Malatia resigns as president of Chicago’s WBEZ

By Andrew Lapin

Torey Malatia, longtime president and c.e.o. of Chicago Public Media, has resigned effective immediately.

Chicago Public Media confirmed his resignation in a statement Friday. Its board of directors will launch a nationwide search for Malatia’s replacement.

Malatia

Malatia

Malatia announced his resignation to the board Friday morning, Steve Baird, president of the board of directors, told Current later that afternoon.

“I think for most people it’s a total surprise,” Baird said. “Torey is very well regarded here, very well regarded nationally. He did a tremendous job building the station here.”

Citing unnamed sources, Crain’s Chicago Business has reported that the board had asked Malatia to resign. One source said tension over “lackluster recent ratings” had been growing between Malatia and the board.

Baird and other board members announced Malatia’s resignation to the staff Friday afternoon. Malatia was not present for the announcement.

Baird said the board hopes to announce a way to honor Malatia’s contributions to the organization in the coming weeks. He floated the possibility of naming a studio after him.

“We want to do something that is meaningful to him,” Baird said.

Malatia joined WBEZ in 1993 as v.p. of programming and rose to president and g.m. in 1996. During his 20 years with the station, he reduced air time devoted to music and emphasized news and information and helped launch two of public radio’s most popular nationally distributed shows, This American Life and Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me! Malatia also experimented with innovative local initiatives such as Vocalo, a station of primarily user-generated content, which struggled to engage its target young audience and after several revamps is now programming a more traditional format of music and information.

“It has been my honor to lead the transformation of what was a fine radio station into an internationally revered institution on the cutting edge of trans-platform in-depth journalism,” Malatia said in a statement released Friday by Chicago Public Media. “For me, having been given the unforgettable privilege of working with this brilliant staff and supportive board, marshaling the next wave of public service journalism is more than a choice; it is a calling … I have eternal thanks and deep admiration for those many wonderful trustees and staff who have passionately supported our stunning successes.”

Malatia did not indicate plans for the future but noted that “the next innovation project must come for me now by leading another institution.”

His relationship with the station’s board of directors had grown “increasingly difficult in recent years,” according to longtime Chicago media reporter Robert Feder, citing unnamed sources. Feder broke the news of Malatia’s resignation today.

Alison Scholly, currently c.o.o., will serve as interim c.e.o. until the position is permanently filled. Baird said he’s not worried about attracting new talent.

“We think this is a great place and will attract a lot of interest,” he said.

Questions, comments, tips? lapin@current.org

This item and its headline were updated Saturday to reflect the report from Crain’s.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized comments by WBEZ board President Steve Baird. It implied that members of the board had been surprised by Malatia’s resignation. Baird said that “most people” were surprised. The story and its headline have been revised to reflect his comments.

  • Scott Sanders

    The story of Torey Malatia’s long overdue firing by the Chicago Public Media trustees was broken first by media critic Robert Feder at his facebook page, and is covered and discussed at Crain’s Chicago Buisness and elsewhere as well. It is important to understand two things that are being overlooked in the coverage of Malatia’s exit however. 1) Media activists played a key role in his removal, and 2) the larger related problem — the democratic deficits in WBEZ’s decision-making process — remains unaddressed.

    The station’s “Smiley & West” debacle is but one result of those deficits. Last fall, Torey Malatia’s decisions forced “Smiley & (Cornel) West” onto two local commercial niche stations with a combined average audience one third smaller than WBEZ’s. How should this be interpreted by marginalized groups the station is supposed to serve? Tavis Smiley declared, “(I)t is easier for an African American to be president of the United States than it is to host a primetime radio program on Chicago Public Radio.” In classic Orwellian newspeak, WBEZ claimed it was acting in the interest of “inclusiveness”. http://fair.org/extra-online-articles/whitewashing-in-the-name-of-inclusion/ This type of thing is old news to WBEZ; Malatia was also in charge back in 2003 when Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting cited WBEZ for having no daytime weekday programs with non-white hosts.

