Company for Public Broadcasting, was a four-hour rival to Morning Version that may be extra numerous and extra vigorous. The press launch for a $1.35m CPB grant in 2009 touts The Takeaway’s “diversity and dialogue,” its “unique cultural perspectives and diverse voices,” and its “ambitious goals of diversifying and growing the public radio news audience.”

By that time, genuinely, Hockenberry’s badgering had pushed Udoji out, and he had moved on to Chideya, criticizing her as a “diversity hire,” and telling her to drop a few pounds. Quickly the four-hour format was deemed a flop; The Takeaway went to a one-hour format in 2012, with Hockenberry not solely surviving, however rising in sole command. Any hint of “diversity” went out the door with the final co-host. Hockenberry helmed the present for 5 extra years, incomes $381,514 in fiscal 2016—greater than some other on-air determine.

As WNYC picks up the items from the Hockenberry scandal (and no matter is occurring with Lopate and Schwartz), this dimension is essential. Any inquiry into how administration tolerated a local weather by which a number might sexually harass staff should additionally ask why administration accepted to see three Black ladies hosts pushed out from the identical present—when it was absolutely conscious of their complaints, when Hockenberry’s abrasive character was well-known, and when the present particularly aimed to diversify on-air voices.

Preliminary indicators on this entrance will not be encouraging. When Walker appeared on his present, Lehrer requested if she didn’t “see the impression that leaves”—referring to the departures of Udoji, Chideya, and Headlee. Following up, he identified that WNYC’s “editorial power structure does remain largely white.”

Walker principally deflected: She provided that WNYC “not only values diversity but has championed the importance of respecting people of color at this difficult time in our country’s history.” And she or he talked about two podcasts, “2 Dope Queens” (by the Black comedians Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson) and the LGBTQ-themed “Nancy” (by Tobin Lowe and Kathy Tu) as “progress in bringing more voices of diverse backgrounds on air.” That progress has been slender at greatest. And podcasts are the worst instance, as a result of they’re made for self-selected audiences, not basic broadcast.

At its greatest, WNYC is a New York treasure. Its newsroom is a bastion of fantastic journalism in a time when different retailers are slicing native reporting or folding altogether.  Expertise like Marritz, or stellar urban-policy reporter Cindy Rodriguez, or Alana Casanova-Burgess, a bilingual producer-reporter who simply did one month of highly effective reporting in Puerto Rico, deserves rather more area and airtime to shine. Lehrer’s present, in the meantime, stays an unsurpassed civic discussion board. And yr in, yr out, the station is house to top-notch reporters, producers, engineers, interns, who fan out elsewhere within the business once they discover paths to development blocked inside the station.

The issue is administration. Walker has led New York Public Radio since 1996; her complete compensation in fiscal yr 2016 was $999,914. Dean Cappello, the Government Vice President and Chief Content material Officer, has been her deputy since 1997. Anybody who has labored on the station since then is aware of that their administration fashion is aloof, faraway from the shop-floor. This example has confirmed to be no exception. The near-slapstick state of affairs that occurred after Walker’s look on Lehrer’s present, when she dodged a big cluster of newsroom staff who had gathered outdoors the studio to talk together with her, was regrettably typical. (“We were appalled,” one worker messaged me.)

Now, WNYC’s usually placid board must determine whether or not the promised human-resources coverage evaluate is sufficient to put the station again on monitor. And the subsequent pledge drive will yield quantitative proof of the extent of listener discontent. How WNYC navigates this scandal might be intently watched by its friends. There’s nonetheless time to set an instance, with an overhaul that goes past the HR guide, and that restores the spirit and ambition of public broadcasting.


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