NPR cuts deeper as forecast darkens

Executive compensation trimmed as network seeks union concessions


In a new round of budget-cutting now under way, NPR has reduced salaries and benefits for its officers and is proposing that its 565 union employees accept similar concessions.

In addition, during talks initiated with its technicians’ union last week, NPR proposed new contract language that would roll back union jurisdiction over 85 jobs in the bargaining unit, according to a staff representative of the National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians.

The latest package of NPR spending cuts, to be finalized by May, “very likely” will include some layoffs, according to President Vivian Schiller, who said she hopes to minimize additional job losses. The network cut 64 jobs in December, a month before she signed on as NPR’s chief executive.

Now NPR is projecting revenue losses as large as the $23 million deficit that prompted the 64 layoffs just months ago. The NPR Board recently authorized spending $15 million from reserves, Schiller told Current, but that still leaves the network facing a projected deficit of $8 million for this fiscal year (ending Sept. 30), which she cited in a March 20 e-mail to station managers. “[W]e continue to see downward pressure on just about all of our revenue sources as the economy continues to deteriorate,” Schiller wrote in the e-mail.

NPR had accumulated the $15 million in reserves over years. “Before the economy hit the skids, our surpluses went into reserve for a rainy day,” Schiller said in an interview. “Now it’s pouring outside.”

“You could say they allowed us to run a deficit,” Schiller said, referring the board’s authorization to draw on NPR’s reserves. A proposal to withdraw another $15 million is pending for NPR’s fiscal 2010 budget, she said. The reserves are controlled by NPR’s Board of Directors, not the NPR Foundation’s, which oversees NPR’s endowment.

Schiller described the darkening revenue forecast to NPR staff March 19 and announced one element of the austerity plan that’s already been decided upon — a package of cuts in executive compensation.

NPR officers, vice presidents and up, will work without pay during the last pay period of the fiscal year — losing about 4 percent of their salaries, according to Dana Davis Rehm, senior v.p. of marketing, communications and external relations.

NPR will also suspend its contributions to retirement plans of its executives from April 1 through Sept. 30; cancel pay increases scheduled for next January for the second consecutive year, and discontinue another benefit known as “flex-credits.”

This package of cuts will save NPR more than $500,000, Rehm said. “It’s not an insignificant amount of money, but we have a lot more savings that we need to find. It’s important for the staff to understand how seriously we take this.”

“The whole executive team is going to take a disproportionate share of the cuts, but I can’t tell you how this is going to turn out,” said Schiller, referring to the union negotiations. No matter what concessions NPR’s union workers take, “management will always take more,” she said.

NPR announced its revised budget targets one day before its midday shows Day to Day and News and Notes signed off for the last time at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Nearly 30 employees assigned to the shows were pink-slipped in December, when NPR reduced its workforce by 7 percent. In addition, Cinny Kennard, managing editor of the midday broadcasts, exited for the University of Southern California’s communication school (item).

During her March 19 presentations to NPR staff, Schiller laid out details of NPR’s financial situation in stark terms. “I didn’t want to sugar-coat it for anyone,” she said. She didn’t know what reactions to expect when she opened the floor to questions. “It was mind-blowing, the outpouring of support for the organization,” she said. The staff expressed a willingness to make sacrifices on behalf of the organization that she found overwhelming. “I have never experienced anything like it before,” she said.

Schiller downplayed the prospects for one proposal to raise money for NPR — a national pledge drive appealing for listeners to help close NPR’s budget gap. “They are not our listeners,” she said, nodding to the on-air fundraising prerogatives of NPR member stations.

Susan Stamberg, one of NPR’s most beloved personalities, proposed the idea during the staff meeting, the Washington Post reported last weekend. There is a historic precedent, the Post reported. NPR appealed for direct listener support in 1983, when the network was on the verge of bankruptcy.

NPR is moving forward with a different plan to appeal for listener support, Schiller said. NPR.org will introduce online giving, hopefully by this summer, with all the proceeds going to stations.

“This has been in the works for a long time, but it was held up over differences on the giving options” offered to online donors, Schiller said. NPR proposed the online giving trial last year but postponed it after stations objected to giving listeners the option of donating directly to NPR (Current, Nov. 24, 2008). NPR has revised its plan and will only solicit donations to local stations.

“It was the right thing to do in this environment, with all that stations are going through,” Schiller said.

