Boston, can we talk?
I’ve loved you since I was 16 and came east from Illinois on a truck full of hogs to look at the fancy schools. That truck took me to Philly, then I caught a bus to Back Bay. On that long-ago summer evening, I walked out of the old Trailways station, took in the sights and sounds of Boston, and fell in love.
Over the years that love deepened. Having babies here, raising kids, working for the Globe, starting a dot-com. There were serious stints in other parts of the world, but Boston — with its gritty independence and keen intellectual pride — became home.
After Sept. 11, 2001, NPR came calling through WBUR-FM Boston and asked if I would host emergency coverage of the 9/11 attacks with the redoubtable son of Dorchester, Jack Beatty. We said yes of course, and the very next day we were on 500 stations around the country, comforting and informing a nation in shock. That coverage became the show called “On Point.”
In time, with a lot of work from a lot of great people, “On Point” became something special. Here was Boston hosting a vigorous national conversation around ideas and how they ran through our politics and the arts, science and technology, philosophy and society. It was thrilling, and a natural for this city. I was so lucky to be a part of it.
In December, following allegations against me made by several employees, I was put on leave pending two investigations by WBUR’s owner, Boston University. The investigation, which looked into allegations of sexually inappropriate conduct, concluded favorably for me, but the second workplace assessment found that my conduct had created an abusive work environment. After 16 years hosting “On Point,” I was fired.
My firing came in the heat of the #MeToo movement, which I support, believe in, and applaud. I never imagined being a target. I should have been more self-aware of my own behavior and sensitive to the people around me. But I wasn’t, and for that there is no excuse. When I was pulled aside in the middle of a workday and told, “You have to go,” my first response was defensiveness and shock. Bullying? I had thought it was passion and commitment. And the show had thrived.
But high ratings are no excuse for inexcusable behavior. A good talk show host knows there’s a time to dig deep and just listen. So I did. These past months, I have listened and looked inward and focused on the complaints and my own actions. I’ve absorbed their weight. And bit by bit, I’ve come to see and fully own my mistakes. My behavior was offensive and overbearing to some. As the wondrous song goes, “T’was blind, but now I see.” I have thought long and hard about better ways to do great work — better ways to be. I realized I had to change my approach.
All over the country there is a great realignment going on, and this is good. We are in a historic teaching moment and learning moment. My story is a small part of that. I am responsible for what happened. I own it. I’m sorry for it. I’ve learned from it and will continue to learn. I’ve paid a price and come to greater understanding — understanding I long to demonstrate and share.
Is there room for redemption and rebirth, in our time of Google trails and hashtag headlines? I hope so. The work that Boston and the country supported all these years is more important than ever. Is there a way back?
Can we talk some more, Boston? I promise this time to listen as respectfully off the air as on. I want to make Boston proud again.
Tom Ashbrook was host of NPR’s “On Point.”