NPR to offer employee buyouts

September 13, 2013

A brewing financial crisis is forcing NPR to make one of the largest staff reductions in its history — at a time when the radio and digital news organization had seemed to be on the upswing.

Washington-based NPR disclosed a buyout plan Friday that it hopes will reduce its 840-member payroll by about 10 percent over the next year. NPR said the buyout is necessary to close a persistent deficit, projected at $6 million in its upcoming fiscal year.

Until Friday’s news, NPR had escaped many of the worst effects of the Great Recession and the digital revolution that has laid low many media organizations.

In April, it opened its new headquarters building in the shadow of the Capitol, a $201 million edifice complete with in-house restaurant with an executive chef, health-care facilities, an employee gym and gift shop.

The audience for NPR’s news and entertainment programming, including “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” meanwhile, has chugged steadily upward, surpassing more than 26 million listeners per week. It has added to its domestic and international bureaus with a new outlet in Rio de Janeiro this year. And its journalists have reported extensively from the Middle East during the crises in Egypt and Syria. Among its new features is Code Switch, with regular reporting on race, ethnicity and culture.

But even with a $200 million bequest in 2003 from Joan Kroc, the late McDonald’s heiress, NPR has been unable to stave off deterioration in its finances and turnover in its executive suite.

Gary Knell, the current chief executive, has announced that he will leave to head the National Geographic Society when his two-year contract expires in November.

Knell has issued periodic warnings about the rising tide of red ink, which he has attributed to a decline in corporate “underwriting” — public broadcasting’s term for advertising.

“It’s a challenging time for everyone in our profession,” Scott Simon, the veteran NPR host, said Friday after employees were briefed on the buyout plan. “I’m struck by the confidence that our leadership has that voluntary buyouts will bring [NPR’s finances] back into line. I certainly hope so.”

NPR’s board also said it approved an interim replacement for Knell: Paul G. Haaga Jr., a former lawyer for the Securities and Exchange Commission and the retired chairman of the Investment Company Institute and of Capital Research and Management, an investment concern. He has been on NPR’s board since 2011.

The organization laid off 64 employees, or about 8 percent of its staff, in late 2008 and cut two programs to save money.

NPR receives less than 2 percent of its annual budget directly from federal funds but relies on dues from member stations that receive an average of 15 percent of their budgets from federal funds.

Separately, NPR disclosed in a tax filing Friday that it paid its former chief executive, Vivian Schiller, nearly $679,000 in salary and severance in 2011, after Schiller resigned following a 26-month tenure marked by two damaging episodes.

That disclosure, coupled with the buyout announcement, caused some “disgust” with upper management, said one longtime NPR employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is concerned about his job. “It’s no tribute to our leadership’s sagacity that they have to keep dealing with these kinds of ­self-created problems,” he said.

Schiller resigned amid pressure in March 2011 as NPR was dealing with the fallout from a video “sting” conducted by conservative activist James O’Keefe. He secretly recorded a meeting between two NPR fundraisers and two men posing as would-be NPR donors who indicated that they had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the recording, which O’Keefe released in a selectively edited form, the NPR representatives make disparaging remarks about tea party conservatives, appeared to endorse the idea that Jews control the news media and suggested that NPR could survive without its federal tax subsidy.

The recording renewed calls among conservatives to eliminate taxpayer support of public broadcasting, but Congress ultimately voted to continue spending about $450 million a year to help fund hundreds of public radio and TV stations, including NPR and PBS.

Schiller also oversaw the firing of longtime NPR analyst Juan Williams in October 2010 after Williams said on Fox News’s “The O’Reilly Factor” that he worried about people in “Muslim garb” when he got on an airplane.

Williams’s firing sparked criticism of NPR, much of it fanned by commentators on Fox News, where Williams was an analyst.

NPR paid Schiller $532,212 in severance and $99,671 in salary, plus a bonus of $5,712 and other miscellaneous compensation in 2011, the organization said in the filing, which is required of ­tax-exempt organizations.

It also paid Ellen Weiss, the news director Schiller forced to resign in the wake of the Williams debacle, $246,319 in severance that year.

NPR has had high turnover at the top of the organization since longtime chief executive Kevin Klose stepped down in 2006. Since that time, it has had five permanent and interim chief executives, none of whom has lasted longer than Schiller.

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