What's Going on at PRX, Part II: Immediate Aftermath
Letters, Secrets, and Secret Letters
In today’s issue:
Readers question two details of my oral history of Gimlet’s slow demise;
In response to my piece on the shuttering of In the Dark, a reader shares what it was like when their station produced a hit podcast;
A reader points me to something Transom published this past week;
A reader writes in with a question about PRX employees;
We dive into part two in our series on PRX.
This issue is dense with information — sorry, I promise it won’t always be this way!
Let’s hit it.
Readers question two details of my oral history of Gimlet’s slow demise:
A current Gimlet employee wrote in to say this:
I have a small correction to your piece about Tuesday’s meeting: Julie and HR rep were in LA, not NY, so it does make sense they attended virtually.
When I asked this person if they were “100% sure,” they said they were “prettttty sure.” Though Spotify has not responded to a fact-check request, I have removed this detail from the story.
And in response to one of my source’s assertions that “five to ten percent of the people who came to Spotify from Gimlet are still engaged,” another current Gimlet employee shared their perspective:
I think there are still a lot of really hard working people at Gimlet. I think this number is totally made up, I mean I guess that goes without saying. And certainly a lot of people are less engaged, that must be true.
In response to my piece on In the Dark, a reader shared what it was like when their station produced a hit podcast:
When the podcast became a big hit, our fundraising staff had no fucking idea what to do with it. They were not only unprepared, but dismissive and threatened by our ideas because they didn't put our station in the foreground. The success of our podcast was treated as a nuisance rather than an opportunity, in large part, due to WHO we hired in those roles - individuals wed to the old, "safe" model. Fortunately, our station is small enough that we were able to go rogue and move forward with some of our ideas, but we squandered so many opportunities to earn revenue that would have benefited everyone in the station and, ultimately, the community! The whole experience was demoralizing. My colleagues and I felt like a crew of Cassandras shouting into the void.
A reader pointed me to a piece published by Transom this past week:
In An Indie Audio Maker’s Manifesto, Hub & Spoke founder Wade Roush explains his podcast collective’s response to the following problem:
More and more resources are being concentrated at a smaller and smaller handful of stations and networks. As competition for those resources grows, fewer new shows are being commissioned. Experiments are rare and often short-lived. Even successful public media podcasts, like APM’s acclaimed investigative show In the Dark, can be canceled with no notice.
(Wade, you must have known you would get me with that last line — sob!)
A reader writes in with a question about PRX:
Did people speak up [about diversity, inclusion and equity issues] before 2020 at PRX?
The quick answer is “yes,” but to fully answer your question, we have to go back to PRX’s earliest days:
From its founding in 2003 through 2008, all PRX employees were white;
In late 2008, PRX hired its first employee of color. Until that person departed in 2015, no other employees of color joined the company;
In 2016, PRX hired two employees of color and in 2017, a third.
Sources told me that during these early years “diversity wasn’t even in the conversation, much less a priority.”
In 2018, PRX began hiring more people of color and accordingly, employee discussions around the need for DEI work became more common. That said, “[management continued to] talk about diversity in an aspirational way, not in a way that implied that they had a plan,” one former employee told me of that time.
Then, according to my reporting, in the wake of PRX’s merger with PRI in 2018— a transition in which PRI’s CEO was ousted from her position, employees were laid off, and there was a general sense of instability among many staffers — management announced its intention to hire a DEI consulting firm to help with PRX’s hiring process during a company-wide meeting. However, after hiring two people of color, momentum around the idea faded. “Employees at varying levels of seniority would bring it up and it’d be like, we’ve tabled that for now,” a source said.
PRX has declined to comment on or confirm any discussions regarding DEI efforts that took place in 2018, but provided me with the following statement:
In summer 2019, PRX staff and leadership began discussions about hiring a consultancy to help navigate DEI work. The search began in fall 2019 into winter 2020, leading to engagement with Project Inkblot. Work together was first scheduled for late winter 2020. Due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organizations decided to kick off work in June 2020 to ensure productive work together.
On to this week’s main story —
What is Going on at PRX, Part II: Immediate Aftermath
Please note: this is part two in a series. Part one is here.
