For three decades I have worked with syndicated radio programming. I’ve heard a lot of program pitches. Often it is no more than an idea.
One of the first questions I ask is: Who owns this show? Who owns this idea?
I still find it surprising that over half don’t know these absolute basics of business. Most often the problem is creating a new “product” while still working for someone else. Then there are more severe situations like employees theft. Today we have a story that touches on these themes.
IT'S LIKE MISSION IMPOSSIBLE
Today’s story is the current legal case of America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) versus Christopher Kimball, Kimball’s wife Melissa Baldino, assistant Chistine Gordon and independent PR maven Deborah Broide.
Christopher Kimball was, and is, a well-known chef, author and media personality based in Boston. In the early 1990s, Kimball and some friends decided to form a for-profit company to publish books and magazine s with foolproof recipes.
Things happened at a fast pace. Business was good. A few years ago the partners made an alliance with WGBH-TV. ATK is now one of the most successful producers on PBS. In 2012 ATK created a radio version of the TV show. Today it is distributed by PRX and is on many respected stations.
America’s Test Kitchen was a showcase for Christopher Kimball. He ruled the roost. He was the decision maker with no title. Kimball’s visual presence reminds me of Les Nessman combined with David Hyde Pierce.
The stars of ATK then and now are people who look like someone you know, showing off cooking stills, cooking this wonderful food sthat is so nicely photographed and edited into fast-paced delicious (pun intended) video and audio programs. You can see some of them at [link].
Things were changing for Gordon Kimball In early 2015. His other partners decided ATK needed a more formal business structure. This was a departure from Kimball’s free wheeling style. Plus he would have to report to a CEO. Heavens!
On Monday (10/31/16) the Boston Globe first reported that ATK has filed suit against in Massachusetts’s Suffolk County Superior Court against Kimball and others. They accuse Kimball of building of building a new company called Milk Street on ATK time. Then there is the allegation of employee theft.
The following pages include portions of the Complaint filed by ATK. Of course what is only one side of the dispute the details.
Quotes from court documents are indicated by American Typewriter fount.
61. On June 10, 2015, Mr. Kimball emailed Tom Hagopian, an IT consultant for ATK: “I want a private gmail account that is not part of the company servers/systems.”
62. On August 5, 2015, Mr. Kimball emailed Tom Hagopian again: “Just want to make sure that if I use a gmail address, that my company has no access to this account. They can only get access to may ATK account, right?”
63. On August 10, 2015, Mr. Kimball emailed Mr. Hagopian: “I want to capture email addresses from folks who respond to my letter from VT to see photos that I post.” These email addresses refer to customers of Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country print and/or online magazines. They belong to ATK, not Mr. Kimball. As a marketing asset, the emails hold significant value to ATK, and would hold significant value to a rival startup. In fact, ATK assigns a certain value to each customer email address.
64. In August and September, 2015, Ms. Gordon contacted real estate brokers for commercial space in the Boston and Cambridge area. Specifically, Ms. Gordon requested sufficient capacity “for test kitchen.” To give brokers a clear picture of the proposed use for the new space, Ms. Gordon invited them to view ATK’s website. Ms. Gordon continued to correspond with brokers through at least October 5, 2015. She did so while on ATK company time and while fraudulently claiming that she represented ATK.
65. On October 1, 2015, Ms. Gordon received a lease proposal over email. The subject line of the email read: “America’s Test Kitchen – 40 West Third.” The proposal listed the tenant as “TBD (d/b/a America’s Test Kitchen).” It listed the use as “office, film studio, and test kitchen.” Ms. Gordon solicited this proposal on behalf of Mr. Kimball’s new company – not A TK.
66. On August 28, 2015, Mr. Kimball received an email from Deborah Broide of Deborah Broide Publicity, a public relations consultant engaged by, and paid by, ATK. Ms. Broide wrote:
I’m sure you’ve thought of this already (and since your ATK email and your personal email are both google based, I’m sure this has already been done via the Cloud or something). Still, just in case – you want to be sure that you have all your ATK business contact info accessible via your personal gmail account, too.
Also, I’m not sure if Christine has your work related contact info (things that you wouldn’t have) but if so, you want to get all of that stuff too. I don’t know if Christine knows anything or not (you asked me to keep everything confidential. I’ve been very careful about that), but she may have info or lists etc. that you might want (and faster) because of this latest development (I truly can’t believe they would go through with it, but who knows).
67. Ms. Broide advised Mr. Kimball to take ATK business contact information and lists in connection with Mr. Kimball’s “confidential” plans.
68. Mr. Kimball forwarded Ms. Broide’s email to Ms. Gordon on the same day. Ms. Gordon responded on the same day: “I’ll have lee [her husband] back up my computer this weekend.”
69. Over that weekend, on August 29, 2015, Mr. Kimball emailed Ms. Gordon: “It seems likely that Melissa and I are going to be fired next week so let’s get a moving company in Monday (two guys) with boxes to pack up my stuff and remove it to storage. Want to get ahead of the partners!” ATK had no intention of firing Mr. Kimball or his wife, nor had it expressed such an intention to him. To the contrary, the Board had repeatedly expressed ATK’s “deep desire” to keep Mr. Kimball.
70. Mr. Kimball’s August 29th email also stated that “I have first round funding in place so we need to move fast on the office space.” Upon information and belief, Mr. Kimball
was referring to funding he had put in place for what would become CPK Media and Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street.
