Friedman & Houlding LLP represent an account executive for iHeart Media in Harrisonburg, Virginia alleges he was subjected to racial harassment and stereotyping by his supervisor the Market President, followed by retaliation when he complained.
iHeart Media is a mass media corporation, and is the nation’s largest owner of radio stations, including several in the Harrisonburg area. Leon Bowen, an African-American man, worked at iHeart’s Harrisonburg location selling radio advertising to local businesses. Bowen was the only African-American staff member. Right away, Bowen noticed that iHeart’s local client base was almost entirely white, even though the local community was racially diverse. Bowen’s successful efforts to bring black-owned businesses on as clients appeared to anger his supervisor, the Market President. And Bowen saw that the office highlighted numerous holidays throughout the year, but did nothing to celebrate Juneteenth. During the Olympics, when staff members were given countries to represent, Bowen’s coworkers were all assigned “non-black” countries – while he was assigned Jamaica.
As reported in local media, during a team meeting video call, the Market President looked at Bowen, who was wearing a hoodie, and told him “oh, you look cozy.” There was no dress code for team meetings. By way of explaining his hoodie, Bowen simply responded that it was cold that day. In front of his coworkers, the Market President responded: “Well, I hope you’re not going to see clients like that.” Bowen told her he did not plan to. Following the call, she kept Bowen on the line, asking him if she was “sensing some attitude.” Bowen politely but firmly defended himself as a good employee. Bowen immediately reached out to the Area and Regional Presidents to report his supervisor’s mistreatment. In response, the Market President falsely claimed that Bowen had called her a “bitch”—employing stereotypes of black men as aggressive or angry. The Area President directed Bowen to work from home until after the holidays. Bowen complained again to an Employee Advisor for iHeart, who claimed the company would conduct an investigation.
After the holidays, the Area President again initially told Bowen to work from home—only relenting and allowing him to return when Bowen pointed out that he had no history of discipline whatsoever, and that there was no reason to keep him out of the office. Even after he returned to the office, Bowen never heard back about his complaint or any alleged investigation. He followed up with the Area President requesting information on how his complaint would be handled—to no avail. After an initial call, the Area President did not return his next message.
Meanwhile, Bowen’s supervisor, the Market President, was free to retaliate: she suddenly claimed Bowen had been underperforming for months, putting him at risk of losing his job while supporting his young children – whereas prior to Bowen’s complaint, he had been given excellent performance reviews, and even received an award just months earlier in June 2021 for bringing in the most new clients during a contest period. Bowen was suddenly placed on a performance improvement plan, with the Market President informing him that his number of calls per day would be increased from five to seven, and informing him that she would personally be on three of the calls as well. She began vetoing some of Bowen’s sales, micromanaged his work, and falsely claimed that several of Bowen’s clients had complained about him, undermining his ability to do his job. When Bowen asked which clients had (allegedly) complained, so that he could address whatever might be their concerns, the Market President told him she couldn’t disclose the names due to “fear of retaliation”—again employing a stereotype of Black men as aggressive or dangerous. Belying the Market President’s claims, none of the accounts that had supposedly complained about Bowen were given to a different employee, as would have been normal if they were unhappy with his performance.
As he continued to experience retaliation from his supervisor, and saw that no action would be taken on his complaints of race discrimination, Bowen found he had no choice but to leave iHeart. As reported, Paul Somers, one of Bowen’s clients, believed he was one of the accounts to whom the Market President was referring as having complained—and he flatly told the Company that he had made no complaints about Bowen whatsoever. Somers even reached out to a Regional Supervisor at iHeart to clarify that he had no complaints about Bowen, but despite his awareness that Bowen had been forced to leave the company, Somers said the supervisor appeared unwilling to ask the necessary questions it would take to get to the bottom of what had really happened.
The iHeart Radio corporation, particularly following George Floyd’s death in May 2020, has made gestures toward supporting the black community and opposing anti-black racism, seemingly to benefit iHeart’s public image—such as collaborating with black creator Charlamagne The God and advertising a podcast network aimed at black audiences. But the rubber meets the road in a company’s own offices – and there, as described in the local media, iHeart has tolerated racial stereotyping and retaliation by its managers, and failed to provide an equitable workplace for its black employees.
Bowen’s allegation is one of multiple recent allegations of racial harassment or discrimination against African-Americans at iHeart. In October 222, it was reported that the president of iHeartMedia-Atlanta was caught on video using the n-word and other racially and sexually offensive language. In March 2022, Black Enterprise reported that the program director at a Phoenix-area iHeart station had refused to run ads on-air promoting a local Black-owned business’ initiative about the importance of diversity and inclusion. A year earlier, in April 2021 , it was reported that an iHeart radio personality was fired after tweeting an extremely racially offensive image. And in 2020, according to NBC News, two radio hosts on an upstate New York iHeart station made racially offensive comments referring to African-Americans on the air.
Bowen now intends to pursue his claims of race discrimination and retaliation under federal civil rights law.