On Point radio host Tom Ashbrook has been dismissed from WBUR.
Ashbrook, who has hosted the nationally syndicated show for 16 years, was placed on leave in December 2017 after 11 current and former station employees filed complaints of bullying and sexual misconduct that spanned the past 10 years. The number of complaints grew as Boston University (BU), which owns WBUR, launched two outside investigations.
BU says investigators found that Ashbrook's conduct "created an abusive work environment" but determined that his conduct, while unwelcome, "was not sexual in nature and did not constitute sexual harassment under the school's Sexual Misconduct/Title IX policy." The university says investigators spoke to about 60 people, including Ashbrook, station managers and current and former employees of WBUR.
"I am deeply disappointed by this decision, which I believe is profoundly unfair both to me and the listeners who [have] been such a part of On Point," said Ashbrook in a statement. "I’m sorry to those who found the show’s pace and me just too much. I’ve felt a terrible urgency about our country’s direction, and that urgency played out — maybe too stridently sometimes — in our workplace. We strove for excellence in really challenging times and sometime colleagues’ feelings were hurt along the way. I regret that."
Ashbrook and his attorney said problems in the On Point workplace never should have been allowed to reach this point.
"I believe that WBUR and Boston University failed in their responsibility to effectively address these issues when they arose when they could have been more easily resolved."
Ashbrook's lawyer, Laura Studen, said in a statement that the decision to dismiss her client is unfair given "the University's failure to appropriately address these management issues at the time." Studen, a partner at the Boston law firm Burns & Levinson, adds that "the workplace issues could clearly be addressed without this drastic action."
Boston University said it is not going to respond to Ashbrook or his attorney.
Some WBUR employees say the statements from Ashbrook and his attorney reflect the problem they had with Ashbrook in the workplace: He blamed others rather than admitting he was sometimes wrong and apologizing.
But while some at WBUR are relieved that Ashbrook will not return, many colleagues see his departure as a grave loss for On Point, WBUR and, perhaps, journalism. Devoted listeners called and emailed the station urging managers to rethink the decision and promising to go elsewhere if they didn’t.
“Ashbrook’s silencing adds to the nation’s fragile effort to preserve democracy in the face of an autocratic and unstable president and his Congressional enablers,” wrote former Providence Journal reporter Brian Jones in an email. “The fact is that people with Ashbrook’s talent are often difficult to manage. The challenge that BU and the station botched was how to curb Ashbrook’s worst behavior, while sustaining his rare talent.”
Twitter was a mix of angry, sad and supportive comments. Two program directors at public radio stations in different parts of the country said Ashbrook occupied the host chair in a way no one else has. They questioned whether the show can rebound in the face of strong competition, for example, from 1A, a show produced in the same time slot by WAMU, in Washington, D.C.
According to Ashbrook’s lawyer and WBUR, the station will continue to pay Ashbrook through the end of his contract, which expires in June. There is no indication of any payments beyond his contract, although Ashbrook and his attorney are said to be weighing his legal options.
A statement from WBUR says the show will continue to be produced by fill-in hosts, including Jane Clayson, Tom Gjelten and Ray Suarez, while the station searches for a permanent replacement. On Point is carried by 290 stations across the U.S.
Some of the men and women who spoke to lawyers about Ashbrook’s alleged sexual misconduct are frustrated or upset by the finding that his behavior did not violate BU policy.
“If having a coworker put a hand on your thigh isn’t sexual, what exactly is it?” asked one woman who spoke to investigators but requested anonymity because she still works for BU.
She highlighted this example of sexual harassment offered by BU in the online “Definitions” section of university policy:
Unwelcome physical contact of a sexual nature, such as touching, hugging, kissing, patting, or pinching, that is uninvited and unwanted or unwelcome by the other person.
BU says investigators had to determine if Ashbrook’s alleged sexual misconduct had resulted in a hostile work environment. The university directed us to its definition of “hostile environment” (Section III, D of this document). It includes determining the type, frequency and duration of the alleged conduct, the relationships involved, the context in which it occurs and the degree to which the conduct affects employment.
“Continuous unwanted touching by your male host, that’s harassment,” said one former female producer who spoke to investigators. “The fact that Tom’s behavior and the way he acted around women did not fall into sexual harassment is appalling. It shows me BU’s guidelines are outdated.”
The university did not announce any changes in station management, even though complaints about management were a prominent element in the investigation. Some current and former WBUR employees said managers dismissed their complaints. When complaints were acknowledged, employees said managers did not effect change. Several former producers say they were told or led to believe that they could lose their job and have trouble finding similar work elsewhere if they pursued complaints about Ashbrook.
Investigators concluded that WBUR management was "aware of Mr. Ashbrook's behavior and repeatedly talked to him about it, but was unsuccessful in changing his behavior."
BU says consultants will offer recommendations about how to improve WBUR’s workplace culture.
“I feel responsible for the fact that this conduct did not change and I have apologized to those who feel they were not cared for,” said WBUR General Manager Charlie Kravetz. “I am committed to making sure that this is a wonderful work environment at On Point going forward in a way that I was not able to assure in the previous situation, with Tom as host.”
Kravetz acknowledges that he was not the only manager who fielded complaints about Ashbrook’s behavior. Kravetz says WBUR will review the station’s management structure, oversight of On Point, and may offer training.
“The people who manage WBUR are hard-working, wonderful people who are generally highly respected across the station, but yes,” Kravetz said, “it wasn’t just me, we all failed to successfully address this issue and we have to collectively take responsibility for that.”
Some current and former employees of WBUR say talking about taking responsibility isn’t enough.
“If you did something, and it wasn’t effective, what the heck is Tom still doing working there?” asked one former On Point producer who argues Ashbrook’s termination is long overdue.
“This all feels very preliminary to me. Tom’s piece of the puzzle feels like step one,” said one of the 11 complainants, a former producer who still works in public radio.
Another of the original complainants said some managers should be terminated along with Ashbrook.
“They allowed this system to develop, made employees feel bad for having complained, and told them that if they felt so strongly about the way they were treated they could find employment elsewhere,” said a former producer who has moved to another journalism job in Boston and requested anonymity to avoid retaliation.
Some current On Point producers say Ashbrook’s termination is appropriate. They say they are worried about the future of the program and say they are looking for changes in the way the station is managed.
The Ashbrook termination is rippling through the journalism world. Shortly after the decision was announced Wednesday, media management consultant Jill Geisler discussed the firing during a training for newsroom leaders in Philadelphia.
“Tom Ashbrook’s case, in which a brilliant, popular person loses a job, sends a statement to a lot of managers that they need to hold people accountable, to a lot of employees that they have a stronger voice than they may have thought they had,” said Geisler, the Bill Plante Chair in Media and Leadership Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. “And it sends a strong message to talented people that they don’t get a pass for incivility.”
Ashbrook’s case is, overall, a sad story, said Geisler.
“Listeners lost a good voice. A talented man lost a job. Producers maybe gave up their dreams because they didn’t feel they could work well in this environment and managers in this organization now realize they let people down,” she said. “So at the end of the day this ought to be a lesson for anyone who wants to run a productive, high quality workplace, that you can’t have powerful people who take out their frustrations in uncivil ways on people around them.”
This article was originally published on February 14, 2018.
This segment aired on February 14, 2018.