Some Personal News
Bob’s long, highly decorated radio career comes to an end, but not before he gets the last word. He’s not leaving the stage altogether. He is, however, setting fire to the curtains.
Things are fixin’ to change around here. In Bully Pulpit Land, that is.
This is due to certain circumstances, situations, events, misfortunes and all kinds of converging mishegas (some highly juicy details forthcoming), but the bottom line is: Bully Pulpit, the Podcast, is dead.
Long live Bully Pulpit, the blog (details fifthcoming).
After 37 years of casting broadly and podly, next weekend will mark my audio swan song. It’ll be an hour-long review of a long, noisy career on All Things Considered, On the Media, Lexicon Valley, The Genius Dialogues and Bully Pulpit. They laughed, they cried, they seethed, they shook their heads in disbelief.
Just for context, 1986 is when Oprah’s show went national. That’s when Chernobyl exploded. That’s when American Girl dolls, Pop Secret microwave popcorn and Prince Harry were born. Eddie Money was a big star. And I did an ATC essay titled “Jews Don’t Hunt.”
That gets to one of those situations alluded to above: At the moment of my radio debut, I’d already been a journalist for nine years, which means — if you do the math — I am old AF. I went to high school with Pebbles Flintstone. You know the Periodic Table of Elements? In my chemistry class, it went up to 28. (Zinc was a rumor.) When I got started in radio, we used actual tape and edited it with razor blades. There was one ringtone. It went rrrrrning. And I owned a 5-inch-thick phonebook.
So here are some of the things that happen when you get to be a senior American:
Your wisdom grows, but not as fast as your ear hair.
You get a lot of mail offers for chair lifts and calls from the Social Security Administration informing you your account has been hacked.
Your children begin speaking to you with the voice of a kindergarten teacher.
Your body begins to disintegrate.
Where are my fucking car keys?
Might I just call your attention to Item 4?
Medically, I’m mid-Chernobyl. Without being too HIPAA insensitive, I’ve got shit going on with my kidneys, my blood sugar, my spine, my lungs, my muscles and my attitude in general. Where did you go this weekend? I went to the hospital.
Not to worry; I’m not dying [Editor’s Note: Needs fact check], but I spend a lot of time in the shop. So the physical grind of sitting at the computer for hours and hours to produce a pod is no longer sustainable — which is only one major thing that isn’t sustainable. The other is the economics of Bully Pulpit. As I’ve previously informed you quite a few times in the form of begging you for your financial support, there is a certain critical mass of subscription revenue needed to pay the bills for a production of this kind.
We never got there.
To be financially stable, in general, a podcast must be in the top 1/10th of 1 percent of all the 50 million pods out there. We were in the top 10%, which is roughly like being in the top 10% of sand. It’s frustrating, because our numbers reveal not just satisfaction but enthusiasm among our listeners (the metrics are off the charts and the iTunes ratings and comments are almost embarrassingly fulsome). I could continue just for the fun of it, but experience is a great teacher and what I have learned is that blood clots are not fun.
There is a third factor in all of this, which I have not discussed publicly before because of ongoing legal matters. But, as I sign off, I think I owe my audience some explanation of the preciptating event behind this past year of Bully Pulpitation. I started this program after being fired from On the Media after 20 years, on allegations of violating WNYC’s anti-bullying policy. [TRIGGER WARNING: A lot of whining, self-justification and flying spittle is imminent.]
Nobody likes a bully.
My cashiering last May was based on “a pattern of misconduct” — to wit: six episodes of shouting over the previous three years. One of the angry outbursts was at a computer, which froze on me at deadline. I slammed my fist on the desk and shouted a bad word, rhyming with “fuck.” Another was at a producer, who had deceitfully re-edited a piece against my explicit directions, and tried to sneak the change past me. I discovered her mischief in literally the last two minutes of the weekly production process and hollered plenty. She cried. Another time, I grew impatient with a producer who very much wanted me to ask a certain interview question which I thought was superfluous, but also I had another thing scheduled and was out of time to argue. I was rude to him in front of the guest, for which I immediately and profusely apologized. I was also accused of using profanity at work. Hahahaha! Have you ever been in a newsroom? The OTM corner at WNYC was like Pier 17, minus only the longshoreman hooks.
