JAZZ.FM91 listeners stunned at changes, allegations of misconduct at beloved radio station

Listeners to JAZZ.FM91 are dismayed by on-air changes at Canada’s only all-jazz radio station, as well as news of allegations of misconduct and mismanagement against former CEO and president Ross Porter and board members.

Station offers few explanations for departure of popular hosts amid allegations by employees of harassment

Listener and donor Deborah Abbott says she feels betrayed by JAZZ.FM. For a one-time donation of $750, Abbott was invited to join former host Dani Elwell on Host Your Own Radio Show. (Supplied by Deborah Abbott)

Listeners to JAZZ.FM91 are dismayed by on-air changes at Canada's only all-jazz radio station, as well as news of allegations of sexual misconduct, workplace harassment and mismanagement against former CEO and president Ross Porter and board members.

"It's so disappointing, shocking that this is going on," says long-time listener Deborah Abbott. She's already cancelled her monthly donations of $120. "It's very, very sad to see it all fall apart."

Hosts at the station often referred to listeners as "members of the JAZZ.FM family," but there have been no explanations on air about the recent departures of four long-time on-air personalities, nor the earlier departure last fall of station stalwarts, including the vice president of creative talent Dani Elwell, who doubled as an on-air host, or the departure in April of morning show host Garvia Bailey.

The abrupt departure of former morning show host Garvia Bailey in April left listeners wondering what was going on at the station.

"All of a sudden I'm listening one Saturday morning," recalls Abbott, "and [Elwell] isn't on. I sent a note, saying, 'I missed you this morning,' and she writes back."  

Elwell replied, saying, "Unfortunately this was not my choice. I wasn't allowed to say goodbye with the show."

Board member John Sadler declined a request from CBC Toronto for an interview with interim CEO Charles Cutts or anyone else connected with station management.

However, last Sunday, in an email to listeners, board chair David McGown and Cutts wrote that the station is facing challenges, and said JAZZ.FM is not immune to changes in "the fractured media landscape."

Former employees allege harassment, mismanagement

But a letter obtained by CBC Toronto, dated March 16, 2017 from eight former and five current on-air staff at JAZZ.FM, tells a different story.

"We are a collective of past and present JAZZ.FM91 employees," it begins.

Then the letter goes on to accuse a number of senior figures at the station of  "ongoing workplace harassment, sexual harassment, bullying and general mismanagement of the station."

The letter points the finger at Porter, along with Sharda Prashad, the vice president of finance and operations, former board chair Bernie Webber and board vice chair Renah Persofsky.

The signatories say that over the past five years they've witnessed "a steady erosion in the overall management" and a climate of fear and low morale.

None of allegations have been proven.

Longtime JAZZ.FM host Jaymz Bee with pianist Ron Davis at a live broadcast. (tomros)

Former staff, none of whom would allow their names to be used for fear of legal retribution, say the board responded by hiring workplace lawyer Jennifer MacKenzie to conduct an investigation.

In the emailed letter, McGown and Cutts inform listeners that "Ross Porter recently stepped aside to spend more time with his family and in particular his wife, who is terminally ill." The letter also says Porter will continue to provide programming and advice to the station for the coming year.

A sense of personal loss for listeners

On a Facebook page for JAZZ.FM listeners, many people describe feelings of personal loss, especially when they tuned in last week to find the morning show replaced by un–hosted music, interspersed with traffic reports and BBC newscasts.  

"That first morning, I was stunned," says Abbott. 'I wake up to the station. I go downstairs and search the website and can't find Garvia or Jaymz on the website. And Garvia was amazing, a great morning host, very engaging. James was this other dynamic in the morning ... He was always fun to listen to."

One longtime host says the on-air changes were preceded by years of growing secrecy and abrupt personnel changes at the station.

"I started to see a revolving door, sped up to a point I've never seen before in any other organization." The former host says several one-time colleagues are dealing with PTSD.

The collective letter says that over about five years, at least 40 employees have resigned abruptly, been fired abruptly or left the station "because it was untenable." 

None of the allegations against Porter or the board members have been proven in court.

'They failed this organization' 

"If the board is responsible for good governance, they failed this organization," says the one-time host. "For a non-profit public organization, the transparency is almost negligible."

The former host and other staff also question the board approving a salary of more than $300,000 for the former CEO, given the station's annual budget of $4.5 million and its reliance on listener donations.

 Abbott blames the board for failing to protect the people who wrote the collective letter and the recently departed hosts.

"They should have asked for more money and been upfront about it," says Abbott. "We all know the media is suffering and that things are tough in the radio business."

Like Abbott, long-time listener Linda Scott is also cancelling her monthly donation of $20, saying she resents the lack of transparency.

"I didn't think they explained all these people leaving," says Abbott.

'Difficult decisions'

In the email to listeners, Cutts and McGown say they were "difficult decisions" and add that "to put them in context, our actions occurred on the same day that Rogers Media terminated one-third of its digital content and publishing team."

'I don't see what Rogers has to do with anything," says Scott. "JAZZ.FM wasn't connected to Rogers. They seem to be sidestepping things. The email made it sound like they just want to ensure that you still give them money."

Scott contrasts JAZZ.FM's response with that of Soulpepper, another arts organization that went through a similar upheaval after its former CEO Albert Schultz resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

As a frequent attendee of Soulpepper's productions, Scott says the theatre board appealed to its audience for support with posts from actors and crew about how much the company and their ongoing support meant to them.

"But I don't feel the same pull from anyone at JAZZ.FM. There's a lack of transparency."

Pianist Ron Davis, frequent on-air guest and longtime listener, says the diminishing number of jazz clubs in the city made JAZZ.FM all the more crucial for musicians to connect with an audience. (tomros)

Toronto jazz pianist Ron Davis, another long-time listener and frequent on-air guest, says the changes are potentially devastating for the jazz community across Canada, because it's one of only three all-jazz radio stations in North America.  

"There isn't a jazz musician in this city who doesn't imagine their music being brought to the public by JAZZ.FM, from students to jazz veterans," says Davis. "Whether you're a 15-year-old student in the jazz program at Humber College, or a veteran with a new recording, it all passes through JAZZ.FM."