What Actually Happened To The DCist, And Beloved Radio Station WAMU

Last month, during an all-staff meeting at WAMU, Diane Rehm’s microphone mysteriously stopped working. Rehm began her career at WAMU in 1973 and has hosted a podcast and a monthly book club program for the Washington public radio station since she stepped back from daily broadcast of her nationally distributed show in 2016. Zooming in from her home, Rehm asked WAMU’s general manager, Erika Pulley-Hayes, a question about her decision, a week and a half earlier, to shutter the local news website DCist and to lay off more than a dozen people.

WAMU had announced the changes as a way to “deepen engagement with Washingtonians,” according to a press release. “WAMU has been a leader in purpose driven media for decades and sits at the heart of this community,” the release quoted Pulley-Hayes as saying. “We are embracing the future by focusing on what we do best, which is audio excellence, and building deeper community engagement around it.” The No. 1 radio station in the area said it planned to launch a new locally focused show, even though when the smoke cleared, the station’s newsroom had only four reporters left. But as Pulley-Hayes told employees during the all-staff meeting, the reorganization was “a strategic decision. And it was not driven by the finances.”

If that’s the case, staffers wondered, why did WAMU lay off people whose work focused mostly on audio, or who didn’t have anything to do with DCist? Rehm took that question to management. “What I did not understand,” Rehm said during the March 6 meeting, “was the layoff of a fine reporter like Jacob Fenston or the director of technology, Rob Bertrand, or James Coates—”

“Diane,” Pulley-Hayes interrupted.

“—who just two years ago won a prestigious award here at the university,” Rehm continued. “And so it would have seemed that you sort of publicized that you were taking down DCist. But you did not talk much about the other—that other staff members who were losing their jobs. It’s as though they just disappeared because somebody didn’t want them here anymore—”

Multiple staffers say that at this point they saw Rehm’s mouth moving, but she produced no sound. Rehm declined to comment for this article, but she told other staffers that she did not mute herself.

“Diane, thanks for your feedback,” Pulley-Hayes said, as the 50-plus-year veteran of public broadcasting appeared to continue to try to speak. “But it’s really inappropriate to talk about HR decisions in a public forum. So I’m not at liberty to address it in this forum, to talk to you. You’re asking HR questions that I cannot answer.” Pulley-Hayes then called on another employee.

“Diane Rehm is a legend,” one WAMU staffer tells Washingtonian. “We were all shocked.”

“I don’t know about that,” Pulley-Hayes tells Washingtonian about Rehm’s sudden silence. “I was in a staff meeting, and I was talking to multiple members of the staff. I do recall Diane asking about particular staff members. And I remember telling Diane that it was inappropriate to talk about individual staff members.”

The Rehm incident added to a long bill of complaints compiled by many WAMU staffers, and now quite a few former staffers, against Pulley-Hayes. They say the station’s GM is distant from staffers, dithers about making decisions, relies too much on consultants and business-school exercises, and was barely engaged with WAMU’s news products before she slashed them to the bone. Pulley-Hayes paints a competing picture: DCist, she says, caused WAMU to depart from its core mission of broadcasting and never added enough value to its overall operation to justify its expense. The changes she effected in late February, she says, were meant to put the station on a sustainable path to the future.

This article is based on interviews with Pulley-Hayes and more than a dozen current and former WAMU staffers and contractors, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve their jobs or their severance. The portrait that emerges is of a media organization in the throes of a dramatic reorganization that has tanked employee morale and baffled some faculty members and alumni of American University, which operates WAMU. And it’s all happening at a time when other outlets that cover local news in Washington have cut back and the university has announced a new president as well as the departure of the school’s executive who oversaw the station. As one staffer puts it, WAMU has “a garbage mess” on its hands.

Rehm is not alone in wondering what, exactly, WAMU’s management hoped to accomplish with the deep cuts: Much of WAMU’s staff is vexed by it as well. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that Pulley-Hayes has consistently framed WAMU’s reorganization as a bold new strategy for content, one that very few people outside her circle find coherent.