All of the above generated a complaint to HR, which resulted two years ago in me taking professional coaching to guide me in workplace interactions and keep me from running afoul of WNYC policy. I argued that the complaints were weak tea, but anger-management is a lifelong problem of mine, so I’d take my medicine and hope it helps. I guess it didn’t.
A year later — I think early 2021 — I was in a conference call and found myself exasperated by a producer’s persistence in pitching a story I’d explained repeatedly I wasn’t interested in (because its premise of insidious climate-science racism was pretty thin). By her third or fourth attempt, I called the story “bullshit.” Then another producer suggested (not for the first or even fifth time) that I might just have a blind spot for the plight of marginalized communities. Oh, brother. Though I have spent a career documenting the marginalization of those communities, that had been the subtext of a lot of producer push-back, some of it explicit. So, in violation of all that is holy, I replied: “I’m sick and tired of being told how woke I’m not.” Those words later would be used against me like one of those dock hooks into a wooden crate.
Then, fatally, in a March 2021 meeting devoted to planning for my co-host Brooke Gladstone’s then-scheduled 6-month sabbatical, I harshed the mellow by informing the team on short notice that my torn shoulder would require surgery in the very first week of her absence. That’s when all hell broke loose. This was an operation I’d originally planned for that very March, but had been persuaded by executive producer Katya Rogers to postpone until August when we repurposed old shows. Unfortunately, by the time March arrived, pain, sleeplessness and narcotic dependence forced my hand, and two surgeons advised me to delay no longer.
I came to the Zoom meeting (I live and work in Washington; everybody else is in New York) with the inconvenient news, but with a reasonable plan for minimal disruption to the show. The moment I announced that the past weekend’s particular agony persuaded me at last to re-reschedule the surgery, Katya went off on me. How could I spring this on them? How could I throw such a monkey wrench in the works? I tried to explain my plan for minimizing the disruption, but at least four times I was talked over and shouted down. You can’t do this. We agreed not ’til August. To the extent I was able to explain myself, I floated my idea of pre-recording an hour-long episode on the healthcare crisis and wealth disparities that flowed from the so-called Pittsburgh Miracle, and running it the first week of Brooke’s absence. You can’t do that. We can’t put that together in time. You can’t be back from surgery soon enough to do the following show. I myself was shouting to be heard, including the phrase, “Will you just let me get a fucking word in edgewise?!” This all in front of the producers. I declared that I was leaving the Zoom, and did.
Moments later I got a call back from Katya and Brooke, with the same litany of denunciations. Kat — who I’m pretty sure is not an orthopedic surgeon — informed me again that my notion of missing only one week of work was ridiculous. Finally, Brooke — who had taken fistfuls of off-the-books leaves over 20 years to deal with her stress and ennui — said, “I think you’re just feeding on the attention.” To which I cleverly retorted, “You know what, Brooke? Fuck you.” [Footnote: I had the surgery anyway, took one week off, and returned to record the hour-long Pittsburgh show, just as I’d suggested. Ironically, it was my last episode before the ax fell.]
When, after my firing, I told The New York Times only that my angry outburst had been “provoked,” that’s the provocation I was talking about. I’m also litigating a legal claim based on a violation of the Equal Opportunity Employment law entitling an employee to reasonable accommodation on health issues.
Getting back to my “blind spot.” For what it’s worth, over a three-year period, I had shared with Katya, WNYC general counsel Ivan Zimmerman and Chief Content Office Andrew Golis my concerns about growing tension between me and the production staff. These producers are brilliant, knowledgeable and skilled beyond their years — far beyond where I was at their ages. They are also working at a time, especially amid the recent convulsions at WNYC, of great suspicion about the patriarchy. You can scan the archives for my decades-long bona fides as a justice warrior and speaker of truth to power, but I spent the last few years enduring a lot of side-eye from the staff, a whole lot of backbiting and general disrespect. Once, when I did an essay upbraiding the press for jumping to conclusions about the MAGA-hatted Kentucky high-school kids’ Lincoln Memorial run-in with protesters (for which coverage news organizations since have paid dearly to settle lawsuits), a producer said, “It’s the first time I’ve been ashamed of working for On the Media.”
