Fiscal year-end layoffs include 10% of PBS staff

By Dru Sefton

Swamped by the recession tsunami as they prepared for the new fiscal year, public broadcasters at PBS headquarters; WQLN in Erie, Pa.; two Wisconsin stations and Colorado Public Radio cut budgets to keep their noses above the red ink.Falling by the wayside are established services, including the weeknightly newscast for Delaware viewers broadcast for 46 years by Philadelphia-based WHYY-TV and the local reports on the radio reading service for the blind operated for 16 years by WMFE-FM in Orlando, Fla.Troubled stations typically reported revenues that were down across the board, in underwriting, corporate donations, membership and state government support.

With no higher ground for refuge, PBS officials told staffers June 11 that 45 positions, including some vacancies, would be eliminated. That’s about 10 percent of the network’s staff.

PBS is struggling to close a $3.4 million deficit anticipated for fiscal year 2010. Spokeswoman Jan McNamara said the job cuts and other measures already adopted will eliminate about half of that shortfall.

For six months starting July 1, the network will cut its pay to nonunion employees by 3.85 percent. On Jan. 1, PBS will reduce  contributions to employee retirement accounts from 8 percent to 6 percent of salary; PBS plans to resume payments at previous levels by July 2010, McNamara said.

Services end in Delaware, Orlando

A 46-year-old nightly news show is one victim at WHYY, which serves parts of three states that line the Delaware River. The Philadelphia-based station will stop producing Delaware Tonight July 17, ending a major product for the state where the broadcast license resides. Beginning in August, WHYY will begin a weekly public affairs show for Delaware and expand its online content.

“The growth of news on the Web is an irreversible trend in the media marketplace,” WHYY President William J. Marrazzo said in a statement to Current. “Coupled with the pressures of today’s economy, now is an excellent time for WHYY to be innovative and reinvent its commitment to Delaware and its appetite for in-depth news.”

Managers told the staff June 17 that they planned to close the two-year-old bureau in Delaware’s capital, Dover, and would trim the staff in the Wilmington bureau where Delaware Tonight is produced. Thirteen full-time and three part-time staffers will lose jobs, leaving five full-timers. Those remaining staffers will have a weeklong unpaid furlough starting July 18.

It was WHYY’s second staff reduction within several months. The broadcaster laid off 17 staffers in April.

Because it uses a TV license assigned to Wilmington, WHYY paid special attention to Delaware by airing the evening newscast. When it canceled the show, it heard immediately from Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, whose statement said in part: “WHYY’s decision to leave the daily airwaves leaves a critical hole for viewers and raises significant questions about their commitment to Delaware, which is where their FCC license is granted.”

Chris Satullo, WHYY’s executive director of news and civic dialogue, told Current that he can understand why Delaware residents would be upset to lose the newscast. But, he said, the as-yet-unnamed weekly newsmag will provide in-depth coverage of the statehouse as well as remote reporting throughout the state — “pieces of substance with a bit of offbeat humor.”

“It’s tight times for everybody,” Satullo said. “We made a choice strategically, and what we most needed to do is step up our efforts online.”

WHYY is facing a $1.1 million reduction in state funds with Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s proposed budget zeroing out all state aid to pubcasting.

A state cutback of all aid to Florida’s nine radio reading services is causing the Orlando and Tallahassee stations to end their local news reading services for the visually impaired as of July 1. In Orlando, General Manager Jose Fajardo said WMFE will still broadcast national readings from the In-Touch radio network, the Orlando Sentinel reported last week. Some other stations plan to continue the service somehow, including WLRN in Miami.

In Orlando, WMFE’s reading service had received $38,800 a year from the state. Though the reading is done by 60 volunteers, the station bears other costs, including special radio receivers used by some sight-impaired listeners. WMFE offers the reading service on a secondary audio program (SAP) channel of its DTV signal as well as the traditional FM side channel.

The Sentinel pointed out that a telephone service of the National Federation of the Blind offers computerized voice readings of 280 newspapers, including several in Florida.

WQLN in Erie

The Pennsylvania governor’s budget proposal means a potential loss of $800,000 for WQLN in Erie—about 25 percent of its budget.  Its TV and FM stations would both be affected. As of June 16, five jobs were eliminated, including those of TV program director and station engineering director. The three remaining top managers took salary cuts, with President Dwight Miller losing 10 percent and the others 5 percent.

Hiring and raises are frozen, and the remaining 25 staffers will take two weeks of unpaid leave. The FM station will drop PRI’s Marketplace.

A date has not been set for legislative consideration of the governor’s budget. The Republican-controlled state Senate’s proposed budget also contains no money for pubcasting; the Democratic-controlled House has yet to put forth its numbers. Negotiations may take months as the governor and the Senate aim to close the $3 billion gap separating their budgets.

Meanwhile, WQLN’s fiscal year begins July 1.

“We could not in good conscience go into the year spending money we don’t have,” Miller told Current. “We’d be putting ourselves into a huge hole. Right now, we have no idea if we are going to get any money.”

Miller said the governor’s office has received more than 7,000 e-mails about the cutback from across the state. “Clearly the public is making its voice heard, but no one in the capital seems to be listening,” he added.

Cuts in Milwaukee and Madison

State and other revenues are shrivelling for both of Wisconsin’s major pubTV licensees, Wisconsin Public Television in Madison and Milwaukee Public Television.

Madison-based WPT cut five positions. Gone are three unfilled slots and two contracts that will not be renewed. Travel expenses have shrunk. One of the network’s flagship shows, the half-hour weekly magazine In Wisconsin, will shrink from 19 new episodes per year to 13.

The broadcaster expects those and other reductions to save $200,000 in expenses  for the upcoming year. WPT is somewhere between $300,000 and $500,000 in the hole. Like so many other stations, “we’re hurting,” said WPT chief James Steinbach.

Milwaukee Public Television, which is independent of the Wisconsin network, also is freezing new hires and salaries, using freelancers less and dropping longtime shows, according to Ellis Bromberg, g.m.

The station is licensed to the Milwaukee Area Technical College, which is weathering a $19 million drop in state funding.

Bromberg said three unions that cover station workers agreed to forgo a 3.25 percent raise that they recently negotiated.

The station won’t go ahead with new shows from independent contractors unless underwriting for the programs has been secured. Magazine programs will reconsider use of per-piece indie producers. And two well-known shows, Garden Paths and concerts of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, will be discontinued due to lack of underwriting.

Colorado Public Radio

A 3 percent salary cut and subsequent 12-month salary freeze begin July 1 at Colorado Public Radio. Retirement plan contributions were suspended in January through June 2010. CPR President Max Wycisk said the changes allow the statewide nonprofit network to maintain its staff of 65 employees.

CPR is cutting staff expenses after projecting a 10 percent decrease in sponsorship revenues in the new fiscal year. With the conclusion of its June on-air fundraiser, it expects to close the books on 2008-09 with $4.7 million in membership revenues, an increase of 15 percent from last year.

Wycisk attributed the increased membership income to listenership gains of its news service, which began broadcasting on 90.1 FM in Denver last summer after seven years on 1340 AM.

Although CPR has been unable to sell the AM channel, Wycisk said the budget reductions respond to the “softness of underwriting sales,” rather than financial pressure of continued operations of the AM service. CPR is reevaluating what to do with the AM channel, which simulcasts CPR’s news service. “We’re looking at the whole range of options and have not landed anywhere yet,” he said.

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