Bob Garfield revisits his firing from ‘On the Media’ and brings his podcast to a close

Bob Garfield, right, meets Boston media guy Steve Garfield at SXSW. Photo (cc) 2011 by Steve Garfield.

It was a little over a year ago that “On the Media” fired co-host Bob Garfield, claiming he’d violated New York Public Radio’s rules against bullying. The circumstances surrounding Garfield’s departure were murky. He admitted that he’d lost his temper on several occasions over the years, but tweeted that “in all cases, the provocations were just shocking.

Now some details are emerging, at least from Garfield’s side. Recently, in a long Substack post (is there any other kind?), he wrote that he’d never bullied anyone and that his firing stemmed from a falling-out with co-host and managing editor Brooke Gladstone and executive producer Katya Rogers. Apparently Garfield was the only one of the troika not to have a role in management, which put him in a precarious position. The whole essay is worth reading if you’re an “OTM” obsessive, as I am, but it seems to me that this is the key excerpt:

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.

Not having been there, I can’t say for sure whether Garfield’s behavior rose to the level of a fireable offense. But I’m very big on not screaming in the workplace, and Garfield in this instance is an unreliable narrator — we can’t know whether he’s playing down his offenses or not. Even by his own description, I don’t think I’d want his desk to be next to mine. Of course, a lot of this was playing out over Zoom, so make that a metaphorical desk.

The other news in Garfield’s post is that he’s ending his podcast, “Bully Pulpit,” citing health issues and the brutal economics of podcasting: “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.” This is true. Podcasting is the ultimate long-tail medium, with big bucks going to a few people at the top, like Joe Rogan and “The Daily” and scraps to everyone else. (Garfield’s Substack newsletter, also called “Bully Pulpit,” will continue.)

I’m involved in two podcasts — “What Works: The Future of Local News,” which I cohost with Ellen Clegg, and “Beat the Press with Emily Rooney.” The former, affiliated with Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, is strictly a labor of love. “Beat the Press” is a commercial venture. I have no insight into how it’s doing except that I’m told it’s off to a strong start. (You should subscribe to both!)

Garfield’s final podcast episode dropped a few days ago. It’s an 80-minute overview of his long career in radio, from his early days as a roving reporter with NPR to his years with “On the Media.” Wisely, he doesn’t use it to grind any axes. It’s entertaining, informative and, at the end, touching.

I’ve missed Garfield on “OTM.” Whether he and Gladstone got along or not (I guess they didn’t), they complemented each other well. That said, I wish the show would focus more on, you know, the media — a problem that goes back several years.

It’s a shame when talented people like Garfield can’t do what they’re good at. I’m not going to offer a judgment as to whether or not he should have been fired — that would require hearing from Gladstone and Rogers, not just Garfield. But “On the Media,” though still valuable, is a lesser show without him.

As ‘On the Media’ turns: Brooke Gladstone says Bob Garfield deserved to be fired

In case you missed it, “On the Media” host Brooke Gladstone directed some pointed criticism this weekend at her former co-host, Bob Garfield. I’ve transcribed her opening monologue in full:

From WNYC in New York, this is “On the Media.” I’m Brooke Gladstone. 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.

The problem was not overpassionate discourse. We don’t fear that. We’ve even put some of our own on the radio. Nor was it merely about yelling. But there’s not much more I can say. Look, you know how this works. One side, as an individual, is free to present their case however they see it or wish to see it. They may describe their conduct in ways the other side might not even recognize. But that other side cannot engage because they’re part of a bigger enterprise that balances many concerns, including legal ones.

I know it’s unsatisfying, as much for a show as deeply devoted to transparency as ours, as for some of you. But even if we could be totally transparent, the view would likely still be obscured under a heap of he said/they said. In the end, it really comes down to trust — most especially and relevantly in the show, and what it offers today, next week and the week after that. And so, dear listeners, on with the show.

I’m not surprised that Gladstone and WNYC would cite legalities as the reason she couldn’t offer any details. But here’s a serious question. Gladstone’s monologue amounts to a fairly through-going thrashing of Garfield. Why is it legally OK to criticize Garfield generally but not specifically? Why is it all right to say “If you knew what we knew, you’d agree,” but not “Garfield did x, y and z”?