Moreover, at a time when American democracy was under siege, there was a limited appetite for latest developments when there were larger stories about the greater American narrative to be told. We covered the shit out of structural racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia and the whole sordid history of American imperialism, but Trumpian attacks on democracy were just too many and too obvious to obsess over. (Mind you, that’s merely my characterization of their priorities.) More to the point, in my view, OTM had begun cleaving to a catechism of lefty orthodoxies — which weren’t necessarily wrong, but so rigid as to occasionally interfere with open-minded journalism. The thrust was pre-ordained. On several occasions, Brooke informed me (in front of the staff) on matters subject to analysis and interpretation: “You’re wrong.” Or simply insulted me, leading on two or three occasions to perfunctory apologies. Such dismissiveness fed a certain other narrative. I heard the staff use the disparaging phrase “white guys” so much, I began to feel like they saw me as a Klansman, or, maybe worse, Papa John. In fact, to be precise, it was the way the junior officers of the USS Caine treated Captain Queeq. Only I never steamed over a towline; I enjoyed the constantly expressed gratitude of the audience and a whole shit-ton of national awards.
Katya, indeed, told me on two occasions, “You’re right. They don’t respect you.” The fact that I had no supervisory authority over the production staff didn’t help, and I begged management for at least dotted-line authority — so that, for example, directly countermanding my editing decisions behind my back on deadline would be subject to discipline. But the answer was always no.
I should note that, in general, I value civility in human interaction, not counting the boxing ring and Twitter. But I also value the passion and heat in the crucible of deadline journalism. Politesse is no way to file the burrs off of forged metal. Secondly, I’m a big fan of the patriarchy being cut down a peg or two, and for diversity of voices throughout journalism and the rest of American society at all levels, and with it a general reshuffling of the power structure. Long before my railroading, I predicted to anyone who’d listen that I’d myself be caught up in the frenzy — and that on one level I’d be okay with that, because of the greater good and all that. But once it happened, I wasn’t so sanguine, because of the kangaroo konduct of WNYC’s star chamber and the self-righteous contemptuousness of Brooke’s on-air explanation to the audience:
Bob Garfield is out this week, and, as many of you know by now, every week, having been fired after a warning and other efforts at amelioration for a pattern of bullying behavior. The entire staff agreed with that decision.
If a newspaper treated a news event with such casual sophistry, it would be in OTM’s cross hairs. Of course, I could have had a hand in that announcement; WNYC made me that offer in exchange for my promise not to sue the company. I obviously declined. Brooke’s phrasing would seem to place the company “offer” in a category you might be familiar with: it’s called “extortion.” Thus can a highly-decorated career and unblemished personal reputation be unceremoniously destroyed. The end came like something out of the Cultural Revolution. I’m surprised they didn’t put me in a dunce cap.
Feet of clay. Lots and lots of clay.
But getting back to my own failings. It’s a long list, high among them that I’ve been a screamer my whole life. In the face of perceived injustice, dishonesty and wrong-doing, I tend to lose my shit. It is not a trait I wear with honor; it’s childish, and a legit personality defect — specially when I’ve, say, overestimated the insult. But once again, there must first be pretty serious provocation. And I’m here to tell you that in 20 years at OTM, and in my 45 years of journalism, there had never been any hint of me bullying colleagues. You may notice that when prominent people are scandalized or canceled for any reason, suddenly many voices come to the fore, saying, “Yes, I experienced the same thing.” After my firing, not a single one of my hundreds and hundreds for former colleagues from 12 previous organizations since 1977 emerged to second the motion. Not one. Furthermore, in my 20 years at OTM, over literally thousands of pieces, I can count on one hand the number of times I even complained to a producer directly about their work. I conveyed my annoyance only to the executive producer; my criticism could be only inferred, based on my changes to their work. My emails and texts will reveal only ordinary production interactions and a lot, lot, lot of praise. Not one “Your prep sucked…again.” It may have been a toxic workplace, but, relatively speaking, I was a gray Crayola.
