‘I’ve been smacked wide awake.’ Tom Ashbrook reflects on his firing
For 16 years, Tom Ashbrook reached across America as the host of public radio show “On Point,” eventually building an audience of 2 million listeners with his baritone voice as he delved into a full range of political, cultural, and economic issues.
On Thursday, his platform was my speakerphone, talking to me about how he lost the job he loved for being a toxic boss, and what he would have done differently.
Ashbrook has not been on the air since Dec. 8, when WBUR-FM, the Boston station that produces “On Point,” put him on leave for unspecified allegations about his behavior at work.
Boston University — which operates WBUR as a National Public Radio affiliate — reviewed those complaints, and on Wednesday concluded he had created an abusive work environment and fired him. The university did not find that his unwanted touching constituted sexual harassment.
Before the university released its findings, I had been working on a column on whether “On Point” could survive without Ashbrook. I had concluded it could; in fact, I thought the show might even benefit from a reboot.
When I reached out to Ashbrook, 62, he told me he could only talk after the university completed its investigation. Here are edited excerpts from our 45-minute conversation:
You had one of the greatest jobs in media. What went wrong?
I’m still trying to figure that out. I lost track of some people’s pain, and I feel terrible about that. Of course, I feel terrible about losing a job I absolutely loved and work that is so important.
But it turns out that there were people who were hurt here, and I was not tuned in enough to know how my behavior was landing, how it affected some of my colleagues. That’s on me.
Your bosses knew about your bullying. Did they ever talk to you about it?
I never thought of it as bullying — at all. I was pushing to make a great show. I was always wanting to set the bar high, and I was always thinking in terms of excellence. Now other people, turns out, found that sometimes pretty uncomfortable.
A few times over the years, that was raised with me, but never in a way that really broke through to me, and never in a way that effectively led to change.
Part of it, in a different time, I don’t think people would have batted an eye at it. But times have changed, and people’s expectations change. Having been hit up the side of the head with a two-by-four, I’m now ready to change, too.
Did you ever have a moment deep down and thought of your behavior as inappropriate? Was there a time you said to yourself, ‘‘I shouldn’t have done that?’’
Everybody has those moments, especially in deadline-heavy broadcasting. I had moments like that. I always put the quality of the show wildly in front of everything else. I always thought that’s what really mattered. I honestly didn’t get that some people were feeling so uncomfortable.
Do you blame management or yourself for the abusive work environment?
I must note that there were people who thrived in this environment, too. When it got rough, I was the one who was there in the midst of it. We were pouring really young, unseasoned staff into roles that were demanding in a hurry. I am not sure we had the right management structure or workflow. I could have used help with all those things.
I am incredibly proud of the show we built. All these reports are based around the view of people who complained. There is a bigger universe here. It’s not like it was all so bad.
If you could say something to your old staff, what would it be?
To every single person who built “On Point,” it was an honor to work alongside you. To those who have gone on to great things, I’m really proud. To those who thrived and continue to thrive, I take joy in that. And to those who felt hurt, I feel deep regret for that. I am truly sorry about that.
When listeners tune in to Tom Ashbrook, you exude a Zen-like presence. But current and former staffers paint a different picture — a difficult boss prone to outbursts. Which is the real Tom Ashbrook?
I’m that same guy. I’m that same open, observing guy who really cares about everything, but in the channel of preparation, things get hairy sometimes.
BU found your conduct did not constitute sexual harassment. But can you explain these alleged back rubs and hugs, and do you remember “creepy” sex talk?
The physical contact was rare, brief, and in full public view. It would be a shoulder squeeze to encourage somebody.
Creepy sex talk, I can’t believe that phrase has gotten so much currency. We talked about everything in our editorial planning for “On Point” — everything under the sun. I always assumed I was doing that in the company of adult journalists who understood this was a straight-up editorial conversation. How that amounts to creepy sex talk eludes me.
I may be a dope sometimes, but I’m not a creep.
Do you feel like you got unfairly swept into the #MeToo movement?
When the whole #MeToo movement broke, my first thought was, “Thank God, that has nothing to do with me.” It feels awful to have been anywhere in that vicinity. I am really glad to have been cleared on that front. I fully expected to be.
Did you listen to “On Point” on Thursday when your former colleagues discussed your dismissal?
I heard it.
[Long pause] I don’t really have anything to say about it. I’m chastened. I’ve been smacked wide awake. I want to do the right thing by everybody.
What’s next for you?
I love this work, and I’m not finished with it. I’m sure I’ll find a place for it. I am taking a deep breath here first.
What would Tom Ashbrook ask himself that I haven’t asked?
He’d ask: “What have you really learned here, man?” And I’d say, “More workplace humility and more empathic imagination.”