“Nobody is pivoting to radio. It doesn’t make sense,” one former staffer says. “How can four people cover an entire area?” says another, referring to the fact that WAMU now has four reporters total. That staffer calls the new plan “content strategy word salad.”

WAMU employees were initially optimistic about Pulley-Hayes when she arrived at the station in 2021, when it was still reeling from a staff revolt that led to the ouster of its previous manager, JJ Yore. She’d managed two public radio stations in Florida and worked at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “Listening to the voice of everyone on staff is really important,” she said that July in an interview published by DCist. “I think we’re shifting from this top-down approach—I call that management—to being more about what leaders do. And leaders, in my opinion, create the space for people to do their best work.”

Very quickly, however, she made more of an impression as a manager who didn’t want to hear too much from people who reported to her. “We started noticing that she ran things a little more tightly than JJ did,” says Martin Austermuhle, who reported on DC politics for WAMU and DCist until last year and now works in Switzerland for an environmental non-governmental organization. At all-staff meetings, he says, “There were no questions allowed, or you had to submit them in writing in advance.”

How can four people cover an entire area?

A current staffer

“She wouldn’t take questions at first until people truly lost their minds and were writing her letters” that implored her to listen to staffers, says Natalie Delgadillo, who was DCist’s managing editor until February. “So finally she did start allowing questions but only allowed questions for ten minutes. It just seemed like she was looking for ways to escape.”

Pulley-Hayes’s apparent sensitivity to questions extended beyond her staff. Wesley Lowery, a journalism professor at AU, sent questions to WAMU after the cuts and says the written responses he received were “literally PR speak, and, by the way, they had edited out some of the questions.”

“When you are in positions, there are certain questions that you can answer,” Pulley-Hayes tells Washingtonian. Sometimes there’s confidential information involved, she says, and other times it’s “premature” to answer. “So I do answer questions at staff meetings. And I share what I can share at the time that it’s appropriate.”

Like peanut butter and sriracha, WAMU and DCist were a surprising match. WAMU, an NPR member station, started broadcasting on the FM frequency in 1961. It soothed its way to the top of the region’s airwaves with a quirky mixture of music, public radio classics like This American Life, and a mix of national and local news. The station eventually retooled itself toward news and talk and boosted chat shows hosted by Rehm and Kojo Nnamdi to national perches. It built a hardy local newsroom with strengths in transportation, education, and local politics reporting—essential information for an engaged life in the region.

DCist, by contrast, was a creation of the internet and typically focused on life in the District rather than the entire Washington area. Ironically, though, if you live in Annandale but say you’re from “DC,” the culture DCist helped build is part of the reason why: Founded in 2004 as part of the Gothamist network of hyperlocal news sites, it helped to crystallize the pride many young people felt about their city—and eventually, the Washington region. As new residents flooded into the area in the late ‘00s, and a wave of gentrification and redevelopment festooned Washington with Michelin-starred restaurants, miles of new bike lanes, and dog parks, DCist became the ultimate local water-cooler site, a place where the giant panda Tai Shan got the nickname “Butterstick” and where a rambunctious community of commenters ruled the real estate below articles for years. The outlet eventually became a spirited news outlet, one that covered WMATA and the Capitol Hill fox with equal fervor. 

The billionaire Tom Ricketts bought Gothamist in 2017 and shut it down that same year when staffers announced they planned to unionize. WAMU rode to DCist’s rescue not long afterward. It purchased the site, reportedly for around $100,000, with funds provided by two anonymous donors. Part of the motivation, says Andi McDaniel, WAMU’s chief content officer from 2015 to 2020, was that proximity to DCist would help WAMU employees think more digitally as the public radio audience shrinks: “There’s a difference between me saying, ‘Write a little more conversationally,’ and having your cubicle next to somebody publishing six articles a day and seeing them get incredible traction.” That worked, despite the ostensible confusion rendered by two news organizations sharing the same staff, she says: “It was just this massive boost to having your work seen by so many more people.”

