Can WNYC’s Toxic Work Culture Be Cured?

Ben Smith’s May 23rd column in the New York Times has painted a juicy yet troubling portrait of a flagship public radio station grappling with some serious Game of Thrones vibes. Hubris-fueled superstar hosts have been peremptorily shitcanned and accused of throwing pity parties. Faceless producers who toil long hours have been significantly mistreated. The human resources department has become WNYC’s answer to the small council of Seven Kingdoms, with complaints begetting further complaints and radio veteran Fred Mogul serving as public radio’s Tyrion Lannister. A sacrificial lamb in a kangaroo court.

Despite the fact that it’s a common practice among journalists to use and attribute Associated Press copy to flesh out a story — particularly when they are staring into the barrel of an intense deadline — Mogul, an eighteen-year veteran who was never properly investigated, was ratted out by an editor and fired by Audrey Cooper, WNYC’s editor-in-chief since last July.

Cooper, a white woman who was hired despite repeated calls for diversity, is the Cersei Lannister of 160 Varick. Embarrassingly, Cooper had scant knowledge of New York public radio before accepting the job. In Smith’s column, one gets the sense not so much of an experienced professional who once led a newsroom, but of a nervous grad student doing a lot of late-night cribbing in a dorm room subsumed with fumes from the bong. Her lack of transparency in relation to Mogul’s firing to Smith, complete with her touchy-feely West Coast bromides (“It’s totally OK to be sad.”) in response to an inequitable fall of the axe, hasn’t inspired confidence. But it did result in a complaint on Sunday, filed by the WNYC union, from the National Labor Relations Board, which accused Cooper of waging a “coordinated and aggressive campaign” against internal critics. When you’re less than a year into your job, and you’ve failed to quell preventable conflicts, one must rightfully ask how the person in charge fell upward. And then one recalls the hideous legacy of Gaius Caligula.

Bob Garfield — the co-host of On the Media — was also perp walked to the chopping block. We may never know the full reasons for why he went aggro. But it was a paradigm-shifting moment that, whatever your feelings for Garfield, truly stunned most WNYC listeners. It appears that The Takeaway‘s Tanzina Vega could be next. Because stress levels are high at WNYC thanks to the pandemic, any once pardonable reaction to unprecedented working conditions can now now categorized as “abuse” or “bullying” by a nimble underling hoping to stab his way to a less thankless position. Even Radiolab, once among WNYC’s crown jewels, has been ravening for a breakout episode after a shaky and awkward host reshuffling following Robert Krulwich’s retirement. Adding insult to self-injury, WNYC has also failed to acknowledge diversity — both among its staff and in its coverage. Back in 2018, Gothamist was bought by WNYC. But Cooper has proven to be so tone-deaf about New York voice that she has even ordered Gothamist‘s reporters to be less critical of the New York Police Department, failing to understand that Gothamist has, in many vital ways, filled the shoes of the long departed Village Voice.

When Cooper was announced for the editor-in-chief gig, the New York Public Radio press release announced that she would be “a change agent with a track record of modernizing a newsroom’s staff to make it more representative of the community it serves and make it work in new ways to serve that community.” Cooper initially did not understand why universally loved morning show host Brian Lehrer was popular. But when you read the word “modernizing” in any press release, it’s usually code for ridding an operation of its more experienced old school innovators. Among the fourteen staffers led to the guillotine in late April were people who weren’t afraid to take a stand: All Things Considered producer Richard Yeh, Allie Yeh (thankfully now working on a project with Kaitlin Priest), and veteran Gothamist journalists John Del Signore and Christopher Robbins.

It’s also clear that the long-running scabs from recent years (sexual harassment and abuse allegations from Leonard Lopate, John Hockenberry, and Jonathan Schwartz — all fired) have been roughly and abrasively ripped off. Under Cooper’s failed leadership, WNYC is bleeding more profusely than the Red Wedding guest list. Without a significant course correct — and this appears increasingly unlikely to occur under Cooper — one wonders if WNYC can even be healed at all.