71. On August 31, 2015, Mr. Kimball emailed Mr. Hagopian: “I have deleted Melissa’s business email address in the contact file but it still exists in the email software – how get rid of it?” When Mr. Hagopian explained how to “search” Ms. Baldino’s email, Mr. Kimball responded: “I want to DELETE her business email, not find it.”
72. On November 3, 2015, Ms. Broide emailed Mr. Kimball:
Please keep a copy of this for the new company. This is my list (culled from 24 years at ATK). This list is on the main server at ATK, although I haven’t updated it in about 3 months (I have the updates though).
I just want to make sure that you have this list, too. I’m going to send you two more list [sic] (also stuff I created) for the new company. Again, these are lists are [sic] created for ATK. I don’t think the national list is on the ATK server though.
(emphasis in original).
73. The subject line of Ms. Broide’s email read “Core media list please review.” These lists resided on ATK’s password-protected server. They belonged to ATK. So did the “updates” that Ms. Broide had kept for herself and Mr. Kimball. To the extent Ms. Broide helped create these lists, she did so as a paid consultant for ATK. These media lists hold significant value to ATK, a multi-media company.
74. Mr. Kimball responded to Ms. Broide’s email: “Thanks for all the lists – will archive. Hopefully nothing is going to happen to you – seems like an episode of Mission Impossible!”
Mr. Kimball took ATK’s media contact lists for use in his new venture. His allusion to “Mission Impossible” betrays his knowledge of surreptitious wrongdoing.
75. Also on November 3, 2015, Mr. Kimball emailed Mr. Hagopian: “I am scanning hundreds of recipes and want to annotate them by hand. In the same email, he wrote:
“Also, need to chat with you soon about setting up the new office.” Mr. Kimball sent a similar email to Ms. Gordon the same day that read:
“Need to figure out the best way to scan, annotate, save and organize recipes.”
On August 24, 2015, Eliot Wadsworth, President and board member of ATK Inc. and fellow partner to Kimball, emailed Mr. Kimball to confirm “points we agreed on this afternoon.” Mr. Wadsworth expressed ATK’s “deep desire to retain [Mr. Kimball’s] continued involvement with the business in areas where [his] skills and experience can make a contribution” and offered to maintain Mr. Kimball’s current level of compensation in salary and bonuses.
78. That same day, Mr. Kimball announced in a senior management meeting that he had been “fired” and would be starting a new company.
79. The next day, Mr. Kimball announced to ATK staff that he had been fired and that the Board and the new CEO would ruin the company. He also began secretly soliciting ATK employees to join him in his new venture. Specifically, that afternoon, Mr. Kimball called individual employees into his office to tell them that he was starting a new company and that he wanted to offer them positions in the new company. Mr. Kimball had not been fired, nor had he been told he would be fired, at the time he made this announcement and began soliciting ATK employees.
On November 16, 2015, ATK sent Mr. Kimball a notice of termination. Mr. Kimball’s termination became effective November 20, 2015.
96. The masthead of the charter issue of Milk Street Magazine reveals that at least 15 former and current ATK employees and freelancers now work for Milk Street. They include Melissa Baldino, former ATK executive television and radio producer; Matthew Card, former recipe developer and staff writer for Cook’s Illustrated, freelance article recipe and article developer for Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country, and on-air personality for season three of America’s Test Kitchen; Jennifer Baldino Cox, former arts director for ATK marketing group; Erika Bruce, former recipe developer and staff writer for Cook’s Illustrated, freelance recipe developer for Cook’s Country, instructor for ATK’s online cooking school, and cast member on seasons six and seven of America’s Test Kitchen; Dawn Yanagihara, freelance recipe developer who currently cross-tests all Cook’s Illustrated recipes before publication; Catrine Kelty, freelance food stylist for Cook’s Country currently responsible for Cook’s Country signature photography; Stephanie Stender, former ATK co-executive television and radio producer; Christine Gordon; and Deborah Broide.
122. Mr. Kimball also interfered with ATK’s longtime exclusive distributor of ATK Radio, PRX. PRX has exclusively distributed ATK Radio to public radio stations since the show’s inception in 2012. PRX operates one of public radio’s largest distribution marketplaces and its programming reaches millions of listeners worldwide. In 2016, concluding that Milk Street Radio competed directly with ATK Radio, PRX told ATK that it would not market both shows and therefore would not be renewing its agreement with ATK and would allow it to terminate on December 31, 2016.
123. Mr. Kimball orchestrated the bait and switch of Milk Street Radio for ATK Radio. In November 2016, Mr. Kimball offered to produce ATK Radio through his new company, CPK Media. On assurances that Mr. Kimball had no plans to compete against ATK, ATK accepted these services. The terms of this affiliation were memorialized in a “Radio Deal Memo,” dated November 19, 2015.
124. After convincing ATK to place the production of ATK Radio in his hands, Mr. Kimball used this arrangement as a bridge to Milk Street, exploiting the guaranteed revenue stream and personal airtime and ensure the immediate viability and relevance of Milk Street. In April 2016, Mr. Kimball provided 6-months’ notice that he would cease the production of ATK Radio effective October 15, 2016. Mr. Kimball’s new radio show will debut on public radio on October 22, 2016.
125. Upon information and belief, Mr. Kimball convinced PRX to accelerate the debut of Milk Street Radio to October 22, 2016 despite PRX’s earlier promises to ATK to not air the competing show until after the expiration of its contract with ATK on December 31, 2016.
126. Mr. Kimball’s actions have caused ATK to cease the full-scale production of ATK Radio after the 2016 season and to reconfigure and relaunch its radio product through a different partnership.