Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Would you pay to be able to quit TikTok and Instagram? You’d be surprised how many would
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
June 23, 2020, 12:05 p.m.

Amid cutbacks in public radio, WBUR faces questions about revenue, unionizing, and diversity

“Ultimately, we need to be able to monetize audio in all its platforms, in all its forms. As we think about how to move forward, we want our thinking about podcasts to be something that the entire organization is invested in.”

Last week was a particularly rough one for public radio, with three organizations announcing layoffs and show cancellations due to economic strain and budget shortfalls caused by the pandemic.

On Wednesday, American Public Media/Minnesota Public Radio said it was laying off 28 staffers, ending The Hilarious World of Depression podcast and ending production of Live From Here.

Soon after that, Chicago Public Media also announced layoffs, noting that it was letting go of 12 staffers and that it was ending production of Sound Opinions.

The next day, Boston-based WBUR announced it, too, was making cuts. The station is laying off over 10 percent of its staff, totalling 29 workers, and it’s also ending production on two shows: Kind World, which will wrap its run in July, and Only a Game, its long-running weekly sports magazine program.

(WBUR also announced that Modern Love, its highly popular podcast produced in partnership with The New York Times, is being brought fully in-house by the Times. A bit of separate thing; more on that in a bit.)

Paced so close together, these developments paint a brutal picture of how the pandemic is affecting public radio, which has already seen regular furloughs both within NPR and at stations across the country. If you’re curious about the timing for these three announcements, consider the fiscal calendar.

One of the biggest stations in the public radio system, WBUR has long been notable for its alumni network of podcast talents — among them The New York Times’ Lisa Tobin as well as Rococo Punch’s Jessica Alpert and John Perrotti, whom I should note I work with on my podcast — as well as its myriad podcast efforts over the years, which include current programs like Endless Thread and Circle Round along with older shows like Last Seen and Edge of Fame. All of which is to say that I’m uniquely interested in the context, substance, and possible consequences of the cuts at WBUR.

Three things stood out to me. First, as WBUR’s own reporting noted, the announcements came shortly after the station reached its first tentative collective bargaining agreement with the union representing reporters and producers — but before it was finalized.

Secondly, the cuts at WBUR ran deep, with several newsroom leaders laid off as part of the restructure, including executive news director Tom Melville, digital managing director John Davidow, and director of operations and production Peter Lydotes. But as WBUR’s report also noted, 7 of the 8 staffers being brought up to new leadership roles are white, stark optics at a time where newsrooms across the country are publicly reckoning with issues of racial equity.

Finally, all three of the shows that WBUR is losing are significant in their own ways. Since the announcement, I’ve heard from multiple people about how Only a Game was an exceptionally generous gate-keeping production, serving as a reliable source of first-story credits for young producers looking to start building a resume. Kind World is a fascinating story: a show with a humanist ethos hosted by two women of color, Andrea Asuaje and Yasmin Amer, the podcast started out as an experimental project in 2012 and would go on to win multiple awards across its run.

And then there’s Modern Love, which some view as WBUR’s flagship podcast. That change is different from what’s happening to the other two shows; I’m told that plans for the Times to fully take over the podcast have been in the works for a while and that the announcement was just lumped in together with these broader shakeups. But its extraction from WBUR, combined with cessation of Kind Word and Only a Game, collectively contribute to a broader question regarding the organization’s position: Acknowledging that everything’s a mess in the media business right now due to the pandemic, how does WBUR think about its future in the wake of all these cuts?

I had the opportunity to speak with WBUR CEO and general manager Margaret Low — who stepped into the role in January, replacing Charlie Kravitz — about the cuts late last week, though I should say the conversation came out of a slight miscommunication. Low had jumped on the call thinking that we were primarily going to talk about Modern Love; I had already gotten what I needed on that story. But Low was willing enough to discuss a number of other issues related to the deep restructure, and I appreciated her participation.

Hot Pod: Given that the cuts involved ending production on Kind World and Only a Game, which is a radio show that’s also distributed as a podcast, what do those cuts mean for podcasting at WBUR in general?

Margaret Low: Those are two different decisions that were part of the same thinking: As we move forward and figure out what our ambitions are, we have to make choices around what we want to keep doing and what we need to stop doing in order to pay for the ambitions we have. For 27 years, Only a Game was a beautifully-produced narrative journalism show about sports — the only sports show in public radio — and it really became a powerful feature on public radio weekends. It has a lot of fans. It’s always hard to stop producing something…but the economics just didn’t hold up to keep producing the show.

As you mentioned, we’re also ending Kind World. We still think about podcasts as part of a huge opportunity around on-demand audio…but ultimately, we need to be able to monetize audio in all its platforms, in all its forms. As we think about how to move forward, we want our thinking about podcasts to be something that the entire organization is invested in.

