WNYC Staff Terrified of Editor’s “Vendetta”
Employees at New York’s largest public radio station are terrified that criticizing their station’s leadership could result in human resources dismissals and reprimands.
In a complaint filed last month with the National Labor Relations Board, WNYC staff members said the station had retaliated against unionized employees after the outlet, citing a “large deficit,” laid off 14 workers, including Christopher Robbins, a union leader, and Richard Yeh, a longtime employee who had publicly criticized WNYC editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper.
The complaint was filed a few days before the New York Times reported on divisions between WNYC’s core staff, some of its well-known hosts and senior management. Staff members described in Time an abusive work environment in which prominent figures such as On the media host Bob Garfield and Carry host Tanzina Vega on several occasions reportedly berated staff, prompting human resource complaints against both of them.
Garfield was fired days before the Time the article has been published; he and Vega have since engaged attorneys in separate battles with the station, The Daily Beast has learned.
While some at the station claimed the company overreacted to routine conflicts in what has become a tense work environment, WNYC staff members who spoke with The Daily Beast said the complaints specific reprisals are more explicit and alarming than the Time and the union’s NLRB complaint was brought forward.
Much of the staff’s concern about retaliation centers on Cooper. Three WNYC staff with acquaintances told the Daily Beast that on several occasions the editor shared sensitive information about an employee outside of their jurisdiction with at least two colleagues, suggesting that she had obtained the details of a “file”, which they believed to refer to the human resources department of the station. The disclosures spread among some members of the WNYC base, raising alarm and causing staff to fear going to human resources with complaints. (In a statement, WNYC said it was not “aware” of any situation that matches this description.)
“I can’t remember a time when newsroom morale was lower,” a WNYC staff member told The Daily Beast. “At a time when NYC is in desperate need of good journalism, hard-working journalists and editors face retaliation, bullying and personal vendettas from an editor without any apparent interest in one or other of our respective brands.
In other cases, staff members felt they were being punished for exercising the skills the company said it valued in its reporters: to demand accountability from those in power.
After the layoffs in April, the station held a controversial staff-wide meeting. Many unionized workers have expressed outrage and dismay that union leaders have been fired and have sought out the salaries of top WNYC leaders.
According to several insiders familiar with the exchange, Cooper was not happy with the back and forth. After the meeting, sources said, she was frustrated with two specific reporters, who later received emails from human resources saying management wanted to meet with them to discuss what WNYC considered to be disrespectful behavior. After both staff members requested that a union representative be present at these meetings, management finally backed down.
“SAG-AFTRA can confirm that two union members received sanctions, as well as the events leading up to them, and corroborate the narrative you have described,” the entertainment union representing WNYC employees wrote in a statement to the Daily Beast.
“[WNYC] conducts regular all staff meetings that are conducted in an inclusive and respectful manner, creating opportunities for staff to feel comfortable asking leadership questions on any topic, ”a spokesperson said New York Public Radio in a statement. “The above information is not correct. Both staff members had the opportunity to ask and answer their questions. No warning was issued and no disciplinary action was taken.
But employees continued to voice their dissatisfaction with the leadership of the organization.
Earlier this month, staff members circulated a note to the station’s president and general manager, Goli Sheikholeslami, calling on him to consider the points set out in the NLRB’s complaint. “We congratulate you on your renewed commitment to a ‘healthy, vibrant, diverse, equitable and inclusive culture’, but a workplace where every employee is afraid to speak out goes against this aspiration. It is in the hands of management and those who have the most power to right this wrong, ”the memo said.
The station, of course, has consistently backed down, arguing that the friction within the newsroom isn’t organization-specific, but rather an industry-wide conversation about how journalists are. treated in the workplace. Over the past year, employees of prominent media organizations like magazine giant Condé Nast have publicly raised questions about how officials in positions of power treat their subordinates.
Sheikholeslami acknowledged the wide dissatisfaction of staff members, but when an employee asked about fears the station would retaliate against employees who asked tough questions, arguing that she was simply calling for more civility on work place.
“I don’t think we’re berating or trying to silence voices,” she said. “All I would ask personally is that we be kind and respectful and ask our questions constructively. “
Beyond Garfield’s dismissal, it’s unclear how the station plans to handle the series of growing disputes between staff and management, including even how much the station should focus on New York City. During a meeting in March, sources said, newsroom executives presented a poll asking WNYC listeners and local news consumers what they would like to see from the station and Gothamist, its property of digital information. One slide pointed out that readers in Westchester County believe Gothamist, a mainstay of the city’s news, is “too NY-centric.”
An NYPR spokesperson said the survey did not intend to single out the statistic, which found 14% of those polled said they did not engage with Gothamist because it did not cover not their local area. “This was not a complaint, it was a response to a survey of a predominantly Westchester-based audience, and was just a shared data point from a survey of nearly 1 100 persons.”
“Each week brings new evidence that Audrey Cooper is out of touch with the stated mission of New York Public Radio and New York City as a whole,” a WNYC member told The Daily Beast this week.
Then there is the question of Vega’s future at the station, which remains on the move. WNYC insiders told The Daily Beast they expected her to return from leave earlier this month, but she was told she would continue the hiatus for several weeks. Sources told The Daily Beast that Vega has hired a top lawyer to help her fight what she sees as unfair complaints against her.
“My client Tanzina Vega took a brief leave of absence due to a medical problem. Meanwhile, some media have spread false rumors about the reason for his departure. I condemn such speculation and regard it as indecent treatment of an esteemed radio host, ”his lawyer, Neil Mullin, a prominent employment law lawyer, said in a statement to the Daily Beast.
And in perhaps another sign of her growing distance from the outlet, insiders said she has stopped following a number of the show’s producers and staff on Twitter.
—With additional reports by Diana falzone.