Dead Air

Why does WHYY’s Bill Marrazzo have employees who are calling for his head?

MARTY MOSS-COANE hadn’t planned on saying anything, but the longer she listened, the more it seemed that a particularly significant issue just wasn’t being raised. The occasion was a company-wide meeting in the summer of 2006 to discuss morale at WHYY, and the longtime host of the popular call-in show Radio Times felt she had some idea what was making her co-workers angry. So she finally stood up, both literally and figuratively the heft of her role at the station allowing her to say something to CEO Bill Marrazzo that maybe no one else could.

"Bill," she said, "one of the reasons morale here is so low is that your salary is so large compared to everyone else’s."

It must have been a troubling moment for Bill Marrazzo, the $430,786 man. That’s his salary – or at least, it was the last time the figure was divulged in the company’s annual tax return. With his refined style of dressing, spiky hairdo and warm handshake, he comes off as something of a dandy. And in Moss-Coane, he was facing a woman who questions people for a living. But Bill Marrazzo also isn’t the kind of man to back down.

"I work very hard for my salary," he responded.

"So do a lot of people here," Moss-Coane fired back.

The brief exchange elicited what the radio host remembers as an "uncomfortable silence" from the crowd of employees. And the meeting moved on.

Today, more than 50 years into WHYY’s existence, Marty Moss-Coane isn’t the only one with questions for the boss. Most Philadelphians react to WHYY with a yawn – and with good reason. Beyond the station’s acknowledged radio stars – Moss-Coane and nationally syndicated Fresh Air host Terry Gross – this city’s public broadcasting company doesn’t give us much reason to tune in, particularly on television. Unlike top-flight PBS stations, it produces no regular national TV programming and hardly any local programming of note. And yet according to the watchdog group Charity Navigator, Bill Marrazzo is the highest paid CEO in all of public broadcasting.

It’s this last fact that tends to rile onlookers. In September, an anonymous group of WHYY employees sent an open letter to Marrazzo, the Inquirer, the Daily News and this magazine, accusing him of "a serious lack of understanding when it comes to creating … a healthy workplace" and assailing his salary as "excessive and inappropriate." The five-page letter concludes with a call for Marrazzo to resign. More troubling, in August, Inquirer columnist Karen Heller called for a boycott of WHYY, declaring that its CEO is paid too much for delivering too little.

She derided the television side of the operation for showing too many English sitcoms, too much Lawrence Welk, and too little locally produced programming. "I stopped giving to WHYY," she wrote, "despite being an admirer of the radio station and having a thing for Jim Lehrer, and I won’t give until the board sees the absurdity of Marrazzo’s salary or he voluntarily takes a pay cut or a more enlightened leader is selected."

Heller had taken aim and fired at the most obvious target, Marrazzo’s salary, but between the lines of her story is another tale, of a man who became CEO at WHYY – a public broadcasting company – without any broadcast experience. What he did have was a background in business and the city’s circles of power, including political connections going back decades in Philadelphia, where he served in the Rizzo, Green and Goode administrations.

To Marrazzo’s credit, he has delivered a series of business victories during his 10-year tenure at WHYY, more than satisfying the people he most needs to please – a board of directors that seems to believe he’s worth every penny and then some. But that support may best reveal the shortcomings of the WHYY we’ve come to know under Marrazzo’s stewardship. A natural schism exists between the business people who sit on ‘HYY’s board and the rest of us. They may get aroused over balance sheets. But as consumers, we turn on our televisions. And what a close look at those swirling pixels tells us is an old Philadelphia story, in which a narrow constituency of influential citizens is satisfied enough to keep smiling its way through cocktail parties while the rest of us sit at home and watch Lawrence Welk.

I SPENT a couple of days this summer observing the goings-on at WHYY, and what struck me was what could be interpreted as a lack of ambition to do public television. In fact, the in-house publicity staff professed hope that I would write a story about all the things the station does other than broadcasting, sitting me down with the directors of the adult and youth educational services divisions of ‘HYY — representing a minuscule portion of the station’s budget.

This seemed a curious pitch for a broadcasting company to make — akin to a steakhouse waiter leaning down and whispering, "You really should try the fish." Then again, why not divert attention from a TV station that’s been turned off?

Less than 10 percent of ‘HYY’s weekly television schedule across three channels is locally produced fare. That published schedule doesn’t include the smaller spots produced to air between shows. But these short pieces only reflect what local television programming is at WHYY — an afterthought.