In reporting this series, I interviewed 16 former PRX employees and seven outside sources with knowledge of the company:
I interviewed employees of many different backgrounds and ethnicities including those who identify as Black and white;
As of this writing, all employees and outside sources have requested anonymity for fear of retaliation;
I have not interviewed any current employees of the company.
In part one, I shared that PRX lost over half of its 70-person headcount during the two year period between August of 2020 and July of 2022. When I reached out to PRX for comment regarding this data, I received this statement in response:
Staff members may depart for a variety of factors depending on individual situations. Building internal community and retention are important pieces of ongoing organizational work and PRX views inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility as central to the mission and the health of the organization. PRX recognizes this is a journey. Please see the organization's full IDEA statement. Similar to organizations experiencing a changing workforce, we aim to improve.
Today, I’ll take you through the immediate reaction to Shaw’s letter from PRX and various publics, and in doing so, I’ll reveal a few things that as far as I know, have not been reported on up until today.
When Palace Shaw submitted her resignation letter, CEO Kerri Hoffman didn’t publicly acknowledge its existence for a full week, posting a letter titled “Moving Forward” on Medium on August 10th. While the letter acknowledged that PRX had “talked and planned for PRX’s DEI work for a while, but without enough focus, specificity, or urgency,” her apology rang hollow, as it failed to acknowledge her specific role within the controversy.
“That entire letter was just corporate boiler-plate talking points,” one source told me, echoing a sentiment I heard from many other sources.
In sections titled “steps we have taken” and “where we are now” Hoffman listed various initiatives PRX had put into place to address the situation, such as training staff on DEI practices, amending PRX’s social media policy, and hiring a DEI director. However, she failed to mention that many of these efforts and ideas were in place because employees had urged PRX to implement them. As a result, Hoffman appeared to be taking credit for the months and sometimes years-long efforts of others and at the same time positioning PRX as having taken swift action where the opposite was true.
Hoffman did list at least two initiatives that were new to employees: a “third-party investigator” — otherwise known as a law firm — had been engaged to “look into the concerns that have been raised,” and at some unspecified date, a compensation analysis would take place “to address questions raised about pay equity.”
“It felt like a series of decrees,” a former staffer told me. “There was no discussion around whether this was the right course of action, no internal discourse, zero employee participation, no transparency.”
Of course, this approach is not unusual. When an organization hires a law firm to investigate claims from its employees, it’s often a sign that the organization is focused on protecting its interests and not necessarily the interests of its employees. On a 2017 episode of All Things Considered, WNYC reporter Jessica Gould described the dynamic this way:
…firms tend to represent one side or the other, managers or employees, because of the ethics around conflicts of interest.... I talked to a lawyer who represents employees, and she says that it’s important to recognize that these investigations aren't the same as, for example, journalistic investigations. The firms are hired to serve the client. So recently, the board of the Metropolitan Opera hired [corporate law firm] Proskauer to investigate claims of abuse by the conductor James Levine. According to The New York Times, it found evidence of abuse but… it backed up how the leadership at the Met had handled the situation.
(Fun fact: Proskauer Rose was the firm hired by New York Public Radio after claims of harassment were made there and by Condé Nast after accusations of racism were levied against its test kitchen video team and in both cases, the firm found no evidence of legal wrong-doing on the part of their clients.)
In an imaginary universe, in which PRX had been eager to bring employees into their process, perhaps staffers would have learned that the “third party” hired to run the investigation was Prince Lobel, the same firm that negotiated PRX’s merger with PRI in 2018.
Let that sink it for just a second.
PRX hired a firm with whom it had a prior relationship to investigate an employee’s claims of misconduct. That shit’s messed up, is it not?
Only two employees I interviewed were aware of this connection and at the time, neither shared the discovery with their fellow colleagues. “I was worried that if I brought it up, I’d be fired,” one explained. Not a single employee I spoke with recalled PRX ever disclosing its relationship with Prince Lobel to staff.
