WBUR lays off 29, freezes salaries and says goodbye to four senior leaders

This is heartbreaking. WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) is laying off 29 people “because of the economic fallout of the past several months,” according to a memo sent to the staff by the station’s chief executive officer, Margaret Low. A salary freeze has been imposed. In addition, senior executives Tom Melville, John Davidow and Peter Lydotes are leaving, and Sam Fleming will retire later this year.

Overall, Low says, the current budget of $46 million will be reduced to $40 million in the next fiscal year.

The memo also contains some ideas and observations about increasing the diversity of the staff and about the station’s ongoing commitment to local news.

This is bad news for the Boston area. Along with WGBH News, where I’m a contributor, WBUR is an incredibly important part of the regional news ecosystem system. It’s also terrible news for the folks who’ll be losing their jobs. Best wishes to everyone during this challenging time.

I got the memo from a trusted source. The full text follows:

Dear All,

I have important news to share this morning about a significant reorganization and some of the difficult choices I’ve had to make because of the economic fallout of the past several months.

To begin, we are laying off 29 people. Many of them are part time staff. This means valued colleagues are losing their jobs at a very challenging time and will be leaving WBUR over the next days, weeks and months. We’ve already reached out to everyone who is immediately affected by the changes.

While I’m confident that WBUR has a bright future, this is a hard moment — because longtime coworkers and friends will be departing.

There will also be some shared sacrifice. There will be no wage increases for FY21, except for negotiated union salary adjustments, and there will be no contributions to retirement funds. And we’ve developed a much reduced budget for the next fiscal year. The WBUR Board approved a FY20 budget of just under $46 million. For FY21, the Board will be presented with a budget of just over $40 million.

Beyond the layoffs, we will reduce expenses across the board. Most notably — we are eliminating seven unfilled positions, cutting travel and marketing costs and canceling various contracted services. I’m taking a 10% salary cut.

A number of senior leaders, who collectively have dedicated the better part of a century to WBUR, will be leaving us. They include: Tom Melville, John Davidow and Peter LydotesSam Fleming plans to retire this year. He will be with us three days a week for the next few months.

In addition, we will stop production of Only A Game at the end of September. The New York Times will take over the wildly successful Modern Love podcast at the end of the month, and Kind World, which blossomed from a digital experiment back in 2012 into an award winning Morning Edition feature and podcast, will end its run in July.

At the same time as we are losing cherished colleagues, this restructuring means that we will be hiring for a number of new positions that will make WBUR stronger.

There is a lot more to share, and I apologize in advance for the length of this note. I want to reflect the decisions we’ve made with precision, care and respect for all our colleagues. I will be meeting with some individual teams today and tomorrow and I will hold an AMA later this afternoon, so I can answer any questions you have.

The changes I’m making are necessary to streamline the organization and to reflect the budget realities of the moment. But beyond this restructuring, there is much more work to be done to forge our long term strategic future. Over the summer, we will begin to fully articulate what will define our journalism and our programming going forward and what it will take to become even more essential in people’s lives.

My decisions rest on four pillars — three that I’m addressing immediately with this reorganization and a fourth that I will enlist all of you in tackling in the days and months ahead:

    • Editorial Excellence — we must strive to be the most trusted and beloved source of local news in Boston and beyond, distinguished in a competitive media landscape by the quality and ambition of our journalism and our programming.
    • Organizational Efficiency and Effectiveness — we must ensure that WBUR is a disciplined and well-run operation that supports and empowers people, holds them accountable and reflects our values at every turn.
    • Economic Sustainability — we must rightsize the organization so we aren’t spending more money than we are bringing in. At the same time we must double down on generating revenue and finding new ways to fuel WBUR.
    • The Road Ahead — there are two issues of great consequence to our future that require our concerted attention.

The first is racial equity. In the weeks following the police killing of George Floyd, we have witnessed a global outpouring of people calling for racial justice — and an end to the profound inequities that have defined the American experience. These days are filled with anguish, but endowed with the possibility of achieving lasting change.

This reckoning demands that we confront elements of systemic racism that have  persisted in our country and our institutions, even as we’ve expressed a commitment to diversity. WBUR is not exempt from this examination — we have a lot of work to do. And it can’t be addressed by simply restating our values of inclusion. This effort must be different in kind and substance than anything we’ve done before. It requires change in every aspect of our culture, our coverage, our hiring and our leadership development. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m committed to leading the way and not letting up. Our future depends on it.

Second, our future also depends on identifying how we continue to grow our audience and cultivate the loyalty and financial support that is essential to sustaining our journalism. This is a time of profound technological change and the clock is ticking. WBUR has been a credible digital innovator. But as listening habits and media consumption patterns continue to shift, we have to confront how we reach new audiences and become even more relevant in people’s lives. So that they can’t imagine a day without WBUR. And they believe we’re worthy of their support.

Both of these efforts will require the investment of every single person at WBUR.