    It is important to remember Malatia’s main concern that “Smiley & West” had “developed much more of an ‘advocacy’ identity”. On this point he compared “Smiley & West” to the Pacifica radio program“Democracy Now!” — a daily independent broadcast news and discussion show hosted by Amy Goodman that airs on over a thousand public and community stations – but not on WBEZ. Malatia then also compared “Democracy Now!” to “The Rush Limbaugh Show”, a choice that lead to a sharp public response by the democratically-elected Pacifica radio governing board. Pacifica stated, “It is disappointing when the term ‘advocacy’ is used as a smear to trivialize the presentation of intelligent and passionate discussion that is sometimes critical of the American status quo.”

    Over a thousand Chicago media activists gave WBEZ and Malatia a resounding “thumbs down” by calling and writing the station and/or attending an event last November organized in opposition to Chicago Public Media’s modus operandi.

    In Chicago, as elsewhere, the commons of public media, like public education, are besieged as never before by an epidemic of corporate engineered privatization. Part of that attack is to de-legitimize any role of regular people in shaping the media and education systems that they rely on. The more important question is not who the CEO of WBEZ is but rather who should have ultimate control over Chicago Public Media’s decisions: working and poor Chicagoans or the wealthy corporate elite currently pulling the strings?

    Background on Malatia’s “Smiley & West” debacle – http://www.mag-net.org/blog/new-‘professionalized’-al-jazeera-will-not-solve-democratic-deficits-us-public-media-–-we-need-

    • Mike Janssen

      Hi Scott — can you clarify how Malatia’s exit was a direct response to the activists’ concerns?

      • Scott Sanders

        That’s a good question Mike. First, there’s an excellent piece by FAIR’s Steve Rendall concerning exhibit #1 – Malatia’s amazingly insensitive and embarrassing definition of “inclusiveness” – http://fair.org/extra-online-articles/whitewashing-in-the-name-of-inclusion/ Then for more background (and some stuff you didn’t know about Al Jazeera America), those interested should also read the essay linked – http://www.mag-net.org/blog/new-‘professionalized’-al-jazeera-will-not-solve-democratic-deficits-us-public-media-–-we-need-

        Several nagging issues developed over Malatia’s way-too-long tenure including the removal of the music programming and the questionable value received for those substantial vocalo expenditures. Ratings have a place in this discussion too, though we need to be very careful there because you can successfully reach diverse communities and at the same time have relatively low ratings. But we must look at the media landscape too. As co-founder of a number of media justice groups here over the years, I can state that Chicagoans understand that journalism has been in decline for some time due to ownership concentration, the corporate model itself, and the more recent shrinkage in ad revenue due to the web. Chicagoans need programs like “Smiley & West” and “Democracy Now!” exactly because they give voice to marginalized communities and perspectives and yes because they advocate – for un-doctored and unfiltered news and information. Those are things that, increasingly, Chicagoans have not been getting enough of from the professionals at public tv and radio, even at the local level. When WBEZ handed us the Smiley, West, and Goodman issue last fall, things were just forced to a head.

        So it was a combination of things that lead to Malatia’s firing. But the “Smiley & West” / “Democracy Now!” incident was a very important — and recent — tipping point.

        Finally, this is where I must reiterate for Current readers that the real problem is WBEZ’s board of trustees – who and what they tend to represent, and what their decision making process is. You’ll probably be hearing more about that. In fact, I am almost at liberty to say that you can count on it.

      • Scott Sanders

        Several nagging issues developed over Malatia’s way-too-long tenure, including the removal of all music programming except “Sound Opinions” and the questionable value received for those substantial vocalo expenditures. However, the Smiley, West, and Goodman issue received way more media coverage and manifested itself more far more publicly than the other problems. So it was a combination of things that lead to Malatia’s firing. But the recent “Smiley & West” / “Democracy Now!” incident was very important, and was most likely the tipping point. Those still confused ought to read the two articles I linked above.

