New York Public Radio lays off 14 staffers, including newsroom leaders

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© Andrew Popper 2018

New York Public Radio has eliminated 14 positions, citing financial challenges including weak sponsorship income and the need to stem a mounting deficit.  

CEO Goli Sheikholeslami announced the cuts in a memo to staff Friday. Sheikholeslami said in the memo that “preliminary work on the FY22 budget shows we are entering the next fiscal year with a sizable deficit. And we cannot achieve our goals and meet our commitments while shouldering a fourth year of losses.” She added that NYPR entered the pandemic with a deficit.

Four of the employees affected were in news, with the rest in other departments, Sheikholeslami wrote. She did not disclose which staffers. 

“These decisions were not made lightly or with haste,” she wrote. “We have done everything we can to avoid taking these steps.”

In addition to the layoffs, the organization is cutting merit raises for its senior leadership team and staffers making more than $100,000 and halving its retirement match for a six-month period.

The cuts will shave $3 million from the station’s deficit, Sheikholeslami said. NYPR had an operating deficit of about $6.9 million in FY2019, the most recent year with available tax records. It borrowed $10 million from Boston Private Bank & Trust Company in July, according to its most recent audited financial statement. 

Next year, the station “will be required to start repaying the money we have already borrowed to fund the deficit,” Sheikholeslami wrote. 

NYPR’s financial losses were due in part to a 27% decline in sponsorship revenue during the pandemic. “We knew sponsorship revenue would take a hit, but we planned for the advertising market to begin rebounding in the second half of this fiscal year,” Sheikholeslami wrote. “That didn’t happen, and recapturing the lost revenue will not happen in one fiscal year.”

The station’s membership income had “an impressive year” Sheikholeslami wrote, but she believes that it was bolstered by news events such as the pandemic and the election. “We cannot plan on sustaining the same level of membership revenues in a non-election, non-pandemic year,” she wrote.

The station received nearly $9 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans to assist with revenue shortfalls due to the pandemic, one of the largest amounts in public media. Sheikholeslami wrote that the budget assumes the loan will be forgiven. 

The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists union, which represents some NYPR employees, said in a statement, “SAG-AFTRA is very concerned about events unfolding at WNYC and is investigating the matter fully. As soon as our investigation is complete we will take immediate action to remedy any violations of the law or our contract.”

Employees who were laid off include newsroom leaders such as Richard Yeh, supervising senior producer of WNYC News and a 14-year veteran of the organization. Yeh oversaw the daily broadcast of All Things Considered and directed the newsroom’s internship program.

Others who were laid off include Gothamist editor-in-chief John Del Signore; Greene Space assistant production manager Allie Pinel; and Gothamist reporter and editor Christopher Robbins, who was also a SAG-AFTRA shop steward.

The full memo is below: 

Dear colleagues, 

This past year, I’ve been proud to lead an organization that has informed, inspired, and comforted New Yorkers during one of the city’s—indeed the nation’s—hardest chapters.  I’ve deeply admired the way you’ve lived through, reported on, and helped audiences respond to this pandemic.

That is why it’s hard for me to share with you the news that we’re announcing today.

As I communicated to you soon after I started at NYPR and at our quarterly financial updates since, we entered the pandemic carrying a significant deficit.  The Senior Leadership Team and I have worked extremely hard to keep our team together this past year, and have done everything we could to avoid the layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts that countless other media organizations have been forced to make.  Our Board of Trustees has been a supportive partner in this work, allowing us to carry this deficit for a third year in a row, even as sponsorship revenue suffered as a result of the pandemic and we took on the additional expenses associated with working and broadcasting remotely.

As we reflect on the past year, it’s clear the work ahead is more critical than ever. In order to remain relevant and responsive to our audiences’ needs and habits, and to adapt to rapid changes across the media landscape, we must continue to realign our work to support our strategic priorities and invest in our future. At the same time, our preliminary work on the FY22 budget shows we are entering the next fiscal year with a sizable deficit.  And we cannot achieve our goals and meet our commitments while shouldering a fourth year of losses. 

