Don Marsh, the longtime host of St. Louis Public Radio's talk show, resigned after his managers challenged him on at least three occasions about his comments regarding women.
Marsh acknowledges that he has said things that others consider inappropriate, but he doesn't think he has done anything improper.
The veteran journalist’s departure has caused a stir in St. Louis, where many listeners of St. Louis on the Air have expressed outrage that the station did not try to keep him, and Marsh said he is the victim of an overly sensitive staff. The episode points to the changing standards in an evolving workplace.
In an interview, Marsh, 80, said talk show managers questioned how, before the March 26 show, he greeted former KSDK news anchor Karen Foss, a guest on the program, by saying, “You look good.”
“I certainly was angry about it. I felt disrespected, and I felt, to a degree, humiliated,” Marsh said. “I'm not a sexist creep as some people might think after all the drama over this.”
The St. Louis Public Radio newsroom and St. Louis on the Air are in different departments and are not managed by the same leaders.
‘Ridiculous’ or ‘disrespectful’?
On March 29, station leaders announced without explanation that Marsh was stepping down after 13 years.
The next day, Foss posted on Facebook that sources told her that station management reprimanded Marsh after his greeting. The post has been shared more than 1,700 times.
Marsh said Foss wrote the social media post after he told her what happened.
Station General Manager Tim Eby maintains the greeting was not a concern nor a “core point” of a meeting during which Marsh resigned but would not comment on what the topic of the meeting was.
The show featuring Foss came just a few weeks following an earlier segment after which Executive Producer Alex Heuer questioned how Marsh commented about another woman.
On March 7, Marsh interviewed St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, who arrived at the studio with a female assistant. Marsh remembers asking Stenger, “Can I take her home with me?”
The next day, Heuer sent an email to Marsh about the remark, which the former host shared with a St. Louis Public Radio reporter, along with other emails.
“I don’t want to make a big deal of this but several members of the team have talked to me about your banter with Steve Stenger on Thursday prior to the show and the comment drew offense, concerning ‘take her home with me’ about Stenger’s aide,” Heuer wrote. “The mics are routinely on in the control room between 12:00 – 12:06 for mic checks. We should refrain from such comments in the workplace.”
Marsh said the other members of the talk show team misunderstood his comment, and that he was referring to the aide’s efficiency.
“That's the kind of person you'd want to have around you, if you're Stenger or anyone who has an assistant,” the former host said.
Marsh recalled another incident, in which he interviewed departing St. Louis Public Radio reporter Bob Duffy in 2016. Marsh said that during the interview, Duffy complimented a talk show producer for her help on a story. After the producer entered the studio after the show, Marsh said the two hugged, and Marsh told them, “Hey, guys, get a room.”
“It was a joking moment,” Marsh said. “Everybody there knew it and she did, too.”
Marsh later learned the producer, who no longer works at the station, had been offended by his remark. St. Louis Public Radio is not using her name to protect her privacy.
“It’s ridiculous, it’s just ridiculous,” Marsh said. “What in the world could she possibly have been thinking that I was actually saying?”
Marsh said he met five days later with the producer and Mary Edwards, then-senior producer of St. Louis on the Air.
“[The producer who objected to the remark] said she felt she had been disrespected,” Marsh said. “And I said, ‘Well, in that case, I’m sorry.”
Eby, the general manager, said he is aware of the discussions stemming from the Stenger and Duffy interviews. But he declined to say whether station managers had talked to Marsh about those incidents or any of the host’s remarks about women.
More than one producer pushed back against the comments Marsh made during the Foss segment.
Marsh said that after the show, one member of the talk show staff objected to Marsh’s comment that Foss “looked great” and that they had a conversation in Marsh’s office.
“I just thought it was ridiculous,” Marsh said.
St. Louis Public Radio is not using the employee’s name to protect his privacy.
Another member of the talk show staff took issue with a different comment Marsh made that day. After the interview ran longer than expected, Marsh said he made a joke to two incoming guests, blaming the delay on Foss’ looks.
Evie Hemphill, a talk show producer who heard the remark, sent Marsh an email that night, telling him she heard him tell the waiting guests that "a pretty woman always takes precedence." In her email, Hemphill wrote that making comments about a woman's — or anyone's — appearance in a workplace setting might be commonplace, “but it's pretty baffling to me.”
“Outside of settings akin to a beauty pageant, I just don't see a place for it,” Hemphill wrote. “I don't think it's asking too much to keep the focus on the reasons our guests are joining us (newsiness, research, accomplishments, amazing stories), including behind the scenes.”
In another email that day, Heuer, the show’s executive producer, asked Marsh to meet with him and his boss Robert Peterson, director of radio programming and operations. Heuer cited “remarks about Karen’s appearance,” along with another conversation.
“[Another talk show team member] mentioned to me that he felt you were dismissive when he talked with you this afternoon, related to a conversation in the Control Room,” Heuer wrote to Marsh. “At the same time, [two talk show team members] independently came to me remarking that they heard you make remarks about Karen’s appearance in the Green Room and in the Studio.”
Heuer emphasized the need for a comfortable work environment for the entire talk show team.
“I’d like for you, Robert and me to sit down for a brief meeting tomorrow after the show,” he wrote to Marsh. “If your plans after the show interfere, let’s please talk when you arrive.”
In his reply to Heuer’s email, Marsh wrote, “I don’t think there’s a whole lot to talk about.”
