Chicago Public Media lays off 14 staffers, citing financial troubles

The move to terminate nearly 15% of 62 unionized content creators at WBEZ and four people at the Chicago Sun-Times comes amid declining fundraising, listenership and philanthropic support.

View from inside the Chicago Public Media’s office at Navy Pier.
View from inside the Chicago Public Media's office at Navy Pier. The company announced layoffs on Wednesday, April 3, 2024. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
View from inside the Chicago Public Media’s office at Navy Pier.
View from inside the Chicago Public Media's office at Navy Pier. The company announced layoffs on Wednesday, April 3, 2024. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Public Media lays off 14 staffers, citing financial troubles

The move to terminate nearly 15% of 62 unionized content creators at WBEZ and four people at the Chicago Sun-Times comes amid declining fundraising, listenership and philanthropic support.

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Two years into a nationally heralded acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times, the parent company of WBEZ and the Sun-Times announced layoffs at both organizations Wednesday in a move one company union decried as “devastating.”

The move to terminate nearly 15% of the 62 unionized content creators at Chicago’s National Public Radio affiliate comes amid a worsening financial crisis for the news organization marked by declining fundraising, listenership and philanthropic support.

The job cuts coincide with the debut of a $6.4 million, state-of-the-art studio at WBEZ’s Navy Pier office and follows a double-digit-percentage pay increase for Chicago Public Media’s top executive. Additionally, other high-level executives departed the not-for-profit news organization in December.

But perhaps most important, the financial upheaval that led to the layoffs raises questions about the long-term viability of the $61 million WBEZ/Chicago Sun-Times merger entering its third year, although Chicago Public Media CEO Matt Moog continued to hold out hope for the marriage.

“Like many newsrooms across the country, WBEZ and Chicago Sun-Times face similar challenges of declining core legacy audience and revenue in broadcast and print,” he said in response to questions from WBEZ. “We believe that the organizations are stronger together and have the best opportunity to overcome these challenges by collaborating and sharing resources.”

In Wednesday’s announcement, Chicago Public Media, which oversees the radio station and newspaper, said that WBEZ’s podcasting unit will be scaled back dramatically, and its “non-newsroom titles” — including Nerdette, Making and When Magic Happens — will cease production.

Podcasts associated with the midday WBEZ program, Reset, and The Rundown will remain in production, as will Curious City as a weekly feature, the company said.

In another cutback, Vocalo will discontinue its radio programming by May 1. The offshoot of WBEZ plays around-the-clock R&B, hip hop and jazz music via the radio and livestream and describes itself as the “soundtrack that amplifies our city and makes you say and feel — this is what Chicago sounds like.”

Five unionized staff were involved in the production of Vocalo. Chicago Public Media said two of those positions will migrate to a new arts and culture unit and cover Chicago music and events.

At the Sun-Times, Chicago Public Media said four job cuts would be made to unspecified “business roles” at the newspaper, but it did not elaborate on what those particular positions were.

All told, the cutbacks amount to 14 jobs, Chicago Public Media said in a statement posted on the company’s website Wednesday morning.

SAG-AFTRA, which represents the station’s unionized, content-producing workforce, said in a statement: “This involuntary layoff — coupled with positions that have not been filled in the last year — represents a significant reduction in WBEZ’s content unit.”

“These losses are devastating to our listeners and members,” the union continued. “The decision also contradicts [Chicago Public Media’s] stated commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion — both at WBEZ and to communities of color that we serve.”

In a separate statement to its membership about the cuts, the union described itself as “outraged and devastated” by Wednesday’s news.

“These are our colleagues, whose generosity, experience and deeply brilliant brains make WBEZ what it is, and make all of us better people and journalists,” the union wrote to its members. “These layoffs create a gaping hole in our station that cannot be filled.”

In his own statement, the news organization’s CEO acknowledged the seriousness of the job cuts.

