OPINION: GPB’s Bill Nigut gets canceled

Bill Nigut returned to media last year after a decade long break and now hosts a GPB TV program "On the Story" and two shows on WRAS-FM. CREDIT: GPB

Credit: GPB

Credit: GPB

Bill Nigut returned to media last year after a decade long break and now hosts a GPB TV program "On the Story" and two shows on WRAS-FM. CREDIT: GPB

There aren’t many public radio hosts who are household names in Georgia. But, depending on the household, Bill Nigut is one of them.

The towering baritone newsman, who stands 6′2 tall, has been covering politics in Georgia longer than most Georgians have been in the state. The Chicago native first landed south of the Mason-Dixon Line in 1983 for a job at Channel 2 Action News and never left.

Although he’s one of the most respected journalists in the state and easily Georgia Public Broadcasting’s highest-profile personality, Nigut was fired last week after nearly 10 years at the station amid a storm of speculation as to why GPB would end its signature political show.

Layoffs in the news business are nothing unusual, nor are long-anticipated retirements. But Nigut’s departure was neither of those.

We know that from Nigut himself, who has said he’s not leaving by choice. Beyond that, GPB isn’t saying much beyond a milquetoast statement from interim CEO Bert Wesley Huffman that firing Nigut was part of a “realignment with the organization’s core mission.”

The program now on the chopping block features Nigut and a stable of regulars discussing the news of the day, including me once a week. I often told Bill that his show was like a morning dinner party, where his friends got together to hash out the politics of the moment. It included Democrats and Republicans, professors and newsmakers, and occasionally even the late House Speaker David Ralston regaling the audience with Southernisms, like predicting a redistricting session “when the frost is on the pumpkin.”

The name of the game for Nigut, especially in the polarized, almost violent rhetoric of recent years, was civility, no matter the topic. His listeners appreciated it, as did his guests since there is only so much energy a person can give to the slug-fests of most partisan cable news appearances these days.

But the civility Nigut demanded of his guests didn’t mean sugarcoating the news of the last three years, especially former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in Georgia. And that might have been Nigut’s big mistake.

At a certain point during the ongoing election challenges, as recount after recount upheld the state’s election results and judges began to throw out cases from Trump for the absence of evidence or even facts, Nigut announced that he would no longer have liars or election deniers on his show to press their case.

That was a dangerous fight to pick with a handful of GOP lawmakers, who supported Trump’s bogus efforts, when the station you work for gets public funding, even if your show does not.

There is no paper trail or smoking gun to connect that moment in 2021 to the day Nigut got fired. But it certainly made him the skunk at the party when the time came to decide which programs might keep lawmakers and the GOP-appointed board of GPB relaxed and happy at budget time.

I’d call it a loss for Nigut, but I have no doubt his show will be in demand elsewhere and likely on a platform that values his audience numbers more than lawmakers’ heartburn over something Nigut might say or do in the name of honest reporting.

The real loss will come for the listeners of the show, whom I met in every corner of this state. They didn’t have local newspapers with political reporters anymore, since those are a relic of an ink-stained past. But they did have Bill Nigut.

I’ve known Nigut since my days as a Capitol Hill press secretary, when he was known as a bulldog of a reporter, to the fear of many politicians and the frustration of his competition. But even before I knew him professionally, I knew all about him growing up in Atlanta. Just like GPB listeners today, he was my family’s main source of political information, along with the AJC.

The Nigut of those days always got the story, so it’s unsatisfying not to know exactly what led to his ouster last week.

Was it a decline in ratings? A drop-off in pledges made during the show? The program’s budget? GPB won’t say a word. We’ll likely find out more down the road, but we already know it wasn’t because the show had lost listeners’ attention.

What started as a once-a-week news roundup grew to twice a week because of audience demand, and then three times a week and so on, until the franchise included five daily shows, twice a day, along with a weekly television program, a podcast, and a weekly newsletter.

As soon as GPB announced its plans to end the show, the station and Nigut himself were inundated with angry audience emails — all looking for a reason GPB would stop airing a program they’ve come to rely on as much as their morning cup of coffee.

Disappointed listeners called the cancellation “ill-advised,” “shameful,” and “a great mistake.” One said she timed her morning errands to be in the car while she listened along. Another said the show taught her about issues she never understood. Many said they appreciated the civility that Nigut and his guests of all political persuasions brought to controversial issues.

On a final day of the Legislature this year, state senators discussed the last-minute cut to GPB — $1.4 million in a $34.2 billion state budget, with billions in surplus on top of that. Local radio stations had complained that the state was funding “the competition,” state Sen. Blake Tillery explained.

“I think that’s a very valid point,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the space we want to be in.”

If Bill Nigut’s first name was “Tucker,” you can bet some of the same Trump supporters who cut funding for GPB would be howling that Nigut had been “canceled” for his political views, too.

But the only view he brought to Political Rewind was a demand for honesty and integrity. If that’s out of bounds for today’s public radio, it’s got a much bigger problem than Bill Nigut to deal with. And there’s no way to cancel that.