In Hockenberry’s exit, public radio news team investigates its own employer

John Hockenberry is the lastest public radio icon to take a tumble. Hockenberry, who started Talk of the Nation at NPR and, later, The Takeaway at New York’s WNYC, is accused of harassment and bullying after a former co-worker, Suki Kim , stepped forward with accusations of unwanted sexual overtones.

While this is obviously mild stuff in a world of dropped pants, rape, and secret buttons to lock women in rooms, I live near WNYC’s Manhattan office, and each time I walked by the building, I imagined the young women working for Hockenberry. Maybe I was the only one who he’d ever “creeped out,” to use his phrase, but what if I wasn’t? Meanwhile, The Takeaway’s producers kept contacting me to talk about the toppling of the South Korean government and the growing tension with North Korea. Each time I checked if, by chance, a guest host would be interviewing me. My career certainly wouldn’t be made — or broken — by whether I got guest slots on The Takeway, but why should I have to be put in a position where I had to avoid the show: Media appearances are part of the job for a writer. The third such request I received, I decided the radio station should at least have his emails to me on record.

Hockenberry left the show in August and at the time said, “Ultimately, in every challenging career, there comes a time when it is important to know when to move on.”

It doesn’t take much to reach the conclusion that it’s time to move on when sexual harassment has been exposed.

His employer, New York Public Radio, said it normally wouldn’t release details but said Kim waived her privacy with her article.

We don’t, as a matter of policy, comment on confidential personnel issues. However, since Suki Kim chose to waive her right to confidentiality in asking NYPR for an on-the-record response about her allegation against John Hockenberry, we wanted to acknowledge her decision and respond to her question to the best of our ability. Accordingly, we sent her this statement (reproduced below in its entirety):

A key fact in this story is that John Hockenberry is no longer employed by NYPR. Together with Public Radio International (PRI), our co-producer on The Takeaway, we did not renew his contract when it expired on 6/30/17.

As with other organizations across America, we do not disclose confidential employment actions. This policy often leads people who’ve complained to HR to conclude — in good faith, yet erroneously — that no action was taken against a wrongdoer.

NYPR promptly investigates every complaint we receive, including the one described by Suki Kim in her article, and we take any and all remedial actions warranted. These actions include: training, referral to counseling, disciplinary action up to and including suspension with or without pay, termination of employment, and/or other measures.

We also make every effort to protect the confidentiality of complainants, because, as was Suki Kim, they are concerned about their identity becoming known to the person being investigated. That is one of the reasons why personnel matters are kept confidential.

Except for outright termination, which is self-evident, the imposition of any of these sanctions is not something that is disclosed to — or observable by — employees or others who raise a complaint, including the complainant. And this is the conundrum employers face — how to reassure people who raise a complaint that complaints are taken seriously while at the same time protecting confidentiality for all parties involved. It’s a paradox we are attempting to address as we work to make it easier — for those who’ve experienced inappropriate behavior as well as those who witness it — to come forward.

As part of a long overdue national conversation, we are now challenging ourselves to do more to ensure that our New York Public Radio community can thrive and excel in an inclusive and diverse environment in which they are treated with respect. We have committed to providing more training for employees, including managers, hosts and other persons in authority, and more support for those who come forward. This may also mean more severe and immediate consequences for misconduct than was the norm in American workplaces a year ago.

Like NPR before it, WNYC’s news staff didn’t pull punches in its coverage today, suggesting that Hockenberry was given the option to leave quietly in exchange for keeping all the reasons quiet.

For months, however, the executives who decided to let Hockenberry go had been confronted with two uncomfortable facts: a confidential allegation of harassment that had recently been lodged against him and a noticeable decline in his skills as an on-air talent — he sometimes missed interviews, arrived unprepared, and even fell asleep on the job.

An investigation by WNYC News found two previous allegations of sexual harassment at The Takeaway that were not reported to top station executives. But those officials were aware of other problems at the show. For years, co-hosts and producers had been warning them that Hockenberry bullied colleagues, creating a hostile work environment. While Hockenberry’s moods ebbed and flowed over the years, producers and managers with the show never succeeded in reining in his temper.

The WNYC news staff, however, was stymied in getting any details on who made the decision and why more wasn’t revealed about Hockenberry’s exit.

It got a statement, instead:

“NYPR and PRI did not renew John Hockenberry’s contract as host of The Takeaway when it expired on June 30, 2017. We agreed to communicate John’s departure as his decision.”

If you read between the lines, that’s a deal to go easy on Hockenberry’s reputation in exchange for him leaving.