Given all this, it was clear that a restructuring of WBUR was imperative, but everything was accelerated by an unexpected financial crisis that compelled deeper cuts. In laying out the details, I can’t possibly give proper due to all the people who have devoted themselves to WBUR for so many years. Finding ways to celebrate our departing colleagues is made more difficult in the age of social distancing. But we will make sure that happens.

In the meantime, I’ve tried to capture the most important aspects of the restructuring below.

Local News

Local journalism has always been core to our mission. Increasingly it is paramount. We have the biggest local newsroom in public radio and in order to produce agenda-setting coverage, we are reorganizing the team, strengthening our leadership ranks and deepening our bench of editors.

To begin, Dan Mauzy will become Executive Editor for News. In my five months at WBUR, I’ve seen Dan demonstrate editorial depth, impressive leadership, and an unmatched command of every aspect of the newsroom operation. Dan will work closely with Tom Melville to ensure a smooth transition.

For nearly nine years, Tom has led the newsroom with grace, generosity and a deep love and knowledge of the region. This has never been more evident than in these last few months, as first COVID and then the death of George Floyd transformed the nation and the globe. That WBUR’s local journalism has soared, amid the disruption to our operations and the pain we feel in our personal and professional lives, is a testament to Tom. I’m enormously grateful for his intelligence, integrity and extraordinary kindness.

I am also moving the team responsible for the editorial dimension of our digital efforts into the news division, so that our journalism on all platforms is more closely aligned.

Tiffany Campbell, our Executive Editor for Digital, will continue to oversee her editorial staff and newsroom digital strategy, and will now report to Dan. In addition, Cognoscenti, led by Frannie Carr Toth, will move into the newsroom under Tiffany. More on the rest of the digital team in a moment.

John Davidow will be leaving us after a remarkable 17 year run at WBUR. He joined the station after a distinguished career as a producer in commercial television (when it was in its prime). John was hired to lead the local news team, and radio became his new medium. More than 10 years ago, John made another leap, when he took over our fledgling digital operation. His work propelled WBUR to become one of the most prominent local digital operations in the system. At the same time, John gained national recognition in public media for his expertise on emerging technologies. He spotted great talent like Tiffany along the way and built a first class digital team that will remain a vital part of WBUR’s future.

Managing Editor Elisabeth Harrison, who has so skillfully overseen our coverage of COVID-19, will take on additional newsroom responsibilities and also report to Dan. Beyond  health and business, she will oversee our general assignment reporters and those covering politics, immigration and other beats.

Dan Guzman and Jon Cain will become Executive Producers of Morning Edition and All Things Considered, respectively. They will now supervise show hosts, writers and producers. This will add organizational structure and cohesion to our flagship local NPR shows.

Weekend Managing Editor Paul Connearney, will also take on new responsibilities and supervise the newscast anchors.

In addition to what I’ve laid out above, we will be posting three new newsroom positions. They are:

    • A second managing editor to work side by side with Elisabeth and Tiffany and a new managing producer (see below). This new managing editor will report to Dan and oversee our investigations team as well as our coverage of arts and culture, education and the environment.
    • deputy managing editor, reporting to Elisabeth, who will deepen the editing bench for health, business, politics, and other beats.
    • We are also posting a managing producer This person will oversee all local news programs: Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Radio Boston and local newscasts.

A New Product Team

As I said in my 100 day note, WBUR has a powerful history. We have been broadcasters for 70 years and, over those years, we have fostered deep and lasting relationships with our radio audience. Our next job is to develop that connection, to build those relationships, for digital audiences in ways that ensure we’re here for another 70 years. We must be laser-focused on that, because with time — and likely sooner than we think —  digital revenue will need to replace much of the traditional broadcast revenue that supports our journalism. And it won’t happen unless we build the kind of loyalty and devotion that we’ve historically had with our radio audience.

To that end, I’m creating a product team, led by Joan DiMicco. Her job will be to make sure that every experience with WBUR, on any platform, is exceptional. She will be responsible for the strategy, design, and implementation of all our products and will help ensure their demonstrable success. This includes our owned platforms such as wbur.org, our newsletters, and our mobile app; and third-party platforms including NPR One and smart speakers. She will also stay abreast of tech developments across the media landscape as we craft what comes next.

The programmers, developers and digital audio editors, who were part of the larger digital team, will now report to Joan. This new team will work hand in hand with all our editorial teams, marketing and membership.

Operations

As I mentioned above, Peter Lydotes, who has overseen WBUR operations for 16 years, will be departing in the fall. Peter joined WBUR in 1992 as a board operator and over the years has gained an impressive understanding of how just about every system at WBUR works. Peter has absorbed many production responsibilities, keeping our people and our increasingly complicated operation and production efforts humming.

With Peter’s planned departure, Glenn Alexander, who oversees all the BRTs, will now report to Karl Voelker and Glenn’s whole team will be part of engineering and operations. This will help align our technical staff and ensure greater consistency across the organization. And, as I mentioned earlier in this note, the newscasters, who were part of Peter’s team, will join the news division.

