When Diamond Broadcasting (the guy who owned WXRT/Chicago decades ago) bought an AM/FM combo in Oklahoma City back in 1988, they moved trusted Chicago radio vet, Vance Harrison, into the GM role. When big city Vance moved to Ok City, he had a few adjustments to make, not the least of which was making himself comfortable in an office with two very unusual features custom-built by the former manager.
The office faced the street, and the previous GM installed bullet-proof glass in all the windows. For Vance – a street-smart Windy City guy – this seemed like overkill (pardon the pun).
The other feature was a button concealed under his desk that automatically closed the office door. We never quite figured out the purpose of that odd gadget.
Until last week.
As you may recall, Matt Lauer had the same technology built into his “Today” office, according to the story in Variety detailing sordid aspects of the NBC star’s behavior over the years. Lauer’s rapid fall from grace captivated cable news last week, and continues to be a topic of conversation.
I’ve been wrestling with this post these past few weeks as our workplace sensibilities are roiled by seemingly daily announcement of high-profile men falling from grace over sexual abuse and harassment allegations. Now, media outlets are in the crosshairs. Charlie Rose, Garrison Keillor, John Hockenberry, Russell Simmons, and others have stepped aside or have been shown the door in recent days. And both commercial and public media are being impacted, suggesting the pervasiveness of these painful situations.
The aforementioned male stars are big names. But it was the shock of Matt Lauer’s instant dismissal from NBC’s “Today” that stopped me in my tracks last week. The sudden move by NBC News Chairman Andy Lack was apparently so sudden that Lauer’s co-hosts, Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb appeared as surprised by the charges toward Lauer and his exit as millions of viewers were. It was reality TV that was as real as it gets. And it begs the question of how people who worked so closely with Lauer in an intimate workplace were apparently clueless their famous host’s alleged bad behavior that had been going on for years.
Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey, and many of the other big names that have blared across our screens these past few weeks work in situations most of us cannot relate to. But the set, offices, and backstage culture of “Today” bares a striking resemblance to the studios, personality teams, and environments common at thousands of radio stations across the country – ensembles of talented men and women cast as news, weather and traffic reporters, hosts, pundits, or comics – often thrown together five days a week to entertain and inform in pressure-cooker situations. On these shows – whether you’re Lauer, Limbaugh, or Free Beer & Hot Wings – the ratings are the currency, and the rewards are the revenues.
I have had several people in the last several days ask me when radio will start feeling the pain. Public radio has already suffered its share of scandal and embarrassment, and you know commercial radio can’t be far behind. Some industries and companies are more transparent than others, so it’s just a matter of time.
Sidebar conversations revolve around workplace behavior, power, and unmitigated nerve. But we should also be talking about how co-workers and managers seemingly are surprised by activities apparently happening right under everyone’s noses. How many of these truly hurtful circumstances – emotionally and financially – could be have been prevented or at least abated? And in the coming weeks and months, what might happen that could help companies and employees avoid similar tragedies by addressing workplace cultures that are breeding grounds for these situations, purposefully or not?
The Variety story and a similar piece in TMZ describe a culture at Today that makes you wonder why this story didn’t break years ago. Here are some of the conditions that pointed to impending disaster, but were ignored or overlooked by NBC News management:
Just give him what he wants
Comments from network brass indicate many in corner offices were surprised by the revelations that Lauer was preying on female staffers. But by approving perks – including even something like the door closer button – Lauer’s bosses ignored signs of bad behavior from their megawatt host, giving him what he wanted rather than questioning why they were necessary. When personalities can make demands of management – and get away with it – it’s a pattern that only intensifies over time.
Protect the cash cow
While Lauer was extremely well-compensated (most stories put his annual salary at $20-25 million), Today generated as much as $500 million each year in annual revenue. (BTW that would put his salary at around 4-5% of billing – a pretty good deal for NBC News.) Management coveted those gargantuan profits and simply ignored the warning signs. Looking the other way – rather than confronting potentially gnarly situations – served to keep the money flowing. But in most cases, the outstanding problems get worse.
Let him run the show
Lauer had a huge say over the direction of “Today,” both stylistically and in content control. While the big star should have considerable input over the direction of the show, an important line is crossed when it comes to dictating the comings and goings of other personnel. It’s reminiscent of the power tripping associated with NBA superstars who have been directly or indirectly responsible for coaching changes. No one truly knows the backstory of why Ann Curry ultimately departed “Today,” but many believe Lauer didn’t like her and didn’t try hard enough to generate on-set chemistry. As KSLX PD David Moore reminded me over the weekend, “Everything needs a PD.” Including the biggest shows on the station or the network.
Ignoring the rules
TMZ reports the show often operated outside of NBC News guidelines, from suggested footage limitations to story selection – even ignoring NBC News’ president Lack. The story notes “Today” was not especially cooperative with other shows in the lineup, including “Nightly News.” Not playing by the organization’s rules is another sign a show has gleaned too much power.
Isolated from the rest of the organization
Most of “Today’s” staff work in the middle of the night, prepping that morning’s show. As a result, they’re not part of the mainstream ebb and flow of the rest of the news team. Their insular ways meant they simply didn’t interact with the rest of the staff – essentially an entity within the network. When a big show is allowed to function as an independent fiefdom within a station or network, those privileges often become hall passes to function differently from everyone else.
If some of this sounds like some of the big morning shows (and other personality teams) you’ve managed or work with today, you can understand why these Lauer Lessons are important to any media brand where there’s a big dog often carrying a station’s weight.
Like Lauer, personalities that become more popular over time, and haul down huge salaries, often gravitate to positions of inordinate control and sway over their stations. Shows that are isolated, knowingly break the rules, and wield too much power have the ability to derail the organizations they support. Talent is the backbone of the media industry, and radio is no exception. And superstar personalities and teams are immensely valuable and should be well-taken care of.
But when the organizational balance tips too far in the direction of privilege, favoritism, and compromise, the stage may be set for a day of reckoning.
This latest round of sexual harassment cases in the media world is just the beginning of a trend symptomatic of larger systemic problems. Far be it from me to suggest specific courses of actions, because that’s why you have managers, lawyers, and an HR team.
But as much as the root cause of these blow-ups is sexual harassment and power grabs, it’s also about benign management, so focused on the bottom line it ignores the dirty little (and not so little) secrets that can hurt others and sully the greater organization. Matt Lauer’s behavior – if true – is inexcusable, of course. But Andrew Lack and the other key corporate players are vulnerable because they allowed this toxic environment to exist. They let themselves be abused by the abuser, because the abuser held all the power.
It’s not an easy task confronting power and ego especially during times when ratings are growing and revenues are flowing, but programmers and general managers have the ability to establish relationships, understandings, and guidelines from the outset – before things get out of control. Truly great managers know how to walk this line.
There is a growing number of people paying very high emotional and financial prices for personality shows running amok – the victims of harassment and their families, managers caught up in the swirl, and talent like Lauer, Rose, and the others that will surely follow and their rapid fall from grace.
And then there are the profits lost and the damage to brands that will assuredly be inflicted in the wake of these messes.
Not to mention stunned, hurt, and increasingly jaded audiences that had no clue these things were going on and their idols were as mortal as them.
Learn from Lauer…and Lack.
Thanks, Mike Stern.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,000 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.