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Fresh Hell

Inside the Cancellation of WNYC’s ‘The Takeaway’

"This is how you treat people who do awful things. And we didn’t do anything awful. We did a show every day,” says Melissa Harris-Perry.

3:25 PM EST on March 9, 2023

(Credit: Hell Gate / NPR and Melissa Harris-Perry)

On February 1, Melissa Harris-Perry, the host of WNYC's "The Takeaway," sent out a somewhat cryptic tweet. It is, she wrote, "astonishing to learn how little value I have to those for whom I’ve labored with such unrestrained effort." Harris-Perry continued: "I'm gutted. I'm devastated. I'm terrified. And I'm reminded of what I already knew." The public would eventually learn what she was referring to—she had just been informed that she was being put on involuntary leave from the show. Two weeks later, in a seeming reversal, Harris-Perry was back on air, but within days, another shoe dropped: WNYC leaders told staff that "The Takeaway," which has aired on WNYC for nearly fifteen years and which Harris-Perry has hosted for nearly two, would be canceled, its final broadcast airing on June 2. 

NYPR, the parent organization of WNYC, says the cancellation is being driven by declines in audience and in the number of other stations around the country that carry the show. With NYPR, along with National Public Radio and private news organizations alike, all facing an increasingly inhospitable business climate, the organization's belt-tightening has necessitated hard decisions like ending "The Takeaway," according to the organization's leaders.

But behind the scenes, the end of the show, and the manner in which it has been handled, has stirred up long-standing frustrations between employees and the organization's management. Former staffers allege that "The Takeaway" never received the support it needed from WNYC's leadership. Melissa Harris-Perry, in an interview with Hell Gate, said management's treatment of "Takeaway" staff, who are all losing their jobs with the show's cancellation, has been characterized by disrespect and cruelty. "I believe that the management of WNYC is actively and aggressively stonewalling and shortchanging these extraordinary professionals because they seek to dissuade further collective and public action by employees," she said. 

On the last day of January, after months of back and forth between Harris-Perry and WNYC leadership over her role in the running of the show, she was put on involuntary leave and told she wouldn't be returning to the show, a move that further alienated staff of the "Takeaway." The tumultuous manner of the show's demise has angered NYPR staff, in a way that suggests the period of tumult and profound mistrust between employees and management known to employees as "the Troubles" may not be entirely in the past. On Tuesday, the New York Public Radio Union, a local of the Screen Actors Guild, undertook its first concerted workplace action in years, marching to the office of NYPR's relatively new CEO LaFontaine Oliver and delivering a letter with some hundred staff signatories asking for greater transparency around the end of the show. 

Harris-Perry is careful to say she doesn't know why her contract was not renewed, but the decision came at a time when she was attempting to relinquish a management title that she felt was improper, and to join the NYPR staff union. "If I'm not really a manager, but you're making me stay in the managerial role, to me, that's union-busting," Harris-Perry told Hell Gate. Allegations of union-busting and retaliation against staff were a central aspect of the troubles that have roiled New York Public Radio's WNYC station and its web publication, Gothamist, over recent years. (Full disclosure here: I'm one of three Hell Gate worker-owners who have worked for Gothamist/WNYC on a freelance basis in the past. A fourth worker-owner, who had no part in editing this story, was an editor and union shop steward at Gothamist until 2021.)

Harris-Perry took over hosting duties at "The Takeaway" in 2021, initially as a provisional fill-in for Tanzina Vega, who left the show under a storm of controversy. By the summer of that year, Harris-Perry was brought on as the full-time host of "The Takeaway," receiving the additional title of managing editor. She told Hell Gate that the title made sense to her at the time, as she expected to have managerial authority over the show. 

It didn't turn out that way, she said. Instead, management of "The Takeaway" has been handled by a rotating string of executive producers and interim executive producers—the show had five of them during her time hosting the show. According to Harris-Perry, she has never supervised any staff in her time at "The Takeaway," and when she asked for information about the show's performance, she was rebuffed. "They certainly weren't treating me like management," she said.

Jennifer Houlihan Roussel, New York Public Radio's vice president for communications, told Hell Gate that while it's true that "The Takeaway" team reports to the executive producer, Harris-Perry has had managerial responsibilities. She "met with Studios operational staff to review org structure," "worked with Studios and Takeaway leadership on documenting performance issues with members of the staff," "participated in a Studios leadership retreat," and "made daily editorial decisions about the overall direction of the show," Houlihan Roussel wrote, adding that Harris-Perry did have "access to the show's financial and audience metrics" and to "a detailed budget." (Harris-Perry says she had access to none of these.)