The purchase by WAMU was rocket fuel for DCist’s ambitions, too, especially as traffic to both of WAMU’s websites took a sharp turn upward in 2020, when a pandemic, a racial-justice movement, and a contentious presidential election converged on Washington.

A long-planned tighter integration of the two newsrooms accelerated as local reporters wrestled with the firehose of news. DCist reporters began to appear on the air frequently; WAMU reporters began to file digital stories to DCist, often before the audio versions of their stories went out. The search for a new local show to replace Kojo Nnamdi’s was going slowly, so station leadership decided to prioritize a plan dubbed “Project Pivot” to double down on local news. 

Inspired by the reckoning around race prompted by George Floyd’s murder, the combined organization added beats (and created the position of “partnerships editor” to find money to fund some of them) and an editorial structure that would make it easier for written stories to flow to DCist.com and for audio stories to go out on the airwaves and on WAMU.org. “There was so much news at the time, it was really needed,” Delgadillo says. 

But some of the news in 2020 was about WAMU. That summer, a producer on 1A, the nationally distributed show produced at WAMU, tweeted that Yore planned to fire him, which Yore denied, though not before the incident led to staffers criticizing the station’s diversity in public. Amid the turmoil, DCist’s editor, Rachel Sadon, became the interim news director for the combined operation. Then in late July, DCist reporter Rachel Kurzius published an investigation into WAMU’s slow reckoning with allegations of misconduct by former reporter Martin Di Caro, which Di Caro reportedly denied. The explosive story led to a full-on staff rebellion, and Yore departed not long afterward. (Kurzius later published documents that DCist said showed that American University had hindered WAMU’s attempts to fire Di Caro.) 

Despite the internal unpleasantness, DCist regularly reached more than 2 million unique visitors each month during 2020 and even topped 3 million users that June, according to numbers WAMU presented to staffers last January. But 2020 was an anomaly for many publishers, especially in Washington, which found itself in the unusual position of being a frontline for the nation’s painful convulsions that year. After things settled down and Donald Trump and his fans left town, social media giants began to deprioritize news in users’ feeds. Web traffic fell at WAMU and DCist, just as it did at many other outlets, including this one.

Not long after Pulley-Hayes came aboard, Delgadillo says she began to worry whether Project Pivot fit into the new boss’s goals. Those fears ramped up as staffers, many of them burned out from nonstop reporting, began to leave and weren’t replaced, ostensibly because management, concerned about a budget shortfall, had imposed a hiring freeze. Between January 2022 and the DCist shutdown, about 30 people left and only about a third of the positions were filled, per the station’s union. Beats seemingly essential to the station’s mission, like Maryland politics and transportation, stayed vacant. Sadon left in January 2022.

In July 2023, Delgadillo says (and others confirm), Pulley-Hayes had decided to shut down the DCist site. DCist, she says the GM told her, would become a vertical under WAMU.org that would feature arts and entertainment news, since, Pulley-Hayes maintained, audience studies showed that people didn’t associate DCist with news. Delgadillo says she showed Pulley-Hayes traffic reports that showed that stories about transportation and politics were among DCist’s biggest performers. 

Traffic to news stories, Delgadillo says she argued, would plummet if DCist couldn’t promote them through its social media channels, which were considerably more popular than WAMU’s—on Instagram alone, DCist had six times WAMU’s reach. Delgadillo says Pulley-Hayes agreed to reconsider. “In the course of one conversation, she had totally changed the plan,” Delgadillo says. “At this point I was like, Okay, wow, you don’t know what you’re doing from one day to the next.” (“Throughout the one-year strategic planning process, WAMU considered many options,” a spokesperson for WAMU says in response.)   

Meanwhile the staff dwindled, and DCist’s posting tempo slowed considerably. Its front page began to look static—an ignoble situation for a site that promoted itself as “The District’s (unofficial) homepage.” A January 2023 all-staff presentation showed average traffic of about 1.5 million uniques from January to November the year before. But by this January, Pulley-Hayes says, DCist’s traffic had fallen to around half a million uniques, many of them visitors who didn’t return.

