Pictured: NPR West. Click for map

NPR layoffs top system’s damage report

Sixty-four jobs go, half in L.A. outpost

Originally published in Current, Dec. 22, 2008
By Karen Everhart

An era of dramatic expansion of NPR’s operations and program portfolio came to a sobering halt Dec. 10 as the network cut its budget by $23 million, laid off 64 employees and canceled Day to Day and News & Notes, two California-based shows that sought to expand the breadth of news coverage and voices heard on NPR.

Pubcasters have braced themselves for revenue shortfalls as the economy sank into recession, forcing staff cutbacks at stations in cities including Boston, Chicago and Sacramento, Calif. American Public Media also announced the cancellation of Weekend America, affecting 13 jobs (separate story).

Now NPR, which had been buoyed by the $230 million Joan Kroc bequest in 2003 and by growth in corporate sponsorships, is retreating from shows created to expand and diversify its audience and moving to protect its flagship newsmagazines and international newsgathering capacity. 

NPR decided to cut its workload instead of imposing across-the-board budget cuts, news chief Ellen Weiss said Dec. 11 on PBS’s NewsHour. “We didn’t want to say, ‘You know what? Try to do the same quality, try to do the same amount of journalism, try to have the same reach nationally and internationally, but try to do it with less money.’”

The network’s 64 layoffs and elimination of 21 vacant positions will reduce its workforce by 7 percent. Just over half of the layoffs are in the news division, including 22 journalists who work directly for the canceled programs plus 12 other reporters, producers and editors, according to an NPR spokeswoman.

In addition, at least seven non-news staff members at the NPR West facility in the Los Angeles area are losing their jobs. Others laid off are spread among all divisions of the network, NPR said. Management did not release names of employees affected, but news accounts and other pubradio sources identified some of those losing their jobs.

The layoffs will come in two waves. Employees not affiliated with the canceled shows go off the payroll Jan. 12. The staffs of Day to Day and News & Notes stop work after March 20, when both shows air their final episodes.

Among the on-air talent departing NPR are hosts of the two discontinued programs, Farai Chideya of News & Notes and Madeleine Brand of Day to Day (her co-host, Alex Chadwick, quit the show in November). Also: Vicky O’Hara, a producer, editor and correspondent since 1982; Jacki Lyden, senior correspondent and substitute anchor, who joined the company in 1979; and Ketzel Levine, a senior correspondent who participated in the 1979 launch of Morning Edition. Kim Masters, an entertainment reporter based at NPR West, is also departing.

In addition, Doug Mitchell, an NPR producer credited for recruiting and training new public radio talent though Next Generation Radio, an internship program, will lose his job.

Some pink-slip reports were inaccurate. Dana Davis Rehm, newly reassigned senior v.p. of marketing, communications and external relations, refuted bloggers’ reports that senior correspondents Linda Wertheimer and Noah Adams were among those who were laid off. (Item on Rehm’s job change.) In addition, the blog Mediabistro inaccurately reported that the network had dropped Howard Berkes, rural affairs correspondent and union steward for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

More than half of the jobs cut — 28 laid-off journalists and the 21 vacancies — were union positions affiliated with AFTRA, according to Patricia O’Donnell, of the union’s local.

Several employees did not return phone calls requesting interviews or declined to discuss their situations out of fear that they would be fired or lose their severance packages. Those who agreed to speak without attribution described rancor within the NPR ranks, including resentment about NPR’s recent hiring of digital-media employees as it prepared to oust radio veterans.

“There is a false competition that sometimes gets created, and I understand that, when a tough economy hits, people question how and why this happened,” Weiss said. Digital-media staff members are journalists with expertise in providing news to online audiences, she said. “We have put the emphasis on growing our journalism,” Weiss said. “Even in this bad economic environment, we’ve tried to realign jobs on the radio side as well,” she said.

Shrinking endowment a factor

NPR took some initial steps to scale back in July by imposing a partial hiring freeze and canceling the Bryant Park Project, an experiment in targeting younger listeners that the network shuttered after eight months of production. But NPR didn’t anticipate the sharp downturn in corporate underwriting that came over the next two months.

The network’s fiscal 2009 budget, approved by the NPR Board in July, projected a manageable $2 million deficit, interim President Dennis Haarsager said in an internal memo. “It is clear that this serious financial situation can’t be responsibly resolved through short-term or temporary cuts,” Haarsager wrote. “Rather, we must take measures that provide long-term savings, and that preserve our effectiveness and ability to generate vital income in the years ahead.”

Of the $23 million budget cut taken in this round, $14 million was required because of projected shortfalls in corporate underwriting, Rehm said. NPR also expects $4 million less than budgeted in foundation grants and other donations this year, she said.

NPR also drew $10 million from an unrestricted gift pool controlled by the NPR Foundation to replace the amount budgeted as a distribution from the endowment, Rehm said. The unrestricted gift pool includes “donations from individuals that they authorized to be used for this purpose,” she said.

The value of the NPR Foundation endowment has followed Wall Street’s plunge. The endowment topped $293.5 million in NPR’s 2007 audited financial statements but had dropped to $219 million as of November, Rehm said. “This drop from $290 million is not as steep as suffered by many endowments and investments,” she said. “In this situation, there will not be any distribution from the endowment.”  

