Why Are So Many TV Anchors And Radio Hosts Being Suspended? Bad Management

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Tom Ashbrook, the host of On Point

My number is now five. That’s the count of shows where I have been a guest and the host has been suspended because of harassment allegations.

The latest happened at the end of this week. WBUR suspended Tom Ashbrook, the host of On Point, which airs on 378 public radio stations nationwide.

Meanwhile, WNYC suspended Leonard Lopate, whose daytime radio show is a New York staple for discussions of literature, the arts and food.

They join a growing legion of television and radio personalities that are no longer heard on the air because of allegations of sexual misconduct, or unprofessional behavior.

Because I know a number of these people personally, and have been among their guests, I’ve been thinking a lot about the common thread between them.

It is bad management — of the host, by producers and bosses, and by the host, of the way they treat those around them.

In some cases, it was station and network management that simply didn’t reign them in, or have firm policies in place that everyone, no matter their position, was required to follow.

In other cases, it was the star themselves, whose ego and insecurities led to situations that made things miserable for those around them.

Let’s be clear: public radio and television programs are a pressure cooker atmosphere. Putting a show on the air five days a week, or even weekly, takes an enormous amount of work, often on deadline.

It’s not for sissies. But it also should not be a haven for bullies, either.

I’ve been in the unusual situation of being on both sides of the microphone, both appearing on the air, and working behind the scenes in public radio. I’ve watched, and I’ve listened to what was happening around me.

Here are some first hand observations of how to spot the signs that something is wrong.

The host above all. One of the biggest problems that broadcast media faces is the cult of personality. Stars draw fans, who watch or listen to shows. It’s an intimate relationship, especially in radio. The host is in your car, your kitchen, your ears, if you’re listening on a device.

In public media, where Charlie Rose and Ashbrook and Lopate appeared, hosts also are crucial to attracting donors and underwriters. Stations often allow big funders to pay a visit to the control room, or participate in meet and greets after events.

If you’ve ever been to one of those parties, you’ve seen how hosts are surrounded by enthusiastic fans, asking for selfies and autographs and just a chance to bask in their presence.

In short, the host is a drawing card. And if their name is the show’s name, or part of the show’s name, it elevates them to an elite, and dangerously powerful place.

Now, this danger can be alleviated if the show has a strong executive producer, who rides herd on the host. Everybody needs a boss, even if they’re the reason why an insurance company donated a million dollars to the station.

Likewise, the host’s influence can be diluted when the mission of the show itself comes first, before the whims of whomever is in the spotlight.

When you think of 60 Minutes these days, you think of its reporting, not necessarily of the men and women who are on the air.

Likewise, some NPR programs like Morning Edition and All Things Considered are more show-driven than host-specific, in part because they have multiple hosts, not a single voice.

In Britain, television anchors are called “news readers” and show hosts “presenters,” which feels much more humble.

But, keeping tabs on the host is only part of the management issue. The other part is whether the host can manage themselves.

How do they interact with people? How do they delegate? Is it “me” or “we”? Is it “I want” or “the show needs?”

Many people who become hosts and anchors were never producers or news directors, and never had to manage a diverse group of personalities. They’ve only had to manage themselves — and as we’ve seen in recent weeks, a number of them can’t.

Job openings. Broadcasting is a small world, which many people are eager to join. Many of those people are young, and searching for their first breaks, or else trying to climb higher.

Time and again, we’re hearing stories from producers and other colleagues who saw they didn’t report sexual harassment for fear they’d be blackballed within their industry.

But, even with what people are willing to endure in order to advance, word gets around.

When people quit a show because they have been harassed or abused, they often quietly have some words of caution. Often, they aren’t specific about what happened, they just use the simple phrase: “You don’t want to work there.”

A sure way to tell if there’s a harasser in the house is to look at the number of departures and job openings.

When a show or a station has too many of them, something is afoot. Those of us who subscribe to job posting newsletters notice patterns of places where there’s always something available, and make mental notes.

To be sure, it may be because the pay is too low or the location isn’t desirable. But if you hear that a host’s show has funding for six producers, and four of the jobs aren’t filled, that might be a warning.

Nobody is listening. I feel especially bad when I hear that the staff who worked for a host or anchor did speak up, only to feel that nobody heard them.

The situation at The Takeaway, produced by WNYC, is especially heartbreaking.

Within public broadcasting, WNYC is considered a powerhouse in podcasting, and its news coverage has been innovative and useful to New Yorkers.

But it also sounds, from the stories that Takeaway staff have shared, like a place where covering up for the host meant more than the experience of the people who were making the show possible.

Time and again, we are hearing these tales, of people who summoned up their courage to raise issues and who were shut down.

Now, to be fair, one of the basic tenets of management is that “somebody is always unhappy.” Every manager is used to dealing with complaints about something or someone.

But every smart manager also knows to listen for repeat situations, and that it’s better to confront things quickly than to let situations fester.

In the case of The Takeaway, a succession of women co-anchors of color left the show, after bullying from its host, John Hockenberry.

A number of women producers and interns apparently were harassed, and also left. It was clear to many of us who came in contact with the program that it was a troubled place.

Even the listener could sense a pattern, when familiar voices suddenly disappeared for no explainable reason.

One of my friends recently asked, “Can you have a drive for excellence without bullying?” Of course you can. And there are programs across public radio and broadcasting that prove it.

But, applying that across the entire system will probably require an enormous shift in broadcast culture, however.

It will require that broadcast jobs lose their halo, so that young people who want to work in the business approach it realistically, rather than sacrificially.

It will require that managers step up and put the focus of the show before any single person who hosts it.

And, it will require that hosts and anchors themselves realize that they are only conduits to the listeners and viewers, not czars and czarinas.

After all, they can be deposed.

Follow Micheline Maynard on Twitter @mickimaynard

Journalist. Author. The Check blog on Forbes.com. NPR and NYT alum

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