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New York Public Radio Fires 20 Staff as High-Paid Executives Refuse to Cut Their Six-Figure Salaries

"It is not a good use of any of our time, looking in the rearview mirror and trying to figure out where we should place blame," New York Public Radio's CEO told staff on Friday.

6:52 PM EDT on October 6, 2023

On Thursday, more than a week after New York Public Radio President and CEO LaFontaine Oliver alerted employees at WNYC/Gothamist and WQXR, its classical music station, that layoffs were imminent, the public media company fired twenty staff members and cut two podcasts from its studio division. Staff members who worked on the station's "More Perfect" podcast, which covered the Supreme Court, as well as "La Brega," which covered Puerto Rican culture, were let go by the company. Laid off staffers have expressed hope another company will pick up the programs, but WNYC will no longer produce the shows. 

Four additional staffers took voluntary buyouts negotiated by their union, while two other employees were reassigned. The cuts came as the station is reckoning with declining sponsorship revenue, a downturn in podcast ad sales, and a decline in large donations from philanthropists. NYPR executives told staffers that they faced a $10 million budget deficit that would have to be made up—and that these cuts would not be enough to fully close the shortfall. 

The terminations would get the station to “a much smaller deficit,” said Armando Gutierrez, NYPR’s chief financial officer, but one still in the millions of dollars.

Management also told staff members that new donations to the station would not be used to close the gap, because donors wanted their money to go toward growth, not to cover the budget shortfall. 

Donations "should give the organization the ability to grow and to expand and to do good work, but it should not plug deficits," said CEO Oliver. 

During an off-the-record virtual all-staff meeting on Friday morning, a recording of which Hell Gate reviewed, reporters and editors at the station questioned why management allowed the budget gap to grow so large, and why management continued to bring on new hires even as the budget gap increased. At the same time, employees voiced their frustration that while journalists were losing their jobs, no one in management was facing a pay cut.

CEO Oliver responded that "executive pay did get cut."

Oliver, however, was referring to NYPR's annual bonuses for executives. 

"When we take away from anybody’s bonus, whether it is a senior executive or mid-level manager, or anyone who has that as a part of their compensation, we are in fact affecting their take-home," Oliver told staffers. "And you know, for some, that might feel unsatisfactory, because there’s an idea that bonus is like, it’s the gravy or it’s the icing on the cake. And that’s not the case."

According to its most recent tax filings, several executives at NYPR were making annual salaries of over half a million dollars in 2022, not including bonuses. 

In response to questions about hiring decisions over the past few months, which left the station with more staff than it could afford, Oliver said that management was not going to dwell on its mistakes. 

"It is not a good use of any of our time, looking in the rearview mirror and trying to figure out where we should place blame," Oliver told staff. "Every organization, every organization’s leadership team, we make decisions based on the information we have at the time. Do I think that perhaps one of those missteps could have been the spike in hiring? Perhaps. But we weren’t the only organization that did that."

During the meeting, employees also noted that among those laid off at the company, 57 percent were people of color. 

NYPR staff are represented by SAG-AFTRA, which pushed for alternatives to the layoffs, including a furlough program similar to one implemented at the CITY, which is also facing financial challenges. But executives at NYPR refused to entertain most of these alternatives to staff cuts, and instead only worked with the union to identify employees who would be amenable to buyouts. During negotiations, according to the union, lawyers for NYPR said any proposals for executive pay cuts would not be considered. 

In a statement, union stewards wrote that they were "devastated by the loss of jobs, including good union jobs, at New York Public Radio," and that they were especially disappointed that NYPR refused to share any financial information "on the company’s finances and strategic plan." The union stopped short of pursuing any coordinated actions like a work stoppage, instead opting to negotiate for better outcomes for employees who were being laid off or wanted a buyout. The union has made a legal request for information on the company's current financial situation. 

During Friday's meeting, Oliver defended the lack of transparency surrounding NYPR's finances by saying that being more open with the union would put the organization at "risk," and that it was "not feasible to make decisions with hundreds of people."

In a memo to staff on Thursday, Oliver wrote that the cuts to WNYC Studios were part of a strategic refocus on daily reporting, and away from "new seasons of our short-run and seasonal podcast-only titles," like "La Brega." No WNYC/Gothamist reporter positions were cut during this round of layoffs. This spring, the number of newsroom staff ballooned, especially mid-level editorial positions. 

The cuts to the studio's podcast division reflects an industry-wide inflection point, as the proliferation of podcasts has made competition for sponsors brutally competitive. Podcast companies have been slashing positions or folding entirely, amidst a reported downturn in advertising revenue. 

Oliver also bemoaned the fact that he felt that the podcast division was far too invested in creating podcasts the newsroom wanted to hear, and not what New Yorkers wanted to hear. 

"I know that's probably hard for some of you all to hear, because you think that we've been audience-focused, but we have not, we have been much more internally focused," Oliver said. "And we have to put the audience at the center of what we are doing."

Oliver appeared to be blaming staff for producing shows that don’t resonate with a large audience. But the decisions of which shows to produce lies with management—until recently, that was WNYC's chief content officer, Andrew Golis, who made roughly $500,000 a year until he left the company in September. New York Public Radio said it has no plans to replace him at this time. 

During the all-staff meeting, one WNYC/Gothamist reporter pointed out that much of management's rhetoric sounded as if it came from the corporate world, and did not fit into the station's nonprofit ethos. 

Oliver responded, "I know that for some, this feels like corporate or it feels like it's not family, but someone I really respect said to me a number of years ago when I got into this business, nonprofit is our tax status, it is not our business model. Without margin, there is no mission."

—Additional reporting contributed by Nick Pinto

This post has been updated with additional information provided after publication by New York Public Radio.

Full disclosure: I'm one of three Hell Gate worker-owners who have worked for Gothamist/WNYC on a freelance basis in the past. A fourth worker-owner, who had no part in editing this story, was an editor and union shop steward at Gothamist until 2021.

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