The corporatization of WNYC

New York Public Radio markets itself on the presumption that as a nonprofit alternative to the corporate media, it is driven by the public interest instead of a self-serving profit motive. But how well is it living up to its high-minded reputation?

Radio with money coming out

Radio with money coming out Alex Law

Editor’s note: Bob Hennelly was a reporter at WNYC from 2002 to 2013, when he resigned. He subsequently has appeared on WNYC’s “The Takeaway” and “The Brian Lehrer Show” and continues to pitch segments to the station.

Laura Walker, the president and CEO of New York Public Radio, has been buffeted by a wave of bad press following accusations that she stood by as the host of a popular show bullied and sexually harassed female colleagues and guests. On her watch, John Hockenberry, who hosted WNYC’s “The Takeaway,” berated and bullied three accomplished African-American co-hosts – Adaora Udoji, Farai Chideya and Celeste Headlee – according to a New York magazine exposé published in December. All three women appealed directly to Walker to intercede. All three left the station in short order.

Several other women who worked for Hockenberry described sexually charged comments, online messages and inappropriate physical advances in the story, including two instances in which he allegedly kissed colleagues without their consent. Hockenberry, who retired last summer, issued an apology for his “rude, aggressive and impolite” behavior that “was not always appropriate” and made colleagues “feel uncomfortable.”

Apart from the discomfort and distress suffered by the victims and the ensuing calls for Walker to resign, the allegations undermine the “halo effect” that New York Public Radio relies on to draw listener and advertiser support for its $100 million annual budget. As an affiliate of National Public Radio, the station markets itself on the presumption that as a nonprofit alternative to the corporate media, it is driven by the public interest instead of a self-serving profit motive.

That reputation can appeal to sponsors. As NPR wrote in 2011, “The ‘halo effect’ is the positive association and shared values that NPR listeners attribute to the companies that sponsor us. Listeners have a higher opinion of those sponsors just because they support public radio.”

According to NPR’s research, 74 percent of listeners had a more positive opinion of a company that supports public radio and 66 percent preferred to buy from companies that support public radio.

But WNYC is a long way from its humble roots as a truly publicly owned radio station. In 1997, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani decided to sell the station, which was owned by the city and had fewer than 100 employees, to a nonprofit foundation led by Walker. That foundation was established in the 1970s to help insulate the public broadcaster from the ups and downs in municipal appropriations it had to deal with based on the city’s roller-coaster finances. Two years before the sale of the station, the foundation hired Walker.

Today, close to 600 people work for New York Public Radio’s many channels and programs: WNYC, WQXR, New Jersey Public Radio, several web streams and dozens of podcasts.

So how well is it living up to its high-minded reputation? At what point does its increasing reliance on tens of millions of dollars in commercial sponsorships shift its institutional motivations? In other words, just how public is New York Public Radio?

The scrutiny that came with WNYC’s #MeToo moment also exposed the ways that the public radio nonprofit has more in common with for-profit media corporations than many WNYC fans realized – in particular, how the nonprofit compensates Walker, its top executive, and gives her carte blanche to sit on the board of directors of a for-profit company.

In December, The New York Times reported that Walker was earning $768,000 from her salary with New York Public Radio and an additional $200,000 as a board member of the Tribune Media Co. Walker’s total compensation is now $954,582, including a $150,000 bonus, according to the latest IRS 990 form covering July 2016 through June 2017. The second-highest compensation package was paid out to Corey Boutilier, the senior digital sales manager, who handles podcast sponsorships. He was paid $559,612, with a base salary of $75,628, and the bulk of his compensation came from a formula based on “the sponsorship revenues of the station.”

All told, 132 individuals earn in excess of $100,000, according to the IRS filing. The top 13 earners below Walker collectively were paid more than $4 million, which included close to $400,000 in bonuses. (Starting this year, the Securities and Exchange Commission requires publicly traded companies in the United States to disclose the ratio of pay between their CEO and the median pay earned by company employees. Nonprofits have no similar requirement.)

