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WNYC CEO to step down next year

In a memo circulated within the organization yesterday afternoon, Laura Walker, the President and CEO of New York Public Radio, announced that she will be stepping down from her position as head of the influential public radio station next summer. She leaves behind a mixed legacy.

In a memo circulated within the organization yesterday afternoon, Laura Walker, the President and CEO of New York Public Radio, announced that she will be stepping down from her position as head of the influential public radio station next summer.

“After discussions with the Board of Trustees, the Board and I have agreed that the time has come for me to move on,” Walker wrote in the memo. “We are announcing today that I will be leaving the station to pursue opportunities including a university position and starting my own venture. I will remain CEO until March 31 and will be available to advise the organization through June to help ensure a smooth transition.”

The announcement comes at the end of a year that saw the organization fully besieged by scandal, which was catalyzed around this time last year when New York Magazine’s The Cut published an exposé by the journalist Suki Kim that drew attention to a workplace culture that allowed for bullying, sexual harassment, and other discriminatory behaviors that have especially hurt women and people of color. The scale of the scandal deepened in the following months through further reporting, including pieces from the New York Times, which shed light on the structural nature of the station’s culture problems, and another piece by New York Magazine, which provided additional concrete examples on the expression of those problems.

The station’s board eventually brought in an external law firm, Proskauer Rose, to investigate the organization’s culture. The investigation apparently found no evidence of systemic discrimination at the station, though it did find “offensive and at times discriminatory harassing conduct” by “a small number of individuals, including hosts of shows and administrative staff.” Some have criticized the investigation’s methodology for being too limited.

The WNYC News write-up of Walker’s departure noted that, since the scandal, station leadership has implemented an ongoing effort to improve workplace culture — an initiative they dubbed “the Transformation.” Parallel to that were several changes at the executive level, including the gradual phasing out of Dean Cappello, WNYC’s former Chief Content Officer and Walker’s right-hand man who was sharply criticized for his leadership over shows that were found to have fostered abusive production cultures, and the installation of new C-level operatives, including new Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Baird.

Throughout this time, it was an openly asked question whether Walker herself would survive the year. It seems we have our answer, even if it’s being pitched as an amicable exit. (A WNYC rep told Current that “Walker’s exit was not related to the Hockenberry case and that the decision to leave was mutual between Walker and the organization’s Board of Trustees.”)

Walker was at the helm of New York Public Radio for more than two decades, leading the station since it first gained independence from being an arm of New York City’s government. Her impact on the organization, as well as on the public radio system writ large, is perhaps indisputable. I’ll let the WNYC News write-up lay out the picture here:

Under her leadership, NYPR’s listenership grew from 1 million to 26 million, becoming the largest public radio station in the country. The newsroom expanded from three reporters to 70 people. The organization’s budget also grew from $1 million to $97.3 million for the fiscal year ended June 30. During that time, the station has launched popular and award-winning programs, including Radiolab, On The Media and Radio Rookies. The station grew, acquiring WQXR, New Jersey Public Radio, and Gothamist. It has won numerous awards, including 10 Peabody’s and 5 duPont awards.

On paper, those achievements are indisputable. But at what cost? It is perhaps clearer now, in the closing moments of the Walker era, than ever before that the story of WNYC’s growth and contributions to the culture are perhaps inseparable from the story of its controversies. If you spend enough time among public radio producers, you’ll likely one or more of the following narrative threads: that for the longest time WNYC was the only game in town if you wanted to do a certain kind of work and that the organization definitely used that labor environment to its advantage; that you could spend years, even decades working for the station without having a full-time employment position or anything much else to show for it; that you probably couldn’t get valuable upstart experience from WNYC’s hallways unless you were already financially capable in some way due to the pittances it pays temps and interns. (Granted, this isn’t a failure specific to WNYC, as we’ve learned from a recent WaPo article on NPR’s not-great labor arrangements when it comes to temps. But WNYC’s version is certainly a particularly aggressive one.)

And so Walker’s legacy will be an exceptionally mixed and complicated one.

One cannot downplay WNYC’s contributions to the podcast space. This, after all, is the house of Radiolab, On The Media, Nancy, and Death, Sex, and Money. But one should not overplay WNYC’s dominance in the podcast space either. As I mentioned back in my 2018 round-up: if you’ve been paying close attention to the station’s Podtrac numbers, its numbers for unique monthly podcast audience size for the U.S. dropped from 7.4 million in January to 6.6 million in October, despite an increase of show portfolio size from 48 to 53. Furthermore, if you’ve been paying even closer attention, you would have noticed that you could have built a hell of a company out of all of the podcasts and podcast teams that are no longer under the station’s dominant control: Freakonomics, The Sporkful, The Longest Shortest Time, Note to Self (whose headlining team went on to create ZigZag), Studio 360, and even Reply All, the prominent Gimlet podcast led by former On The Media staffers PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. Though far from reaching any designation of a crisis, it is notable that WNYC’s podcasting operations aren’t as vibrant as they once were. That’s a small shame compared to the greater shames of the organization’s other troubles, but it’s a shame nonetheless.

The hunt is on for Walker’s successor. That person will inherit one of the most interesting organizations in American culture, and will also be in the position to revitalize one of the most powerful entities in podcasting. I wonder, with bated breath, who that person will be.