“I just heard, I think it was [actor] Alec Baldwin in a pledge drive bit say… ‘There are no hot, buxom women on NPR,’” Marsh wrote. “Let's bring him in to any meeting we might have.”
On March 27, Marsh then met briefly with Heuer and Peterson, who supervises both men. Eby was not there.
Marsh said he asked Heuer what the meeting was about and that Heuer answered “sensitivity.” Marsh said when he then asked Peterson, “if what I said to Karen about looking great was wrong,” that Peterson made a gesture “as if to say, ‘Yes.’”
The longtime host said he then told Heuer and Peterson, “I’m done,” and walked out 45 minutes before the talk show was set to begin.
Peterson declined to be interviewed.
In an interview last week, Eby said the greeting wasn’t an issue but “may have been brought up.” Eby has maintained that the Foss greeting was appropriate between friends.
Eby said this week that he saw the Heuer email requesting the meeting with Marsh before formulating public statements about the host’s departure. In response to questions about any discrepancies between Marsh’s version of events, Heuer’s email and official statements of station managers, Eby said, “There is obviously some confusion about the reason for the meeting,” declining to elaborate on what he called a personnel issue.
Heuer said he stands by the email and the station’s response, saying, “I think Don has a different perspective.”
Marsh said the station’s account of his departure doesn’t add up.
“They’re saying this was not about my greeting to Karen Foss, and yet they called a meeting because of the apparent inappropriateness of the greeting to Karen Foss,” Marsh said. “The two don’t square.”
In an interview, Hemphill, the talk show producer, said that she thinks station leaders did the right thing.
“I have never felt so convinced that I work for and with people who treat others how they would like to be treated,” Hemphill said.
The St. Louis Public Radio news department did not initially publish a story about Marsh’s resignation that Wednesday because editors didn’t think it was newsworthy, Executive Editor Shula Neuman said.
“We don’t usually cover stories that are about departures and hirings for organizations,” she said.
But that changed over the weekend, when Foss’ Facebook post sparked discussion across St. Louis.
“By Monday, this was being talked about very, very widely,” Neuman said. “In light of the larger question around the #MeToo movement, and what is and isn’t appropriate speech, we felt it had more than just a news peg, because it might have been about us but it had a greater news peg as well.”
The newsroom published a story late that day.
Perceptions of what constitutes appropriate workplace behavior differ greatly between Marsh and the much-younger staff.
“I have talked to all of the employees involved with this and have heard their side of how they interpreted those greetings, and I think they understand the situation certainly as of now in terms of that's how friends greet one another,” Eby said. “There's been a lot of work around creating public responses and instructions to staff as to how to respond to public inquiries.”
In the days following Marsh’s resignation, station leaders focused on what to say publicly. They issued a set of talking points to employees that included answers to questions such as, “Was Don being reprimanded about something else?” The management team’s answer: “While we understand that our listeners and members would like to hear the full story from us, there are things we can’t share, including the details of that meeting, as it would be improper to discuss personnel matters in general.”
Marsh acknowledged he may have acted like a hothead by quitting on the spot. But he gives himself high marks when it comes to his sensitivity about women.
“I give myself an A+,” Marsh said. “Regardless of what these things look like, they were not disrespectful.”
Marsh compared his situation to “what’s going on with Joe Biden right now,” he said, referring to the former vice president’s habit of touching women during public appearances. After an initial complaint, eight women have now come forward to say Biden’s touch has made them uncomfortable.
“There is a group out there that reacts to anything, and I think it’s a generational deal, and they are very, very sensitive to anything they think is critical to women,” Marsh said.
There are generational differences of opinion on what is considered appropriate workplace conversation, said Caitlyn Collins, an assistant professor of sociology and of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University. Older people, in particular, may fail to see the harm in what sociologists call “benevolent sexism,” she said.
“When I hear folks saying something like, ‘Oh, you can’t take a joke' or 'What’s wrong with that sort of thing today,’ again, if it offends someone, then it’s a problem,” Collins said. “Best intentions don’t absolve people from the responsibility of maintaining a level of professionalism in the workplace that makes everyone feel safe and welcome.”
Collins, whose areas of research include gender inequality and the workplace, said what is considered acceptable behavior changes over time, as do comments. She said the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have given women language to talk about how comments regarding appearance can be demeaning. Sometimes, the repetition of such remarks can be problematic.
“Something that seems small, or like an aside, when it happens regularly, becomes insidious in a workplace in the way that suggests that women can be the subject of critique over their physical appearance,” Collins said.
Marsh left St. Louis Public Radio after a nearly 60-year career in print, television and radio journalism. He called his time at the radio station a highlight of his career and said he is still a fan, despite his differences with management.
“I still listen to the station; I still support it financially. And I would never recommend that anybody not do that,” Marsh said. “As you've seen, a number of people have indicated they will withdraw financial support. I don't endorse that.”
The St. Louis on the Air talk show continues daily at noon with fill-in hosts as the station prepares to seek Marsh’s successor.
Editor’s note: This story was reviewed by former Executive Editor Margaret Wolf Freivogel, who retired in 2015. In covering Don Marsh’s departure from St. Louis Public Radio, reporter Nancy Fowler and editor David Cazares are working independently of the station’s leadership. Newsroom editors make editorial decisions without interference from senior managers. The St. Louis Public Radio newsroom was not involved in the events that led to Marsh’s departure and is covering the news the way it would any other story. When station leaders share information with employees in off-the-record meetings, the journalists working on the story will not attend.
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