As media personalities like Matt Lauer and Bill O’Reilly, a growing list of Hollywood actors, members of Congress such as former radio talk host-turned-U.S. Senator Al Franken, and now Philadelphia morning host John DeBella have all faced allegations of sexual harassment during the past year, there’s little doubt that the conversation around the issue has rapidly changed. Now as the #MeToo movement grows beyond a social media hashtag, some broadcasters are reassessing their policies and procedures.
What does sexual harassment at a radio station look like? Victoria Steele, a former newscaster, shared her vivid and disturbing first-hand experiences with Inside Radio. “This is a really shameful thing to have happen to you. I have been a victim multiple times and frequently it was in my positions in radio,” she said.
It began at the start of Steele’s career when she, like a lot of broadcasters, was bit by the radio bug at an early age and went to her local station in small town Pennsylvania. “I was told I couldn’t do news because I was a girl, so I made it my mission to prove him wrong,” Steele recalls. But as she began to work full-time in radio, that gender-based discrimination crossed the line into harassment.
“I had a coworker who would pass me in a hallway and deliberately rub his groin against me. And then he’d just grin. He thought that was really funny,” she said about what happened at one station.
But perhaps the most egregious situation came when she landed a job in Milwaukee. “My news director would make me give him a kiss to get the tape recorder and microphone. I would have to literally kiss him before I got the tools necessary to do my job. That same news director would rub his hand up and down my back and wonder out loud in front of my coworkers if I was wearing a bra that day.” Steele said she alerted her general manager asking him to help make it stop.
“I got fired within two weeks,” Steele said. When she contacted an attorney she was warned that taking legal action would likely drain her finances and result in her being blacklisted at the start of her career. “So I sucked it up and went to my next job and didn’t talk about it and did the best that I could,” Steele said. She eventually left radio for TV and later decided to leave the business entirely to become a counselor.
Now as a psychotherapist, Steele leads corporate sexual harassment training programs. “People would come in and unload and tell you what’s happening,” she said. “What I discovered is this is something that’s far more common than any of us are really admitting to.”
State Associations Step Up
There’s no doubt that sexual harassment remains a highly sensitive topic, both culturally and legally—as well as a daily headline—with some victims opting to sue their employer. Inside Radio reached out to many of the radio industry’s top groups to ask what they’re doing in response to the evolving landscape around workplace harassment. Some said their employee training already covered the topic and that there had been no changes, but universally the response was deafening, in a manner of speaking: None was willing to talk about the issue on the record.
On another front, however, several state broadcast associations are taking action. Among them, the Texas Association of Broadcasters (TAB) last month expanded its menu of training programs to also include a session focused on sexual harassment. The 80-minute module is part of TAB’s P1 Learning program, which is used by more than 200 Texas stations. It is designed so that general managers can require all station employees to take the training and then pass its related test.
“When the issue reached a fever pitch late last year, we wanted to be sure this was an area that we are addressing in our training we present to members,” TAB president Oscar Rodriguez said. The goal is to fill the gap between what’s in the company guidebook and the real-world situations that an employee may find himself or herself in—especially beyond the big broadcast groups. “In reality every company already has a policy on harassment and proper behavior in the workplace,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s often the case that there’s not a focused training curriculum on the topic or a time set aside to be trained and that’s where the state associations have stepped up.”
The media spotlight on high-profile national cases also stirred Nebraska Broadcasters Association (NBA) into action. During the past few months NBA president Jim Timm, a veteran general manager and sales manager, said he and his board realized most of the smaller and independent owners didn’t have the resources to address what was quickly becoming a training need.
“It’s clear that we need to raise awareness and open the eyes and ears of our employees to help people understand proper behavior. We also want to provide better knowledge of what they should do for anyone in a workplace who feels they’ve been harassed,” Timm said. “I had one person tell me that this should all be common sense. But as much as we want to think it should be, I think what we’re finding is it is not.” To get managers up to speed, Timm organized a webinar earlier this month for member stations. Illustrating how big the need is, 13 other state broadcast associations then jumped onboard and also offered the session to their members.
It’s a role that broadcast associations in California, Connecticut and Maine have already been playing for some time. Each of those states has a law on the books requiring employers to provide harassment training for managers or supervisors.
Sending A Message to ‘Everyday Joes’
Even though a handful of situations involving radio personalities and executives have made headlines in recent months—most notably the trial involving a Colorado personality accused of groping Taylor Swift—Timm believes that local broadcasters are still viewed differently than national hosts who’ve faced harassment allegations. And even though companies across America are addressing the rapid changes in workplace norms, the risk to a local radio or TV station is greater. “In our case a lot of the people are pretty well known and that’s why it gets a bigger spotlight,” Timm said. “If it’s the 6 o’clock news anchor or the rock jock, that’s going to get a lot of publicity. If it’s the owner of a local printing company it may get a little publicity but it’s going to disappear pretty quickly because he isn’t as well known.”
As broadcasters take a hard look at their own policies and training, Rodriguez says that radio and TV stations in general are helping bring greater awareness to the issue. “There are so many people that will never be in a position to hold these bad actors accountable,” he said. “But I think that our industry is doing a very good job just by covering all of these stories to make sure that the ‘Everyday Joe’ walking down the street knows this is a different era and it’s not going to be tolerated.”
Seton Hall University’s active rock “Pirate Radio” WSOU, South Orange, NJ (89.5) demonstrated that when it aired a special series earlier this month exploring how to best address sexual harassment on college campuses. “Listeners and HR professionals have been telling me that the #MeToo movement and other voices of the past year and a half have rapidly changed the office conversation,” said Brother Greg Cellini, host of the “Thank God For Monday” show. “People are hungry for information and actions they can take. Looking the other way is never again acceptable when it comes to sexual harassment.”
Former broadcaster and now psychotherapist Steele said it’s important to remember that sexual harassment isn’t about political correctness or even sex, but rather taking unfair advantage of someone who has less power and putting that person’s career at risk. “It’s the silence around this issue that has allowed this to continue for so long unabated,” she said. “If we rip the veil of the silence away, which is what we’re doing now, it’s the only thing that’s going to stop it and prevent it.”