PRX has declined to comment on this, aside from pointing out that “the attorney teams [on each case] were distinct from one another.” This is true: two white attorneys worked on the merger, while Prince Lobel assigned Joe Edwards, one of — according to my research — three Black attorneys at the 94-person law firm at the time, to run the investigation into Shaw’s claims. [Note: I have reached out to Prince Lobel for confirmation on this twice, but have not received a response.]
In any event, on August 14th, an open letter signed by two PRX employees with support from an additional eleven PRX employees and one member of Radiotopia, was distributed to PRX leadership. Among other things, the employees demanded that Shaw receive backpay; that PRX provide complete transparency around the investigation, including selection criteria for an investigator, scope, involvement of staff, and potential outcomes; and seemed to hint at the need for new leadership:
We need leaders who are already anti-racist now….Kerri Hoffman… has been resistant to incorporating staff ideas on what is needed and how to proceed. Her insistence on doing things on her terms, with a timeline and structure that she’s comfortable with, reinforces white supremacy…It is not enough for us to have leaders who are “committed to learning more and becoming anti-racist” — PRX needs more, now.
Here’s a quick summary of what happened next:
On August 14th, in a Medium post, PRX wrote that it had “hired Joe Edwards” to run the investigation, and that “the team leader” in charge of Palace Shaw’s training department would be put “on administrative leave.”
On August 24th, four members of the PRX’s Boston Podcast Garage community in Boston posted an open letter signed by 34 additional members of the podcast community, expressing support for Shaw, and demanding that PRX address its “systemic racism.”
That same day, Hoffman and the PRX board separately published new public statements. Hoffman’s note acknowledged that touching Shaw’s hair had been “unacceptable” and that employees had “appropriately [asked] for immediate action and quick change.” the note from the board simply linked back to its post from August 14th.
Up until recently, I thought that was the extent of public communications between PRX and various groups. But last Friday, a former Radiotopia producer, who was previously unknown to me, emailed me about a letter that had never made public. This letter was signed by some Radiotopia’s creators, hosts and producers, as well as a handful of creators attached to shows distributed by PRX. Earlier this week, I spoke with this person by phone and during that call, they shared the letter with me.
Before we go any further, a history lesson regarding Radiotopia, care of the Wayback Machine:
PRX’s Radiotopia podcast network launched in 2014 with a slate of seven shows all hosted by white creators. When it launched, then-PRX-CEO Jake Shapiro described Radiotopia as a platform where “the art form’s innovators, risk-takers and most gifted producers connect with an audience, expand their own brands, and flourish.”
By 2020, three Black creators and three non-Black POC creators had joined the network.
According to my research, five Black creators and three non-Black POC creators have active shows on the network right now.
The number of white creators in the Radiotopia network has averaged between 20-25 for the last couple of years.
Shows that appear in the Radiotopia Presents feed are not included in these numbers, as it is my understanding that these shows are not considered Radiotopia member shows. (Why don’t they get their own feed? Idk — but if you do, pls lmk!)
As the source who reached out to me last week put it, Radiotopia had “a very serious whiteness problem.” So when Shaw’s letter went public, “the vibe was like, we can’t let this moment pass.”
A few Radiotopia members, concerned that signing the letter could put their relationship with PRX in jeopardy, made keeping the letter confidential a condition of adding their name. (Which is disappointing, but at least they signed it.) And some — arguably, those with the most power — didn’t sign the letter at all.
I’ve decided to make this letter public and here’s why:
It was shared with me freely;
I’ve been able to verify that the person who shared it with me is who they say that are, and that this letter is authentic.
Despite the fact that, according to my source, this version of the letter is a watered-down version of the original (in which, for example, the authors wrote that Hoffman should step down permanently), it’s still the most demanding of all the letters sent to PRX leadership. I think the public has the right to see the pressure PRX was under the make change — and weigh that against whether or not changes were actually made;
And finally, by keeping this letter secret, we perpetuate a system where the most powerful players have the least accountability.
So — fuck that.
Here’s the letter:
August 19, 2020
This letter is intended as an internal message to our fellow producers, staff, and leadership at PRX and Radiotopia. In the spirit of working together on the shared goal of becoming anti-racist organizations, we ask that this letter remain an internal document. We believe in PRX and Radiotopia, and we know these organizations can do better.
