Community Broadcaster: Is It Time for Walker and Cappello to Go?

WNYC’s leaders are at the center of a media debate on bullying, sexual harassment and official complicity
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The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at www.radioworld.com.

This week, a massive scandal engulfed noncommercial radio giant WNYC(FM). It involves accusations of abusive behavior, sexual harassment and management ignoring indiscretions. The racial elements to it are also undeniable. The implosion has also shone a spotlight on some deeply flawed decision-making from the New York City institution’s C-suite.

John Hockenberry, longtime WNYC leader and host of “The Takeaway,” said in July he was “moving on” from his program. He was feted for his accomplishments and sailed away in August. However, last Friday, a New York magazine report documented years of inappropriate comments to staff, suggestive email and exchanges such as telling a co-host she was a “diversity hire.” Days after the Hockenberry revelations, WNYC hosts Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz were placed on leave pending other investigations. Lopate defended himself to the New York Times and WNYC has refused to offer further comment. Writer Stephen Thrasher presents some details and context to the latest probes.

The Hockenberry controversy is especially troubling for several reasons, including the fact we get a picture of a personality who felt he was untouchable, and because there was management in place that in fact wouldn’t touch him. “If you think I’m worthy of an HR complaint, please make one. You would hardly be the first,” Hockenberry emailed a co-worker in 2011, the same year he forced a kiss on another co-worker. Persistent conflicts with women of color, intimidation and, above all else, a deafening silence from leaders as the behavior went on were all a part of this sad story.

Particularly shocking are the remarks of former co-host with Hockenberry, Farai Chideya, who recounted in chilling terms how the response by senior managers to her colleague’s aggressive behavior was simply to silence her. In a Guardian essay, another former “The Takeaway” co-host Adaora Udoji, described working with Hockenberry, bringing complaints to senior management and being rebuffed. “The more I complained, the more the focus became my lack of experience in radio … I was even told one of the reasons for John’s explosions were his frustration with my ‘incompetence.’ I was the problem.”

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WNYC Chief Content Officer Dean Cappello, who has overseen “The Takeaway” since 2009, and CEO Laura Walker, who weathered a pay scandal in 2009, are at the center of decisions that seem baffling as they are inexcusable.

I recently reflected for Radio World on how the spate of sexual harassment allegations that have come up related to noncommercial radio personalities should inspire leaders to action. It goes without saying that other forms of abuse like bullying demand accountability.

Your organization does not have to be WNYC for you to have a stake in this scandal. What WNYC executives and board have defended and covered damages the credibility of all of us, be it big-city public radio or the tiny low-power FM scraping by. Listeners have faith in public media to operate with fairness, compassion and equity. WNYC’s failure to live up to these simple core values, to be the recipient of Corporation for Public Broadcasting diversity grants and fail stunningly in this regard is heartbreaking to its donors, those who admired Walker and Cappello and those of us who believe in noncommercial media’s mission to illuminate our world.

Walker has stated WNYC was aware of Hockenberry’s behavior and Cappello has acknowledged many acts were grounds for termination. Why the duo chose to wait to not renew Hockenberry’s contract rather than fire him, and to permit his exit to be seen as if he simply got away with the actions for which he is accused, bears no plausible reasoning. Hiding their logic (rather than sordid details) as they have under personnel issues rubric, is fallacious as it is stupefying. By circling the management wagons, they’re throwing trust and morale under the bus.

The avoidance is telling, given how handsomely WNYC has profited off the diversity and youth it has used to fundraise around, get grants and build its brand. ‘The Takeaway’ itself was envisioned has a fresh, diverse take on radio programming. Accolades have poured in for its podcasts. Behind the scenes though, where a pattern of people of color and younger producers speaking of being marginalized has emerged, a fuller picture is coming to light.

Listeners have taken to social media to call for Walker and Cappello to resign. This level of excess does prompt the question: is it time for new, accountable leadership at WNYC?

Although I like WNYC and I appreciate the service of Walker and Cappello over the years, I like our medium and its integrity more. I am not surprised by calls for them to step down. Cappello and Walker’s long tenures, it could be argued, may have contributed to the insularity of some decisions that will, sadly, haunt WNYC, noncommercial media and its hardworking people for years to come.

As you may have read in the past, I take pains to defend public and community media. I believe it to be a valued asset in American democracy. But when managers at an organization like WNYC, which asks for federal, institutional and individual monies on the strength of our trust, betrays such faith, a verdict may be in order.

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