      • Scott Sanders

        I never said Maltia’s firing was a “direct” response to the activists’ concerns. “Current” contributing editor Mike Janssen – why did you appear on this thread without disclosing that you work for “Current”?

        • Mike Janssen

          Hi Scott — I just didn’t think of it. My apologies.

    • AndrewPatner

      It would be nice if indeed “media activists” had played a “key role” in change at Chicago’s only “public” radio station — they certainly had enough time to do so. But no, when change finally came after 20 years, it wasn’t because of them. Good that they recently joined in on *some* of the issues that others also raised over the years, but they weren’t there at all for a very long time and it is silly of them to take credit for even pushing things to a “tipping point.”

      • Scott Sanders

        Let’s use this as a teaching moment. The first lesson for you, professional WFMT (and former WBEZ) public media journalist Andrew Patner: If you are financially involved in an issue, you should disclose that upfront.

        Lesson Lesson #2: Do a little research and use a little common sense before you call media activists do-nothings. Andrew, you are not aware, or, more accurately, you have not been made aware, of hardly any media and democracy activism here that has had anything to do with WBEZ. And so a recent public media flareup that engaged and educated the public and garnered much mainstream and alternative media coverage becomes instead johnny-come-lately “media activism”. But the reason for this is not the media activists you put quotation marks around – it is instead the fault of the elite-controlled media – “public” and private – which have failed for decades to adequately educate citizens concerning the privatization of their public media outlets, and the destructive effects this has on democracy.

        Lesson #3: Activists and progressive journalists working in public media should find ways to work together to solve governance problems at public outlets. It might be a good idea to acquaint yourself Mr. Patner with the history of Pacifica radio because it is quite relevant here. Matthew Lasar wrote “Uneasy listening: Pacifica Radio’s civil war”, one of the better books on this important part in public radio history. Essentially, Pacifica chair Mary Frances Berry and others attempted to privatize Pacifica as a preparation to sell the Oakland, CA based KPFA and perhaps other Pacifica stations. This created a chasm between the professional journalists on staff and the stations’ volunteers and community members. An unusual set of events and tumults ensued, including numerous firings, lockouts, and protests. The Pacifica radio crisis formally ended in the early 2000’s, when the community members and the paid professional staff came to an accommodation that gave both groups a democratic voice within the station governance structure while giving primary control of the station directly to the community. They discovered they needed each other.

        Here is a partial list of writings and actions concerning public media that Chicago activists have worked on in recent years:

        2000 – FCC announces a fine against WTTW for airing commercial material. The only such fine against a major public tv outlet in the U.S, the action was organized by Chicago media activists.
        http://www.current.org/wp-content/themes/current/archive-site/pbpb/fcc/wttworder2000.html

        2001 – media activists inspected WBEZ public file

        2002 – media activists at Fairness and Åccuracy in Reporting release a study critical of seven local NPR outlets including WBEZ
        http://fair.org/extra-online-articles/whitewashing-in-the-name-of-inclusion/

        2003 to present – media activists organize numerous phone, letter and email campaigns to convince WBEZ to schedule “Democracy Now!” http://www.chicagomediaaction.org/news.php?id=175

        2004 – media activists release an in-depth study that finds the coverage on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight” filled with entertainment, fluff, and pro-government / pro corporate bias.

        2005 – local media activists fight the elimination of remaining music programs

        2007 – “A litany of lies and omissions” an examination by a media activist of”Frontline’s” work in support of the push to invade Iraq is published in “Z magazine” (but not “Current”) http://themediastructurefailed.zoomshare.com/files/z_sept_07.pdf

        2007 – media activists opposed the WBEZ- WLUW operating agreement

        2010 – Media activists write “Network Neutrality Should Be The Beginning, Not the End of the MediaJustice Movement: We Need Community Control Over Public Media” published at “Editor & Publisher” web site (but not “Current”) http://blackagendareport.com/content/network-neutrality-should-be-beginning-we-need-community-control-over-public-media

        2011 – Media activists write “Elite Control or Community Governance of Public Service Media: Which Will it Be?” published by “media-ocracy” (but not
        “Current”) http://www.media-alliance.org/article.php?id=1909

        2011 – a local media activist is a recipient of the Nelson Algren Committee political organizer award award for working to democratize local public media.