We are producers & hosts on Radiotopia shows writing in response to former PRX employee Palace Shaw’s letter to her co-workers outlining the exploitation she experienced working in PRX’s “toxic work environment,” as she states in her letter. Our shows are partners of Radiotopia which is part of PRX, and we refuse to accept anything less than what Palace requested in the name of accountability.
The actions of PRX are not the responsibility of the shows it works with, but all our shows are tarnished with the failures of the company. Any anti-racism work our shows do is undermined immediately by our affiliation with a company that has perpetuated an unhealthy professional environment for Black employees. We cannot in good conscience continue to affiliate ourselves with this network unless there is meaningful change.
Echoing Palace, our interest is for PRX to fully recognize and name its own toxic impact, be fully transparent about their failures to compensate & respect Black employees, and change how they move forward as they hire Black people and people of color.
We ask for swift payment to Palace of the fair wages she fought for and was not paid while working at PRX. There must be public proof that PRX is settling underpayment concerns from all the Black employees who left PRX and all current BIPOC employees.
PRX has said they have hired third-party investigators to look into the pattern of Black women leaving the company to preserve their mental health. While we feel that it undermines Palace to require an investigation to confirm her own underpayment, we support an investigation of this pattern on the condition that PRX is fully transparent about the process. In addition to this investigation being managed by PRX’s Board, PRX should form a committee of employees paid to oversee this process along with the Board. We want to know how employees, past and present, will be guaranteed a safe & thorough process that doesn’t further traumatize them. We have been given no details about the timeline of such an investigation as of August 19, 2020.
We ask Kerri Hoffman and PRX CCO John Barth, whose racist behavior was also revealed publicly, to take leave from their positions. Kerri should go on administrative leave and undergo training, consulting, and research to better understand how white supremacy culture thrives within PRX, and her implicit and explicit role. We are seeking a leader for PRX who has fluency treating employees of color equally and with full respect, where all BIPOC employees can be safe, included, and treated fairly. PRX deserves a leader who will ensure pay equity across the board, and who, under their leadership, will not tolerate incidents of racism.
4. PARITY: HIRING
PRX has stated their goals to hire more employees of color and Black employees. In her letter, Palace says that this will only lead to change if PRX compensates them fairly, respects their expertise and talent, gives them power and takes their lead. In order to ensure accountability, we want PRX to release past and current salary information, as well as race & gender pay data, and data for racial demographics of their employees & people who work on Radiotopia shows. We request this data to be made public before September 19, 2020. Being aware of the failures of PRX’s HR department to respond to Palace’s concerns while she was working at PRX, we also want to see proof of PRX implementing a new system for BIPOC employees’ feedback to be submitted and responded to swiftly & fairly.
5. PARITY: EDITORIAL
Within Radiotopia, there is a huge disparity in the number of shows with predominantly white production teams and shows produced and hosted by Black people, people of color, queer people, and people with disabilities. We want Radiotopia leadership to pay a committee of producers to review pitches, sign off on new show additions and help hold Radiotopia staff accountable to their goals of being a network that represents a diversity of people and perspectives, with a focus on voices traditionally underrepresented in media. Until parity is reached, we ask that all new shows be produced and hosted by people of color, with a priority for shows made by Black producers and producers with intersecting marginalized identities (producers with disabilities, LGBTQ+).
In order to have continued confidence in the organization, we ask that PRX
implement the above items within 3 months from August 19, 2020, unless stated otherwise in this document.
Both PRX and Radiotopia have historically promised to prioritize racial justice, yet we have not seen any of the said changes implemented. And so far, PRX’s public statements about the situation have not given us confidence that PRX fully recognizes what happened. We are open to the idea that a real accountability process might include changing leadership to restore the harm experienced by Palace, the Black women who left PRX prior, and for all the current employees of color to know they are not tokens but valued voices and workers.
To be clear, we believe the above is the minimum required to show that PRX is committed to change. We also endorse the statement from Se'era Spragley Ricks and Eric Dhan on behalf of remaining PRX staff and ask that their requirements are met. We acknowledge that these action steps alone do not address everything needed to eradicate white supremacy and toxicity in the PRX workplace for Black people and people of color. However, as members of the Radiotopia network, we will not be silent in response to the exploitation, mistreatment, and racist practices made public by the honesty and bravery of Palace Shaw.