I trust Gladstone. I’ve trusted her for years. So I’m going to assume that WNYC did the right thing in parting company with Garfield, although he has yet to give a full accounting from his perspective. That could come as soon as Monday. According to Ben Smith of The New York Times, Garfield (but of course) is launching a Substack tomorrow.

Earlier coverage.

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What’s next for ‘On the Media’ after co-host Bob Garfield’s sudden firing?

Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone. 2017 photo via WNYC.

I rarely miss the podcast of the public radio program “On the Media.” So I sat up and took notice Monday afternoon when word started spreading that co-host Bob Garfield had been fired. New York Public Radio, where the show originates, said that Garfield had violated the station’s “anti-bullying policy,” adding: “This decision was made following a recent investigation conducted by an outside investigator that found that he had violated the policy.”

The statement continued that Garfield was also investigated in 2020, disciplined, and given “a warning about the potential consequences if the behavior continued, and a meaningful opportunity to correct it.”

The show will continue with co-host Brooke Gladstone, who is also the show’s managing editor. NYPR wasted no time in removing Garfield’s name from the website. No word yet on whether a new co-host will be named or if Gladstone will fly solo. But both Gladstone and Garfield are away from the anchor desk frequently for reporting projects and vacations. If there is to be no co-host, they’re going to have to do some juggling.

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There was one possible clue ahead of Monday’s firing. Last week “OTM” devoted the entire hour to a documentary on the demise of the steel industry and the rise of underpaid health-care work in Pittsburgh, hosted by Garfield. It was a three-parter, and they played all three parts, with no media news of the week. Normally I’d expect “OTM” to use the three parts as show-closers for three consecutive weeks. My guess is that the place was in an uproar and no one was in any shape to produce a regular show.

So what happened? Garfield took to Twitter to defend himself, claiming that he was fired for yelling in five meetings over 20 years. His outbursts were justified, he said, adding that “the provocations were shocking.”

Gladstone rarely tweets, and she hasn’t said anything about her co-host’s departure. Nor have I see her quoted anywhere else. A New York Times account by Katie Robertson and Ben Smith notes that NYPR — on the air in New York City as WNYC — has been beset by turmoil over allegations of bad behavior by men in recent years, including charges of sexual harassment against John Hockenberry, who was let go.

Aside from whether Garfield’s firing was warranted, which I have no insight into, I’m going to miss his contributions. Gladstone was the straight-ahead journalist (not that she holds back her views; it is, after all, a news-and-opinion show) while Garfield was the clever sidekick, providing much-needed snark. Although I’m sure that Gladstone can do a perfectly fine job solo, if that’s the direction NYPR decides to take, it always seemed like something was missing if either one of them was away.

One change I hope “OTM” will consider is getting back to its media roots. Even though the program is heard on more than 400 stations and is a popular podcast, it really hasn’t been as good the past few years, mainly because it’s been less about the media and more about whatever seemed to strike Gladstone and Garfield’s interest — the Pittsburgh three-parter being an example. As Joey Peters noted last year in Current, which covers public media, the co-hosts tried to explain the shift but only ended up adding to the confusion. Peters wrote:

During a segment in OTM’s last show in 2019, Gladstone and Garfield explained that their days creating a program centered on “the news about the news” were over.

In its place, OTM’s focus has shifted to dissecting narratives, or, as Garfield put it, “the stories we tell ourselves based largely on what we heard for our whole lives, often through the media.”

“We’ve always relied on history to provide context,” Gladstone added. “But to question that history, to focus on the systems that have pushed our history forward, to examine the cracks and the jerry-rigging and what we may have once viewed as the best of all possible machines — that seems increasingly to be our job now.”

It’s a broad and often ambiguous focus, one that even Gladstone couldn’t completely pin down during a lengthy interview with Current. “Where we may proceed in the future isn’t clear,” she said.

There is never a shortage of topics in the media to report and comment on. I hope Gladstone and her staff steer “On the Media” back to its original mission. And I hope that Garfield tells his side of the story soon — as he promises to do.