Westward whoa?

Both shows canceled by the network originate from NPR West in Culver City, Calif., a 25,000-square-foot production facility purchased in 2002. It was a landmark in NPR’s expansion under former President Kevin Klose and his push to expand the geographic range and cultural breadth of NPR’s coverage.

The production center is “beautiful and big, an open warehousey space,” Brand said. “It’s going to be cavernous” when the staffs of Day to Day and News & Notes depart in March.

Morning Edition’s Renee Montagne will continue to co-anchor the broadcast from NPR West, and some 30 staff members there will remain on the payroll, according to Rehm.

NPR remains committed to maintaining the facility and will consult with Western stations about how to make the best use of it, Rehm said. “It would be a strategic mistake not to stick with NPR West.”

It was a different era when NPR opened its Western outpost, said Brand, who relocated her family to Los Angeles when she was hired as host of Day to Day. NPR “had a lot of money and the freedom or ability to think outside the Washington box,” Brand said.         “Now they don’t, and the bright, shiny new toy is online. Instead of creating new shows, they’re creating a big, big online presence.” 

NPR execs cited insufficient audiences and underwriting income in explaining the cancellations of Day to Day and News & Notes. Day to Day, launched in July 2003 to add more Western coverage and expand NPR’s footprint into midday, airs on 186 stations. It attracts a weekly cumulative audience of 1.8 million listeners, according to NPR. 

“There were many iterations of what Day to Day should be, and that was one of the problems with the show,” Brand said. “It never did have a clear mandate from the powers that be about what it should be and who we should target.” First, the show team was told to go for youthful, edgy stories, but then to stop pushing boundaries, because it scared off listeners. The mandate became “be more like Morning Edition, but different,” Brand said. “There was a lot of confusion for a long time.”

“The sad part was when we did figure out who we were and we had a cohesive identity—just when we were about to hire a new co-host and we had great new management in place, we’re canceled.”

Deborah Clark, who was promoted to executive producer this summer, is scheduled to return from maternity leave next month, and Martha Little recently stepped up as senior editor, Brand said. “It was a very, very strong team. We were on the same page editorially, had the same vision, and were excited about the new co-host.”

The show team was close to hiring the lead candidate for the job, whom Brand declined to identify. Chadwick opted to return to reporting last month, and once his successor was on board the staff looked forward to relaunching Day to Day and pushing for more station carriage, she said.

Day to Day had made progress in finding its own voice, according to Sam Fleming, director of news and programming at Boston’s WBUR, which airs the show. “It had always operated in the shadows of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. . . . It’s unfortunate that five years of work is not going to be realized.”

News & Notes debuted in January 2005 as successor to The Tavis Smiley Show, NPR’s first show created specifically for African-Americans. Hosted by Farai Chideya since September 2006, the program airs on 64 stations and has a weekly cume of roughly 500,000 listeners. Chideya did not respond to an interview request.

Cancellation of News & Notes prompted journalist/blogger Jasmyne Cannick, an L.A.-based political consultant and commentator on the show, to petition NPR management to save the program. On her blog, Cannick asked why NPR is putting its “only African-American–themed show on the chopping block,” extending a string of failed attempts to serve African-American listeners.

Weiss described a shift in NPR’s approach to engaging more diverse audiences, including the African-Americans targeted by News & Notes. “Sustaining a program for a small audience is not the best strategy for the economic times we’re in,” she said. “Plus, it’s a lot to ask of one program to be wholly responsible for serving one sector of the audience.” Efforts to expand and diversify the audience will be taken up by all NPR programs. 

“This is not a retrenchment but being smarter and learning,” Weiss said. “Part of learning is knowing when to stop something, and, frankly, that’s something that we haven’t had to do for a long time.”    

Realignment for NPR veeps

Published in Current, Dec. 22, 2008

NPR realigned its vice-presidential corps recently, according to a Dec. 10 management memo leaked to the press.

The network eliminated two v.p. positions and assigned much of both to Dana Davis Rehm. Gone is Rehm’s old job, senior v.p. of strategy and partnerships, as well as the top spokesperson job, v.p. of marketing and communications, which has been vacant since the departure of Andi Sporkin in July. Rehm’s new job is senior v.p. of marketing, communications and external relations.

Rehm said Dennis Haarsager, interim president and future executive v.p., will take on oversight of NPR Labs and Public Interactive, while audience research and program sales units will be overseen by programming chief Margaret Low Smith.

NPR also named another new v.p.: Debra May Hughes, previously and still head of Public Interactive, the Boston-based web development unit acquired from Public Radio International in July.

Web page posted Dec. 22, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC

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Even APM and WGBH trim their payrolls ARROW >

LINKS

PBS’s NewsHour interviews NPR News chief Ellen Weiss.

NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard reports on reactions to the downsizing from within NPR:

Former NPR Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin says eliminating Doug Mitchell’s job is a “huge loss for the company." Mitchell was the sparkplug for NPR's NextGen Radio.

Facebook groups formed to “Save Doug Mitchell’s job" and to “Save Day to Day.”

Jasmyne Cannick posted an online petition to save News & Notes.

 

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