Members of Radiotopia
Davey Kim, senior producer, Adult ISH
Kyra Kyles, CEO, YR Media, Adult ISH
Rebecca Martin, executive producer, Adult ISH
Merk Nguyen, co-host/producer, Adult ISH
Nyge Turner, co-host/producer, Adult ISH
Helen Zaltzman, The Allusionist
Ariel Mejia, associate producer, Appearances
Sharon Mashihi, creator, Appearances and editor, The Heart
Ian Chillag, Everything Is Alive
Chiquita Paschal, editor at The Heart, former employee at PRX
Kaitlin Prest, Creator of The Heart
Nicole Kelly, producer, The Heart
Phoebe Unter, producer, The Heart
Hrishikesh Hirway, Song Exploder & Home Cooking
Samin Nosrat, co-host, Home Cooking
David Nadelberg, producer, The Mortified Podcast
Neil Katcher, producer, The Mortified Podcast
Hadley Dion, producer, The Mortified Podcast
Lauren Shippen, writer, Passenger List
John Scott Dryden, writer, Passenger List
Sarah Kramer, senior producer, Radio Diaries
Nellie Gilles, producer, Radio Diaries
Joe Richman, founder, Radio Diaries
Jody Avirgan, This Day In Esoteric Political History
Jonathan Mitchell, The Truth
Shows distributed by PRX
Jeffrey Cranor, co-founder, Night Vale Presents
Joseph Fink, co-founder, Night Vale Presents
Charlene Westbrook, producer, Ooh You’re In Trouble
Drew Ackerman, creator, Sleep With Me
Jenny Owen Youngs, co-host, Veronica Mars Investigations
Janina Matthewson, co-creator, Within the Wires
I reached out to PRX to find out what demands listed above (and included in other letters) have been met. Here are the results of that effort:
BACKPAY: PRX has never provided backpay to Palace Shaw or any employees who left PRX prior to PRX’s compensation analysis.
TRANSPARENCY: PRX never created or paid a committee of PRX employees to oversee Prince Lobel’s investigation, nor were employees included in defining selection criteria for an investigator, scope, involvement of staff, or potential outcomes. PRX sent me the following statement regarding the investigation process:
The PRX Board of Directors led the process of initiating an investigation and engaging the firm, independently from every member of management staff, including the CEO. The investigation was led by the investigator, also independent of all managerial staff, including the CEO. See this post from 2020 that includes background on the methodology, findings, and investigator. The investigator spoke with employees at all levels of the organization, including managers, non-managers, current, and former staff.
LEADERSHIP: According to my research, Kerri Hoffman did not take administrative leave, however, PRX has declined to comment on this, citing privacy concerns. I’ve been unable to confirm whether or not John Barth took any leave after the events of the summer of 2020, though he announced his retirement in October of that year.
PARITY, HIRING: PRX has never released past and current employees’ salary information or race & gender pay data, nor has it released data for racial demographics of their employees & people who work on Radiotopia shows. According to the following statement from PRX, the organization has developed systems for BIPOC employees’ feedback:
PRX implemented new ways to collect feedback about employee experience on multiple levels. This included an ongoing system of one-on-one conversations focused around organizational strategies and feedback on inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA). DEI consultants were also engaged to assist in collecting feedback. In addition, PRX implemented an engagement survey in the first quarter of 2021, for all employees, in which results were also analyzed in accordance with identity markers. PRX instituted an organization-wide IDEA survey that includes feedback about employee experience. This is an ongoing survey. Feedback is also welcome via additional channels, including one-on-one with people managers, one-on-one with PRX’s Senior Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, or via Human Resources.
PARITY: EDITORIAL: In regards to issues regarding editorial parity, a PRX spokesperson wrote that “a paid, rotating committee started meeting in October 2020 on an ongoing basis.” When I followed up to find whether this committee was still meeting (and if so, how often), PRX did not respond. That said, according to my research, it does not appear that editorial parity has been reached.
That’s it for me the week!