As for Hockenberry, did he acknowledge Kim’s accusations or didn’t he?

“I’ve always had a reputation for being tough, and certainly I’ve been rude, aggressive and impolite. Looking back, my behavior was not always appropriate and I’m sorry. It horrifies me that I made the talented and driven people I worked with feel uncomfortable, and that the stress around putting together a great show was made worse by my behavior. Having to deal with my own physical limitations has given me an understanding of powerlessness, and I should have been more aware of how the power I wielded over others, coupled with inappropriate comments and communications, could be construed. I have no excuses.”

In this afternoon’s broadcast, The Takeaway will talk to Suki Kim.

  • MrE85

    I guess some of us outside the biz were naive enough to be shocked and surprised to learn that the public radio world isn’t so different from the one we live in. We shouldn’t have been.

    • I’m finding that’s true for public radio listeners, too.

      • MrE85

        Truth. Good riddance to the haters, anyhow.

      • Jerry

        People find it easy to think the worst of those they already dislike, and vice-versa.

      • MikeB

        We finally found an issue that doesn’t split evenly along political lines. Fantastic.

        And, I have to say Bob, thanks for fighting the good fight against those who see no issue in hostile work environments or who are annoyed that men are facing some accountability in grabbing women. I’m sure it’s exhausting. But a tip of the cap to you, and beverage of choice if we ever meet.

    • Mike Worcester

      Perhaps it is because folks viewed public radio as a respite from the world we inhabit? We wanted to believe the public radio was populated by people who rose above?

  • Greg W

    That was a tough, uncomfortable, and illuminating discussion between Zwillich and Kim today on the Takeaway.

  • Steve Hellerstedt

    Interesting story that raises a couple of questions.

    Had Hockenberry at any point been confronted with his behavior? He uses the word ‘horrified’ to describe the perception he left with those who worked under him. That’s not a term you’d use for something you were aware of, a personality flaw for want of a better word, that you *were* aware of and were working on. I’m not letting him off the hook, but if you behave in a certain manner and nobody calls you on you’ll eventually figure out it’s okay, whether it is or not. I’m not sure what WNYC can be expected to do with an unreported issue, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that this stuff should be nipped in the bud, for everyone’s best interest, rather than to allow it to grow to the point it did.

    It does seem management was aware of something – “producers and managers with the show never succeeded in reining in his temper” – and they might have used that as a lever. Our sexual harassment, workplace violence, etc. policies all fall under the ‘hostile workplace’ umbrella, and if you stray too far beyond where you ought to you will be reined in. Most of the time, anyway.

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    • Typically the show hosts, not producers, are the bosses. Hockenberry knew he was a bully . Confront him and you’re looking for work as women and people of color found out according to today’s broadcast.

      There are a lot of people in his industry who think they’re indispensable and act with their power accordingly.

      That was a brutal interview on the subject today.

      • Steve Hellerstedt

        Wow.

        Rebecca Carroll said something I was thinking about before listening to the piece – that John Hockenberry treated his job as his own personal fiefdom. In fact both her and Suki Kim asked the interviewer (Todd didn’t catch his last name) two good questions. How could you not know what was going on? And why do you think you were spared the bullying we women endured?

        I like too that management’s role in all this was questioned. It HAS to start there, and princeling or not there has to be someone to intervene before someone like this bullies talent out the door. And it also has to be stopped before someone like this flings so much poop around that the only option, when the facts are uncovered, is to get rid of him. We’re all capable of great evil, and even garden variety douche baggery, but we’re also all redeemable.

        • Just got word a little while ago that the management will be on the show tomorrow

          • Steve Hellerstedt

            I hope they interview whoever Hockenberry was directly answerable to, and their history of disciplining him for his workplace bullying. IMO, because management does not communicate discipline taken against an employee who has been complained about, and the resulting despair an employee may feel about the bully they complained about – usually an employee one or two steps up the food chain – because this discipline occurs behind a curtain, it’s important management is proactive about the erring employee.

            It wouldn’t surprise me that, because Hockenberry’s bullying ways were so well known, that management adopted a ‘that’s just John’ attitude. A less established employee might catch hell for something Hockenberry might do because, well, that’s just John. Everybody knows to tiptoe around him and, hey, we aren’t getting that many complaints about him – which they (management) may interpret as a well managed workplace, but those workers in the trenches recognize as a problem that, if you complain about, nothing is done and sooner or later you find yourself forced out.

            These types are a serious cancer, and they need aggressive management push back.

          • Greg W

            That will be appointment radio.