WBUR offers employee buyouts to help cut $4 million from budget

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WBUR announced employee buyouts Tuesday in an effort to close a multimillion-dollar budget deficit and reduce the number of layoffs needed in coming months.

In a letter to employees, Chief Executive Margaret Low said the Boston NPR affiliate needs to cut at least $4 million in expenses, or roughly 10% of its budget, through job cuts and other cost-cutting measures. She did not say how many jobs the station plans to eliminate.

Low said in an interview that WBUR must trim expenses even as its audience grows, because of a decline in sponsorships and a shift in the media landscape that has social media sites and internet giants vacuuming up massive amounts of advertising dollars.

“WBUR has never been stronger,” Low said, but “the business has never been harder.”

The station is just the latest in a slew of news organizations to announce job cuts this year, citing a drop in revenue from ads and business sponsorships.

Another public radio station, Colorado Public Radio, eliminated 15 jobs earlier this month in its audio production and podcast units. WAMU, the public radio station in Washington, D.C., let go of 15 workers and closed its DCist website. NPR cut 10% of its staff last year.

Other news organizations also have felt the pinch – from TV stations to online news outlets and newspapers. NBC News, the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Time, Sports Illustrated, The Intercept and Vice Media are among those rolling out job cuts this year. The Messenger, an online news site with hundreds of employees, abruptly shut down in February, less than a year after its launch.

Nationally, news organizations announced plans to slash more than 1,700 jobs in January and February, nearly double the tally from the same two-month period last year, according to the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

In a letter to donors earlier this month, WBUR’s chief executive said the station’s underwriting, or on-air sponsorship revenue, has dropped $7 million in the past five years, a decline of more than 40%. Low said other public radio stations are facing similar challenges.

WBUR has already frozen some open positions and looked for ways to trim expenses. But it hasn’t been enough to balance the budget. Low said the station ultimately will need to make an unspecified number of layoffs, but hopes to reduce that number through the voluntary buyouts.

The company will offer full-time or part-time employees who work a regular weekly schedule one week of severance and health benefits for every year they have worked at WBUR or Boston University (which holds WBUR’s license), plus an additional four weeks of pay. Workers who take the offer will remain with the station until May 10.

Ahead of the announcement, the SAG-AFTRA union met with Low and suggested furloughs, buyouts and other ways to avert layoffs. The union represents about half of WBUR’s 220 employees.

SAG-AFTRA chief negotiator Mary Cavallaro in a statement Tuesday said the union was “very appreciative of Margaret Low’s willingness to engage in meaningful discussions with the union to address WBUR’s financial situation.” She also said, “We are hopeful that these conversations will continue and that we can work collaboratively with management to ensure the sustainability of WBUR and the critical work that its employees perform every day.”

WBUR last announced significant job cuts in the spring of 2020, in a reoganization in the early months of the pandemic. At that time, WBUR let go of 29 employees, more than 10% of its staff. It also ended its nationally syndicated sports show “Only a Game” and the “Kind World” podcast.

Despite the budget challenges, WBUR’s chief executive has told employees and donors that the station is thriving in many ways.

For more than a year, WBUR has been the top-rated news/talk station in Greater Boston, ahead of WBZ and fellow NPR affiliate GBH, according to Nielsen ratings.  And over the past two years, WBUR has climbed to 3rd place from 7th among all radio stations in the region. WBUR trailed only 98.5 the Sports Hub and adult contemporary station Magic 106.7.

“Our audience is growing,” Low said, on air, online and in person. She said attendance has been strong and growing for events at WBUR’s CitySpace venue since the pandemic.

The station continues to produce award-winning journalism and has launched new initiatives, including The Common daily podcast in late 2022 and the Newcomer’s Field Guide To Boston. It is also in the middle of a $9 million effort, called Catapult, to update its brand and build a new database system to better track supporters. The latter effort is funded separately from its operating budget.

WBUR relies on members and other donors for the lion’s share of its funding. Underwriting accounted for nearly one-quarter of its revenue last year. The station receives just 3% of its money from federal funds through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Low said the station will continue to look for ways to boost its fundraising. But it will ultimately still need to make an unspecified number of layoffs.

“Our goal is to reduce as few jobs as possible and to make sure that the journalism remains strong,” Low said.

This story has been updated with a union comment and other details.

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.

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