When the board of Iowa Public Radio voted to remove Mary Grace Herrington as c.e.o. Feb. 25, the directors were responding to mounting evidence of declining staff morale at the state network.
Dissension over Herrington's leadership was sparked at least in part by her decision to fire a popular news director last year.
The sole “no” in the IPR board's 6-1 vote was cast by a newly appointed director who was attending his first meeting.
Herrington had been chief executive since 2009, leading IPR through a signal expansion and format differentiation that created two distinct public radio channels for Iowans. She had previously served as assistant vice president for advancement operations at Creighton University.
But her management style came under scrutiny last May, after Herrington dismissed then-IPR News Director Jonathan Ahl.
The IPR board began responding to internal complaints about staff morale in June, according to board-meeting minutes and local press accounts.
During the board meeting that preceded last week's vote to dismiss Herrington, the directors reviewed results of a staff survey measuring employees' views of IPR leadership, according to a news story posted on IPR's website.
Kay Runge, chair of IPR’s board of directors, did not respond to a request for comment. She told the Gazette on Feb. 27 that a search for a new c.e.o. would begin immediately.
The position is not the only job vacancy at IPR. Herrington had assumed the duties of chief content officer last year, and the position of human resources director is also open, according to board records. Two top production jobs — those of the managing editor for news and talk show executive producer — have been filled on an interim basis.
Local press coverage of IPR and published minutes from board meetings reveal that concerns about staff morale at the statewide network first came to the board's attention after Ahl’s sudden exit. During its June 20 meeting, the board “expressed support” for Herrington and agreed to draft a letter to all staff members assuring them the board was “confident in the Executive Director’s leadership.” At that same meeting, Herrington’s contract was renewed, and she was given a 3 percent raise.
In July, then-board chair Arthur Neu told the Gazette that he had concerns about morale after speaking to a number of news employees. He told the paper the board would be “watching things” and said the concerns would not be taken lightly or brushed aside.
“They greatly respected Jonathan,” Neu told the paper. “They recognized some shortcomings, but they thought he was very innovative and, from their perspective, had been doing a very good job.”
Ahl is currently g.m. of Tri States Public Radio in Macomb, Ill. During a phone interview last week, Ahl declined to comment on Herrington's departure but said he was confident about IPR's future.
“I believe in the concept of Iowa Public Radio, I always have,” Ahl said. “I think it can be an extraordinary example of what public media can do. They’ll be all right.”
During an IPR board meeting in October 2012, a discussion of staff morale was added to the agenda after board members received a anonymous email that disparaged Herrington’s leadership. The board expressed surprise that morale was so low.
“[The board] questioned why management was unaware of these feelings among staff, and why the individual(s) in question would feel that they needed to take their concerns to the board rather than to their supervisor,” the minutes read. “The Board has received a few communications since July 1 and they are concerned that employees do not feel that their voices are heard.”
After the October meeting, the board brought in an independent consultant to survey the staff’s feelings toward upper management. At its Feb. 26 meeting, the board discussed the results of the “Cultural Survey” in closed session. The results were not released, but the board voted at the session to remove Herrington immediately.
IPR was created by a 2004 merger that brought together pubradio services of three Iowa universities. The combined operation delivers two differentiated public radio services of news programming and classical music broadcasts, and is under a fiscal 2017 deadline to end its reliance on university subsidies. Under its current $7.8 million operating budget for this year, IPR projects a $125,333 surplus.