In addition to this shift, the station will be automated overnight, as it has been throughout most of the COVID crisis. That means, aside from special circumstances, the last local newscast will be at 10 p.m. weekdays and 7 p.m. on weekends.

Only a Game

After 27 years, Only a Game will end its run this fall. Executive Producer Karen Given along with founding members Gary Waleik and former host Bill Littlefield — had an amazing  journey producing public radio’s only sports program, featuring highly-produced narrative storytelling and reaching more than 360,000 listeners each week on 260 stations. This is the end of an era for WBUR and I look forward to recognizing those who made this show such a meaningful part of public radio weekends for so many years.

More Staffing News

After nearly 30 years at WBUR, Sam Fleming is ready to pass the baton. He wants to spend more time with his wife who lives on Martha’s Vineyard. Sam let me know his plans long before I stepped into my role in January. Thankfully, he promised to stick around as long as he is needed and I’ve asked him to help me with this transition and importantly to work on WBUR’s ethical guidelines. Sam will begin working part time next month and, whether virtually or in person, we will give him a fitting farewell.

Organizational Structure

Right now I have more than a dozen people reporting to me. In the long run that’s not tenable. But given budget constraints, I will hold off on additional senior hires. It is more important to shore up other parts of the organization. This will be a good opportunity to see the newly structured team in action. If there are significant gaps, we will add positions when we have the resources to do so. But I’m going to be conservative on that front for now.

Some Final Thoughts

Organizational changes of this magnitude are hard. But they are also necessary to ensure that we are financially sound and in fighting shape to deliver on big ambitions. This is a two step process. First, we had to deal with the current financial reality and make the necessary organizational changes. Next, we will begin to lay out our strategy and chart our path forward.

To those who are leaving, I’m sorry that you are departing at this difficult moment in the country and the world. I’m enormously grateful for the years that you have devoted to making WBUR such an exceptional place. You will exit with my profound gratitude and a promise to build on the legacy you leave behind.

To those who are staying — thank you for all you’re doing to keep WBUR strong. Your work has never been more consequential. That is what gives us the stamina and resolve to press on — even during the hardest hours. We play a vital role in Boston and beyond. Serving the public. Reporting the truth. Enriching lives. It is a galvanizing cause —  one that is impossible to equal.

Margaret Low
Chief Executive Officer, WBUR

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Flashback: Emily Rooney and public broadcasting in 1997

On Feb. 6, 1997, just after the debut of “Greater Boston” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2), I wrote an article for The Boston Phoenix on the state of the city’s two major public broadcasters, WGBH and WBUR. It was the first time I’d met the host, Emily Rooney. The original is online here, but, as you will see, it’s unreadable; thus, I have reproduced it in full below. In re-reading it, I was struck by what an interesting moment in time that was, with many of the same names and issues still with us 17 years later.

Making waves

With commercial stations going lowbrow, Boston’s public broadcasters are fine-tuning their strategies. The question: are WGBH & WBUR doing their duty?

Copyright © 1997 by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.

GB_largeplayerEmily Rooney is taping the intro to a segment of WGBH-TV’s new local public-affairs show, Greater Boston. Or trying to, anyway. It’s been a long day. Her feet are killing her. And her first few attempts at hyping an interview with Charles Murray, the controversial academic who’s currently promoting his new book on libertarianism, haven’t gone particularly well.

After several tries, though, she nails it. “That was warmer,” says a voice in the control room. “That was very nice.”

She sighs, visibly relieved at getting a break from the unblinking eye of the lens.

Rooney, the former news director of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), may be a respected newswoman, but the debut of Greater Boston last week showed that her transition to an on-camera role is going to take some time. And if Rooney and Greater Boston are struggling to find their voice, so, too, is WGBH.

This is, after all, the first significant foray into local public-affairs programming for WGBH (Channels 2 and 44, plus a radio station) since 1991, when it canceled The Ten O’Clock News. The new show is a huge improvement over the one it replaces, The Group, an unmoderated roundtable discussion that rose from the ashes of the News. (“A tawdry, pathetic little show,” huffs one industry observer of The Group, widely derided as “The Grope.”) Still, Greater Boston is going to need some work. Week One’s topics, which included the Super Bowl and cute animals, were too light and fluffy to qualify the show as a must-watch. And Rooney, who doubles as Greater Boston‘s executive editor, needs to overcome her on-the-set jitters.

It’s crucial that ’GBH get it right. With commercial broadcasters in full retreat from serious news and public affairs, public-broadcasting stations are the last redoubt. Boston’s two major public stations — WGBH-TV and WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) — are among the most admired in the country. It’s by no means clear, however, that the people who run those stations are willing or able to fill the gap created by the commercial stations’ retreat into sensationalism and frivolity. Continue reading “Flashback: Emily Rooney and public broadcasting in 1997”