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Some longtime listeners aren’t thrilled about the high salaries. “I stopped donating years ago when I discovered that Laura Walker was making $500,000 a year while I was a poor graduate student dutifully sending in my $60 a year,” Linda from Queens wrote on the comment page for “The Brian Lehrer Show.” “I thought it showed a gross lack of judgment about how to handle so much contribution money that comes in small amounts from people earning much, much less than her. Now her salary is double that. WNYC has given me so much companionship and food for thought that I would love to become a regular contributor again, but only if the Board of Trustees can restore trust by firing Walker and hiring someone with a salary more in line with a publicly funded position.”

Apart from her compensation, Walker’s position on the Tribune board also gives her a central role in what would be one of the largest TV station deals in American history. Tribune Media’s controversial acquisition by the pro-Trump Sinclair Broadcast Group would give Sinclair access to 72 percent of American households, the largest reach of any television company. The deal has prompted scores of angry online comments. While critics contend the deal will be bad for local news, Walker and the other Tribune board members, as stockholders, stand to profit from the potential windfall.

Opposition is fierce and ranges from the United Church of Christ to labor unions like the Communications Workers of America who see the deal as a threat to what’s left of the nation’s local TV news and a concentration of TV station ownership in the hands of right-wing ideologues with a partisan agenda. Even Ajit Pai, the business-friendly chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, came out against the pending acquisition last week – which might prevent it from going through.

In March, Deadspin posted a video compilation of TV anchors at stations owned by Sinclair reciting the same exact message about their journalistic independence. The stations had all been told by Sinclair to read the message on the air. In dozens of video segments spliced together, the anchors collectively decry “the sharing of biased and false news” and the publishing of stories “that simply aren’t true.” The video, which ran under the headline “How America's Largest Local TV Owner Turned Its News Anchors Into Soldiers In Trump’s War On The Media,” quickly went viral.

Robert McChesney, communications professor at the University of Illinois and one of the nation’s leading experts on corporate media consolidation and public broadcasting, described Sinclair as “the Fox News of local television,” saying it pushes the political agenda of its owners, “which is a far-right, rabidly pro-Republican, pro-business worldview as sort of a neutral news.”

“They are taking advantage of the decline of journalism,” McChesney said. “They are participating in it and they are using the collapse of journalism to replace it with their sort of home-brewed propaganda to push their political agenda. And it just so happens that the same regulators that are making it possible for them to build an ever-larger monopoly are the political beneficiaries of the work they do with their pseudo-journalism.”

For Walker to hold a prominent leadership role at New York Public Radio while also serving on the board of Tribune – which could unite with Sinclair if the pending deal survives – is a profound conflict of interest, McChesney said.

“The idea that you have someone leading the flagship public station in the country, in the largest city in the country, on the board of a commercial media company, which basically runs counter to the principles of public broadcasting, they are a whole different thing – it seems really weird,” McChesney said. “Like, ‘Pick a lane, lady.’”

According to NYPR, it was the nonprofit’s board of trustees, which itself is dominated by the corporatist 1 percent, that encouraged Walker to seek the Tribune directorship.

“I stopped donating when I discovered that Laura Walker was making $500,000 a year while I was a poor graduate student dutifully sending in my $60 a year.” – Linda from Queens, WNYC listener

“There is nothing unusual about CEOs of public media organizations sitting on a corporate board. To the contrary, it’s quite common,” said Jennifer Houlihan Roussel, an NYPR spokeswoman. “Neal Shapiro of WNET sits on the board of Gannett; Jarl Mohn of NPR sits on the board of Scripps Networks Interactive; and Goli Sheikholeslami of Chicago Public Media was just elected to the board of Patreon, to name just a few.”

Houlihan Roussel argued that the position doesn’t detract from a CEO’s job. “Rather, connecting with other peers and serving as the public face of an organization is actually part of the job,” she said. “That said, Laura works on her board responsibilities on her own time, and uses vacation days for Tribune Media board meetings and all attendant travel.”

The board encouraging Walker to join a high-profile corporate board tracks with its membership. WNYC is governed by a 37-member board of trustees that is heavily weighted to the wealthy and powerful, some of whom have played key roles in other major media mergers, the very kind of transactions public interest, labor and consumer groups have fought for years.

NYPR board of trustees Chairman Mayo S. Stuntz Jr. is an operating partner at Bessemer Venture Partners, a venture capital firm, and, according to Bloomberg, a director of the Barrington Broadcasting Group, which while he was on the board back in 2013 sold Sinclair 18 local TV stations for $370 million. (Stuntz did not return a call on that Sinclair deal.)