As Yore did before her, Pulley-Hayes invited consultants to visit, and staffers began to gripe that they weren’t being asked to contribute much to a new “content strategy” that Pulley-Hayes was working on with a series of chief content officers. Pulley-Hayes, say those who spoke with her after she perused the consultants’ research, seemed particularly struck by the idea that what people wanted from WAMU was “fun, family-oriented, and free,” alongside chat shows like the Politics Hour

One consultant, Research Narrative of Culver City, California, convened six one-hour focus groups that involved 27 “monthly media consumers who don’t reject public media,” according to an interim research summary it provided WAMU last March, which Washingtonian acquired. Those 27 people said they “wanted media that was uplifting and made them feel good,” the consultants reported, and “mentioned heartwarming stories about random acts of kindness, everyday hero stories, do-gooders in the community, and joyous celebrations as ways to lighten up the coverage.” They said they admired on-air personalities like WAMU’s Nnamdi, now-retired NBC4 reporter Pat Collins, commercial radio legend Donnie Simpson, and Sybil Wilkes, the former co-host of the Tom Joyner Morning Show, which went off the air in 2019. (Research Narrative’s president, Kerry Edelstein, declined to comment on the report, citing the firm’s confidentiality agreement with WAMU; Pulley-Hayes did not comment when Washingtonian asked whether more than 27 people were surveyed for the research she repeatedly cited.) 

Pulley-Hayes never seemed engaged with either DCist’s or WAMU’s reporting, multiple staffers say. She regularly mispronounced the names of on-air reporters and, asked during a meeting last summer what stories she liked that DCist had done, couldn’t name a single one, but said that she enjoyed when the popular local Instagram account Washingtonian Problems featured tweets by Jordan Pascale, then the station’s transportation reporter. Asked about these accounts, which Washingtonian heard from more than a dozen people, Pulley-Hayes did not directly reply to a request for comment.

In the late afternoon of February 22, WAMU staffers received an ominous email from Pulley-Hayes. “Tomorrow we will announce WAMU’s new strategic framework,” it began, saying that “WAMU has taken the steps necessary to temporarily automate beginning at 8 p.m. tonight. Access to some of our systems has been temporarily frozen for all staff.” Stay at home Friday, the email advised, and wait to hear more.

The first solid information employees got was not from Pulley-Hayes but from the Arlington-based publication Axios, which trumpeted an “exclusive” report at 9 AM that Friday with quotes from Pulley-Hayes, new chief content officer Michael Tribble, and Peter Cherukuri, a member of the station’s board of advisers. Axios’s management-friendly article contained quotes WAMU included in a press release as well as a factual error—Kojo Nnamdi hasn’t hosted a daily show for a couple of years now—and didn’t seek comment from employees or the union that represents them. The Axios article was how most people at WAMU found out they were at risk of losing their jobs.

(Axios later placed an editor’s note on the article, saying it removed “a specific number for new expected positions”—originally WAMU told Axios it planned to hire ten new positions—”after the company changed its statement to Axios.” Neither Sara Fischer, the reporter on the article, nor Axios spokesperson Emily Falcone replied to multiple requests to discuss what happened.)

Pulley-Hayes appeared on the all-staff Zoom and appeared to read from a script for about seven minutes and once again did not take questions. Afterward, employees waited for emails that would tell them whether they’d stay or go.

The rollout of the new strategy was a little…loose. Beyond the Axios weirdness, the station said it would lay off 15 people. It was actually 16. One staffer had already tendered her resignation—announced in a newsroom-wide email two days earlier—but was laid off anyway, entitling her under the station’s contract with the union SAG-AFTRA to receive severance. The shakeup, one staffer says, “felt like the approach was a big corporate layoff, but done within a small nonprofit, and done without the competency of a corporation.”

