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Despite Growing Audience, NPR Cuts Programming, Staff Amid Economic Troubles

December 11, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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National Public Radio announced Wednesday that it will cancel two programs and lay off 64 staff members -- its first staff cuts in 25 years. Ellen Weiss, NPR's senior vice president for news, discusses the cuts and the recession's worsening effects on the media.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: NPR has been growing and gaining millions of listeners for many years. But now it, too, is feeling the squeeze amid the economic downturn.

Yesterday, the company announced it’s facing a $23 million budget shortfall for the current fiscal year, will cut its workforce by 7 percent, and, as of next March, cancel two daily programs, “News and Notes” and “Day to Day.”

With me to discuss the cuts is Ellen Weiss, NPR’s senior vice president for news.

Welcome to you.

ELLEN WEISS, National Public Radio: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: It had seemed to many of us that NPR was somehow immune from much of what was going on. How exactly is your budget impacted by the economic slowdown?

ELLEN WEISS: Well, the most important source of revenue for NPR is obviously from our member stations, and that comes from our listeners and our supporters. But the second most important part comes from sponsorship, from underwriting.

And anybody who’s been following the economic crisis these last couple months understands that the advertising market, the sponsorship market, has really slowed down, and eventually it hit NPR.

And it started to hit us this spring. And we tried to begin to make some decisions about how to position ourselves for 2009, but it just kept getting worse and worse and worse. And now it is projected to be $23 million. And that is a projection. You know, it’s our best guess right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, I think if people know much about your funding, they know about this huge, what do you call it, grant that you got…

ELLEN WEISS: Gift.

JEFFREY BROWN: … gift from Mrs. Kroc from the McDonald’s fortune, a lot of money. That does not shield you from a downturn like this?

ELLEN WEISS: No. And, you know, I can understand, because the Kroc gift obviously was incredibly generous, and we were very fortunate to receive it.

But the fact is that most of the Kroc gift is an endowment. And through all sorts of legal restrictions, we don’t have access to it or we don’t have access to much of it.

But, still, I should emphasize that the Kroc gift constitutes about half of a $15 million — excuse me, $15 million in reserves that our board has allowed us to use to get through this tough economic time.

Still, I would say, even if we could use the Kroc gift legally, it wouldn’t be prudent. I mean, it’s a little bit like an individual going into their retirement account before asking themselves, “How can we economize?”

Drop in revenue, but not audience

Ellen Weiss
Senior vice president for news, NPR
The thing about this situation for NPR that I would say is really fundamentally different from what we're seeing in a lot of other media crises is that this is a drop in revenue. It's not a drop in our audience. And that's really different.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, with all the expansion in the last few years and notably opening the West Coast, this large presence there, does it now seem as though you expanded too far, too fast?

ELLEN WEISS: No, I don't think so. I mean, you know, the thing about this situation for NPR that I would say is really fundamentally different from what we're seeing in a lot of other media crises is that this is a drop in revenue. It's not a drop in our audience. And that's really different. NPR...

JEFFREY BROWN: Because the audience has stayed up.

ELLEN WEISS: Not only has it stayed up, it's growing. I mean, it was phenomenal in the past year, both in the afternoon -- in every day part, our audience has gone up.

NPR, I would say, is more important, more relevant in the lives of Americans than ever before. So we're responding to an audience that wants more of us, and they expect a certain quality, so I think our investments have been prudent. If anybody could have predicted this economic crisis, I would have liked to have met them.

Cancelled shows received attention

Ellen Weiss
Senior vice president for news, NPR
Not only are we trying to reach new audiences with what we do on the radio, but of course we're trying to reach new audiences on every platform, what we're doing online, through podcasting, mobile.

JEFFREY BROWN: These programs, though, that you're now forced to cut had received some attention -- I mean, a lot of attention as attempts to diversify and grow the audience, particularly "News and Notes," to reach an African-American audience. What happens to that effort now?

ELLEN WEISS: Yes. Well, I should emphasize that, really, you and I wouldn't be having this conversation now if we weren't facing an economic crisis.

These are wonderful programs. The people who work on them are incredible. And we have much to learn from what they have taught us about introducing NPR and public radio to new audiences.

But the fact is, that's an effort that has to go on across everything that NPR does, not only that are we trying to reach new audiences with what we do on the radio, but of course we're trying to reach new audiences on every platform, what we're doing online, through podcasting, mobile.

That's not just something we do through one program or even two programs. That is an NPR mission.

Decision against broad cuts

Ellen Weiss
Senior vice president for news, NPR
We didn't want to say, 'You know what? Try to do the same quality, try to do the same amount of journalism, try to have the same reach nationally and internationally, but try to do it with less money.'

JEFFREY BROWN: Was it not possible -- because now you're losing a bunch of -- a number of people, recognizable names to a lot of people in your audience, and these two programs. Was it not possible to make smaller cuts throughout the organization rather than be quite that drastic?

ELLEN WEISS: Yes. You know, it's a really good question, and it is sort of a different philosophical approach. And I have to say that, again, I think because this isn't about the audience being less interested that we decided that the really important thing was to make sure that, when we come out of this economic crisis, that everything that we're doing has the same quality.

And we didn't want to cut across the board. We didn't want to say, "You know what? Try to do the same quality, try to do the same amount of journalism, try to have the same reach nationally and internationally, but try to do it with less money."

So we made really tough decisions and said, "What we're keeping, what we're keeping broadcasting, where we're investing in new outlets, we're going to make sure they have the right investments," because the audience has an expectation from us, and we've got to fulfill it.

Reaching new audience online

Ellen Weiss
Senior vice president for news, NPR
Online is just another way for us to serve our mission. It's another way to reach our audience, and that is what NPR should be doing. We need to put NPR wherever the audience is, and that has to happen online and has to happen on the radio.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, speaking of that and speaking of quality, because every time we do this -- and even earlier this week we had a segment where we looked at the newspaper business, with the Tribune Company and others having trouble.

And every time we do it, we talk about the journalism and what happens to the journalism amid these cuts. What do you see? How do you maintain the journalism at a time when yours and many others are so pressed for funding?

ELLEN WEISS: Well, again, you know, I would say that NPR's approached this in a different way than other media organizations. And our approach was: make some really difficult decisions; decide to stop some activities that in normal, you know, lush economic times are sustainable, but decide to make those difficult decisions, but don't cut across the board; stay invested; keep the things that are most important to the audience or most vital to our core and keep them well funded.

JEFFREY BROWN: I know, in our last minute here, that there's been a big effort online. Does that continue as you go forward? You're bringing in a new president who had a lot of impact or worked in that at the New York Times, right?

ELLEN WEISS: Absolutely. I mean, online is just another way for us to serve our mission. It's another way to reach our audience, and that is what NPR should be doing. We need to put NPR wherever the audience is, and that has to happen online and has to happen on the radio.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Ellen Weiss of NPR, thanks very much.

ELLEN WEISS: Thank you.