That is why we have made the difficult decision to cut 14 positions, 4% of our staff, across the organization (the impacted employees—four in news, 10 in other departments—have already been informed), and to institute the following cost-saving measures:

  • For a second year, suspension of merit increases for the Senior Leadership Team.
  • Reduction of the performance based bonus pool for the Senior Leadership Team and other eligible employees by 50%. 
  • Suspension of merit pay increases for employees making more than $100K in FY22.*
  • Reduction of the 403(b) match for all employees by 50% for the 6-month period beginning July 1, 2021 through December 31, 2021. 
  • Introduction of a new 10-day cap on vacation carryover, beginning FY23 (July 2022), and a 5-day cap beginning FY24 (July 2023) and beyond**. 

Please see the attached for further detail on the above cost saving measures.

These decisions were not made lightly or with haste. We have done everything we can to  avoid taking these steps.  

But we need to reverse the deficit, return the organization to health and sustainability, and position ourselves for future growth. In the course of working on the FY22 budget, we identified several additional challenges we need to take into consideration: 

  • Sponsorship is down 27% from pre-pandemic levels.  We knew sponsorship revenue would take a hit, but we planned for the advertising market to begin rebounding in the second half of this fiscal year. That didn’t happen, and recapturing the lost revenue will not happen in one fiscal year. 
  • Membership has had an impressive year, but—as is the norm in public radio—our fundraising efforts were aided by news stories of tremendous significance: a national election and an unprecedented global event. We cannot plan on sustaining the same level of membership revenues in a non-election, non-pandemic year.
  • We applied for and were fortunate to have received a $8.9M PPP loan, and our current budget assumes our loan will be forgiven.
  • And perhaps most importantly, next year we will be required to start repayingthe money we have already borrowed to fund the deficit. 

In aggregate, the actions we are announcing today reduce our deficit by $3 million for FY22, enabling us to get on a path to financial sustainability.  Without taking the additional cost-saving measures, the number of staff cuts would have been far greater.   

While I had hoped to avoid taking these actions, I believe deeply in our mission and remain firmly optimistic about the future of NYPR.  As we look to a radically transformed post-pandemic world, we have an opportunity to strike a bold new vision to serve audiences with journalism and programming that we are uniquely positioned to deliver, and to do so in innovative, audience-centric ways. The media landscape is rapidly evolving around us, and our most urgent task now is to secure our place in it and create a plan for future growth.

We have committed to delivering a three-year strategic plan to our Board of Trustees this summer. Andrew Golis, Ed Yim, and Audrey Cooper are formulating plans for WNYC Studios, WQXR and WNYC/Gothamist that will focus our work on areas where we can fulfill our mission with the greatest impact: stellar audio projects that tell important and engaging stories, and attract an audience by connecting to our shared humanity; inclusive and inspiring programming that makes classical music relevant and more inviting to new audiences; and journalism that makes New York work for all New Yorkers by providing daily news that is essential to their lives. And to fuel this work and restore us to financial sustainability, Ayesha Ahmad, Rebecca Haase, and Hillary Strong have been working on initiatives to bolster our revenue streams with new avenues of support from listeners, donors and sponsors. All of this work will embrace and reinforce our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and will be in support of our 2021 Race Equity Culture Action Plan.

Our work on our local news strategy is the furthest along. In the coming days and weeks, Audrey will present a new vision and structure for the newsroom that positions us to meet the needs of a new New York, one with significant challenges and fewer and fewer outlets to help audiences make sense of them. The plan will, among other things, help us deliver more timely and in-depth reporting on the key issues that will define the future of our city and region; ensure a broader diversity of voices and perspectives inside the newsroom and in our coverage; and expand and retool our editorial and production capabilities to enable us to publish and promote our work to a broader audience.

I know this is a lot of information to digest at one time, and while there is much promise ahead, the measures we must take to get there are not easy. Today, we are absorbing difficult news and will soon say farewell to colleagues. I committed to you from my first day on the job 18 months ago to be transparent about the choices we as a leadership team make. We will meet today at 4pm for an All Staff where I will share a detailed update with you on our latest financials to put these decisions in deeper context. 

The Executive Team and HR are here for you and to answer any questions you may have, and I will see you at 4pm. 

Goli

*For non-union employees, this impacts the merit salary increase that normally would be effective in October 2021, which is based on organization and individual performance from July 2020 – June 2021. 

