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Retired host John Hockenberry has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women he used to work with, including his former co-hosts, on his public radio show The Takeaway.
In a New York Magazine exposé published late Friday night, award-winning novelist Suki Kim documents her own experiences with the former WNYC radio host and explains that her interactions with the 61-year-old award-winning broadcaster spurred her to investigate if other women employed at his radio station had similar, or potentially worse, experiences of alleged harassment.
Kim met Hockenberry after appearing as a guest to share her expertise on North Korea on The Takeaway, a national public radio news program, and after meeting him twice, which she says was at his request, he continued to pursue her over email. She stopped responding, and still eight more messages arrived in her inbox. The messages from the host — who is married with five children and also paralyzed from the chest down due to a car accident when he was 19 — ranged from “Need another dose of you” to asking for her home address so he could mail her letters. “I basically hate email, and when you are my age asking for coffee and lunch dates are always construed as preludes to a hotel room somewhere,” Kim says he wrote.
“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,” Kim wrote, referencing disgraced Today host Matt Lauer and the many figures who have been accused of sexual harassment and assault post-Harvey Weinstein. “Maybe I was the only one who he’d ever ‘creeped out,’ to use his phrase, but what if I wasn’t?”
Kim reached out to Takeaway employees and says the results could be divided into two broad categories; one of unwanted sexual advances, physical and verbal, to the younger staffers; and the second, abuse toward the women of color who were Hockenberry’s co-hosts. The latter category, some who spoke to Kim on record, painted a picture of bullying behavior at The Takeaway, which Kim points out was founded in 2008 to bring more diverse voices to public radio. (The show is co-produced by WNYC Radio and Public Radio International in collaboration with The New York Times and WGBH Boston.)
Two of the co-hosts told Kim they complained “repeatedly” to the station, while a third former co-host reportedly also filed a report to WNYC. Farai Chideya filled the vacant seat left by Adaora Udoji, but left after four months over her encounters with Hockenberry. Celeste Headlee then filled the seat, but also filed complaints that the host was professionally “sabotaging” her. By 2012, they were all gone and Hockenberry was hosting solo.
“That a white man, albeit a disabled one, ended up being alone at the top of the diversity show was definitely ironic, but for some of the women at the The Takeaway, it was more than that,” wrote Kim. “The message, according to Kristen Meinzer, a culture producer for eight years, was: ‘If you speak up, you’ll disappear.'” Meinzer claimed in the article that she felt sexually encroached upon by Hockenberry. She says he kissed her without consent, in the office, after she told him she had booked actress Marion Cotillard for the show, and harassed her on social media. On a picture of her and her husband, Meinzer said Hockenberry commented, “Doesn’t one of you have herpes at least?”
Another former female producer, who preferred to remain anonymous, shared a similar encounter of Hockenberry kissing her without her consent in his hotel room when the staff was being put up due to a snowstorm. She left the program three months later and did not report the incident. Another former anonymous staffer received an apology from the host after reporting inappropriate communications to her bosses, but never filed the complaint to HR since she was departing the program. Kim also spoke to several former interns who claim to have received similar inappropriate messages on G-chat messaging.
Kim filed a complaint about Hockenberry in February of this year and in August, when the journalist left his nearly decade-long post at the show, he did not announce future plans — a decision that was perceived as odd from the outside, Kim wrote. “From the inside — from the point of view of women I’d eventually interview who worked with him — there was less surprise: What had he finally done to cross the line?” she wrote. When she reached out to Hockenberry for the article, he said he was “currently searching for employment” and the last job she could find for him was as a guest host on PBS’ Charlie Rose Show, which has since been scrapped in wake of damning allegations against its own host.
In a statement, Hockenberry apologized for his actions: “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 response to Kim’s article, The Takeaway released a statement:
We asked New York Public Radio and Public Radio International, the co-producers of The Takeaway, for comment. In a statement, NYPR told us, “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.” (See their full statement below.)
PRI sent us the following statement, “We find these allegations deeply unsettling and we take them with the utmost seriousness. PRI holds itself and our production partners to the highest standards with respect to positive work environments, and we recognize that WNYC is also committed to best in class processes to have a positive workplace.”
We, the current staff at The Takeaway, ?take these allegations extremely seriously and are very disturbed by this report. There is a buffer between our journalism and the companies who own and distribute the show. We plan to report this story as we would any other ?and intend to bring you updates when we’re back on the air on Monday.
Full statement from NYPR:
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.
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