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Amid ratings challenges at GBH, external investigation probes workplace culture

“A personnel situation occurred in our newsroom and we’ve dealt with it,” said CEO Susan Goldberg

GBH's Brighton headquarters located next to the Mass. Pike.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

About a dozen employees of 89.7 GBH, the National Public Radio affiliate, were in a conference room with the VP of human resources.

She’d just revealed the results of a three-month investigation into complaints about the station’s culture. The mood was tense. A bullying allegation against a top editor had not been substantiated, but the inquiry did confirm senior managers made inappropriate comments about employees’ race, age, and gender by referring to “old white men” when discussing newsroom diversity.

Jim Braude was at the November meeting, and he was angry. It wasn’t the “old white men” comment that upset Braude, a 74-year-old white man and one of the station’s most prominent on-air personalities. The investigators had shared their findings with him a few days before, and what he’d heard was more damning.

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“I don’t know if you’re intending to deceive people, Ann, but you are,” Braude said, addressing the head of HR, Ann Dexter. In an account confirmed by two people who were there, he repeated specific language that investigators said employees used to describe the atmosphere in the GBH newsroom: “uncomfortable,” “fearful for their jobs,” “disrespectful,” “chilling.”

“Is that true, Ann?” someone interjected.

“Yes,” Dexter replied.

As host of GBH's Greater Boston in 2018, Jim Braude (left) sat down with Secretary of State Bill Galvin and challenger Josh Zakim (right) at GBH Studios in Boston. Meredith Nierman

Listeners of “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” can’t hear it, but there’s considerable static inside GBH’s Brighton headquarters at the moment. Several staffers, including Braude, say there’s an undercurrent of fear and intimidation fostered by domineering bosses whose push to make the station more relevant online — on YouTube, Facebook, TikTok — has affected morale and undermined the radio and TV broadcasting that has been GBH’s bread-and-butter. They cite weak ratings that rank the radio station barely in the top 10 in the Boston market. Management, meanwhile, says the station is undergoing a major transformation, which can be difficult.

“Substantial change can lead to confusion, misunderstandings, and impact morale,” Pam Johnston, the general manager of GBH News, told employees at a series of meetings to discuss the investigators’ report. “It should never make people feel like they haven’t been heard or that their contributions don’t count. . . . I’ve heard that people felt that way from some of my comments, and for that I apologize.”

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Lee Hill, GBH News’s executive editor, also apologized. “If at any time, words or actions by me have made anyone feel like they don’t belong at the table, I’m sorry,” he told the staff. “That’s not my intention.”

In all, 26 employees met privately with investigators, Dexter said at the meetings. But only Braude, cohost of “Boston Public Radio” — the sole GBH show that beats rival 90.9 WBUR in the ratings — is complaining publicly. Others unhappy about behavior they consider bullying and disdainful declined to talk on the record for fear of retribution.

“It simply confirms what the investigators found,” Braude said. “People fear for their jobs.”

There’s been discord at other public radio stations. WBUR fired Tom Ashbrook in 2018 after an investigation confirmed claims of bullying; and in 2021, WNYC hosts Tanzina Vega and Bob Garfield departed the nonprofit station amid allegations they mistreated colleagues.

But some GBH employees say the criticism of station management is unfair or overblown. Callie Crossley, a veteran journalist, commentator, and host who’s worked at the NPR affiliate for more than a decade, endorses the station’s digital-first approach and praises management’s efforts to increase newsroom diversity. Crossley, who’s Black, said she’s endured toxic workplaces elsewhere, and this isn’t that.

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“Bias, bullying, and intimidation cannot be tolerated, that’s absolutely correct,” said Crossley. “But I want to be clear: That. Did. Not. Happen. Here.”

Susan Goldberg joined GBH as CEO in 2022.GBH/Courtesy of GBH

The simmering tensions inside GBH reached the corner office over the summer, prompting station CEO Susan Goldberg to enlist an employment law firm, Sanzone & McCarthy, to investigate. In an interview, Goldberg acknowledged the inquiry revealed “issues” — she wouldn’t be specific — but said she has confidence in the direction of the GBH newsroom and its leaders: Johnston, Hill, and Paul Singer, the investigations and impact editor.

“A personnel situation occurred in our newsroom and we’ve dealt with it,” said Goldberg, who was the editor of National Geographic before joining GBH in 2022. “I’m confident in how we’ve dealt with it. We’re moving on — with some work to do, like every other workplace.”

There’s been at least a bit of friction at GBH since 2010, when the station stopped playing jazz and classical music and switched to a news-and-talk format with an integrated newsroom serving radio (89.7 FM), television (GBH 2), and online (wgbhnews.org). Thereafter, GBH competed for stories and listeners with WBUR, Boston’s other NPR affiliate.

“People assume there’s a higher level of civility at public media stations, but I want to correct that,” said Crossley. “People may assume that based on ‘Masterpiece Theater,’ but newsrooms in public radio are exactly the same as they are anyplace else.”