So what are we getting for our pledge dollars? Because WHYY’s television operation is licensed in Delaware, Philadelphia is forced to endure Delaware Tonight, a weeknight public affairs program about news we’re not following (there’s no corresponding program about Philadelphia); we also get an edited video version of Moss-Coane’s radio talk show and a series chronicling performances at the Curtis Center. The Next Mayor project, a TV/radio/web initiative that arguably has been WHYY’s greatest journalistic achievement in the past few years, offered issues-oriented insight into a crucial primary. But the project also employs the resources of the Daily News, and does what the rest of WHYY’s television lineup fails to do: It matters.

In my time at the station, the entire place seemed preoccupied — not only with the Karen Heller assault and the boss’s salary, but with a transition from analog to digital technology. During a tour of the facilities, the station’s technology chief, Bill Weber, gave me a vivid sense of how far ‘HYY is traveling, including a trip to the hallowed ground where Terry Gross’s producers had been, just this past July, editing the show from reel-to-reel tape. Multiple staffers, however, who wished to remain anonymous, referred derisively to the manner in which a Marrazzo-led WHYY has become, like the man himself, increasingly business-driven and jargon-laden. The problem, they say, is a company too focused on "delivery systems" rather than the "content" the station actually produces.

"I think what has happened is there has been a tidal wave of technology that has blurred the vision," says Glenn Holsten, a former producer at the station who left a few years into Marrazzo’s tenure. Holsten is perhaps best known for having delivered a visually sumptuous documentary on Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins that earned airtime on PBS stations throughout the country. "Someone needs to be immersed, not in how you’re going to share a story, but in what you’re going to say."

The lack of storytelling ambition puts ‘HYY behind marquee PBS stations like Boston’s WGBH and New York’s WNET, and even smaller outlets. Maryland Public Television airs more than a dozen local programs. And behind the strength of WQED, Pittsburgh doesn’t just kick Philadelphia’s ass in Super Bowlvictories. The CEO there came over in 1994 from a background in public broadcasting in New York, and today ‘QED boasts six regular TV series and numerous specials, enough to populate "Neighborhood," an entire channel focused exclusively on local programming. It’s the kind of commitment one might expect in Philadelphia, the sixth largest market in the country. But that isn’t what we’ve received.

At ‘HYY, there is no position for program development, responsible for crafting television ideas and finding funding. Those duties are shared by several staff members, which, considering how little the station is producing, sounds dangerously like saying no one does it at all. And despite heavy investments, serious equipment upgrades are still required.

This past July, for instance, when chef Jim Coleman came in to cut some shorts for the station, shooting had to be stopped when one of the studio’s two cameras broke down. Both are roughly 20 years old – so old they include vacuum tubes, like early color TVs. "I think the problem was that I appeared to be green," laughs Coleman. A technician ultimately fixed the problem the old-fashioned way – by beating the camera on its side.

BEHIND HIS graying goatee, Bill Marrazzo almost always wears a smile. He dresses in suits that suggest he knows his tailor, and he has an admirable head of hair for a 58-year-old man, boasting thick salt-and-pepper tufts that nearly obscure a small bald spot.

Marrazzo grew up in Brooklyn and demonstrated an early interest in math and science. Though today his bookshelf at ‘HYY is filled mostly with management-related tomes and a series of Who’s Who guides, his home library is very different, containing mainly biographies of famous women. "I’ve always admired people who succeed against some odds," he explains one afternoon, while sitting in his office. "That whole idea of women breaking through the glass ceiling has always appealed to me."

Marrazzo’s wife, Randi, is an opera singer; they have two children. Among friends, he has a reputation for both warmth and meticulousness. Tasty Baking CEO Charlie Pizzi, a former ‘HYY board member and Friend of Bill from their days together in city government, says Marrazzo decorates his Christmas tree by arranging one strand. Of silver tinsel. At a time.

This type A image of Marrazzo is buttressed by his professional biography: He became Philadelphia water commissioner at age 30 and rose all the way to managing director in the Green administration. After 17 years in city government, he joined the private sector, where he became CEO of Roy F. Weston, Inc., an environmental consulting firm. He resigned in 1997 after the company’s 86-year-old founder and namesake unretired to take the helm.

Throughout his career, Marrazzo has used his manifest drive to make connections with others climbing toward the top. Last fall, a group called Leadership Philadelphia selected Marrazzo, from among 4,300 nominees, as one of “The Area’s 101 Connectors.” BusinessWeek’s online company profile of WHYY lists Marrazzo with connections to 180 board members at various companies. Former governor and current Chamber of Commerce president Mark Schweiker trails him with 156.