Bradley A. Whitman, NYPR board’s vice chairman and treasurer, is now with Morgan Stanley. Before the 2008 financial collapse, he was at Lehman Brothers for 16 years. Among the deals he advised on were Sprint’s $47 billion takeover of Nextel.

Another NYPR vice chairman is John S. Rose, who is listed as the senior partner and managing director of the Boston Consulting Group and previously was executive vice president at the record label EMI Group and a director and co-leader of “the global media and entertainment practice” at McKinsey.

Post-Hockenberry, the board has committed to diversify its makeup. “We are also looking inward, as a Board, to make sure we have the right structure, policies, tools and processes to provide oversight, manage risk, and hold management accountable,” Stuntz wrote in his letter accompanying the release of an outside counsel report into how management handled the events leading up to the Hockenberry controversy.

In April, the board added two new members who are people of color, but certainly will fit in well with the pro-Wall Street bent of the existing board. Anand Desai is the CEO and portfolio manager of Darsana Capital Partners. He is a board member of the Horn of Africa Education Development Fund and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Also added was Timothy A. Wilkins, a partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, where he co-chairs the New York office’s diversity and inclusion committee. His area of practice includes cross-border mergers and acquisitions.

As a highly compensated nonprofit CEO and corporate media merger mogul, Walker got some pushback during an interview with one of her own employees on “The Brian Lehrer Show” in December.

Lehrer pressed Walker. “Well, let’s talk about what was known in the case of temporary co-host Farai Chideya,” the host asked. “She says she spoke to you after Hockenberry said she shouldn’t want to stay as a ‘diversity hire’ and told her to go lose weight. If you confirm she said those things, why wasn’t that a firing offense and what action was taken?”

Walker responded: “Again, I can’t comment on what action was taken but it was taken seriously and we did take some action. Look, every day for the last several weeks I have asked myself whether we took enough action and whether we should really look at our protocols. I apologize to Farai, to Kristen, to the women who came forward. I have a huge amount of admiration and respect for these women for coming forward at this time and I apologize that our protocols were not there and our policies were not there.”

Within days, WNYC suspended and then terminated longtime WNYC hosts Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz over undisclosed “inappropriate conduct,” leaving many listeners with more questions than answers.

Lopate told WNYC his firing was unjust at the time but negotiations over his severance agreement have kept him from commenting beyond that. He returned to the airwaves in May in a weekly program called “Leonard Lopate at Large” on WPWL, a community radio station in Pawling, New York, and Robin Hood Radio, a tiny NPR station based in Sharon, Connecticut. He returned to the New York City airwaves July 16 on WBAI 99.5 FM, a Pacifica Foundation station.

Perhaps the best example of just how captive New York Public Radio has become to a corporatist worldview was the way it rolled out its recent purchase of Gothamist from billionaire Joe Ricketts, who had shuttered the popular local news site after its staff had voted to join the Writers Guild of America East.

In the press release there was no mention of the striking writers that had been targeted by Ricketts’ spiteful move. In fact, New York Public Radio helped Ricketts distance himself from his actions by giving him a sanitized quote in their official release. “The most important thing for me was to make sure the assets went to a news organization that would honor our commitment to neighborhood storytelling,” Ricketts said in the release. “I can’t think of a better home for these sites and their archives than WNYC and public radio stations KPCC and WAMU.”

Last month, New York Public Radio donated the DNAinfo assets it had purchased as part of the Gothamist deal to Block Club Chicago, a local journalism site in Chicago created by former DNAinfo Chicago founders, according to Houlihan Roussel.

Another sign of the nonprofit’s drift from its public interest roots is the tsunami of revenue from sponsors desperate for the halo effect that comes with supporting what appears to be a community-oriented nonprofit.

According to WNYC’s latest financials, the revenue realized from pledges by members, while increasing, has been surpassed by revenue generated by sponsorships. While membership revenue from listeners grew from $23.7 million in 2016 to $26.58 million last year, there has been a seismic shift to sponsorships in just one year. In 2016, sponsorships accounted for $21.5 million. In 2017, sponsorship growth jumped to $30.6 million.

