Case raises questions about the way Ferguson treats female co-workers
WTMX’s main morning personality Eric Ferguson is now embroiled in a lawsuit from one of his former on-air staffers.
As first reported by the Chicago Tribune in great detail, Ferguson has been accused by former staffer Cynthia DeNicolo of sexual harassment, including codewords for oral sex and to babysit his kids, according to an affidavit.
The lawsuit was filed in May according to records. DeNicolo was fired from the station in May 2020, blaming Ferguson for her departure but was related to revenue losses stemmed from the pandemic. DeNicolo was with the station for 20 years, starting as an intern before joining the staff of his morning show.
Among the accusations made in the lawsuit were providing oral sex to Ferguson as demanded; babysitting his kids; bullying (she was known around the station as “Eric’s Babysitter”); and “intended that DeNicolo suffer low wages and stalled career advancement as her punishment for refusing to succumb to his demands to resume the unwelcome sexual relationship she terminated in 2004.” DeNicolo did not report the actions to station management, fearing she would be terminated if she did.
Neither Ferguson or DeNicolo commented on the lawsuit.
Ferguson’s lawyer is asking for a court to dismiss the case, saying there is no evidence of sexual harassment. Meanwhile, WTMX owner Hubbard is standing by their morning star. “We take concerns about our workplace culture and the experience of our employees very seriously, and with the full support of Hubbard Radio Chicago and Hubbard Broadcasting we took steps immediately to investigate,” said Jeff England, vice president and market manager for Hubbard Chicago in an e-mail sent to the media. “An internal investigation and an independent external investigation found no evidence to corroborate allegations of illegal workplace conduct.”
Ferguson remains on the air, and has not faced any known disciplinary action. A hearing to dismiss the case is scheduled for October 5.
The allegations shed some light on Ferguson and his past dealings with female co-workers. Four years ago, former on-air partner Kathy Hart departed the show after going AWOL for months. Last December, Melissa McGurren also departed the show, though for unknown reasons, but said there was more to the story than what an initial press release WTMX wrote about her departure. Hart has since retired from radio; McGurren is currently at WUSN-FM.
Ratings for Ferguson’s morning show was top-rated for years in the key 25-54 demo, even without Hart. But they’ve begun to slip in recent years, although the show remains among the ten most-listened morning shows in the Chicago area, ranking ninth in the latest Nielsen ratings report.
Similar issues have popped up since the #MeToo movement began, especially after Harvey Weinstein’s antics in hopes of reforming the workplace and ridding itself of racist and sexist behavior. But in terms of media – and despite some progress, there seems to be a long way to go – especially in radio. While Ferguson and DeNicolo could come to some out-of-court settlement (if the case isn’t dismissed), it is disappointing Hubbard declined to investigate these claims thoroughly – basically to protect their morning cash cow. The media business seems to still have trouble holding people accountable if the hiring of two guys who said a racial slur on St. Louis radio station in 1993 get hired by a Tuscaloosa, Ala. country station and HBO recently extending Bill Maher’s contract after doing likewise in 2017 is any indication. As more and more media consolidation take hold, for these companies there is no need.
Big media companies make statements saying “we support the Black community” and “committed to a diverse and welcoming workplace” – especially in the MeToo era and after the death of George Floyd, but as we all know at the end of the day those statements are about as empty as a candy bowl at 11 p.m. on Halloween night.