At WNYC, for example, the newsroom grew to around 70 workers up from three, in the span of about 20 years, according to The New York Times.* But even as the station drew in more revenue and grew its staff, some current and former employees told The New York Times that human resources simply didn’t keep pace. Now, after the firings of John Hockenberry, who hosted The Takeway; Leonard Lopate, who hosted The Leonard Lopate Show; and Jonathan Schwartz, who hosted programs on American musical standards; Laura Walker, the president of New York Public Radio, has called for a review of HR policies related to harassment retaliation and discrimination. At a board meeting following the accusations of sexual harassment, Walker said that she was “profoundly pained and sorry” that the WNYC workplace “did not, at times, live up to the values our programming embodies.”
While many people I spoke with say public media’s harassment problem isn’t worse than other segments of media, it’s clear that the systems in place to cope with issues of sexual harassment have been woefully inadequate. Julie Drizin, the executive director of Current, a nonprofit publication focused on public media, says that the lack of robust human-resources departments that would include training and specific reporting mechanisms in instances of harassment may be a part of the problem, at least at some stations. “A lot of corporations invest a lot more in HR. I think that’s one of the things that separates public media from other kinds of media,” she says.
Still, even with its well-known deficiencies, public media doesn’t quite fit the stereotypes of a male-dominated, hostile work environment. Vivian Schiller, the former CEO of National Public Radio, told me that public broadcasting, particularly NPR, has long been considered a space where women can thrive. “When I was there, most of the leadership was women,” Schiller said. In fact, four women, Cokie Roberts, Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer, and Susan Stamberg, are often referred to as the “founding mothers” of NPR. And the organization’s most recent data on newsroom makeup shows that more than half of newsroom employees are women. The fact that a culture of harassment and bullying were allowed to fester for for years, all while women sat in positions of power and control, makes the issue all the more confusing. But if you consider the discord on other issues, such as between public media’s stated commitment to diversity and its predominantly white audiences and newsrooms, it’s clear that the overarching vision of public broadcasting often doesn’t manifest in real and critical ways.
Schiller told me that she was shocked by the wave of allegations, and even more so by the fact that so many at NPR had remained quiet about them for so long. “My experience with the NPR newsroom is that they had absolutely no hesitation to speak out about things that they felt weren’t right, unfair, or that were bothering them,” she said. She sees the recent upheaval in a positive light—an indication that public media is going to be a leader when it comes to coping with these issues. “There is a seriousness of purpose to make things right, and to try to fix whatever systems were and weren’t in place that allowed this to happen,” she said.