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.