“These are painful decisions that affect our valued colleagues. We are working diligently to minimize the negative impact on each individual and provide them with financial and transitional support. We are so grateful for their many contributions over the years,” Moog wrote in a statement to staff.

Chicago Public Media did not share any financial details in the statement but made clear staff cutbacks were necessary to cope with a worsening fiscal position that would appear markedly different than just nine months ago, when the organization reported being financially in the black.

Moog did not shut the door to the possibility of more layoffs within the organization during the remainder of this calendar year, responding to that question with a statement filled with qualifying language.

“We are doing everything we can to avoid future layoffs,” he said. “No additional layoffs are currently planned, assuming audience growth continues and revenue grows to keep pace with expenses.

Moog said he expects WBEZ to remain in the red through the end of the organization’s fiscal year, but he declined to identify how large of a shortfall is projected by the end of June.

“There is expected to be a WBEZ operating deficit this year that the board agreed to fund from our balance sheet. If we did not take these actions,” he said, referring to Wednesday’s layoffs, “that budget deficit would widen in our next fiscal year.“

In its most recent tax filings, Chicago Public Media reported revenues had grown by nearly 20% between July 2022 and June 2023, while expenses had grown by slightly more than 5% during that period. The station reported an $8.7 million profit at the end of that 12-month span.

But Moog questioned drawing such financial conclusions from the organization’s publicly accessible filings, known as commonly as 990s, with the Internal Revenue Service. He said revenues have been “flat” for the organization for the past five years but did not address what happened to the nearly $9 million profit the organization reported to the IRS in its last tax filing.

“990s are based on tax filings, not operating financials we use to run the organization,” Moog said. “990s include items such as restricted revenue and investment account activity, which are not part of our funds used for operations.”

Financial upheaval at the organization represents a dramatic turnabout from January 2022, when Chicago Public Media’s acquisition of the Sun-Times was finalized in large part through $61 million in pledged contributions from a blue-chip array of local foundations.

In September 2021, as Moog was lining up those contributions and preparing to convert the Sun-Times into a non-profit newsroom, he emphatically pledged on WBEZ’s airwaves there would not be job cutbacks.

“There are no plans — categorically, no plans — for layoffs,” Moog said on Reset, a midday mainstay at the station.

In response to questions from WBEZ, Moog attempted to square that pledge with the newly announced layoffs at the organization.

“Over the last three years since this statement, Chicago Public Media has added staff, primarily in each of the newsrooms,” he said. “Unfortunately, this additional investment in staff did not result in enough audience and revenue growth to cover our growing expenses.”

“The board and management chose to make these limited changes in order to move away from non-news programs that were running at significant financial loss for several years,” he said.

The layoffs come after Reset saw its programming footprint reduced from two hours to one last month, a move that drew local criticism.

Moog is a lame-duck CEO now overseeing those layoffs that he said wouldn’t happen, and they come after his steep increase in executive pay. Chicago Public Media’s most recent tax filings showed Moog making $633,310 – a nearly 19% increase from a year earlier.

Moog defended that increase.

“All employees, including executives, are paid based on a market compensation study,” he said. “CEO compensation is carefully reviewed and approved by the compensation committee of the board.”

Asked if he had received any additional increases in his compensation package since July, Moog did not answer. Moog also said that neither he nor other members of his executive team contemplated pay cuts before announcing Wednesday’s layoffs.

“We are not cutting any staff salaries, and we are honoring the contractual salary increases in the collective bargaining agreements,” he said.

In December, Moog announced his resignation from his post of three years amid union allegations of a “hostile work environment” involving an unidentified “Chicago Public Media executive.”

In February, Chicago Public Media announced it had retained Koya Partners to help recruit a replacement for Moog, who indicated his intention to stay on until a successor is identified.

Moog said Wednesday that his planned departure date has not been moved up in light of the organization’s decision to terminate a significant portion of its content-producing staff.

“The board has asked me to stay through August, at which time a new CEO is expected to be on board,” he said.

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics for WBEZ and is the former longtime Springfield bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.