Complicit, Complacent, Or Racist Adjacent — I’m Not Here For Any Of It….
I knew the power and value of telling stories early on. When I was eight, all I wanted to do was tell the stories of people who looked like me. Nearly two decades later, I still feel the same way. I know their voices matter.
Before I stepped into the public media world, I thought the industry knew it too. I genuinely believed that, in these spaces, all stories and experiences were valued…
But my own honeymoon phase with the industry is over.
As a longtime viewer and listener, I feel betrayed. I’ve read a lot of disheartening and downright disturbing threads about the public media industry. Journalists of color have been mistreated, dismissed, and blackballed for speaking out about the deep-seated systemic racism and discrimination in this industry. It bothers me that their very REAL concerns are being minimized.
Racism thrives in silence. Discrimination thrives in silence. Racism thrives when people are complicit. Discrimination thrives when people are complicit. Racism thrives in fear.
Fear is a real thing.
I never thought I’d add my own story to this wave of public reckoning. But here we are.
In 2017, I decided to leave an extremely toxic station. My mental and physical health had taken a big hit and I told myself I would never allow an employer to treat me like that ever again.
Not long after, I accepted a job at St. Louis Public Radio. While I was excited about the next chapter, red flags started to pop up. I spoke with several current and former employees who said the station was “in transition,” “toxic,” and “dysfunctional.”
I remember coming in for my in-person interview and a staff member saying, “Are you sure you want to work here?”
Then there was the notorious article in Current, which highlighted some of the diversity issues at the station. It came out a couple weeks after I accepted the job. Some wondered if I had changed my mind. Others encouraged me to give it a shot and come to my own conclusions. Looking back, it’s crazy that I received more warnings than welcomes before my first day on the job.
By the time I started in late October, a “mass exodus” was already in full swing. Some of the people I had met during my in-person interview were gone. No one was happy. Some expressed openly that they “dreaded” coming to work. I got to know many of my colleagues over slices of chantilly cake at going away parties. That was a thing for a while. One of those goodbyes included my first boss.
Then we lost our ridiculously talented and kind Morning Edition announcer, a Black woman, to another public radio station that has been in the headlines lately. I remember her saying she wished she could have been a mentor to me. Honestly, I wish she could have been too. I always wondered if my experience would have been different if she would have stayed.
Before I got there, she was the only woman and person of color on the air daily. I soon filled that role. To this day, I am still the only person of color on the air daily as a newscaster. When a pair of full-time on-air positions opened up, the station hired two white men.
The first wave of the exodus wrapped up by the end of December 2017. At least eight people I had met left. That’s not counting the people I didn’t get the chance to meet. It was a weird time.
As quickly as people left, new faces filled their spots. I got a new boss. Things finally started to stabilize. People finally started to laugh and joke around. I really thought that just maybe things would be okay.
That wasn’t the case.
A supervisor treated me differently than anyone else in the office.
I first brought it up with my Executive Editor Shula Neuman on Feb. 28, 2018 as we wrapped up a story edit.
I bluntly asked if the supervisor had an issue with me. Did they not like me for some reason? Did I do something wrong? Shula interrupted me with a heavy sigh and said, “I was hoping you wouldn’t have noticed.”
Of course I had noticed.
I noticed how the supervisor was supportive of my white colleagues and their story ideas. I noticed that every time they spoke to me, they’d sigh and their body language would change. I noticed how they were quick to count me out and not give me opportunities to prove myself.
Even after that initial conversation, I continued to notice. Shula said she would talk to the supervisor. The issues persisted.
I remember this person telling me words and phrases I used in my stories, like “it’ll be a minute,” were slang and our predominantly white audience wouldn’t understand what I was saying.
I remember my story ideas about gun violence were turned down and met with a slight condescending chuckle. I was told that I wasn’t ready for those kinds of stories and that I needed to do something easier. A few days later, I overheard a colleague talking with this same supervisor about wanting to do stories on gun violence. Their ideas were supported. I remember hearing this supervisor say we really need to be telling these kinds of stories. Hearing this made me angry. Why was I not good enough to tell that story? This person’s actions hurt me a lot. I doubted myself a lot after that. I wondered if I was even good enough to be at the station or even tell these kinds of stories. I really hated coming to work.
Shula and I had many informal “check-ins” that year. I told her that this person’s behavior could be seen as implicit bias. She said she believed what I was telling her. Then off-handedly she said the person’s actions were “kind of racist.”
The three of us talked a lot in 2018. Things did get better.
But these experiences didn’t have to happen in this first place. The moment Shula saw that there was an issue, she should have dealt with it. She should have pulled me aside and asked if things were okay. She didn’t. Her inaction led to unnecessary trauma.
Shula, you failed me. You’ve failed many other journalists of color at this station too, but that is their story to tell.
The failure to protect journalists of color at this station doesn’t start or end with Shula. Unfortunately, there is a well established, normalized culture here that rewards inaction.
In November 2018, a year after I started at the station, General Manager Tim Eby walked up to my desk and introduced me to a white donor who was with him. She looked at me and said, “I’m so happy they hired someone who LOOKS like you.” She said something else about Black people and diversity, but to be honest, I was still stuck on the first part.
