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Tirades directed at young women in the studio. Name calling and belittling critiques of show ideas during meetings. “Creepy” sex talk, hugs and back or neck rubs after a dressing down. That’s the pattern of alleged abuse described by 11 mostly young women and men who filed a multi-page document outlining their complaints against On Point host Tom Ashbrook.
Details of the document emerged in an interview with one of the complainants and a second source who reviewed it. It was delivered to WBUR and the station’s owner, Boston University, on Thursday. Interviews with more than a dozen current and former On Point staffers confirmed the nature of the allegations.
On Point, produced at WBUR in Boston, is carried by more than 290 NPR stations in the United States. Ashbrook has been the widely acclaimed host for 16 years.
The accusations suggest there’s a side of Ashbrook the public does not see. Some former staffers say they were proud to work for On Point and call Ashbrook a terrific host. But a former producer who signed the complaint says she came forward out of concern for current and future On Point staff.
“I worry that Tom’s behavior discourages young women from continuing in journalism,” she said. We agreed to withhold the woman’s name and the names of others we interviewed because they fear retaliation.
On Point producers are tasked with researching show topics and booking guests. Some producers say they did not perceive Ashbrook's angry outbursts to be as severe as the complaint alleges. But others say the effects linger even today.
"Working at On Point as a young woman in journalism sets up a very bizarre understanding of expectations," said the former producer who signed the complaint. "It has taken several years to adjust my understanding of what is normal behavior and what is not in the workplace."
WBUR and Boston University have placed Ashbrook on leave while an outside investigator reviews the allegations.
In a text, Ashbrook said he’s “proud of the many people who have worked with me during my 16 years at WBUR. I have always tried to be a leader and supportive of them, and many of them have gone on to highly successful careers in radio, journalism and other fields.”
He mentioned the stress of producing a daily, two-hour news show.
“In the pressure of a live radio environment, I have at times been a tough and demanding boss. We aspire to put out a top-notch show. Many people have thrived in that environment; a few have not,” Ashbrook said.
Ashbrook repeated the comment he texted soon after he was placed on leave on Friday, saying he is “stunned that a few former colleagues have apparently come forward with allegations that have not been shared with me. I have no idea what is being alleged, nor by whom.”
The dozen current or former employees contacted for this story say Ashbrook may not have seen the recent list of allegations, but he’s heard their complaints directly or from station managers.
At least three former producers say they screamed back at Ashbrook or told him to stop berating a colleague. Five current or former producers say they met with station managers multiple times, dating back at least five years, to raise concerns about Ashbrook.
In one case a producer says he was told to write Ashbrook a letter. In another, a manager allegedly coached the employee on ways to “stand up to Tom.” Some producers say managers promised to take action, but the former employees say there was no evidence of change. Four producers say they were either told or led to believe that their jobs could be at risk if they pursued a complaint.
In an exit interview, one producer says he warned a station manager that On Point couldn’t hold on to producers.
“Management was happy to tolerate high turnover in the interest of keeping it quiet,” said the former employee, who works for another news organization and worries that going public would hurt his career prospects. “Some left journalism because of Tom and that to me is unconscionable.”
In an interview shortly after Ashbrook was placed on leave, General Manager Charlie Kravetz said he is committed to a positive work environment for everyone at WBUR.
Kravetz was asked Sunday about new allegations that the station has not taken action regarding similar past complaints. Kravetz said in an email that “while I would like to respond to your questions it would be inappropriate for me to comment while an investigation is underway.”
There’s no word on how long that investigation will take.
Ashbrook ended his statement saying, “I can’t describe how deeply upsetting this is to me. I am sure that once the facts come out that people will see me for who I am – flawed but caring and decent in all my dealings with others."
This segment aired on December 11, 2017.
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