On This Night, She Was the (Other) Story
“So do you spend a lot of nights out with C-list characters?” Brooke Gladstone asked cheerfully while firing up her cappuccino maker.
And yet to the 1.2 million listeners of WNYC’s “On The Media,” she is quite the A-lister: Her fans love both her news about the news and her deep dives into myriad life topics, like the moralism surrounding fatness and the psychosocial effects of fear.
As the show’s host and managing editor, Ms. Gladstone, 67, is more used to grilling than being grilled. “I like to pry,” she has said. But she was enjoying the moment: On the evening of Nov. 9, the woman the show’s executive producer, Katya Rogers, calls “the Janis Joplin of public radio” ( “because she’s a rebel of the best kind,” Ms. Rogers said) was the honoree at WNYC’s annual fund-raiser at the Plaza Hotel.
In her Victorian Park Slope brownstone a few hours before the gala, Ms. Gladstone was a little giddy. Part of the pleasure was that much of her very large family — including her twin daughters and siblings — had come into town for the event. “Most who are still alive are definitely going to be here,” she said. She is one of six. “Kind of irresponsible for Jews, right? But my mother loved babies. She used to joke about how she lost interest in us once we learned to talk.”
She and her siblings were, for the most part, “theater geeks,” Ms. Gladstone said, and she spent some early years onstage. “I specialized in mothers-in-law and prostitutes,” she added.
The other factor contributing to Ms. Gladstone’s merry mood was that it was the day after the midterms, when the “red wave” that many analysts predicted never came to pass. Ms. Gladstone marveled at how wrong the media outlets she covers were when it came to reading the room over the past month. The woman likes a puzzle, and this was a puzzle.
“Is this an exposé?” asked Ms. Gladstone’s older brother, Howard Gladstone, who had wandered in when the snacks were laid on the table. “Because I can tell you some things.”
Ms. Gladstone’s husband, Fred Kaplan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign policy journalist, stood by trying to keep her on track. (Ms. Gladstone says she has attention deficit disorder. Let’s just say she has many enthusiasms.)
He reminded her of the stories she was most proud of — a 2016 piece on poverty and a 2019 one on eviction ( “not what I won Peabodys for,” she said) — and offered a little background on how she got started in journalism: Forty-four years ago, in an effort to chat her up in a D.C. restaurant where she was a waitress — “a very, very bad waitress,” she said — he offered her a chance to write for him at Inquiry, a left-leaning libertarian magazine “of the kind that doesn’t exist anymore,” she added. She wrote about the MX missile. She was also fired from her waitressing job the next day.
At their brownstone, there were family photos. There was coffee cake. Mendel, the family cat whom Ms. Gladstone refers to as “Your Majesty,” lounged nearby while we discussed how the media helped us get here — “here” being the polarized, uncivil, alternative-fact world Ms. Gladstone says we can’t seem to escape. (Currently Ms. Gladstone and her team are working on a series called “The Divided Dial,” about how the far right came to dominate talk radio.)
We go down the rabbit role of wonky media debates — how we are manipulated with dopamine hits of “likes” on social platforms; the difference between “facts” and “truth”; how Ms. Gladstone’s 2011 book, “The Influencing Machine,” a history of media told in comic book form, was prescient when it said that we would get “the media we deserve.”
It was getting late in the afternoon. Would Ms. Gladstone have enough time to get ready? Generously, she didn’t seem to share this reporter’s anxiety: “Want the tour?” In a beautiful eclectic home crammed with art — the kind of place a film scout discovers when the director says, “Find me a place owned by successful bohemians” — her own works were standouts.
“I guess you call them … cabinets of curiosity?” she said, revealing a series of objects she bought on eBay that she presents in a World War I medicine chest — a diphtheria home kit, a 1916 medical journal, expired drugs from 1918, a pediatric bone saw. You know, the usual.
Later that evening, at the Plaza Hotel ballroom, Ms. Gladstone looked vibrant in a cobalt shantung gown by Yvonne Chu. The gown matched the trademark blue stripes in her curly dark hair. ( “Fred said he couldn’t look at me if I got my nose pierced, which I wanted, so I said, ‘Fine, then I am going to have blue hair.’” That was 10 years ago.)
Ms. Gladstone, who normally dresses in black, asked for black tablecloths and a wall of flowers in a darker hue: delphiniums, roses, vanda orchids. An amateur mixologist, Ms. Gladstone also requested a couple of signature drinks.
That the Trump family once owned the venue did not go unnoticed among the celebrants. “Oh my god, there’s no escape,” said one partygoer of the Versailles-like ballroom. “This room is pure Ivana.” (The former Mrs. Trump, who died in July, may be buried at her ex-husband’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J., but her spirit was in that very room.)
There was a buoyancy in the crowd — possibly because of the midterm results that continued to pour in from the previous night. The event also came in the wake of a period of inner tumult at WYNC that included protests over the whiteness of the leadership; an editor in chief who was called out for admitting she did not know who the WNYC star Brian Lehrer was when she got the job; #MeToo firings; and the axing of Ms. Gladstone’s own co-host, Bob Garfield, for bullying issues.
There is a new president and Chief executive, LaFontaine Oliver, and the change has spurred a spirit of optimism among donors. When Mr. Oliver was introduced at the gala, there was a chorus of finger snapping from the crowd, much of which was festively clad in black.
The love for the honoree was palpable. “Brooke is this intelligent, reasoned adult who’s showing me a path through difficult materials, and God, I love that,” said the evening’s host, the comedian Samantha Bee, before she took the stage.
Ms. Bee noted that she listens to Ms. Gladstone’s show twice on most weekends. “It’s very strange to be hosting a gala the literal day after Election Day — but this was not the experience we were all expecting,” she added, referencing the results.
“‘On The Media’ is about media the way the ‘Odyssey’ is about sail boats,” said David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker and Ms. Gladstone’s WNYC colleague as host of “The New Yorker Radio Hour.” He added: “That’s just the start of the story. Increasingly, ‘On The Media’ is an extension of one person’s obsessions, opinions, arguments and character.”
For her part, Ms. Gladstone worked the room — or more accurately, the room worked her. She has a warmth that attracts people to her. As she graciously accepted congratulations and hugs from friends, new and old, and WNYC supporters, her filet mignon and sweet potato gratin went unacknowledged.
After more accolades from the podium, and performances from the High and Mighty Brass Band and the Kronos Quartet (this was, after all, public radio), she found her place of comfort — behind a microphone. “I’m enormously grateful; I’ve always felt privileged. The thought every time I turn on the mic is, ‘How in the hell do they let me do this every week?’”
Ms. Gladstone was not ready for the party to end. She went to the Plaza bar and drank with family and friends, then took a car home. She felt grateful for “the extraordinary tributes, all the old and durable friendships in that ballroom.”
But she also experienced “gratitude of a different sort, for a lesson I taught myself long ago — be careful not to believe your own press,” she said. “It can really throw you off your game.”