Take, for example, the edition of the Politics Hour that was meant to air that Friday. DC Councilmember Kenyan R. McDuffie, Prince George’s County Councilmember Jolene Ivey, and WAMU reporter Margaret Barthel were booked to appear. On Thursday, after Pulley-Hayes’s email went out, the show’s producers had to hurriedly cancel the show.

Or the fact that a communications staffer at WAMU tweeted that morning that “I’m devastated at the reporters and staff that were laid off today. No one deserves this, especially not the smart and talented reporters and staff that I was privileged to work with for the last year.” (This person has since limited who can see their tweets.)

There was also the question of DCist’s archives, a two-decade trove of local history. WAMU initially blocked public access to them when it closed the site, but following a significant outcry it announced the next week that it would keep the archives open for a year and would try to find them a new home. (“Why does it need a home?” one former employee says. “It’s not a puppy.”) People from a couple of organizations interested in hosting the archives say it took multiple attempts to get anyone at WAMU to respond to them.

For those laid off, the transition was abrupt. Their key fobs were deactivated, their email accounts remained closed, and WAMU wouldn’t allow them in to collect any belongings inside its headquarters on Connecticut Avenue, Northwest. Two HR people told one laid-off staffer they couldn’t guarantee they’d get their personal items, and others said they’d had similar conversations. “You’ll have to submit an inventory and we’ll see what we can send,” a former staffer remembers them saying. One person rented a car and parked around the corner so their now-former coworkers could run belongings out to them on a borrowed trolley. Laid-off employees were instructed to return any laptops or other equipment to the police force at American University, which operates WAMU. (“We’re not criminals,” a laid-off person told me with puzzlement.) “People were texting, saying, ‘Can you grab the photo of my kid from my desk?’ ” another remembers.

When I asked Pulley-Hayes about all of this, she replied with what sounded like an answer to a different question: “Andrew, adapting a news operation for long-term sustainable, sustainable success in today’s incredibly difficult market is a significant challenge that many media organizations face.”

OK, I said, but what does that have to do with the stuff in people’s offices? Another long answer that didn’t have much relation to my question followed. I tried again: But why couldn’t people come in for a half-hour on a weekend, for instance, and get their stuff under supervision? Pulley-Hayes said they could get their things from campus police. I repeated that I was asking why. “Why,” she said, and paused for a long time. “HR policy decisions are really, I don’t think, appropriate for this discussion. That was a decision that was made by WAMU and our HR colleagues.”

University spokesperson Matt Bennett concurs: “WAMU made decisions around building and systems access to maintain continuity of operations as a 24-7 broadcaster to the Washington, D.C. area,” he writes in an email. All personal items had been returned, Bennett wrote in mid-March.

Why this all happened remains a question without a satisfying answer. Did Pulley-Hayes close down DCist and lay off 16 people because she wanted to cut costs, or was it an attempt, as WAMU claimed in its press release, a plan to “deepen engagement” and to “build trust not traffic”?  

The decision appears to have some basis in cost-cutting. One source on that? An AU spokesperson who sent me this statement when I asked to clarify whether the station had closed the expected $2.5 million budget shortfall Pulley-Hayes told staffers about last August.

“In early 2023, WAMU was projecting a budget shortfall,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “As the strategic review process was underway, there was a conservative approach to rehiring vacancies to ensure that positions would fit our future vision. The careful management of expenses combined with a conservative approach to hiring eliminated the budget shortfall.”

That “future vision” would appear to predate Pulley-Hayes’s decision to shutter DCist this year. When I went back to Pulley-Hayes and AU spokesperson Carol Wilkerson to clarify whether the reorganization was based on financial considerations or on focusing on audio excellence, they sent me a Substack post from this April that discusses the financial challenges public radio stations face. 

“WAMU considered several data points as well as feedback from staff and other stakeholders to make a strategic decision in light of the current realities in the industry,” Pulley-Hayes wrote in response. “You’ll note references to WAMU’s financial health and listenership which reinforce this decision. I’ll also share that our most recent audience data indicates that WAMU had its highest ever audience share in its history.”  