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Johnston took over as GM of GBH News in the early days of the pandemic in 2020. She’d previously handled strategy and audience for “Frontline,” the PBS documentary series, and worked as a reporter, producer, and news director at WLVI-TV (Channel 56). Johnston told the staff she wanted to transform GBH from an old-school public radio/TV outlet with a transmitter on top of Great Blue Hill — hence GBH — into a digital dynamo.

Initially, employees welcomed the emphasis on bolstering the station’s online identity. To remain relevant and attract a younger, more diverse audience, most agreed the venerable broadcast station should have a home on YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, and streaming platforms. Three years later, there are signs the strategy is working: GBH’s YouTube channel is, if not booming, at least growing, with 189,000 viewers per week — a 100 percent increase over 2022 — and “Boston Public Radio,” the popular midday show cohosted by Braude and Margery Eagan, has been a streaming success, with 3.6 million downloads in 2023. In addition, the well-received GBH podcast, “The Big Dig,” has racked up 1.4 million downloads and 637,000 views on YouTube.

But in interviews with the Globe, more than a dozen current and former GBH employees say Johnston’s management style was autocratic and dismissive from the beginning. They cite instances of yelling in meetings, disparaging employees behind their backs, and a general suspicion of staffers with dissenting points of view.

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Many, including Braude, claim the intense focus on digital has taken attention away from the station’s radio and TV programming. More than once, they say, Johnston declared “TV and radio are dead.” GBH’s radio ratings are not dead, but, other than “Boston Public Radio,” they are lackluster, lagging well behind WBUR. According to Nielsen Audio, WBUR notched a 6.4 rating for November — second in the Boston market behind 98.5 The Sports Hub — while GBH, at 3.9, ranked ninth.

“It’s not super pretty right now in terms of an overall radio audience for GBH,” said Scott Fybush, editor of Northeast Radio Watch and a broadcast consultant.

GBH headquarters at 1 Guest Street in Brighton Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Inside GBH, there’s also been confusion about some of Johnston’s programming decisions. In 2022, she remade “Morning Edition” with two cohosts in their 20s and a format prioritizing breezy banter, telling Boston Business Journal: “I do not want to be confused with NPR.” The show has struggled to find an audience; in November, WBUR’s “Morning Edition” had a 9.3 rating (number two in the time period), while GBH’s “Morning Edition” had a 3.5 (10th in the time period.)

On TV, the nightly news program, “Greater Boston,” has been without a permanent host since Braude departed the show more than a year ago, and last spring Johnston axed “Open Studio,” a weekly arts-and-culture show hosted by Jared Bowen. Boston-area arts organizations and patrons were surprised by the move and many expressed their displeasure directly to Goldberg. Soon after, GBH launched “The Culture Show,” an hour-long daily radio show — cohosted by Bowen, Crossley, and others — that’ll be available on YouTube soon.

“The lemonade here is I absolutely got an opportunity to sit down with so many people in our arts and culture community and hear their concerns,” said Goldberg. “I’m 100 percent certain that because of the time we’re devoting to it and the broad interests of our contributors on the show, we’ll cover the arts better than we ever have.”

Johnston declined to be interviewed for this story, but in the meetings with employees and HR to discuss the investigators’ report she read prepared remarks addressing staff complaints. Johnston said she’d been given two tasks when she took the job: increase GBH’s digital presence and diversify the newsroom. She said the station has experienced an enormous amount of change in a short period of time — “new leadership, new employees, new strategies, new initiatives” — and done so in the midst of a pandemic when many GBH employees were working remotely.

“Under the best of circumstances, we know change is hard and can be unsettling,” Johnston said. ”And our newsroom has been through a lot of change.”

Johnston also walked back her bleak appraisal of radio and television.

“My language about the future of radio and TV was harsh and not what I intended,” she said. “Radio and TV are very important to us, even as we drive to increase our digital presence.”

GBH has increased the diversity of its newsroom since Johnston arrived. In 2021, she hired Hill, who’s Black, as executive editor. He previously worked at WNYC as the executive producer of “The Takeaway,” leaving the station a few months after Vega departed. When Johnston took over in 2020, 19 of GBH News’s 109 employees were people of color; today, 27 of 125 are.

Crossley suggested that some of the discontent with Johnston and Hill may reflect an unease or anxiety about GBH’s efforts to make its newsroom less white. Asked if she thinks there’s resistance to increasing diversity, Goldberg replied with one word: No.

“Like every organization, we have things we need to do better — people who can do better in their jobs, myself included, and we’re working on it,” she said.

For his part, Braude credits Goldberg for conducting an investigation, but he questions whether anything will change.

“People testified about mistreatment. Much of it was confirmed. No one was held responsible,” Braude said. “Now people have to report to the same person they testified against and pray their supervisor doesn’t know they did.”

This story has been updated to clarify Ann Dexter’s job title and Pam Johnston’s role at “Frontline.”


Mark Shanahan can be reached at mark.shanahan@globe.com. Follow him @MarkAShanahan.