The nonprofit also holds an investment portfolio of close to $38.1 million, down from $43 million the year before. Its portfolio mix includes hedge fund placements, as well as U.S. equities, global equities and investments in emerging markets.

Another area where NYPR envisions major sponsorship revenue growth is podcasts. In fiscal year 2016, the insurance company New York Life ran ads on NYPR podcasts as part of a study to see what impact the ads would have on listeners. The study, which targeted the ads at listeners ages 25-44, found that “brand awareness” rose 14 percent, “brand preference” rose 47 percent and “purchase consideration” rose 33 percent as a result of the campaign. “These results,” NYPR concluded in an online summary, “underscore the efficacy of the podcast medium for major international brands as the mobile branding vehicle of choice.”

The roiling controversy over the firings of longtime hosts Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz and Walker’s large compensation have turned the regular monthly meetings of the relatively obscure New York Public Radio Community Advisory Board into a popular forum for irate listeners. They have complained about what they see as a lack of transparency and the nonprofit’s reliance on nondisclosure agreements. The board’s panel of volunteers is required by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to provide the public an opportunity to give input on the public radio station.

At the January meeting, the Community Advisory Board was dominated by Lopate supporters and critics of Walker. Sergio Girgenti, a longtime listener, claimed that the firing of Lopate was an effort by upper management to cover up their failure to act on long-standing allegations involving Hockenberry.

“This went on for a decade, and who has been made accountable for what happened there?” he asked. “Nobody has been made accountable ... (not) the upper management, the CEO, the human resources. That is just water under the bridge. And then you want my $10 a month?”

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Concerns about the direction of the station’s management also came from Community Advisory Board members. John Bacon, a board member at the time, expressed concern NYPR was at risk of tarnishing its own halo. “It seems there is this growing risk of creating a corporate culture,” he said. “It’s a nonprofit public radio station. Please keep that in mind as you go forward.”

At the board meetings, listeners have also aired complaints about the corporate entities increasingly funding WNYC’s operations. Over a year ago, Suzy Winkler and Trellan Smith, two anti-fracking environmentalists who split their time between upstate New York and New York City, heard a WNYC sponsorship spot for the gas pipeline company, The Williams Companies Inc. The company was building the controversial 125-mile Constitution natural gas pipeline from Pennsylvania in Broome, Chenango, Delaware and Schoharie counties in New York.

In May 2016, then-state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called for a federal investigation after his investigators found the pipeline company had authorized or encouraged illegal large-scale clear-cutting of trees in New York without the required permits. According to the attorney general, the actions threatened hundreds of “water bodies – many of which are sensitive trout-spawning waters – and approximately 80 acres of protected wetlands … and entail significant impacts to the habitats of endangered and threatened species.” The company and some local elected officials have disputed the allegation.

“I found myself yelling and cursing at the radio,” said Winkler, after hearing the Williams public radio ads in rotation. “And it started to occur to us that WNYC was talking about this halo effect and frankly that was disconcerting to us that Williams was trying to gain respectability and familiarity with the members of WNYC public radio and frankly just became infuriated about it.”

For Winkler and Smith, it took a while to figure out how to navigate NYPR. “I had written to sponsorship and we had also written to listener services,” Smith said. “We learned a lot about this institution along the way, which is a good thing. One of the things that any work like this does for you is you sort of suddenly know your government or radio station or your local town board.”

Winkler and Smith invited other activists to attend the Community Advisory Board meetings, who offered their firsthand experiences with Williams. On WNYC’s Community Advisory Board they encountered people who were, as it turned out, just as interested as they were in understanding just what criteria WNYC used when it accepted money from what appeared to a swelling pool of sponsors looking for the halo effect.

“A lot of members of the CAB kind of agreed with us,” Smith said. “They would nod their heads. Williams had a webpage that was devoted to WNYC. One of the CAB members was really upset about that. You could feel their concern.”

Smith continued, “There was somebody on the CAB who does environmental consulting and members would nod their heads in agreement but at a certain point they said, ‘You know, we can’t answer your questions. You are coming to us with this and we have forwarded your concerns.’ You could sort of feel their frustration. You are coming to us with all this sponsorship stuff but we don’t know how it works.”

