Employees at New York’s most prominent public radio station are terrified that criticizing their station’s leadership could result in being singled out for layoffs and reprimands by human resources.
In a complaint filed last month with the National Labor Relations Board, staffers at WNYC said that the station had engaged in retaliation against unionized employees after the outlet, citing a “sizable deficit,” laid off 14 employees, including Christopher Robbins, a union leader, and Richard Yeh, a longtime staffer who had been publicly critical of WNYC editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper.
The complaint was filed just hours before The New York Times reported on the rifts between WNYC’s rank-and-file staffers, some of its well-known hosts, and top management. Staffers described to the Times an abusive workplace in which high-profile figures like On the Media host Bob Garfield and Takeaway host Tanzina Vega on multiple occasions allegedly berated staff, prompting human-resources complaints against both of them.
Garfield was fired days before the Times article was published; he and Vega have since enlisted attorneys in separate battles with the station, The Daily Beast has learned.
While some at the station claimed the company has overreacted to routine disputes in what has become a famously tense workplace environment, WNYC staffers who spoke with The Daily Beast said the specific complaints of retaliation are more explicit and alarming than the Times and the union’s NLRB complaint laid out.
Much of the staff’s concerns about reprisals center around Cooper. Three WNYC staffers with knowledge told The Daily Beast that, on multiple occasions, the editor-in-chief shared with at least two colleagues some sensitive information about an employee not under their purview, intimating she got the details from a “file,” which they believed alluded to the station’s human-resources department. The disclosures spread among some WNYC rank-and-file, causing alarm and making staff fearful of going to human resources with complaints. (In a statement, WNYC said it was “not aware” of any situation matching this description.)
“I can’t remember a time when newsroom morale has been lower,” a WNYC staffer told The Daily Beast. “At a moment when NYC desperately needs good journalism, hardworking reporters and editors are facing retaliation, bullying and personal vendettas from an editor-in-chief with no apparent interest in either of our respective brands.”
In other instances, staffers felt they were being punished for exercising the skills that the company said it valued in its journalists: demanding accountability of those in power.
Following the layoffs in April, the station held a contentious staff-wide meeting. Many of the unionized employees expressed outrage and dismay that the union’s leaders had been let go, and sought to know top WNYC leaders’ salaries.
According to multiple insiders familiar with the exchange, Cooper was not pleased with the back-and-forth. After the meeting, sources said, she was frustrated with two specific reporters, who subsequently received emails from human resources saying management wished to meet with them to discuss what WNYC viewed as disrespectful behavior. After the two staffers requested that a union representative be present for such meetings, management ultimately backed down.
“SAG-AFTRA can confirm that two unionized members received disciplines, as well as the events that lead to them, and corroborates the account you’ve described,” the entertainment union representing WNYC staffers wrote in a statement to The Daily Beast.
“[WNYC] regularly holds 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 New York Public Radio spokesperson said in a statement. “The information above is not accurate. The two staffers did have a chance to ask their questions and have them answered. No warning was issued and no disciplinary action was taken.”
But employees have continued to agitate about their displeasure with the organization’s leadership.
Earlier this month, staffers circulated a memo addressed to station president and CEO Goli Sheikholeslami calling on her to consider the points laid out in the NLRB complaint. “We commend your renewed commitment to a ‘healthy, vibrant, diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture,’ but a workplace where any employee fears speaking up runs counter to that aspiration. It is in the hands of management and those with the most power to right that wrong,” the memo said.
The station, of course, has consistently pushed back, arguing that the friction within the newsroom is not specific to the organization, but more of an industry wide-conversation about how journalists are treated in the workplace. Over the past year, employees at high-profile media organizations like magazine giant Condé Nast have publicly raised questions about the way managers in positions of power have treated subordinates.
Sheikholeslami acknowledged the broad discontent among staffers, but when one employee asked about concerns that the station was retaliating against employees who asked difficult questions, arguing that she was simply calling for more civility in the workplace.
“I don’t think we are reprimanding or trying to mute any voices,” she said. “All I would personally ask is we are kind and respectful and ask our questions in a constructive way."
Beyond Garfield’s firing, it’s unclear how the station plans to navigate the series of escalating disputes between staff and management—even including just how focused on New York City the station should be. During one meeting in March, sources said, newsroom leaders presented a survey asking WNYC listeners and local news consumers what they’d like to see out of the station and Gothamist, its digital news property. One slide emphasized that readers in Westchester County think Gothamist, a city news stalwart, is “too NY-centric.”
A NYPR spokesperson said the survey did not intend to single out the statistic, which found that 14% of respondents said they did not engage with Gothamist because it did not cover their local area. “It was not a complaint, it was a survey response from audiences primarily based in Westchester, and was just one data point that was shared from a survey that was conducted with almost 1,100 people.”
“Every week brings fresh evidence that Audrey Cooper is out of touch with New York Public Radio’s stated mission, and New York City as a whole,” one WNYC staffer told The Daily Beast this week.
Then there’s the question of Vega’s future at the station, which remains in flux. WNYC insiders told The Daily Beast they expected her to return from a leave earlier this month, but were told she would continue that break for several weeks. Sources told The Daily Beast that Vega has enlisted a high-profile lawyer to help fight what she views as unfair complaints leveled against her.
“My client Tanzina Vega has been out on a brief leave because of a medical issue. During this time, some in the media have spread false rumors about the reason for her leave. I condemn such speculation and view it as indecent treatment of an esteemed radio host,” her attorney, Neil Mullin, a prominent employment litigator, said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
And in perhaps another sign of her increasing distance from the outlet, insiders said she unfollowed on Twitter a number of the show’s producers and staffers.
—With additional reporting by Diana Falzone.