Texas Tech Public Media cuts spark concern among university faculty

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Texas Tech University's campus in Lubbock.

Layoffs and programming cuts at Texas Tech Public Media have sparked concerns about the station’s future among faculty members at its licensee, Texas Tech University. 

In February, the university announced a “restructuring” at the station in an announcement posted on its website. The announcement cited an expected “significant reduction in revenue, including grant funding.” (It has since been removed from the website but can be seen here.)

“We will reevaluate our programming and build a more prominent presence across West Texas through strategic investments in the Lubbock, San Angelo and El Paso markets,” it said. Texas Tech Public Media operates KCOS-TV in El Paso, KNCH-FM in San Angelo and KTTZ-TV and KTTZ-FM in Lubbock.

The announcement did not mention layoffs. But Allison Hirth, assistant VP at TTU, later told Current that cuts affected 10 staffers. The changes affected radio, television, development and administrative staff, she said.

Producers of six local radio programs were laid off, according to a report from an investigation by a university Faculty Senate committee that was shared with Current. The programs — Around Town, The Front Row, In the Grow, More than a Song, Music Crossroads of Texas and Noche de Tango — featured arts, music and local interviews.

Director of Programming Clint Barrick also retired early, according to the investigation.

“Texas Tech Public Media remains committed to the communities we serve, and we will focus our local programming efforts on news and education,” Hirth told Current. “Our programming must reach the broadest possible audience and find financial support, especially through underwriting.”

Hirth said the cuts were made in response to a “significant budget deficit.” The station reported a nearly $2.5 million operating deficit in fiscal year 2023 and a nearly $1.3 million deficit the prior fiscal year, according to an audit for FY22 and FY23. The station earned nearly $5 million in revenue in FY23. 

“As part of the restructuring, there are plans to add new positions to address emerging needs and fill skills gaps in support of the mission of Texas Tech Public Media,” Hirth said.

Texas Tech Public Media now has 16 full-time staffers between its Lubbock and El Paso offices, Hirth said. 

Interim GM Alisan Sweet did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Drastic’ changes

The cuts drew the attention of the university’s faculty senate. During a meeting in February, faculty members shared concerns about the layoffs with Matt Dewey, VP of marketing and communications at Texas Tech University. They questioned why the community had not been involved earlier in the restructuring decision, the station’s lack of a permanent GM, and the failure of the station’s community advisory group to meet in more than a year, according to minutes of the meeting.

Dewey said the station is committed to local content but that it needs to reach a broad audience. One senator questioned Dewey’s statement about local content considering that the reductions affected producers of local programming, according to the minutes.

“My main concern about all of these changes is that they’re drastic and that there was no apparent forethought to the transition to the new world order of how the radio station will be run in the future,” Lewis Held, a professor at TTU and a senate member who led the investigation into the cuts, told Current. Held investigated the restructuring as chair of the faculty senate’s Faculty Status & Welfare Committee. 

According to the 10-page report on the investigation, which Held shared with Current, only two full-time staff remain at the radio station following the layoffs and Barrick’s retirement at the end of March. In the report, the investigating committee said it obtained a March 1 memo about TTPM’s plans, which included outsourcing underwriting and sponsorship sales and hiring a radio operations technician.

In the investigation report, the committee expressed concerns that the restructuring could endanger the radio station’s CPB funding in part because of TTPM’s lack of dedicated radio staff. Recipients of CPB Community Service Grants must have at least two full-time or full-time equivalent staff. Joint licensees, such as Texas Tech Public Media, cannot use an employee to meet the requirements of both TV and radio. 

The report also cited concerns that the cuts would make it harder for the station to meet CPB’s requirement that stations “must originate a local program service designed to serve its community’s needs and interests.” 

Committee members also pointed to concerns that PBS El Paso, which Texas Tech Public Media acquired in 2019, has become a financial drain on TTPM. 

CPB pitched in $750,000 to implement the merger and $1.5 million over three years, which helped TTPM stay in the black, Held said. But the CPB funds have run out, and TTU has a 10-year contract to run PBS El Paso, which is “not self-supporting,” according to Held. 

Held said he is also concerned about how the restructuring and layoffs will impact TTPM’s donor base. 

“How many donors are going to pony up large amounts of money at this stage, when a lot of the programs they were listening to, at least the local ones, are gone, and when they had a survey ostensibly of what they wanted, which has been ignored?” Held said. “… If you offend your donor base, what hope do you have to have enough funds to rescue the radio station?”

According to Held, TTPM launched a listener survey in February about the station’s radio content that was cut short soon after the layoffs. 

“That’s a strange management style to ask people what they want and then to ignore their responses,” Held said. 

Local shows ending

Meanwhile, former hosts and producers of the shows canceled in the restructuring are asking TTU to give them the rights to their programs.

Curtis Peoples, host of Music Crossroads of Texas, told Current he never heard directly that his show was being canceled but that he knew what was coming when his producer was laid off last month. 

“I created everything, so really I consider that it belongs to me,” Peoples said. “I feel that I should be able to go take my show elsewhere.” 

In an open letter last month to Dewey, the former hosts and producers said they are seeking the rights and content of the shows “to preserve the legacy and integrity of our work.”

“It would also provide us with the opportunity to continue serving our dedicated listeners by making these shows accessible through alternative platforms, ensuring that the content we’ve passionately created can still reach and impact our audience,” they wrote. 

Hirth told Current that the request is under review by the university’s office of general counsel. Nicholas Bergfeld, a signatory to the letter and former host of Around Town, received an email from Dewey April 4 in which the VP told him that the general counsel is working to “finalize an agreement” to be shared with the hosts and producers. 

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