**We will begin negotiations with the union about suspending pay increases that normally occur in July 2021 for union employees making more than $100K and applying the new vacation carryover policy to union employees as well.  

5 thoughts on “New York Public Radio lays off 14 staffers, including newsroom leaders

  1. Strange that they say ad revenues aren’t coming back. The seem to be coming back industry wide. I wonder why not at NYPR ? Hmmm

    • Without commenting specifically about NYPR, they are most definitely not coming back “industry wide”. Some places have seen remarkable increases in corporate sponsorship levels, to places above where they were pre-pandemic, even. Many have seen sponsorships rebounding but still well below pre-pandemic levels. Some are still seeing stagnant levels. When you average all of those, it might give an impression of an “industry-wide” recovery but that means nothing to the specific stations where things are stagnating. Furthermore, as I noted: quite a lot of places have seen “rebounds” but they’re still below pre-pandemic levels. They look better than they are because those places have already made the cuts or other adjustments to their budgets and the sponsorship revenues are meeting those adjusted goals. As far as I know WNYC came into the pandemic with an existing deficit so they probably had no (or very little) slack to give when revenues took a further downturn…hence why things look worse for them today.

      Finally, I can’t speak for WNYC but I know several of the major-market NPR outlets are more dependent on corporate sponsorship revenue than the average. Whereas the average outlet might be 40% membership, 30% major gifts, and 30% sponsorship? Lots of the big outlets command enough of a valuable audience that their breakdown is more like 25/25 membership/major gifts and 50% sponsorship. That’s great in the abstract, but it does mean your annual budget is more vulnerable in an economic downturn.

      Don’t get me wrong, of course, it could be worse: look at most commercial radio! They’re almost entirely dependent on sponsorship/advertising for revenue so a lot of those stations took a massive hit over 2020 and early 2021…hence the waves upon waves of layoffs over the last 12 months.

      FWIW, as far as I know WNYC was also pioneering a lot of forays into new revenue streams with digital and podcasting and it’s quite possible that bubble burst for them. When you invest a lot of money up-front hoping for a return in the long term, and that return doesn’t happen? Well, typically that means deficits and layoffs. (shrugs) It is what it is. I don’t deny it sucks for the folks who’re laid off (and those who remain) but there is no experimentation without risk.

  2. I get that there’s the reputation and future careers of those being laid off to consider, but I do wish there was a way WNYC could be more specific about who was being laid off. So that the public could get a better sense of where WNYC was “retrenching” in the face of budget deficits.

    Maybe it doesn’t need to be super-super public knowledge, but it would be very useful for us in the industry to know if there were initiatives/experiments that WNYC was trying that they’re moving away from. They had a lot of really innovative ideas they were trying, and if those ideas aren’t viable that’s good for all of us in public radio to know so we can learn from it.

  3. Is the WNYC CEO still making close to $1,000,000 per year? That was the case with her predecessor who was the highest paid radio executive in New York City. If so, perhaps the salary for that position should be a bit more in line with industry norms particularly in light of the station’s current underachievement.

  4. Multiple questions need to be answered here.
    1. Was the union consulted prior to the moves by management? As a former WNYC employee and union member I remember that such a committee was formed and we were asked for ideas several years ago.
    (The fact that a shop steward was one of those fired should have raised a red flag here.)
    This goes to why we need labor reporting with an edge.
    2. What are the salaries of the executives making the decisions on layoffs? A few years back I did this analysis for City & State but the IRS gives 501c3s such a long reporting lag the publicly available data is years old.)
    3. Was Current aware that WNYC senior producer Richard Yeh, one of those employees just fired, was quoted in a Ginia Bellafante NYT story on 7-3-2020 being highly critical of management? Is this an example of WNYC’s plans to foster a ‘speak up’ culture?
    4. Perhaps Current should roll up its sleeves and review just how much WNYC’s #metoo spin & damage control cost and what the ratio is of its top executive pay to the rest of the workforce’s compensation.
    Ironically, on this score Wall Street and America’s companies that have publicly traded stocks are light years ahead in terms of this kind of public disclosure.
    Public non-profit media needs to catch up.

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