It’s time to stop giving ‘the talent’ a pass on bullying

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The history of classical music is teeming with stories of legendary bullies and abusive “geniuses.” My professors in college took delight in repeating tales of Georg Frederic Handel holding a soprano out the window by her ankles or Beethoven throwing wild tantrums from the piano (although he may have been suffering from lead poisoning). One instructor played audio tapes of Arturo Toscanini screaming at the musicians in the NBC Orchestra, a display of uninhibited rage that is still disquieting decades later.

A few years back, psychotherapist Glenn Berger wrote about his early career in music production, specifically the tortuous days he spent working on Bob Dylan’s 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. From the moment Berger placed his first mic to the final recording session, he was subjected to intense abuse. When he asked Phil Ramone a friendly question, Berger wrote, the legendary producer wheeled about screaming, “Who do you think you are, asking the great Ramone a question? You don’t question what I do, you just obey!” Dylan was reportedly no better, humiliating musicians and summarily dismissing them in as disrespectful a manner as possible.

The reason I’m talking about musicians in a publication focused on broadcasting is the way Glenn Berger described what he learned in that small New York studio. “I did come to understand,” Berger wrote, “that artists are not supposed to be nice.” Essentially, he concluded that Dylan’s work is so profound, so valuable to the world at large that it excuses his abusive behavior. “Who are we to judge the way they behave when they do that much for us?” he asks.

For decades, this has been the unspoken question posed to journalists in our industry as they endured bullying and intimidation, all for the sake of some greater purpose: “Who are we to blame the great ones who are under such pressure and stress that they sometimes crack and take out their frustrations on their colleagues?”

Admittedly, this issue is personally significant to me. It’s no secret that I worked beside John Hockenberry for years while we were co-hosts of The Takeaway at WNYC, and since I came forward in 2017, the bullying I endured at Hockenberry’s hands is no longer a secret, either.

It’s disheartening that WNYC is once again making headlines for similar reasons, with news that Bob Garfield, longtime co-host of On the Media, was fired after two investigations corroborated allegations of bullying. Because of my experience as a victim of mistreatment, I’ll admit that I have an anti-bullying bias, but I’m also determined to do whatever I can to shield others from having to tolerate mistreatment in order to protect their jobs.

One of the most effective ways to accomplish that is to end the worship of “great artists” — especially hosts who are widely considered to be brilliant and therefore receive special dispensation for bad behavior. It’s true that hosting a show requires unique skills, but they are not automatically more precious than the abilities required of a great producer or able editor; they are simply different.

Every time that I’m ushered into a studio by someone calling me The Talent, I grit my teeth. Hosts are not the talent; they are, hopefully, talented members of a team that works together to put a show on the air.

Unfettered latitude and deference can bring out the worst in people. It’s natural, if not forgivable, for some people to test the boundaries of what’s allowed, to go from speaking sharply to engineers, to raising their voice in news meetings, to screaming at producers. Bullies don’t spring forth from the earth, anger dialed up to 10; they are excused when they throw minor tantrums and thereby learn that their rage is not just tolerated but expected.

And that’s why it’s crucial that we learn from the mistakes of the music industry and refrain from labeling some as “great artists.” There is no such thing as a host who is “too big to fail.” Executives in the past have made a devil’s bargain, trading psychological safety and well-being for the majority for the comfort of some powerful individuals. Our culture of host hero worship creates monsters, and it is long past time to break this cycle.

When you empower some at the expense of others, it inevitably leads to an imbalance that disproportionately affects those who are most vulnerable, notably women and people of color. Which means that putting hosts on a pedestal can not only lead to an increase in bullying and abuse but also widen the existing inequities that exist on racial and gender lines.

Enough.

Musical genius doesn’t excuse Toscanini’s cruelty, and talent doesn’t justify the creation of a hostile work environment. A host is important; so is a producer, and so is every member of your talented staff.

Celeste Headlee is an author, consultant and longtime host of public media, anchoring shows like Tell Me More, The Takeaway and 1A

7 thoughts on “It’s time to stop giving ‘the talent’ a pass on bullying

  1. An important column. All media, including public broadcasting are guilty of fostering the “star” system. We shouldn’t be surprised when the “stars” act out as some tend to do. In my experience, public broadcasting is seen as the height of personal ambition. So there’s a lot of defending one’s turf, often in unpleasant ways since the impression is given that there is no other option for the stars than to stay where they are and rebuff any rivals.

  2. I think it’s also important to add that there have been, and are, several truly great public radio hosts who aren’t bullies at all. It is not a necessary prerequisite to being a show host.

    In fact, I’ll go even further: I know of one particular show host (I’ve never quite worked directly for him, but I have tangentially and I’ve known him personally for several years) that I would not think of as a bully at all. Although I am a cis white male, so I will readily defer to dissenting judgment here. He has an ego the size of Montana. That ego was and is a cornerstone of his hosting style. Yet I think he makes it work because 1: he’s unbelievably smart, and 2: is relentless in trying to educate himself, regardless of the topic. He expresses that ego in an expectation that if you’re going to be part of this show, you ought to have at least some chops on the first item, but you damn well better be all-in on the second. In no small part because he does genuinely love having high-level intelligent conversations with people.

    I think it can come across as “challenging” and that’s a big part of the reason why I toss out the caveat that, as a cis white male, my perspective on this may be flawed. But I don’t think “challenging” necessarily has to mean “bullying” and in this case I don’t think he does.

    Ergo, I think it’s important to keep hammering home Celeste’s overall point that there is no excuse to have a host that’s a bully. Being a bully has no actual connection to talent in the talent business.

    (and I’ll expand that beyond hosts to include producers, editors and management, for that matter)

  3. It’s not just public radio. Bloomberg (where I once worked for a notorious bully in the newsroom) protects/promotes/shuffles around bully editors, often marginalizing reporters who speak out.

  4. From one who has been on both sides of the “Talent/Management” fence in commercial and public broadcasting, there is no excuse for tolerating, defending or protecting a bully. None. I learned early on to “Treat everyone with respect as you ascend the ladder of success because you will meet them again on the way down”. On air personalities owe so much to their producers, writers, directors and engineers. Even the night cleaning people deserve respect because working in a filthy office/studio is not pleasant. Managers are no different. Nurturing and respecting employees and celebrating group accomplishments are hallmarks of a good manager not intimidation, favoritism or profanity. It’s difficult in the heat of the moment to remember these things but I can assure you, one will uncomfortably remember and regret every transgression when you no longer wield power. “Do unto others” is still the operative phrase. So please stop thinking they broke the mold once you were cast and remember to say a kind word and offer a heartfelt “Great job, thank you!”

  5. My first reaction to seeing my name in your article was excitement. “Thanks for the shout out, Ms. Headlee! I’m honored that you read my book.” Then, it sure looked like I was the foil in the article and so next I cringed with embarrassment. Especially since I basically agree with your point, I didn’t want to be perceived as being on the wrong side of this argument. Finally, I felt defensive. Wait, I thought, that’s not exactly what I meant! What I was trying to say was far more nuanced than that… Well, I could go on with trying to explain that but I think it would be much more interesting to have a conversation with you about this. That would be fun! Whaddya think?

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