Hot Pod: Are you saying, then, that WBUR has difficulties monetizing podcasts right now?

Low: We had not been monetizing podcasts in a way that we hoped to do.

Hot Pod: How so?

Low: One of the duties about being a noncommercial organization is that there are things you do for mission, and there are things you do to create revenue that allow you to do everything else you need to do. So we want to build new muscle in raising revenue around on-demand audio and podcasts — and we’re also asking, from an editorial and creative point of view, what’s going to be the return on investment for this?

Hot Pod: So am I hearing correctly that there wasn’t sufficient infrastructure to support the monetization of WBUR’s podcasts?

Low: That’s fair to say. We need to build that and will. This is an area we’re invested in, and I think we need to look at what the next chapter of our podcast ambitions are.

Hot Pod: I’d like to ask about the timing for the layoffs, which came before the union agreement was finalized. That timing stood out to a lot of people.

Low: We’ve been negotiating for more than a year — and, Nick, I stepped in [to the job] five months ago. I walked in after the union had been negotiating for seven months, and we had just reached a tentative agreement. Last week, I had to get a July 2021 budget done, and there was a tremendous amount of anxiety around cuts and what they meant and we wanted to get that done as quickly as possible. And when we made the decision that we announced yesterday, there was nothing in the union contracts that wasn’t honored.

You know, the combination of a pandemic, union negotiations, budget cuts, and a great reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s killing — everything collided at once, and it became a very tense moment. While these kinds of cuts are never easy, we needed to let people know sooner than later, and we didn’t know when the contract was going to get ratified. The union was aware that the cuts were coming.

Hot Pod: There’s been quite a bit of reckoning around racial equity in newsrooms, and I think there’s some sensitivity around the cancellation of Kind World, which is hosted by two women of color. As the chief executive of WBUR, how are you thinking through both improving racial equity in the organization while navigating the economic consequences of the pandemic?

Low: Racial equity in the country and at WBUR are paramount to me. I’ve only been here five months, and it’s going to take some time to address the systemic inequities that we’ve seen across the nation. Honestly, at WBUR, there’s been a historic lack of diversity, and as I said in my note, it’s no longer enough to invoke a commitment to diversity and inclusion — we actually need to undertake a much deeper and more thorough examination of the inequality that people of color have been felt and finally begin to rectify it. I don’t begin to have all the answers, but it’s something that I am committed to addressing in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead.

For things to change, I believe, as the CEO of WBUR, that it absolutely has to come from the top. It’s not just about hiring — it’s about the culture, it’s about cracking wide open conversations and issues that have been longstanding, and addressing it with a seriousness of purpose, urgency, and deep belief that we can get it right. Ultimately, WBUR has to look and sound like the people of Boston and beyond.

The cuts I announced yesterday, while hard, give us headroom to make new hires as we position ourselves on two critical issues: a historic lack of diversity at WBUR, and also changes in technology that are upending the way media is consumed and creating profound economic challenges for news organizations of all kinds.

The cuts we made are modest compared to what we’ve seen in news organizations around the country — you know, close to 40,000 journalists have been forced to take pay cuts, or are furloughed, or have been laid off since the onset of the pandemic. While COVID-19 certainly contributed to the need for cuts, the changes I announced yesterday were part of a larger restructuring that I believe is essential if we’re going to ensure that WBUR remains a vital and vibrant source of local news coverage despite the pressures of the moment.

The quality of our coverage is why the community has rallied to our side and helped us keep membership and development dollars flowing in, even as the economy has taken a huge hit and many of our corporate sponsors have been forced to cut back on spending. We are unwavering in our commitment to journalism, to audio, to the fullest expression of our work on every platform.

This can’t be a story of retrenchment. This is a story of doubling down on our ambitions, and I have been in awe of our journalists in the midst of a pandemic that turned everybody’s lives upside down, they’ve been galvanized by that story and are covering it with a sophistication and depth, and then came the killing of George Floyd and everything that unfolded after that. The work has been magnificent, and I just want to say that WBUR, despite the need to make some hard decisions, is not going to let up on any front.

This Q&A was part of this week’s Hot Pod newsletter; you can find the rest of the newsletter here.

Photo of the Boston skyline by Osman Rana.

POSTED     June 23, 2020, 12:05 p.m.
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Would you pay to be able to quit TikTok and Instagram? You’d be surprised how many would
“The relationship he has uncovered is more like the co-dependence seen in a destructive relationship, or the way we relate to addictive products such as tobacco that we know are doing us harm.”
BREAKING: The ways people hear about big news these days; “into a million pieces,” says source
The New York Times and the Washington Post compete with meme accounts for the chance to be first with a big headline.
In 1924, a magazine ran a contest: “Who is to pay for broadcasting and how?” A century later, we’re still asking the same question
Radio Broadcast received close to a thousand entries to its contest — but ultimately rejected them all.