As a consequence of the board’s interest in the topic, in November, management sent Hal Trencher, NYPR’s senior vice president of sponsorship, who said that since 2015 the station has seen an 81.6 percent spike in revenue from sponsors. He assured the audience that such sponsorships were not NYPR endorsements and that “if it doesn’t feel right” sponsors get dropped.

“I think that firewall breaks down a lot and people like Jane Mayer have written about it with PBS and the Kochs,” Smith said. “The real problem for us is we know these companies. We watch Williams cut down … trees for a pipeline that was never built that didn’t yet have New York state permitting.”

At the Jan. 9 community board meeting, Winkler and Smith were told that NYPR had decided to drop Williams as a sponsor.

Of course, other controversial sponsors remain. Wells Fargo & Co., a regular WNYC sponsor, is still counting on that halo effect to help in its makeover following the bank’s high-profile scandals, including its creation of unauthorized accounts and secretly charging customers for car insurance and other fees.

Even if sponsors aren’t mired in controversy, the heavy rotation of the business messages can create a cognitive dissonance, which Bill Cali, a regular WNYC listener, pointed out on Facebook during a recent pledge drive. “So I’m listening to Brian Lehrer on WNYC pitching for money,” he wrote. “His most persuasive argument is that the station is noncommercial. Five minutes later they play an ad for Progressive Insurance. Am I missing something or was this just a poor programming decision?”

Internally, within the ranks of the WNYC workforce, close attention is being paid to just how well the station balances its public service nonprofit mission, its appetite for commercial sponsors, and how it compensates the rank-and-file workforce. But there is also an interest in the workforce playing a more central role in the management of NYPR. Several longtime employees, who wished to remain anonymous, said the station’s #MeToo public relations crisis was the consequence of the board of trustees being so heavily reliant on what Walker told them about the day-to-day operations.

The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists bargaining unit is currently in the process of negotiating its contract. “We (are) maybe in the strongest position we’ve been in, but in the long run, what we need is to have union members on the board. It would actually be to their (the NYPR board’s) benefit,” said one longtime employee. “The mission can easily be corroded by this corporate money that’s coming in. It’s almost like there should be a set requirement to ensure we retain a certain level of listener support.”

The long-awaited report by the law firm Proskauer Rose LLP, which was commissioned by New York Public Radio’s board and released in April, found no evidence of systemic discrimination.

“Laura Walker is a committed and talented leader, and she has our full support,” Stuntz said in a press release. “Over the past few months, Laura has worked with many managers and staff from across NYPR to comprehensively review the organization and the underlying reasons our policies and processes did not work the way they were supposed to. The work of recognizing weaknesses in an organization, and addressing them, is urgent and necessary.”

Yet internally at WNYC there was major pushback over the report from Proskauer Rose. The firm was tasked to evaluate management’s performance in handling the events that led to NYPR’s #MeToo meltdown and the quick firings of Schwartz and Lopate.

“So I'm listening to Brian Lehrer on WNYC pitching for money. Five minutes later they play an ad for Progressive Insurance. Am I missing something?” – Bill Cali, WNYC listener

The flashpoint came at an all-hands meeting on April 24, the day the report was released. Specifically, the fact that no one within the station’s leadership had been held accountable prompted outrage from the staff.

“I don’t think (management) expected the tough going they got from WNYC’s own reporters at that meeting,” said a longtime WNYC employee who was present at the stationwide meeting and not cleared to speak with the press.

“Many employees who attended Tuesday’s meeting found the report sorely lacking, according to several people who were at the meeting and spoke anonymously to avoid reprisal,” The New York Times wrote at the time. “Many seemed stunned, even dismayed, that no one was apparently being held accountable.”

WNYC’s own award-winning news department took issue with Proskauer Rose’s central conclusion. As WNYC reporters Jessica Gould and Ilya Marritz reported, “Proskauer’s lawyers write that senior management was responsive, when notified of problems: ‘significant and prompt disciplinary action was taken in most cases where violations were found.’ That finding is partly contradicted by WNYC News’ own reporting. Several sources told WNYC News they reported harassment or inappropriate behavior at the most senior levels of the company, and knew of no response.”

In a statement to City & State, former co-host of “The Takeaway,” Celeste Headlee, said she was “disappointed and dismayed” by the report. Proskauer investigators, she said, had “never contacted me or many other women who both suffered abuse and harassment and reported it to the management.”