In my mind, I’m thinking, you mean they hired someone who is qualified? What does my skin color have to do with my ability to do a job ma’am? I was embarrassed.
And while she continued to focus on my “looks,” I was looking at my general manager, hoping he would speak up. Tim did nothing but make a face and turn his head away. Others who heard the comment didn’t say anything either.
I found out later this same donor had said problematic things to my other black colleagues including that they didn’t “sound Black” on the radio.
Fast forward to April 29, 2019: Tim stopped me as I was leaving for lunch. He randomly apologized for the incident at my desk. By that time, a few other journalists of color had confronted station management about issues they’d had with certain donors and sources.
Not everyone was OK with us expressing our concerns. I later found out that a member of Tim’s senior leadership team said that people of color on staff shouldn’t be complaining about donors and microaggressions. Instead, we should be grateful that they’re giving money to the station.
I was disgusted.
After getting pressure from staff, the station put people through a two day diversity training program in June 2019. It was useless.
Two months later, I was in the station lobby when I heard Tim call out my name. I turned around and saw him standing with an elderly Black man and another white man. He introduced me. We talked for a bit. Then the Black man said I wasn’t what he pictured. I asked what he meant. He said, “You don’t sound, you know, ethnic.”
I was stunned.
Once again, I waited for Tim’s reaction. I was hoping he would say something to the man right then and there. When that didn’t happen, I thought Tim would at least acknowledge what happened as we rode the elevator together immediately afterward. He didn’t. Only after I had posted on Facebook about the comment did he apologize — an hour later.
I was angry and embarrassed.
Tim, you failed me. You have failed so many of my colleagues of color.
In the last two months, I’ve witnessed Tim humiliate people during staff meetings, and diminish their value and contributions to the station. I will never forget how he made my colleagues cry when they simply asked about opportunities to advance at the station. But the thing that upsets me the most is how Tim has continuously swept systemic racism at the station under the rug.
He has repeatedly said that systemic racism and issues surrounding diversity were “a blind spot.”
But journalists and staff of color have consistently raised these concerns for years.
Some of my other experiences, which I have yet to share, don’t even compare to the things my colleagues of color have had to deal with, because of Tim’s inaction.
Tim was repeatedly told that Robert B. Peterson III, our former director of radio programming and operations, was discriminating against our only Black on-air announcer, but did nothing.
Tim, you failed Jade Harrell.
Jade came to this station in November 2018, just a year after me. She was hired to be a part-time on-air announcer. But she’s more than that. She’s a Black entrepreneur and Emmy award-winning creative who has fully invested her time in the community for the better.
Hiring her meant I was no longer the only Black woman with an on-air role. But it was a fight just to get her on-air opportunities. Robert accused her of cheating her timesheet for showing up 15 minutes early for her shifts. She showed up at the exact same time as her white colleagues who were on that shift. Robert then tried to force her to sign a document to confirm that she was “committed” to her job. When she refused, he withheld training and advancement opportunities from her. Roughly seven months after Jade was hired, Robert hired another part-time on-air announcer. This new employee — a white woman — was trained to host the midday and Morning Edition shifts within two months. Before their direct supervisor — a white man — was laid off earlier this year, he voiced his concerns several times about the inequities and discrimination Jade faced. Jess Luther, the senior operations specialist, and Tim Eby were both made aware of Robert’s behavior towards Jade. They did nothing.
I also voiced my concerns several times, likely to the point of annoyance, to my editor and executive editor throughout 2019. Jade was finally trained for midday shifts only after many staff members complained about the obvious inequities. And it took staff members speaking up again in a meeting with Tim Eby in June 2020 for Jade to be trained for the All Things Considered shift. This was more than a year and a half after Jade was hired. She still hasn’t been trained for Morning Edition.
On July 1, more than two dozen staff members signed a letter calling for the departure of Robert Peterson. We believed his behavior was unacceptable and we hoped that Tim Eby would hold him accountable.
That did not happen.
Instead, Tim announced Robert’s retirement on July 21. Instead of acknowledging the harm, Tim noted in an email “Robert’s unwavering enthusiasm for St. Louis Public Radio and the people in this organization. “ A retirement celebration for Robert was canceled only after repeated complaints from staff.
Jade’s experience with Robert was egregious, but not uncommon. Under Robert’s direct leadership, staff members of color were subjected to a “toxic” work environment. Instead of listening to their concerns, he ignored them.
Robert, you may never openly admit it, but you failed Jade too. You failed all of the people of color in your department.
The incidents and experiences I’ve described here are just a tiny fragment of St. Louis Public Radio’s culture of systemic racism. Tim struggles to acknowledge this. But until he and others can call the problem by its real name, journalists of color will continue to leave.
We deserve better than what you have given us.
Sharing my experience was not an easy decision. But let me be very clear: complicit, complacent, or racist adjacent — I’m not here for any of it.
If I am terminated or face retaliation for speaking out, please know that my integrity is intact. As a journalist, my job is to hold ALL in power accountable. Our general manager and senior leadership team are not exempt from that.