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Arts Toronto’s JAZZ.FM91 CEO steps down in wake of probe into sexual-harassment allegations

Ross Porter is seen in this 2005 photo.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Long-time broadcaster Ross Porter stepped down last week from his position as president and CEO of Toronto’s JAZZ.FM91 radio station on the heels of a third-party workplace investigation, a probe spurred by a letter from more than a dozen current and former employees alleging he had sexually harassed staff and created a toxic workplace.

In a statement posted to its website on May 30, the not-for-profit jazz station said Porter, a former CBC radio host who took over as head of JAZZ.FM91 in 2004, “will now spend more time with his family and his ailing wife,” who has cancer. He has been granted the honorary title of president emeritus and will continue to host his Saturday morning show, Music to Listen to Jazz By.

Charles Cutts, the former president and chief executive officer of the Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall, has been appointed interim CEO of the station.

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In a statement to The Globe and Mail, Porter denied that the changes were prompted by the investigation.

But the eight former and five current employees, who call themselves the JAZZ.FM Collective, say the changes do not go far enough, arguing that Porter’s alleged misbehaviour should rule out any continuing association with the station.

The investigation began last March after the group wrote to the board of directors to allege “ongoing workplace harassment, sexual harassment, bullying, and general mismanagement of the station” by Porter. The letter also alleged that the station’s vice-president of finance and operations, Sharda Prashad, board chair Bernard Webber and vice-chair Renah Persofsky had enabled Porter’s alleged behaviour.

“The work environment at the station has become intolerable. However, past complaints have gone unheeded,” they alleged in the letter, a copy of which they shared with The Globe.

Some of them told The Globe that Porter regularly initiated sexually graphic conversations, engaged in unwanted touching and made jokes suggesting that employees should sleep with the station’s supporters. During meetings at which staff would pitch promotional or programming concepts, he would exhort them to come up with ideas that would “make me horny.” They also alleged he would frequently reduce staff to tears, humiliate them in front of co-workers and berate announcers during commercial breaks.

“I consider many of these accusations to be isolated, distorted and manipulated out of context,” Porter said in a statement he e-mailed to The Globe on Wednesday.

The group said that more than 40 employees “have either resigned abruptly under duress, been fired abruptly or have left their employment with the station because it was untenable” in the previous “5+ years.”

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The letter also alleged that some employees who had reported concerns to the station’s board of directors or legal counsel faced “threats of legal action or other retribution” by Porter. It alleged that Porter and Prashad practised an “US vs. THEM” management style that created “a climate of fear, intimidation, retaliation, gaslighting and threat of reprisals.” Staff also perceived that Prashad was especially loyal to Porter, precluding them from taking concerns about him to her.

The letter alleged that the reputation of the radio station, a registered charity that depends on donations for more than 50 per cent of its annual revenue, was suffering after word of the discord had begun to spread among musicians, volunteers and donors.

After receiving the letter, the station’s board hired employment lawyer Jennifer MacKenzie to conduct an investigation. The board said MacKenzie interviewed 27 people.

As the investigation got under way, Persofsky assumed the role of board chair and served as interim CEO for a month, which included direct management of human resources at the station – despite being one of the four subjects of the probe. In that position, she oversaw employees who had made allegations against her.

John Sadler, a JAZZ.FM91 board member, defended the move, telling The Globe: “Ms. Persofsky volunteered to provide this oversight and our legal counsel confirmed it was appropriate for her to do so.” He added: “By naming a broad cross-section of the organization’s senior leaders in their complaint, it appeared that one of the ambitions of the Collective was to decapitate the management of the station. The board could not allow that to happen.”

MacKenzie delivered her report in April.

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In a statement to The Globe made on behalf of the board, Sadler wrote that “the Investigation Report of Findings concluded that many of the complaints were unsubstantiated while others warranted further consideration and action. Where the findings substantiated aspects of the complaint, the board has taken corrective action.”

In a follow-up statement, he noted “the report concluded that the complaints [against Prashad] were not substantiated by the findings.” He added that “Ms. MacKenzie made no findings of any wrongdoing against either Ms. Persofsky or Mr. Webber.”

Attempts to reach Webber, Persofsky and Prashad directly were unsuccessful.

In addition to Porter’s change in status, which included leaving the board, Webber was permanently replaced by Persofsky as chair, though he remains on the board.

In his statement to The Globe, Porter said: “My stepping aside is not related to the investigation. I have a son who did three tours in Afghanistan and experiences PTSD, and my wife is suffering from stage-four brain cancer. I had been having discussions with key individuals at the station for over a year about my role and with the added stress brought into my life I stepped aside to take care of my family.”

Asked for comment, the board, citing personnel matters, did not directly address the reasons for Porter’s change in duties.

In a series of interviews, members of the group of former and current employees told The Globe they were upset by the lack of postinvestigation clarity from management, noting that employees were advised in a contentious meeting last week that Porter might continue to be a prominent face of the station in its fundraising drives and other public activities. They felt it was especially inappropriate to give him an honorary title in light of how employees had allegedly suffered under his management.

On Sunday, the group sent a letter to the board expressing its disappointment with the outcome of the investigation and asking for the release of MacKenzie’s report. “Based on how you propose to move forward, we feel the investigation and allegations were not taken seriously.”

On Monday afternoon, in a letter it shared with The Globe, the board refused the request, writing that MacKenzie’s interview subjects “did not consent to the disclosure of their comments outside the investigation process and we will not breach their rights to confidentiality and privacy. Accordingly, the investigator’s report will not be released.”

The continuing upheaval comes amid the station’s annual spring fundraising drive, which kicked off last Saturday. JAZZ.FM91 had about 143,000 daily listeners during the most recent ratings period, which ended May 27, according to national ratings service Numeris. Its 2.1-per-cent share of the Toronto audience is up more than 100 per cent from the same period a year earlier.

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