Update 2/14/2018: Here's our latest post on Tom Ashbrook's dismissal.
More men and women have come forward to describe allegations against On Point radio host Tom Ashbrook and WBUR managers who they say failed to stop Ashbrook's alleged bullying.
There are now at least 23 current and former WBUR employees who've alleged verbal abuse, intimidation and/or unwanted touching by Ashbrook. That number includes the 11 accusers who filed a collection of testimonials early this month, triggering an investigation. In the 11 days since that investigation was launched and Ashbrook was placed on leave, 12 more current or former On Point and WBUR employees have spoken to a WBUR reporter. Some of those employees plan to report those complaints to investigators.
The complaints span the 16-year history of the show, although most are more recent. They come from 14 women and nine men. Fifteen say they went to managers, asking for help. Ten of the 23 say they left On Point mainly because of a hostile, demeaning work environment. Nine say they reported the alleged abuse to more than one manager. It's unclear what actions managers took prior to placing Ashbrook on leave, but most producers interviewed for this story say they felt abandoned or sacrificed by management. We agreed not to use their names because they fear retaliation or harm to their future employment.
The new allegations include women and men who say Ashbrook called them into the radio studio, told them they were “worthless,” and described their work using profanity. One remembers Ashbrook crushing the script she’d given him into a ball and throwing it at her. A male producer says Ashbrook would reminisce about a woman at a bar in Asia who could perform sex tricks with darts. A female producer says she remembers Ashbrook looking through the glass that separates the studio and control room, and muting his microphone to complain about a guest the producer had booked who was not in the studio. She says Ashbrook referred to the guest using an expletive and a highly offensive term for female genitalia. The producer says she stopped working for the show shortly thereafter.
"These allegations include new suggestions that are simply untrue," Ashbrook said in an emailed statement, after reviewing the complaints reported here. "Yes, I could be a tough boss, and yes we sometimes had editorial discussions that included sensitive topics. But these new allegations suggest behavior that is totally contrary to the way I try to live my life every day and treat those around me."
Producers say they would sometimes leave work in tears, feeling demeaned or, as one said, like they had been “chewed up and spat out.” They say they’d get calls or emails from Ashbrook after hours with more details about their “bulls---” efforts. Some incoming producers say they were warned about Ashbrook. An instructional document given to producers, and shared with a WBUR reporter, explains how to avoid triggering an outburst. Some producers also said they were coached: Never interrupt Ashbrook, never challenge him, and only answer “yes,” “no” or “I’ll check on that.”
Anger about Ashbrook’s alleged behavior is also directed at managers who, employees say, didn't take meaningful action. Producers say one manager often told them, “you shouldn’t have set him off,” or “next time don’t talk back.” They say other managers urged producers to stand up to Ashbrook, saying the managers couldn’t do anything because “that’s just Tom.” Several producers say they were told “you were warned about Tom” or that “some people can handle Tom, others can’t.” Two former producers say a manager implied Ashbrook’s behavior was tough, maybe offensive, but not unacceptable. Four former producers say managers implied that their jobs could be at risk if they kept complaining.
WBUR General Manager Charlie Kravetz responded to a request for comment with a statement. It says that Boston University (BU), which owns WBUR, has launched a two-pronged investigation.
"I believe the swift response to these allegations speaks for itself and the seriousness with which the university and WBUR management takes these and all concerns brought to our attention," said Kravetz, who became general manager in 2011. "We must let these allegations proceed unhindered by any interference. Once the investigations are complete we will determine how to proceed."
Two male former producers who worked with Ashbrook in his earlier years on the show say he was a demanding but fair boss.
John Wihbey, who was a producer at On Point from 2007 to 2010, says he never saw behavior he'd call bullying.
"He was a tough boss, but held everyone to an equal standard, at least in my years there," Wihbey said. "I learned a tremendous amount."
Chris O'Connor says his three years at On Point, from 2001 to 2003, were "the most valuable work experience I ever had." He said that's because, in part, of Ashbrook's formidable presence.
"If demanding perfection is bullying, or telling someone that they screwed up in a very harsh way is bullying, then I did witness bullying in the workplace, because Tom definitely did not accept mistakes," O'Connor said. "The idea was, don't make that mistake again and if you continue to make that mistake you should look for a different job. To me that makes sense. I didn't necessarily like it but I understood."
O'Connor says he's surprised and saddened to hear others call On Point a toxic workplace.
"The allegations just seem misleading," O'Connor says. "Tom's fair; he's decent."
Neither O'Connor nor Wihbey remembers Ashbrook engaging in any sexual harassment or sexual misconduct.
In the past few years, women say they’ve brushed off alleged comments from Ashbrook like “you’re one hot mama” or “I like the way you fill that dress.” A woman who worked occasionally with Ashbrook recently described the time she says he put a hand on her thigh, just below the hem of her skirt, and left it there while she tensed up. Several female producers say they came to dread deep shoulder and neck rubs from Ashbrook that would follow a blistering critique of their work. Producers interviewed for this story say only women received this unwanted touching.
In BU's two-pronged investigation, the sexual harassment allegations will be reviewed by the international law firm Holland & Knight. The workplace culture complaints will be assessed by the higher education management firm Longpoint Consulting.
It’s not clear if all those who reported concerns about Ashbrook for this story will participate in the investigations. Some say they worry the process won’t be completely independent of the station or BU. Others question the scope of the investigations and whether all managers involved will be held to account.
BU says it won’t have any further comment while the investigations are underway. There’s no indication of when they will conclude.
"I hope everyone will respect this process, which will allow me to respond more fully," said Ashbrook in his emailed statement. "This is a chastening ordeal, but I remain very proud of the wonderful work so many fine colleagues have done alongside me in the public interest."