WBUR cuts up to 14% of staff, including buyouts and layoffs

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WBUR, one of the nation’s largest NPR affiliates, announced plans Wednesday to cut as much as 14% of its staff through a combination of buyouts and layoffs over the next two months.

The Boston public radio station said the job cuts are part of an effort to reduce expenses by $4 million, about 10% of its annual budget, to help offset a steep decline in on-air sponsorships, also known as underwriting.

WBUR said it plans to lay off seven employees by the end of June, three of whom are part-time, and will eliminate nine vacant positions. Two dozen additional employees have applied for voluntary buyouts, including several senior managers.

“We didn’t have a choice financially,” WBUR Chief Executive Margaret Low said. “We ultimately need to make as much money as we’re spending.”

WBUR also plans to make some programming changes to trim costs, including wrapping up local on-air news updates earlier at night and converting a daily podcast, The Common, to a weekly schedule. But it has no plans to eliminate any shows.

Low said the goal is to maintain the news organization’s strong reach and award-winning journalism, despite the financial headwinds. WBUR has become the top-rated news station in Boston and its national programs and CitySpace events continue to grow their audiences.

“We want to preserve the quality of the journalism and to keep the programming strong,” Low said.

Amelia Mason, a reporter and a steward for the SAG-AFTRA union, which represents about half of WBUR’s 220 employees, said she was glad WBUR reduced the number of layoffs by offering buyouts. But she wished the organization had considered additional measures, such as furloughs or eliminating raises, to avoid layoffs altogether.

“Today has been a difficult day for everyone at WBUR,” Mason said in a statement. “Our thoughts are with all of our colleagues who have been told that their job is being eliminated.”

“We want to preserve the quality of the journalism and to keep the programming strong.”

Margaret Low, WBUR CEO

The layoffs and buyouts will affect departments across WBUR, including business operations and the local newsroom. But Low said the ultimate impact on headcount will likely narrow as some people may change their mind about taking a buyout by the deadline next week. In addition, some people who are slated to be laid off could be hired for other positions at the station. WBUR may also hire additional people to replace some employees who opt for buyouts.

Other public media stations across the country also have cut expenses to offset significant declines in underwriting and other sources of revenue. KQED, the public radio and television station in San Francisco, announced buyouts this week and warned it might need to enact a job freeze or layoffs.

Last month, Colorado Public Radio cut 15 jobs in its audio production and podcast divisions. WAMU in Washington, D.C., laid off 15 employees and archived its DCist website in February. And NPR trimmed 10% of its workforce last year.

“It just feels like there have been more of these announcements about layoffs in recent months than we’ve seen in some time,” said Mike Janssen, digital editor for Current, an industry publication that covers public broadcasting.

Industrywide, more job cuts could be coming. GBH, Boston’s other major public media organization, said it hasn’t ruled out layoffs to cope with rising costs.

“Like many other media outlets, GBH is facing financial headwinds,” GBH Chief Executive Susan Goldberg said in a written statement. “We are looking at a variety of ways to address this.”

Public media stations have cited a mix of reasons for the financial issues, but declines in corporate underwriting are among the most common. WBUR’s Low recently told donors the station’s on-air sponsorship revenue declined by $7 million over the past five years, a drop of more than 40% as advertising dollars have shifted to social media and other online sites.

The challenges aren’t unique to public media. Newspapers, television stations and online news outlets have all struggled to cope with a decline in advertising and other traditional revenue streams, like print subscriptions.

Nationwide, news organizations cut more than 2,100 jobs through the first three months of this year, up 48% from the same quarter of 2023, according to the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

The WBUR layoffs mark the second time in four years the station has cut staff. WBUR let go about 10% of its staff in 2020 and ended its nationally syndicated sports show “Only a Game” and the “Kind World” podcast.

Public radio stations also have faced a long-term decline in traditional radio listeners as people spend less time commuting in their cars and increasingly listen to internet streaming instead. “I think it’s fair to say that public media is facing some troubling trends that need to be solved,” said Janssen of Current.

Even as WBUR faces the same challenges, it says its audience remains strong. Overall, WBUR was the third-highest rated station in Greater Boston in March, up from ninth back in 2020. In the latest Nielsen report, WBUR trailed only 98.5 The Sports Hub and 105.7 WROR, a classic- hits music station.

WBUR said it would provide laid-off workers with four weeks of severance, plus an extra week for each year they spent at the station. Those employees will also receive 60 days notice and have the opportunity to apply for open jobs at the station.

Some WBUR staff expressed concern there could be additional job cuts in the future if the station’s financial picture doesn’t improve. “We had layoffs in 2020 and four years later, we’re having another round,” said Mason, the union steward. “So yes, we were concerned that this could happen again.”

Low said the job cuts won’t completely eliminate the station’s deficit, but she hopes to gradually erase the shortfall by increasing revenue over the next few years.

“My goal is this is the last layoff I ever have to do at WBUR,” she said.

“My goal is this is the last layoff I ever have to do at WBUR.”

Margaret Low, WBUR CEO

Low told employees the spring fundraising season has brought in twice as much revenue as last year, a potentially good sign for the future. The organization also is experimenting with new ways to boost revenue.

That includes adding personal requests for donations at the end of online articles, something some other news organizations do. And it recently launched a membership program for a popular new podcast, Beyond All Repair, that includes an ad-free stream, early access to later episodes and bonus episodes.

Low said she wanted to avoid deeper cuts at this time in order to preserve the quality of WBUR’s programs. “We believed that the $4 million in cost reductions was as much as WBUR could bear,” she said. “We don’t want to diminish what WBUR offers.”

In addition to the job cuts, WBUR is also finding other ways to save costs. Low said she personally plans to take a 10% pay cut next year, something she did the last time she announced layoffs. And the organization is being mindful about spending in general, all the way down to what it spends on coffee.

WBUR relies primarily on donations and grants for revenue, as well as underwriting and licensing fees. Only 3% of WBUR’s budget comes from federal funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Editor’s note: WBUR’s Todd Wallack reported this story, and WBUR’s Beth Healy is the story editor. Under standard practices for reporting on WBUR, no other BU or WBUR staff were allowed to review the story before publication.

This story was updated to include additional union comment.

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