The Boston station, which produces “On Point,” had placed Ashbrook on leave in December after 11 former employees of the show — men and women — accused him of “verbal assaults, intimidating actions, consistent bullying, and unwanted touching,” according to a story posted on BU Today, Boston University’s website. The university operates WBUR as an NPR affiliate.
A separate review concluded Ashbrook had not sexually harassed female staff members at WBUR.
“On Point’’ is a call-in show that seeks to dive deeply into topical cultural and political issues. Ashbrook, who commanded an audience of 2 million listeners on more than 290 NPR stations, blasted his firing as “profoundly unfair both to me and the listeners who have been such a part of ‘On Point.’ ”
In a statement, Ashbrook insisted his interactions with the “On Point” staff were “always well-intended and driven by my commitment to great radio and tackling tough issues,” though he expressed some regret in how he managed the team. He also said 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 also signaled he may not walk away quietly, retaining Laura Studen, an employment lawyer at Burns & Levinson. Studen would not comment about potential legal action.
News of the internal allegations against Ashbrook emerged in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal when prominent men were losing their jobs almost daily. BU that month launched two reviews that concluded Ashbrook’s conduct negatively affected the “On Point” staff, and that WBUR management repeatedly spoke to Ashbrook about his behavior, without results.
One review, by Longpoint Consulting, verified claims that Ashbrook had created an abusive work environment, according to the university.
The second inquiry, by the law firm of Holland & Knight, found that Ashbrook’s conduct was “not sexual in nature” and that the host had not sexually harassed female members of his staff.
About 60 people were interviewed between the two investigations, including accusers, employees, station managers, and Ashbrook, the university said.
“We were struck by the common themes that appeared in both reports,” Gary Nicksa, BU senior vice president for operations, said in the BU Today article. “ ‘On Point’ employees expressed enormous pride in the program and they recognized that along with everyone else, Mr. Ashbrook was under a great deal of pressure to make sure that the two-hour daily program was perfect. But the employees also described ways in which Mr. Ashbrook consistently overstepped reasonable lines and created a dysfunctional workplace in the process.”
Nicksa said Longpoint Consulting will now help station managers make needed changes.
“They will bring recommendations to us and to the station’s management team, and they will have an open door for any WBUR employee who wants to share their perspective or experience about how to improve or enhance the workplace culture,” he said.
Charlie Kravetz, the station’s general manager, said the station must do better.
“Despite the high-pressure nature of so much of our work, we must all be committed to a positive, respectful, and compassionate work environment in every corner of WBUR,” he said.
WBUR remains fully committed to “On Point” and will “immediately begin a national search for a new host,” Kravetz said. The show has continued in Ashbrook’s absence with guest hosts.
Ashbrook, a former Boston Globe editor, began at WBUR by helping provide live special coverage after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He was a natural on radio with a baritone voice, easily navigating foreign affairs and other complicated topics while juggling callers. Within a few weeks, WBUR decided to hire Ashbrook and make the special program a permanent show. It was renamed “On Point” in 2002.
“I’m proud of those who thrived with us,” Ashbrook said in the statement, referring to staff members. “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 sometimes colleagues’ feelings were hurt along the way. I regret that.”
Ashbrook said many listeners and former guests have offered him support.
“I am fortunate to love what I do, and I look forward to rejoining the national dialogue in whatever way I can.”
The question now is: Can “On Point” thrive without Tom Ashbrook? That may be hard to imagine in Boston, where he has been a local star. But media observers beyond Boston believe the show could use a reboot.
“This is an opportunity to upgrade ‘On Point,’ ” said Ken Mills, a public radio consultant in Minneapolis. “It hasn’t gained any new luster. It’s good, but not great.”