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.