The Firing of Garrett McQueen

I want to start this blog by recounting a story, and one that admittedly doesn’t portray me in the greatest possible light.  In the winter of 2018, I was made aware of a national hosting opportunity at APM/PRI’s Classical 24.  It wasn’t an ideal job, as it entailed working overnights (midnight – 6 am Central Time) three to four nights per week.  But that inconvenience came with extra pay, and the hope of eventually moving out of that shift to a more conventional time.  And, given that it was Classical 24, it came with a built-in national audience, something anyone in radio, no matter the format, covets.  So I applied for it, going through several rounds of phone and virtual interviews, ultimately culminating in an in-person trip to frigid and snowy St. Paul that April.  I developed a cold, of course, on the day before the trip, and endured the marathon interview day while hopped up on Sudafed and adrenaline.  I thought I did well.  I knew I did well.

Fast forward about a week or two later, when I got the call indicating that I did not get the job.  I found out days later that the job had gone to a young bassoonist from Tennessee, whose name I had only heard a few times: Garrett McQueen.  At that point, McQueen had been in radio for only a little over a year at Knoxville’s WUOT, but I had heard him as a substitute host for Fred Child a few times on Performance Today.  I knew next to nothing about him other than that I wasn’t thrilled with his hosting.  He sounded, to my ears, inexperienced, overly scripted, and a more than a bit nervous.  He was not someone I would have hired for a national audience, at least not without more seasoning.  Furthermore, the job description for the position indicated a requirement of at least five years of experience; at that point, I had been in radio for nearly thirteen years.

I was angry.  “How could I have been passed over for this guy?” I thought.  I got over it, though.  It wasn’t the first career disappointment I had endured, it it certainly wouldn’t be the last.  I also didn’t have to move my family or try to raise two kids while living a nocturnal life.  Moreover, I quickly came to realize how important Garrett’s voice was to our small but very homogeneous classical radio community.  The only other voice of color who had a full time presence on classical radio that I could think of was WQXR’s Terrance McKnight.  It was not long before I came to be grateful for not being hired, as diversity on Classical 24’s playlists blossomed, Garrett became a welcome presence on my social media feeds, and with Scott Blankenship he launched the podcast Trilloquy.  For all my years of experience, I could never provide his perspective.  He was the right man at the right time.

Garrett McQueen was fired yesterday.  I’m not going to get into the finer points of this story as told by MPR News, but you can read it.  Chances are if you’re reading this, you already know what’s in it.

Up until a few hours ago, I had planned for the rest of this blog to be an indictment of APM leadership.  But information I’ve received privately from people inside the building stopped those plans in their tracks.  I won’t get into details here, as it wouldn’t be fair to APM management, my friends and colleagues who still work there, and certainly it wouldn’t be fair to Garrett himself.   The most very general thing I can say is that actions he allegedly took inside the workplace were, if true, incredibly unprofessional and unquestionably fireable.  Even if his intent was noble, and I believe it certainly was, such actions just cannot happen in a functional workplace.  Whether or not he should have been fired, though, is an incredibly complicated question.  Given that all I have to go on are accounts from only a portion of the parties involved, I can’t say definitively yes or no.  I would certainly hope that all other options were exhausted before coming to this decision.

It is hard to collect all my thoughts about this, but I will try.  I think the best thing is for me to outline a list of bullet points that, for me, are “truths.”  These are my truths, and others may have ones that are different.  Also, I think it’s important to say that some of these points may seem contradictory.  That doesn’t make them any less true to me.

  • Garrett McQueen was, and still is, a much-needed voice in classical music broadcasting.
  • Classical music hosts should have the ability to change previously created playlists to respond to extraordinary circumstances on the ground.
  • Classical music hosts should respect their station’s policy regarding playlist changes.
  • Radio stations reserve the right to determine the sound they want, and enforce that sound among its staff accordingly.
  • Repeated insubordination that doesn’t improve after reprimands should result in termination.
  • Organizations cannot and should not go into details about personnel when announcing or commenting on terminations.
  • APM’s statement about Garrett McQueen’s firing was tone-deaf and lacked much-needed context.

Where does this leave us?  Well, for Garrett McQueen, I have no doubt he will be fine.  He will land on his feet, and I hope it’s somewhere in the public radio ecosystem.  We need him.  We need dozens of him.  I also hope he learns from this unfortunate experience, and I hope the lesson isn’t that he isn’t wanted, but that compromise is not surrender.  A few weeks before his firing, and on the heels of his removal from the air, he wrote on his public Facebook page, “The reason I think we all should be critiquing capitalist structures is because it quells thought, imagination, and freedom. Under capitalism (for most Americans) our rights to shelter and food are dependent upon our ability to professionally assimilate at a job. Punishment for not assimilating in the work place is an indirect threat to life, and it needs to be named as such more often.”  He is not wrong.  But radio stations are teams.  National broadcasters are teams.  Not being willing to compromise only leads to isolation, and isolation means a loss of amplification of his message.  I have learned this the hard way, too.

As for Classical 24, I worry about what this means for its future.  I worry that it will be saddled with a burdensome reputation for being, at best, too conservative in its programming, and at worst, racist in its management.  Neither, in my opinion, are true statements.  I often look to Classical 24 playlists for inspiration in my own programming when I’m in a rut, and I’ve been blown away by the strides it has made in recent years to include more diverse offerings.  I don’t anticipate that commitment to diminish.  But I do worry that this story will prevent them from hiring the people they want and need to carry out its mission into the future.  And this situation is a black eye on the rest of public media, too, as we are an ecosystem that has already been struggling with diversity for years.

Usually I have blogs that express one opinion unequivocally.  Not this time.  There are no good answers here, and no definitive conclusions.  Just messiness, anger, and sadness for all involved.  2020 continues, unabated.

UPDATE, 1:40 pm, 9/11/20:  American Public Media just released the following statement further clarifying their decision to fire Garrett McQueen (link):

Yesterday, American Public Media parted ways with Garrett McQueen.

Our organization’s values guide our decisions, and one of those values calls on us to hold one another accountable for our actions. While we typically do not discuss the details of employee departures, the experience we’ve seen described publicly does not accurately describe what has occurred.

Our decision was not sudden and came after several conversations with Garrett over the past year regarding programming changes. The warnings presented to Garrett were not tied to his choice of music or the reasons for his unauthorized changes to playlists. He was able to make changes to the playlist, but the manner in which he made changes is what caused an issue. We have a process in place for changing playlists, and that process exists to maintain our more than 200 partner stations’ compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and to ensure royalties are properly paid for the music played.

We value Garrett’s work and his distinctive contributions to our shared commitment to increase diversity and inclusion in classical music. And we remain steadfast in pursuing that commitment. Across Classical MPR, 24 percent of the music we play features a composer, conductor or soloist who is a woman and/or a Black person, Indigenous person, or Person of Color. We are committed to increasing this number.

We know that there is still more work needed to further expand our catalog and increase representation in our programming. We are committed to doing this work.

About Joe Goetz

Joe Goetz is Music Director for WFIU 103.7 FM in Bloomington, Indiana, and has eleven years of experience hosting and producing classical music programming for public radio. While completing his B.A. in Music at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, CO, Joe worked part time as a classical music host at KCME 88.7 FM. Following graduation, he worked as a classical music host and producer at Vermont Public Radio, developing new and engaging programming in addition to programming and hosting a daily afternoon air shift. He is an accomplished pianist with several chamber music performances to his credit, an occasional choir singer, and an avid golfer. He lives with his wife, Meghann, their son William, daughter Allison, and cats Ollie and Blanche.

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