        2012 – A public event organized by media activists includes discussion of preliminary results of research critical of WBEZ coverage of public education. https://www.facebook.com/events/315690455167360/

        2012 – WBEZ drops “Smiley& West”, bullies “Democracy Now!”, and in the process angers lots of listeners and and nets WBEZ lots of negative press. (read elsewhere in this thread)

        I’m leaving out lots of stuff. But here is a timeline that incl. a 1954 complainer readers may have heard of. http://www.chicagomediaaction.org/index.php?link=chicago_public_bc_history

        Andrew, this response has caused a delay in the submission of a research funding proposal I was asked to draw up to address some of these very issues.

        I think this is the point where your momma might admonish you with, “Now say you’re sorry, Andrew.”

        Peace.

        • AndrewPatner

          Mr Sanders,

          I indeed do apologize for an earlier positive comment to and about you on another platform.

          Your tone, judgment, rewriting of history, and self-regard speak for themselves.

          Yes, I’m a publicly known figure — everything about me but my shoe size is freely available online. I never make or post an online comment without using my own name. Nothing was or is “undisclosed.” And why on earth does Mike Janssen need to “disclose” who he is when politely asking a clarifying question *on his own publication’s thread*?

          I am “not aware “have not been made aware,” and suffer from “ignorance” on these subjects? What nonsense. I met with all of your little groups repeatedly *in the 1990s*. You all had and have no interest in anything about WBEZ except if the station aired favored programs of yours from other cities. Local coverage, hiring, firings of most of the on-air staff, diversity — these were of no interest to “media activists” when they actually could have done something. (And how is it that you are the only “media activist” and no one else who is active in or about the media is worthy of that title?) I said nothing about WTTW television nor does WTTW have anything to do with WBEZ. I am and have been aware of the twists and turns of Pacifica developments for more than 40 years.

          Good luck with your recommendation that “activists and progressive journalists” “should find ways to work together.” I think a reader has a much better sense now of why this has not happened in Chicago. That I or my reply to your post have/has anything at all to do with delaying a part of your schedule is also absurd. And, by the way, my Mother joins me in saying all of this and adds, to me, “Why did you waste your time engaging with this lecturing and self-involved person?”

          Have a lovely Sunday.

          • Scott Sanders

            Non-sequiters, straw men, red-herrings.

            Here are some of the media activists who opposed Torey Malatia earlier in his tenure when Stuart Rosenberg was fired:

            Marian Henriquez Neudel was the editor of a WBEZ accountability publication during Mr. Malatia’s first few years at WBEZ. It was called “The Beez Hive”. Her December 1993 letter to the editor of the Chicago Reader said all of the many listeners in attendance at a WBEZ board meeting disagreed w/Malatia re: Rosenberg. “We won’t just cancel our subscriptions and slip away,” one predicted. “We’ll organize.” http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/wbez-news/Content?oid=883452

            Letter writer to The Chicago Reader A. Christopher Wilson said, “WBEZ… appears to be dominated by the business interests of the wealthier classes”. http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/advice-for-radio-junkies/Content?oid=883601

            The Chicago Reader’s Bill Wyman noted in early 1994 that “Stuart Rosenberg, in exile from his longtime home WBEZ, is presenting a free concert at the Chicago Cultural Center… The show’s a gift to fans who protested his abrupt canning from the station in November.

            http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/club-feverschmitsville/Content?oid=883685

            I don’t recall any protest mounted when Mr. Malatia fired Mr. Patner. Perhaps his action was deserved.

            Peace.

          • AndrewPatner

            You’re on your own bro’, hereon in, as you always have been, whoever you are. Glad you missed the protest. And the wholly insincere “Peace” sign off is rather tired, no? Ciao!

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