Any financial pressures on WAMU were shared with American University, which announced in February that its anticipated a $30 million shortfall would actually be a $33 million shortfall. WAMU pays American an annual fee in the millions of dollars for its office space and shared services like HR and legal advice. But, a spokesperson for WAMU says, “WAMU’s decisions are not connected to AU’s budget.” 

Pulley-Hayes’s murky communication around this point has frustrated staffers. “Erika Pulley-Hayes has repeatedly told station staff the layoffs and shut down of DCist were not driven by financial challenges,” shop stewards for the station’s union tell Washingtonian in a statement. “But she has also continuously stressed there are financial challenges at WAMU on multiple occasions. It’s publicly known that American University has a $33 million budget gap. Considering these facts, it’s pretty easy to infer that finances are a significant factor in whatever this new strategy may be.”

Then there’s what Rehm asked about in her ill-fated meeting: Why, if the idea was to focus WAMU on its audio audience, did it lay off its senior director of technology, who oversaw broadcast quality—the person arguably most responsible for “audio excellence?” Journalists who worked on social media were dismissed, as was one who found strategic partnerships and grants to pay for positions. Two reporters were let go whose positions were funded by grants from outside nonprofits.

One was Jenny Gathright, whose beat covering criminal justice was funded by the nonprofit Public Welfare Foundation. When Washingtonian asked whether Public Welfare had plans to continue funding WAMU without Gathright in place, a spokesperson replied, via email, saying the organization “has processes in place to ensure grant dollars are being used as mutually outlined in the grant agreement. When changes occur, we work with the organization to determine appropriate next steps, up to and including reimbursement of unspent funds.” I followed up, asking whether WAMU had notified Public Welfare in advance of its decision to lay off Gathright, but the foundation did not reply.

No one knows why this happened.

Martin Austermuhle

I tried to find out from Pulley-Hayes why WAMU laid off employees whose roles didn’t appear to depend on whether DCist was part of the station or not. “I’ve answered all questions, Andrew, with respect to staffing.” I restated the question, clarifying that I wasn’t asking about any individuals dismissed but rather their roles. “We have the team we need to deliver on our new strategy,” she replied. Was it a cost-saving measure? “Move on to the next question, please,” instructed Wilkerson, the AU spokesperson who sat in the phone call.

“I feel like she’s been talking out of both sides of her mouth,” Austermuhle says about Pulley-Hayes’s explanations. “This just plays into the criticism of how she did this. There was no transparency. No one knows why this happened.” 

When I interviewed Pulley-Hayes, I was still under the impression that closing DCist was strictly a strategic move, so I was keen to find out why WAMU was willing to walk away from a position most public broadcasters would envy: at the top of the ratings, with a vast younger audience getting familiar with WAMU via its digital channels.

That audience was dwindling, she argued. But wasn’t that decline a result of WAMU’s decisions? That is to say, if DCist published half its usual number of stories, as multiple people who worked on the site say it did, wouldn’t that explain the commensurate drop in traffic? “I don’t think it’s my fault that traffic was down,” she says, “because one of the outcomes that we learned in our research is that visitors to digital websites, writ large, are declining.”

Sure, though we’re not talking about the industry in general. DCist was doing better than many local publishers until WAMU stopped filling positions there. But okay, sure, let’s stipulate her point. Stepping away from the way most people get their news in 2024 remains an unusual choice, and Pulley-Hayes’s plan to build audience via a new local show and a mobile app may be even less tethered to emerging habits of news consumers.

The terrestrial public radio audience is declining, and the chances of a local show and an app turning that around would appear to be slim. “You don’t create a local show to grow audience,” says McDaniel, WAMU’s former chief content officer. Such a show could be a signature product, but it’s unlikely to outperform any NPR programming that WAMU ran in its time slot instead. And as for the planned app, the Reuters Institute’s 2023 Digital News Report found that just a fifth of people it surveyed—down 10 percent from five years before—used an app or a homepage as a way to “start their news journeys.”