Frustrated at being saddled with a managerial title without any managerial authority, Harris-Perry says she asked in October of last year to relinquish her managing editor position, so that she might be eligible to join the NYPR employees' union, while retaining her hosting duties. Management didn't act on that request, she said, and the next month, when the show's executive producer stepped down, Harris-Perry agreed to retain her title until a new executive producer could be hired.

The new executive producer was hired on January 19 of this year. The same day, Harris-Perry sent an email to Andrew Golis, senior vice president and chief content officer at WNYC, and other members of NYPR management, informing them that she intended to renounce her management title in February. "It remains clear to me that the role of Managing Editor is not empowered with supervisory authority or meaningful institutional leadership," she wrote. "Repeated attempts to have the role clarified and to be included in meaningful management and leadership decisions have been met with inaction. Therefore, I am once again clarifying my intention to resign from the position of Managing Editor effective February 1." 

At the same time that she was attempting to join the union, Harris-Perry was also concerned about WNYC's commitment to the show. Knowing that her own contract, the contract for the executive producer, and the show's agreement with its production partner PRX would all expire in June, Harris-Perry worried that, given there was no indication that these contracts would be renewed, management was gearing up to cancel the show. When she raised this concern in a meeting in late 2022, however, management told her there were no plans to cancel the show, she said. 

In January, Harris-Perry flagged the confluence of contract expirations to her staffers. "I didn't want a bunch of really talented, young 20s and early 30s producers to be going into this almost insane job market on two weeks' notice if we were going to end," Harris-Perry said. Staffers brought these concerns up with a senior vice president of WNYC Studios at a meeting on January 20, and they were told that WNYC was actively discussing renewal of the show.

Golis did attempt to to discuss the matter with her, Harris-Perry said, but his efforts to reach her coincided with a death in the family of her husband, who also functions as Harris-Perry's agent, and she put the conversation off. "What I said in the email was, 'No, you are not the most important thing happening. We're in the midst of a family crisis. My husband is in the midst of dealing with family loss and trauma, you will have to wait until Friday,'" she recalled.

Asked about Harris-Perry's account of her conversations with management, Houlihan Roussel told Hell Gate they were not accurate, but did not go into greater detail, citing the organization's inability to disclose confidential personnel information.

Then, on the evening of January 31, Golis sent Harris-Perry an email putting her on involuntary paid leave and beginning the process of ending her employment. "Given your statement that you do not want to perform your combined duties as Host/Managing Editor, which we find essential to the production of The Takeaway, we are going to have you step away from the show and team on a paid administrative leave while we work out the terms of your departure," Golis wrote.

The email alarmed Harris-Perry, she said. She called Golis immediately, offering to retain her management title if she could continue hosting the show. Golis refused, she said. 

Concerned over what her sudden absence might mean for the roughly dozen people working on "The Takeaway," Harris-Perry wrote to the show's staff via Slack. "I simply said, 'I want y'all to know, I did not abandon you. I didn't leave you. I've been told that I can't host,'" she told Hell Gate.

"Takeaway" staffers didn't learn any more about what was going on from WNYC leadership, as they continued to produce the show with guest hosts.

On February 1, a Wednesday, a New York Public Radio attorney sent Harris-Perry terms of her separation from the show and the organization, under which she would not return to hosting, Harris-Perry said. But by the weekend, LaFontaine Oliver was on the phone asking Harris-Perry to return to her hosting duties through the end of her contract in June. Harris-Perry consulted with "The Takeaway" staff, who told her they wanted her back, even if it was only for the remainder of her contract. She agreed to return to hosting.

At an all-staff WNYC meeting on February 9, "Takeaway" staff, evidently concerned that management's official silence around the reason for Harris-Perry's absence was leaving room for unflattering speculation, stood up to speak up in her defense, according to people present at the meeting. "Her team really stands behind her, and they didn't want there to be any doubt about that," said a WNYC staffer who attended the meeting.