Tough stance with NABET

During the first round of meetings last week between NPR management and reps of its two union bargaining units, the network proposed to cancel pay increases for fiscal 2010 and furlough union workers for five days from May through September, according to Carrie Biggs-Adams, a staff representative for Local 31 of NABET, part of Communications Workers of America. Management proposes to convert three holidays into regular workdays, suspend retirement contributions and eliminate the flex-credit benefit.

NABET is negotiating renewal of its NPR contract, which expires April 17. In a separate proposal from the budget-cutting package, NPR’s bargaining team presented new contract language that proposes to “eliminate pretty much all jurisdiction, eliminate the seniority system, and to give others the right to do work we already do,” according to a March 24 letter updating bargaining unit members on the talks.

“It might have been plausible to ask us to take this huge economic hit and convince us of the veracity of this problem they have, but they’ve decided interestingly at the same time to eviscerate our contract,” Biggs-Adams said. “It is an odd decision.”

The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents 380 news division employees, met with NPR management separately. Both sides agreed to a blackout of public comments during negotiations. Patricia O’Donnell, executive director of the Washington-Baltimore AFTRA Local, declined an interview request.

Management proposes a series of salary and benefit concessions for the technicians, including suspension of NPR retirement-account contributions, May 1-Sept. 30, and reduction of those contributions thereafter from 10 percent to 5 percent of an employee’s salary, Biggs-Adams said. NPR would also redefine holiday Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day as regular workdays for technical employees. “For next fiscal year they also want to behead three more holidays,” she said, “but they haven’t gotten around to naming them.”

NPR’s proposal to redefine NABET jobs is a sign that management is looking to force concessions on its union employees, according to Biggs-Adams. “There’s not a page of this monstrosity that’s not a problem,” she said, referring to NPR’s proposed contract. “We’re supposed to grab our ankles over this big economic program—including no raises on Jan. 1 — and agree to this?”

NABET’s first contract proposal requests that NPR allow it to organize new bargaining units in the company under a “card check” system. The proposal is based on the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would make it easier for employees to form a bargaining unit. The legislation won House approval two years ago but was voted down in the Senate. It was reintroduced in Congress this month.

NABET wants more flexibility to sign up NPR’s digital media and IT staff, Biggs-Adams said. “The company is adamantly against it,” she said. “Their response was — ‘No way. We do not want that.’”

An NPR spokeswoman declined to comment on the status of union talks last week, except to write in an e-mail, “These issues are best discussed in the setting of the negotiations, which have only just begun. We feel everyone is best served by letting those talks go forward privately.”

Biggs-Adams, who described herself as a “mobilization queen,” anticipates some sort of job action. “I’m thinking of all sorts of stuff,” she said. “There is going to be some rock and roll. I don’t see how there can’t be.”

Already NABET is asking its members to display solidarity on “Blue Mondays” by wearing blue on the first day of the work week. “We are going to be very blue next Monday.”

Bargaining sessions are scheduled for the next two weeks, with additional dates to be set through mid-April, when the NABET contract expires.

NPR West chief returns to USC

Published in Current's People column, March 30, 2009

Cinny Kennard, the former CBS News correspondent who was managing director and managing editor of NPR West in Los Angeles for more than five years until its recent downsizing, has returned to the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication as a senior fellow at its Center on Communication Leadership and Policy. Kennard worked in local radio and TV news in Norwalk, Conn.; Dallas; Houston; and Fort Wayne, Ind. She also reported for CBS News from London and Moscow as well as Los Angeles. She co-founded the Carole Kneeland Project for Responsible Television Journalism and served nine years on the duPont-Columbia Awards jury. Before moving to NPR she taught journalism at USC Annenberg from 1999 to 2003.

Web page posted March 30, 2009
Copyright 2009 by Current LLC

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EARLIER ARTICLES

NPR layoffs top system's damage report, December 2009.

LINKS

NPR Weighs Rare On-Air Pledge Drive, Washington Post, March 28, 2009.

NABET Local 31 website, Washington, D.C., which reps units at PBS, Howard University's WHUT, CNN and major network stations as well as NPR

NPR-NABET contract,
2006-09.

When Republican Sen. Arlen Specter announced March 24 that he will oppose the Employee Free Choice Act, the bill's prospects for Senate approval dimmed, the Washington Post reported.

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