In short, “bully” my ass. This wasn’t a bullying problem; it was an OTM problem.
Now, Zen question: Can you bully up? If so, fire me for all eternity. Here’s some history:
Through the year 2000, On the Media had been a small show doing fine work with the barest minimum of resources. Then Brooke and I were brought in to co-host a much more robust reboot. The pairing worked, at least in the sense that the audience grew from 100,000 to 1.4 million over 20 years. It also didn’t work, because I can’t stand Brooke and she can’t stand me. We began as longtime friends, but while our different visions contributed to the energy and diversity of the program, it also led to a great deal of bickering, jostling and general conflict. She mostly quietly snide, me mostly very loud. I sometimes prevailed, but Brooke was managing editor in addition to host, which, if you ask me, she interpreted as Boss of All Things. So it kind of sucked being me. And because I was working remotely from Washington and the whole staff worked in New York, my role in decision making was gradually diminished, over the years, to the vanishing point. In my last few years, the frustration of my marginalization would bubble up in weekly story meetings, where I found myself marginalized, my raw ideas getting crickets from the producers and more than once naked disparagement from Katya and Brooke. (“Your ideas are shit,” Katya once told me.) She was very candid that way. She also several times confessed to being agreeable as producers badmouthed me (lest she offend them); also as I badmouthed Brooke and as Brooke badmouthed me. “Yeah, that’s how I manage,” she said.
For a glimpse of how that all sounded on the radio, I commend you to a special we ran the day after Trump’s 2016 election.
Brooke, Katya and I had convened to discuss, off the cuff, what OTM’s role would be in the coming four years. My argument, as often stated during the campaign, was that we must document every bit of the coming depravity rather than pretend everything was somehow OK. Referring to Katherine Anne Porter’s famous novel — set in the early 1930s, full of soon-to-be-victims sailing hopefully toward Germany — I said, “What I most hope is that we are not all passengers on the Ship of Fools.”
To which Brooke loudly responded: “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Katya, for her part, laughed at me. I shall not bother to rehash what in fact did take place in Trump’s America over the ensuing four years, much less right now. You could hear my anger at her naked and public contempt, but that was nuthin’. Many times over 20 years, in frustration and indignation with my senior colleagues, I would scream like a coyote in a leg-hold trap. In story meetings with producers present, anticipating disrespect, I’d sound shrill and churlish. In some ways I was both victim and perpetrator. But I needn’t explain more. You’ve seen dysfunctional families. Now imagine the siblings in battles of will 240 miles apart.
All of which is to say, while I continue to suffer the immense pain of seeing my professional and personal reputation destroyed in the foregoing perfect storm of zeal and malice, getting away from that toxic culture was a kind of liberation. In fact, it was exactly like something that happened to me just this weekend: having blood clots of the lungs dissolve through hospital treatment to let me breathe freely again.
Bully Pulpit has been just that. Forty four episodes of me (with the technical and editing help of producers Matt Schwartz and Mike Vuolo) taking my allegedly shit ideas and turning them into interviews, essays and multi-voice pieces of reporting and commentary — all uninhibited by the sensitivities and orthodoxies of others with their own agendas. It’s been bliss.
I don’t know if BP has been the best work in my 37 years of audio — my soon-to-drop farewell podcast will allow you to judge — but it has been the most satisfying, and the most rewarding. For this, I thank not only Mike and Matt of Booksmart Studios, but also you. You stayed with me. You believed in me. You encouraged me. And most of all you rewarded me with far more than the dollars I so often pleaded for. You gave me your attention, which, after 37 years I can absolutely swear, is the most precious reward of all.
I thank you, and those who came before you. You are the breath of my journalistic life.
But wait, there’s more!
Thing is, this isn’t quite farewell. I’m hanging up my headset, but not my keyboard. Bully Pulpit will continue as a weekly (or more than weekly) column — of which this an ongoing installment. It is free of charge, unless you are moved to subscribe, or to remain subscribed. But, once again, I can’t sustain this forever without revenue. So, please, subscribe anyway. Not just because it will keep me going, but, well … you don’t want to make me angry, do you?