Harris-Perry was back the next week. "The first couple days back were a little like, getting back in the saddle," she said. "But part of what's so painful about this is that by that Friday, we were feeling good." The show had run a series of segments they were proud of, including one on Ukraine by associate producer Katarina Barton, and an interview with the mayor of Helena, Montana, by associate producer Ryan Andrew Wilde. The team knew Harris-Perry wouldn't be returning at the end of her contract, but they were feeling good about their work in the meantime. "It was like, we don't love that this is going to be over soon," Harris-Perry said, referring to her departure, "but this is going great."

Harris-Perry had barely been back at "The Takeaway a week, she said, when, on Friday, February 17, she and the rest of the show's employees were summoned on 15 minutes' notice to a Zoom meeting with WNYC's Oliver and Golis, who told the staffers that they had decided to cancel the show. "We were told that they would not be renewing the show, and that our last air date would be June 2," Harris-Perry said.

While the Zoom meeting was underway, WNYC management sent an email to all company staff, announcing the end of "The Takeaway." Staffers began receiving concerned texts from colleagues even as they were learning the details of their fate.

The "Takeaway" team asked if staffers, some of whom have been with WNYC for 15 years, would be reassigned to other positions at the organization. They were told that this would not be happening, but that they were free to apply to positions as they opened up. 

Whether Harris-Perry's efforts to shed her management title and join the union provoked her suspension or influenced the timing or the manner of the show's cancellation remains unclear, but it continues to be a point of dispute between her and NYPR management. Houlihan Roussel told Hell Gate, "The decision to sunset the show was not made until very shortly before it was announced."

To date, New York Public Radio still has made no public, formal announcement about the end of "The Takeaway." Houlihan Roussel told Hell Gate that "audience-facing messaging" about the end of a show generally happens closer to the end of a run.

As Semafor reported, NYPR told other public radio stations that carry "The Takeaway" that "the program’s decline in audience as well as the financial challenge of producing a daily show—a situation made more challenging this year by the headwinds facing many across media—has led us to this decision."

Asked point-blank about the cancellation by WNYC host Brian Lehrer on February 7, Oliver said, "The decision to end 'The Takeaway' was not one that we or our partners at PRX took lightly." Oliver called the shuttering of the show "a tough decision," adding, "Audience declines, with the drop in station carriage, some pre-existing financial deficits, and the revenue headwinds put us in a situation and led WNYC and PRX to not renew the contract and to wind down the show, and I know that that is disappointing for our listeners, for the members of the 'Takeaway' team, for audiences around the country."

The financial deficits and revenue headwinds confronting WNYC are real: In an email sent to WNYC staff on Wednesday, and obtained by Hell Gate, Oliver told employees that the company is forecasting a $7 million deficit for 2022. Advertising revenue is contracting, Oliver wrote, adding, "Both sponsorship, and, to a lesser extent, membership are down." To counter this "growing deficit," Oliver wrote, New York Public Radio will extend its hiring freeze, require pre-approval for all overtime, cease all travel funding, and put promotions on hold.

But union members note that there's one budget line Oliver's message makes no mention of adjusting: executive salaries. That compensation, as of the organization's most recently available tax filings, included three-quarters of a million dollars for the CEO, nearly another half-million dollars a year for Golis, and more than $300,000 a year each for two other senior vice presidents. (Several high-profile on-air hosts also earn salaries in the mid-six figures.)

Harris-Perry and the staff of "The Takeaway" continue to produce the show, and plan to work until the show ends in June. But they're not all going quietly. Staffers have publicly shared their support for Harris-Perry and amplified the union's recent action on their behalf, and Harris-Perry herself has been volubly critical of WNYC management on Twitter. (The show's official account also retweeted several tweets about the union's solidarity action March 7, but those retweets were soon taken down.)

For "Takeaway" staff, the remaining few months of the show represent an opportunity to make the best radio they can before they lose their jobs. For NYPR management, the fallout from the cancellation of "The Takeaway" appears to be a setback to its hopes of improving relations with employees. Harris-Perry says she won't be returning to media after her experience at NYPR, and she's fine with that.

 "Shows don't last forever," she said. "But the decision to cancel us was done in a way that doesn't honor any aspects of the work that was done by so many of these team members. I'm at the end of my career in media, but they're all at the beginning. And they deserve so much more than this. There's a way that you treat people. And this is how you treat people who do awful things. And we didn't do anything awful. We did a show every day."

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