Updated Feb 23, 2023 at 8:28 am ET
NPR’s chief executive said the network would lay off about 10 percent of its current workforce — at least 100 people — and shed most of the vacant positions. CEO John Lansing cited the erosion of ad dollars, particularly for NPR podcasts, and the difficult financial outlook for the media industry more broadly.
“When we say we’re eliminating positions, we’re talking about our colleagues — people whose skills, wit and talents help make NPR what it is today,” Lansing wrote in a memo to staff today. “This will be a great loss.”
With an annual budget of about $300 million, Lansing says, revenue is likely to fall by nearly $30 million, though that gap could reach $32 million.
“We don’t see any signs of recovery in the advertising market,” says Lansing in an interview. “Nothing is defined yet except principles and what we know we need to achieve.”
The layoffs are in line with an increasingly bleak landscape for media companies in recent months. Vox Media Cuts Jobs 7%; Gannett and Spotify by 6%. The Washington Post, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has done away with its Sunday magazine and a handful of other jobs. After joining Warner Bros. Discovery, CNN cut hundreds of jobs and killed its newest streaming service, CNN+.
Even tech companies that rely heavily on advertising are experiencing layoffs. Amazon, Google, Meta and Microsoft have announced more than 50,000 job cuts combined in the past few months alone. Yet the prospects for the tech and media industries are at odds with a tight job market and low unemployment more generally.
No details on which jobs will be cut
NPR’s programming division, which produces its industry-leading podcasts, has more than doubled in size since 2019. Lansing says it remains committed to “1,000 percent” podcasting, as well as the network’s signature news magazines, such as Morning edition AND All things considered.
Lansing says she doesn’t yet know who within NPR will be affected, but said the job cuts won’t evenly affect the organization.
“I don’t anticipate that it would be like a haircut in every division, because it’s just not management,” says Lansing. “Management is about engaging in strategy, making tough decisions.”
He also vowed to make sure the job cuts don’t fall disproportionately on black employees.
An NPR spokeswoman said final decisions on which jobs will be eliminated should take place by the week of March 20.
When asked about her priorities, Lansing invoked what she called the network’s “northern star” since her arrival in the fall of 2019 — a push to ensure the network has an increasingly large audience base rooted in younger, more diverse listeners. , readers and consumers. The emphasis, he says, must be on attracting “the future audience to make NPR viable for the next 50 years.”
The layoffs come after a near-total freeze on hiring, travel and internships
Lansing, a former top television executive for EW Scripps Co., says whenever an economic slowdown seems imminent, marketing budgets are slashed. (On NPR’s radio side, advertising takes the form of a subscription, as corporate sponsors are not allowed to call listeners to purchase goods or services.)
Last year, the network brought in $134 million in that business subscription, a record built on strong growth in podcasting revenue in recent years. Fearing a tepid economy, Lansing and his corporate team expected revenue to remain flat for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
Within a few weeks, Lansing became convinced that screening would be unattainable. In late November, the network announced $20 million in cuts, including a near-hire freeze, eliminating most travel, and suspending internships.
Lansing says that too has come across as overly optimistic.
“We were doing everything we could go against the grain, and we couldn’t keep reducing our costs as revenue kept declining,” says Lansing. “And eventually we got to the point where there was really nothing we could cut big enough to fill a hole like that.”
In setting up the first rounds of NPR budget cuts a couple of months ago, Lansing consulted in advance with union leaders representing NPR workers with the goal of avoiding any layoffs. He received praise for doing so and says he briefed SAG-AFTRA leaders on Tuesday about the upcoming job cuts. The union represents 570 people at NPR. Pat O’Donnell, the executive director of the union’s Mid-Atlantic unit, could not be reached for comment on this story.
Remember the layoffs during the 2008 financial crisis
The last time NPR faced such stark choices was 2008. During that financial crisis, NPR shut down shows and fired scores of people. For several years, he has eliminated wage increases and suspended pension contributions. NPR’s total workforce has grown approximately 50% since before that crisis.
During the pandemic, NPR sidestepped layoffs through temporary cuts in pay and pension contributions, distributed with the aim of protecting lower-paying employees, so they were felt most sharply by higher-paying employees and executives. This time around, Lansing says he’s not sure the money will come back anytime soon, so the network and its board need to plan more strategically.
When announcing the previous cuts last fall, Lansing said the network would have to make tough choices and “do less with less.” Now, he says, he must raise more creative sources of income, such as licensing the popular show How I built it to Amazon’s streaming services, which he says generates $8 million a year.
NPR aims to work more efficiently with local public radio stations
NPR undertook a strategic reorganization last fall, restoring the position of chief content officer who oversees both the newsroom and programming division. The newsroom currently has just under 490 people, while programming has grown to 230. That content executive position has not yet been filled; its creation led to the departure of then NPR news chief executive Nancy Barnes.
Such distinctions between news and programming are difficult, however, because programming oversees podcasts, including those that perform journalistic functions, such as Code change, It’s been a minute, planet money, AND Bottom line. New podcasts First, consider this AND State of Ukraine sit on both sides.
Lansing has also invested significantly in what it calls the NPR network, which calls for a greater unity of coverage and digital initiatives, such as newsletters, streaming, podcasts and more. It is intended to align the strategy of its often feuding member stations with each other and NPR itself and allow NPR, for the first time, to digitally raise funds from its audience in concert with those stations.
“A really important strategic vector that we’ll be talking about more within the company going forward is maximizing the value of content wherever it lives and wherever audiences demand it,” NPR chief operating officer Will Lee said in an interview. “What we’ve shown with podcasting is that we can take some of our core news assets and we can build new formats and new programming around them and actually reach new audiences. And I think we need to extend that lead.”
“It’s always difficult in these situations, and I don’t want to downplay the impact that will have on our colleagues and in some cases, you know, our ability to do what we do,” Lee says. “However, when you think about how we look at the long-term, right, not just 20 years, but several years, it’s really about building a sustainable financial future for NPR.”
Disclosure: This story was reported and written by NPR Media correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by Acting Chief Business Editor Emily Kopp. Per NPR’s self-reporting protocol, no corporate officials or news executives reviewed this story before it was publicly released.