Marrazzo’s pleasure in the company of others is visible: He has a habit, when listening to someone speak, of leaning forward and staring with intensity, like a dog looking at a bag from which he expects a treat to be produced. He has the polish of a lifelong politician, though his habit of offering compliments and pulling people into conversation with a Jedi Knight’s unseen force seems less about manipulation than a statement of being. “My self-assessment,” he says, “borne out by years of objective executive assessment, has taught me that I am most effective when I am interacting with other people.”   

IT WAS A SURPRISE when Marrazzo emerged months after departing Weston to lead WHYY — despite no previous broadcast experience. “We were looking for a CEO,” says Pizzi, who was on the search committee. “I wasn’t thinking of it for him. But when I mentioned the search, he expressed interest.” In this innocent conversation, the pair embraced a time-honored Philadelphia tradition: Know someone, be someone.

Board members say Marrazzo was hired after wowing them with a presentation promising a financial turnaround, an embrace of digital technology, and a commitment to making that hardware accessible to the public. Ten years into his reign, Marrazzo has got the company out of the red, turning in million-dollar-plus budget surpluses two years running, with a third year expected when the company’s next financial statement goes public this fall. ’HYY has also invested roughly $10 million in digital technology, tripled its number of major donors, and developed three strands of programming — Channel 12, Wider Horizons for the older set, and the Y Arts Channel — available on Comcast.

Given the current bottom-line focus in the nonprofit world, it’s perhaps not surprising that the ’HYY board — comprised largely of local business people and lawyers — has rewarded Marrazzo so handsomely. The very existence of a website like Charity Navigator provides hard evidence that potential donors are looking for information on an organization’s “efficiencies” — how much pocket change do they spend to raise each dollar? — before plunking down their hard-earned bucks. In this competitive climate, nonprofits thrive based not on the public service they provide, but on fiscal judgment.

That doesn’t take the sting out of Marrazzo’s salary for his employees. Sources at ’HYY complained that they’ve received three percent raises while Marrazzo’s pay jumped from $264,234 in fiscal ’98 to his current salary of $430,786, including a recent $66,000 raise. Producers at successful shows like Radio Times earn less than $50,000 per year, and even award-winning reporters at the station earn less than $40,000 per year.

During a long conversation about his salary, Marrazzo noted that he could make a lot more money in private industry, that he continues at ’HYY because the job allows him to be of service, and that in the past year he donated more than $75,000 back into the company’s coffers — a considerable sum. He knows that some will criticize him for donating the money back rather than declining a raise, which is yet another subject that reveals the cultural divide Marrazzo straddles: between the for-profit world he comes from and the nonprofit public broadcasting company he’s currently steering. 

According to a 2005 study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, hundreds of nonprofit leaders declined raises between 1998 and 2003. In Philadelphia, William Dwyer III of the Boy Scouts of America took no pay raises for four years straight while the organization suffered layoffs. Regardless, both Jerry Sweeney, ’HYY’s new board chair, and Molly Dickinson Shepard, the previous chair, say they aren’t rethinking Marrazzo’s salary.

“The board determined Bill’s compensation based on a variety of factors,” says Dickinson Shepard, CEO of The Leader’s Edge, which offers personalized coaching to women executives. “We had to think outside the normal boundaries because of Bill’s talents and experience. … His raises have been determined by a very specific set of metrics, which he has met — things like increasing audience share, converting to digital technology and bringing the budget into line.”

And as for declining a raise?

“C’mon,” she replies. “Who ever declines a raise?”

IN OUR CONVERSATION, Marrazzo outlines an ambitious plot to go “north of 75 percent local” on arts coverage and more than 50 percent local on news and public affairs. That sounds like a great way to assuage his critics. But the spirit of Marrazzo’s plan could be most evident in the cannibalistic efforts to repackage Fresh Air with Terry Gross, which is available in a video version On Demand from Comcast, and the TV version of Radio Times.

The production values of that show, or On Stage at Curtis, which both employ robotic cameras, recall convenience-store surveillance videos. And while their low overhead might spell success as a business, it doesn’t seem like a recipe for excellence in broadcasting. Still, Marrazzo practically urges me to follow him: In order to survive, he says, WHYY must consider itself not a broadcasting company operating a television and radio station, but “a content provider, delivering across multiple platforms.”

It’s a radical reshaping — not of the company’s mission, but of its means of delivery. And what I come away struck by isn’t only the zeal with which Marrazzo believes in his plan, but how long it will take him to execute it. Once WHYY finishes paying for all its new equipment, he says, it will have more funds to feed into programming. “I think you’ll see more local programming starting in February 2009, and within five years” — by 2012 — “you’ll see a significant increase in the amount of local programming we do.”

