Economy Forces Staffing Cuts at NPR

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008

Faced with a sharp decline in revenue, National Public Radio said Wednesday it will pare back its programming and institute its first organization-wide layoffs in 25 years.

Washington-based NPR said it would lay off about 7 percent of its workforce and eliminate two daily programs produced out of its facilities in Culver City, Calif. The shows are "Day to Day," which was aimed at younger listeners, and the newsmaker-interview program "News & Notes," which NPR hoped would attract African Americans.

The cutback of 64 of NPR's 889 employees is designed to close a $23 million shortfall in the operation's current fiscal year, Dennis Haarsager, NPR's interim president and chief executive, said in an interview. The cuts will affect all departments, including reporters, producers, researchers and digital media employees.

Some of those losing their jobs are veteran NPR voices, such as Ketzel Levine, an NPR reporter since 1977, and Vicky O'Hara, an editor and former diplomatic correspondent with 26 years on the job. Others include "News & Notes" host Farai Chideya, "Day to Day" host Madeleine Brand, Washington reporter Libby Lewis, entertainment-industry correspondent Kim Masters and national reporter John McChesney. About half the 64 people cut are journalists.

"Anyone who's processing what's going on on this planet right now has no reason to be surprised by this," said Levine, who noted that her series on how Americans are surviving the economic downturn debuted Monday and Tuesday on NPR's "Morning Edition." She said that if editors allow it, she will make a final installment of the series about the experience of losing her own job.

Until very recently, NPR had escaped the worst of the shrinking economy, finishing its last fiscal year in September on budget, with operating revenues of about $158 million. Its programs, especially "Morning Edition" and the daily "All Things Considered," have remained popular, reaching some 26 million listeners per week. In July, its executives were projecting revenue growth in the new fiscal year, and were considering expanding the nonprofit organization's staff.

But the bad news has caught up with NPR in the past few months, as all four of its major funding sources have taken hits, leading the organization to revise its financial projections downward. It projects revenue this year to fall to $145 million, an 8 percent decline.

NPR relies on corporate underwriting, membership fees from more than 800 public radio stations, donations from foundations and income from an internal endowment funded primarily by a $230 million bequest made by the late Joan Kroc, the widow of McDonald's mogul Ray Kroc, in 2003.

Underwriting -- the public broadcasting equivalent of advertising -- accounted for about 30 percent of NPR's annual budget, and is the most seriously impaired. In particular, the decline of support from companies in the entertainment, automotive and financial fields prompted NPR to cut its projected underwriting revenue from $47 million to $33 million this year, according to Dana Davis Rehm, NPR's senior vice president of strategy and partnerships.

At the same time, some of the stations that carry NPR's programming are themselves troubled, threatening NPR's fees from its member stations. For example, WBEZ-FM, a Chicago station that hosts production of the weekly program "This American Life," on Friday announced a round of layoffs amid expectations of a drop in revenue from pledge drives and other sources.

In July, NPR dropped a weekday news and features program called the "Bryant Park Project" after only six months on the air. The program, produced in New York City, was another attempt by NPR to attract a younger audience. But despite considerable investment, only five stations nationwide broadcast the program.

Combined with the elimination of "Day to Day" and "News & Notes," the cutbacks constitute a retreat from NPR's efforts to reach new listeners, especially young people and members of minority groups who are not part of NPR's "core" audience. The programs are carried on the Internet, but can be accessed on the radio in Washington only via WAMU's (88.5 FM) "high-definition" channel, which requires a special radio.

"Day to Day" is carried on 186 stations nationwide; "News & Notes" is on 64. Both will remain on the air until March.

NPR's diversification effort started in 2002 with the opening of NPR West, the organization's first major production facility outside of Washington and New York. The facility will remain open after the cutback, but with about half of its 60 employees.

The outreach to younger audiences was important because NPR's listeners, like many people interested in news, tend to be older -- around "45-plus," said Ruth Seymour, the general manager of KCRW-FM, a public station in Santa Monica, Calif.

Meanwhile, NPR will receive no income from Kroc's bequest this year because of declines in its investment value. Legal restrictions made reaching into that diminished pot of money difficult and investment advisers recommended against it. Kroc's gift had spun off about $10 million in revenue for NPR last year. NPR said it will make up the lost revenue by dipping into its reserves this year.

NPR had a modest staff cutback in 1996, according to Rehm. But she said the only comparable cut to this one was in 1983, amid a financial crisis at NPR, when it eliminated 27 percent of its employees.

Levine, who is based in Portland, Ore., said she knew things were changing when she sought to travel to report a story but was told such funds were being frozen. "I love NPR and this really won't change anything, but I wish I hadn't given $1,000 to my local [public radio] station [in its last pledge drive]. I could really use that money now."

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