Of course, none of that matters if your priority isn’t keeping your audience informed about local news. When I asked Pulley-Hayes about WAMU’s mission, she said it was “connecting Washingtonians with each other and the world.” The station does that through audio, she said, as well as events like “Kojo in the Community” (which happened twice in 2023). The mission, she said, “of course includes news. But it’s also bigger than that, because this is why we have additional programs and events at the station where we have people come in and engage with us and connect with us and other members of the community.”

What might that proposed festival of engagement mean for the station? Pulley-Hayes’s bet is that individual and corporate donors won’t mind DCist’s closure or the elimination of beats like environment, criminal justice, or immigrant communities. Since February 23, she says, the station has seen “significant donations come in from our donors and audience members, high value ones, which really is, to me, a stamp of approval from our donor community.”

Recently, faculty at American University’s journalism school met with Pulley-Hayes. Leena Jayaswal, the school’s interim dean, talked about the reputational damage she felt the journalism school had incurred as a bystander, according to someone who was there and took detailed notes.

“We are immediately linked as folks who are killing local journalism,” this person recalls Jayaswal saying. “We had people tweeting, ‘Why would you study journalism at American University?’” Jayaswal, according to the source, said she decided not to send out a fundraising email because of the blowback. “I just think it’s really important for you to understand the crisis that it created for my colleagues,” she said. Another professor added that “when this happened, it seemed like when we tried to get answers, WAMU was either ignoring us or hiding from it.” A third also weighed in: “The donors and the alums that came after us, we had nothing to say to them.” Prominent alumni sent emails and weeks later received a “canned email” in response, another said. (Washingtonian was able to confirm these quotes.) 

American University, Pulley-Hayes told the academics, supported her decision, and no one told her that she needed to loop in a bunch of professors. Austermuhle isn’t too surprised by that, citing the loose relationship WAMU had with the J-school when he was there: “I don’t think Erika necessarily owes the journalism school advance notice,” he says, “but it just goes to show you that if the journalism school is raising the same questions that others are raising, then you have screwed up the communication of what you did and why you did it.”

Could this whole thing have gone another way? Consider the case of LAist, another former Gothamist property that landed with the Southern California public broadcaster KPCC the same year DCist joined with WAMU. Southern California Public Radio president Herb Scannell said “brand confusion” led to a decision to consolidate all of KPCC’s assets under the name LAist. “The LAist name states what we do ” better than call letters could, Kristen Muller, LAist’s chief content officer, tells Washingtonian in an email. “We serve great LA anytime, anywhere, every day and on all platforms.”

Or WBUR in Boston, which recently telegraphed its financial pinch by asking employees to volunteer for buyouts before it instituted layoffs. Multiple people who work or worked at WAMU said they would have felt more valued had the station taken that approach, or if she had just decided to merge the websites. “If she had just said we’ve got to get rid of DCist as a brand, I think most people would have been all right,” Austermuhle says. “We’ll pour one out, we’ll shed a few tears, but life goes on.” Indeed, over the past few weeks some former DCist and WAMU staffers have posted online that they plan to create a new outlet “run by the people who actually make the journalism.” 

Pulley-Hayes insists that WAMU plans to hire more journalists, including a DC politics reporter, though she wouldn’t say how many or when. (The only position currently listed on WAMU’s jobs page six weeks after the shakeup is for a substitute host for the talk show 1A.) During another all-staff meeting in early April, she told staffers that she had hired facilitators who would help them talk about their feelings about the closure of DCist and the layoffs. But, she said, she planned to sit in on those mandatory meetings. 

This time, Diane Rehm was able to finish a question. “Let’s just hypothetically suppose that something comes out of those various meetings suggesting that the problem is you,” she asked. “What will you do?” Pulley-Hayes was silent for 20 seconds, multiple people at the meeting say, before she replied, “I don’t know.” When staffers got back to their desks, they received calendar notifications: Every all-staff meeting planned for the next few months had been canceled.

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.

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