The plan, right now, seems to exist mostly within Marrazzo’s head. Producer Ed Cunningham, the 60-year-old Voice of ’HYY, told me in a phone interview that he hadn’t heard of it. When I asked to speak with whoever is in charge of planning for this more ambitious future, I was told by a PR staffer that ’HYY was still in the process of hiring a replacement for station manager Paul Gluck, who left in April. (Gluck declined to be interviewed for this article.) The staffer offered to connect me with chief operating officer Bruce Flamm, whom I had interviewed previously. When I pressed Flamm on the lack of local programming, he responded in three ways — by defending what the station does air, by pointing out that “television is very expensive” to produce, and by suggesting that I look at all the things WHYY does other than broadcasting.

In other words, try the fish.

says she may have  received more response to her call for an ’HYY boycott — about 250 e-mails, nearly all positive — than to anything else she ever wrote. About a week after her boycott column ran, one WHYY staffer told me, at least 32 members cancelled as a direct result.   

Some of Marrazzo’s internal critics saw Heller’s column as righteous: “There was just this brief conversation you’d have the day it came out — ‘Hey, did you see the Inquirer?’” says one staffer. “Then we’d snicker.” Others feared for their survival. “When she writes something like that,” says ’HYY acting station manager Christine Dempsey, “it doesn’t just affect Bill Marrazzo. It affects us all.”

Fear seems a kind of constant companion to the staffers at WHYY. That so many people I called for this article either requested anonymity or declined to speak at all came as a surprise. WHYY uses public funds to practice journalism. But the goings-on are far from transparent.

Much of the fear I encountered was no doubt residue from Heller’s column. And the publicity department clearly operates out of a desire to bolster WHYY’s reputation. But the letter that the probably small group of unnamed employees sent to the media accuses Marrazzo of alienating staff, fostering a bullying atmosphere, and lording his status, to the extent of creating an executive parking area that “elderly women volunteers” aren’t allowed to use even when spaces are available and they won’t be exiting the building until 11 p.m.

My own experience with ’HYY was often troubling. Along the way, the company’s publicity flacks called my editor to talk when they didn’t like the questions I was asking; the director of marketing creepily recited for me a long list of all the people she knew I had called; and two ’HYY publicists took notes during the majority of my interviews with ’HYY staff. I was also informed in an e-mail that WHYY could potentially find, fire and even prosecute the person responsible for faxing me a not-so-sensitive financial document — a budget sheet, essentially — that didn’t even warrant inclusion in this story.

Marrazzo himself seemed confident. As I sat across from him, accompanied by two company publicists, I asked if he was frustrated that the media hasn’t written about what he considers his greatest achievements. “I’m going to do my darnedest to make sure you understand who you’re talking to,” he replied, going on to say that the conversation we were having, in the company of his publicists, was recognition enough for him. He glowered momentarily, his usual smile going black. “That’s all the recognition I need. And if you’re beginning to think this sounds more like a missionary job, it is.”

These were strange words to hear in the midst of an interview about a public broadcasting company, but what struck me about them in the moment was how unappreciated and belittled Marrazzo may feel in the face of the controversy — a human being reduced to a number, The $430,786 Man. He denies suffering any personal upset, but his statement — that he would make me understand who he was — seemed to contain within it not just a declaration, but a plea to be seen in his entirety, if only for a few moments in his office.

THE PARTY is being held in an Old City high-rise condo with a lovely view. The occasion is a welcoming party for Bill Brown, Citibank’s new local marketing president. The guest list includes local luminaries of the sort that glow brightly at parties such as these without claiming any real celebrity, among them John P. Claypool, of the American Institute of Architects, and Ernest E. Jones, of the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corporation.

Marrazzo works the crowd, absorbing guests into the small clutch of people gathered around him. Even in this arena, he can’t seem to escape Karen Heller. “Oh, that Karen Heller article!” says Pete Hoskins, the former president of the Philadelphia Zoo. “How awful! Just awful!”

Hearing him, the CEO turns red, smiles over at me, and warns Hoskins about my presence. Not that Hoskins cares. He took a beating over his salary of $340,000 while director of the Zoo, including a long whipping in the pages of this magazine. So now he sees an opportunity to make something clear. “Do you know why they have to pay people so much money to take these jobs?” he asks. “Because nobody wants them.”

He cites his own experience: After he announced his retirement from the Zoo in June 2005, it took 13 months to find a replacement: “Not a single zoo director in the United States called about this job.”

Toward the end of the evening, I wander over to where Marrazzo nurses a glass of white wine. Together, we look over the crowd. “This is a great group of people,” he says, “a special group.”

In the afterglow of these words, he looks happier than he has all day — standing in an Old City high-rise, welcoming a new banking executive to town, and enjoying a drink in the company of his peers.