#MeToo cases shake up US public radio

Most of the accusations of harassment and improper behaviour have been made against men in their 60s and 70s. PHOTO: AFP

(NYTIMES) - Of all the realms of media that have been shaken by the #MeToo movement, perhaps the most surprising has been public radio, the home of virtuous journalism and thoughtful, warm-voiced commentary.

Like Fox News, Vice Media and NBC News, the tweedy world of public broadcasting - a complex ecosystem of local stations and national syndicators, with NPR at the centre - has seen some of its most popular figures fall in recent months, including Garrison Keillor, Leonard Lopate, Jonathan Schwartz and John Hockenberry.

The reckoning is not over. On Wednesday(Feb 14), WBUR in Boston said it had fired Tom Ashbrook, the host of On Point, a call-in show heard on 290 stations, after an investigation found that he had "created an abusive work environment." As a result, station schedules around the country have been remade, and listeners have gotten a glimpse at the sometimes startling working conditions that are not picked up by the microphone on their favourite shows. According to accusations by these organisations, and reporting by some of their journalists, this includes a range of behaviour from inappropriate comments to unwanted kissing and touching.

Journalists at Minnesota Public Radio, for example, reported that Keillor had a "yearslong pattern of behaviour" that included workplace bullying and, in one instance, publicly posting an off-colour limerick at a bookstore he owns about a woman who worked there.

These revelations may pose risks to the all-important bond that public media organisations form with their listeners, whom they also rely on for financial contributions. The stations already face the ageing of their audiences, rising pressure from podcasts and streaming outlets, and a renewed proposal by the Trump administration to cut all federal funding for public broadcasting.

"The relationships that people have with the presenters and reporters on NPR feels very personal," said Vivian Schiller, a former chief executive of NPR who has also held senior positions at Twitter, The New York Times and elsewhere.

"People make assumptions about who these people are based on their voice and what feels like an intimate, one-on-one relationship," Schiller added, "so the potential for backlash is that much greater if you feel that you have been betrayed."

Conservative media has taken notice as well. After accusations of harassment were made against Hockenberry, the host of The Takeaway on WNYC, in December - months after he quietly resigned - Breitbart crowed: "These are our elites. These are our left-wing arbiters of taste and truth. And we the taxpayers are subsidising all of it."

The list of men now gone from public broadcasting after being accused of harassment also includes Michael Oreskes, a former editor at The Times who was NPR's top news executive; David Sweeney, NPR's chief news editor; Daniel Zwerdling, an NPR investigative reporter; and Charlie Rose, who straddled commercial and noncommercial television as PBS' marquee talk-show host and, on CBS, a host on CBS This Morning and a correspondent on 60 Minutes.

In some cases, the behaviour they are accused of has been recounted in detail, though rarely by the management of the institutions they worked for. Jon McTaggart, president of Minnesota Public Radio, disclosed some details of its review of Keillor's case at the same time journalists there published their report.

In a statement to The Times last month, Keillor referred to a 12-page complaint about him as "a highly selective and imaginative piece of work," and said he hadn't been interviewed during an investigation.

"If I am guilty of harassment," Keillor said, "then every employee who stole a pencil is guilty of embezzlement." New York Public Radio, which owns WNYC, has said little about Lopate and Schwartz - both decades-long fixtures of New York radio - other than that they were accused of "inappropriate" behaviour and remarks. But reporters at WNYC recounted accusations, based on interviews with identified and unidentified women at the station, of bullying and "sexually suggestive" comments by both men, with one woman saying Lopate had sexually harassed her.

Laura R. Walker, the chief executive of New York Public Radio, has said the station is committed to changing its culture, but a recent piece by New York magazine portrayed the staff as sceptical and disillusioned.

Most of the accusations of harassment and improper behaviour have been made against men in their 60s and 70s. That perhaps exacerbates an already present generational divide in public radio, where a younger generation of practitioners is being increasingly drawn to the freedom offered by other audio formats like podcasting.

"The public radio environment is bursting at the seams with younger media makers who have embraced formats like podcasting as their primary means of expression," said Matthew Lasar, author of Radio 2.0: Uploading The First Broadcast Medium. "A new public radio world is emerging, and, intentionally or not, these difficult and painful changes feel like part of that transition."

The lack of specificity of the charges against Lopate, 77, and Schwartz, 79, has added fuel to a small movement in their support. A Facebook group and an online petition have called for Lopate's reinstatement; Art Spiegelman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, signed the petition and called Lopate's dismissal "the radio equivalent of demolishing Penn Station back in the early 1960s."

In an email, Lopate declined to comment on the specifics of his situation, but said: "I will say that in my case I still haven't been given a cause for dismissal and my alleged misdeeds are so negligible, I suspect the station saw the #MeToo environment as a convenient time to make a programming decision." A lawyer for Schwartz said he had no comment.

Whether such departures will affect fundraising from listeners - usually a station's largest source of income - may soon become clear. Mike Savage, a veteran of public radio and a former NPR board member who now works as a consultant, said he had heard largely positive reports from stations around the country about fundraising and membership.

"I don't think listeners view these acts as a problem with the quality of journalism or with these organisations themselves," Savage said. "I think it's a bump in the road."

WNYC held a one-day pledge drive in late December, after Lopate and Schwartz were fired, and the station had its hosts address the controversy and promise transparency. The station declined to disclose the full results of that drive, though it said last week that listener donations in December and January were up 11.5 percent from the same period a year before.

In December, 577 people cancelled their memberships and cited the news about Lopate and Schwartz as the reason - out of a total of 247,000 members, according to the station.

The station will begin its full five-day pledge drive on Feb. 26. Anne O'Malley, vice president of membership of New York Public Radio, said in a recent interview that it had not decided yet whether to address these issues as part of the drive, as the station had in December.

"It would be disingenuous to say that it's not something we're thinking about," O'Malley said. "But so far, we haven't changed the pledge drive goal, and we haven't changed our plans."

New York Public Radio had US$93 million (S$1.2 billion) in revenue for the year that ended in June, with 39 percent of that coming from member contributions and 33 percent from corporate underwriting, according to publicly disclosed finances.

Of course, New York Public Radio is just one part of the wider public radio universe, which also reaches into rural pockets of the country far from the media hubs of New York and Washington. In those places, the local public station may serve as a vital news source, but the success of its pledge drives may depend on other factors, said Mark Vogelzang, president of Maine Public, which presents radio and television.

"Up here in Maine," Vogelzang said, "digging out from a big snowstorm probably has more of an effect on pledge drive participation than Garrison Keillor."

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