Charles “Chuck” Skorupski — The Tax Man Who Tortures New Yorkers at Bargain Basement Wages

Like many spineless and unremarkable pencil pushers who toil in middle management and like any entitled white male who only performs the barest modicum of job duties to collect a paycheck, Charles “Chuck” Skorupski is about as committed to human decency as a barracuda is to hugging some grouper he is about to devour. Skorupski is not in the business of clearing up misunderstandings or helping out the New York residents who pay his salary, but he loves to dictate the terms. He speaks “conversational French,” after all. But based on my phone call with him, it seems to me that the only word he fully understands is merde, despite any dubious Duolingo grinding he has done in the last decade.

I spoke with Skorupski on Friday morning after I learned, to my horror, that New York State had processed a duplicate tax payment mirroring the original. In any other governmental branch or business, the duplicate payment would be recognized as a mistake and swiftly remedied. But when you point out such a truth to Skorupski, who speaks in a voice that somehow sounds as if he has apnea or is breathing partially through a straw, Skorupski possesses nothing in the way of empathy or the ability to help. He instead tells you that taxes are much different than any reasonable analogy you bring up. Really? You wanted my money instantly on May 17th and I gave it to you, but you choose not to honor this covenant in return? I was told that it would take six weeks for the mistake to be corrected. “This happens all the time,” said Skorupski with all the insensitivity of a Sturmabteilung stomping his boots on a child’s skull in the name of “good government.”

Skorupski considers himself something of a tony and elegant fellow, despite the fact that he is somehow almost as hideous-looking as Dr. Evil (who shares similar megalomaniacal and sociopathic qualities) and has been pictured drinking piss-thin Corona at a fancy cocktail party (surely a weak-kneed nightlife solecism if ever there was one) and he doesn’t know how to keep his tie straight or stand with any warmth or bonhomie when a woman is speaking to him. Presumably any beer with a bit of hop would cause this bald tyrant to dissolve instantly into a pungent mist.

If you’re suffering because of some mistake that New York State is responsible for and refuses to correct in a reasonable manner, well then, why are you wasting this former librarian’s time? Don’t you understand that Skorupski is busy “delivering on multiple projects in a fast-paced environment”? Skorpuski possesses dual American and Canadian citizenship and has been working for the Department of Financial Services for nearly nine years. He boasts that he is an INTP, the same personality type as such ruthless capitalists as Adam Smith, George Soros, Larry Page, Paul Allen, and Alan Greenspan. He is, in short, a casual and privileged sociopath, despite the fact that he brags about “Robust People Skills” on his LinkedIn page (why the allcaps? are “Robust People Skills” something you have to mail in for?). And he has the bourgie avatar to prove it: a ridiculous image of a bald man in a tieless getup holding a cup of coffee where the steam is wafting away from him, presumably because Skorupski is one of those all too predictable reptilians fond of casually gorging on human flesh.

“There’s nothing I can do,” said Skorupski repeatedly to me. He had all the timbre of a man who is telling you that there is actually a lot he could do, if only he possessed a human heart rather than some cybernetic implant that prevents him from drinking anything stronger than Corona. And the hell of it is that Skorupski is speaking like this because he was paid so abysmally in the years before he was promoted to supervisor: according to pubic records, Skorupski was paid a mere $41,406 as a taxpayer service representative in 2018. But then that’s the way the State of New York works. Pay the little people nothing. Then promote the hardest hearts to supervisor positions, where they can be more assured of a living wage. And then, if you’re able to land such a not very cushy job, do not rock the boat. Do not stand out. Do not, above all, serve the people. If anything, delight in a taxpayer’s suffering.

I am certain that the six weeks it will take for me to reclaim my duplicate four figure tax payment will be extended until the end of the year. Particularly after Skorupski reads this and lashes back with the vengeance that I am now offering him so that I can peacefully go about the rest of my day. I am certain that the only way I will be able to reclaim this overpayment, an overpayment that I only executed because the New York State website did not recognize my earlier payment and I feared that the payment did not go through and I did not want to pay any late fees and penalties and, after 24 hours, no payment in process had showed up on the NYS website, will be when I file next year’s taxes. But if I am to be punished for being a responsible taxpayer and when I have done nothing wrong, then surely Skorupski deserves to be flayed alive by way of a colorful portrait because he is a callous and intransigent Babbitt who has sold his soul at a deep discount. And who knows? Maybe calling out malicious malingerers like Skorupski is one way to get New York government to properly serve the people.