WBUR will lay off more than 10% of the station’s staff, including several newsroom leaders, and stop producing the nationally syndicated sports program “Only A Game” in a restructuring made more drastic by the coronavirus-induced recession.
The announced cuts come less than a week after the station, whose broadcast license is owned by Boston University, reached its first, tentative collective bargaining agreement with a union that includes reporters and producers. In a statement, the union said it is “dismayed that Boston University and WBUR management implemented these layoffs while our unit is voting to ratify our first contract.”
Though the contract has not been finalized, WBUR Chief Executive Margaret Low said the station will honor the deal’s layoff provisions.
In all, 29 people are losing jobs. Among the most notable is Executive News Director Tom Melville, who joined WBUR in 2011 and helped lead its local coverage after a long career in television journalism.
“I love WBUR, and I believe in its mission,” Melville said in an interview. “I've been honored to be its executive news director for the last several years. ... We, at WBUR, have always felt a great sense of mission to serve our community, and there's important work to be done. I wish all my friends and colleagues at WBUR continued success in covering our community.”
Senior Managing Editor Dan Mauzy will be elevated to executive editor for news, assuming many of Melville’s responsibilities.
Also leaving are Digital Managing Director John Davidow and Director of Operations and Production Peter Lydotes.
In a move that Low said had been planned since last year, Managing Director of News and Programming Sam Fleming will retire after almost three decades at the station.
Staff reductions will help WBUR, one of the largest stations in public radio, reduce its operating budget by roughly 13%, to about $40 million, in the fiscal year that begins July 1. In an interview, Low said she hopes to avoid additional layoffs but cannot guarantee more cuts won’t be necessary.
“One would be not smart to say anything’s impossible,” she said. “The world as we know it changed, and changed again, overnight. I’m hopeful.”
Many news outlets have already resorted to layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts, as efforts to blunt the spread of the coronavirus have driven the country into a deep and sudden recession. Among WBUR’s remaining employees, many will see reductions to their total compensation next month when Boston University suspends retirement contributions. Low said she will take a 10% pay cut and freeze non-union wages in the next fiscal year.
Listener contributions have held steady, Low said, but “the place that was hit hard was our underwriting.”
In a memo to the station’s staff Wednesday, Low named eight current employees who will take on prominent new roles in the restructured organization. Seven are white. Low, who joined WBUR in January, reiterated her commitment to diversity in the memo and said in an interview that “the people that I’m promoting are incredibly talented and deserving. I do wish we had a bigger pool of leaders of color — people of color — in the organization. And that’s one of the things that we have to pay great attention to.”
Low added that she plans to fill three new positions in the newsroom — a second managing editor, a deputy managing editor and a managing producer — and said, “I’m committed to adding people of color in the leadership ranks.”
The station shakeup includes dropping the “Kind World” podcast, which is co-hosted by two women of color.
“I really hope that, in this moment, they’re taking this diversity and inclusion problem very, very seriously,” said Andrea Asuaje, one of the hosts. “The fact that my show is powered by minority women, and it’s gotten cut, you know, it’s not a great look.”
“Only A Game” will end a 27-year run in the fall. The show is carried by 260 stations but has been without a permanent host for two years, since founding host Bill Littlefield retired.
“I think the fact that the station didn’t invest in the show two years ago is kind of indicative of how we generally feel,” said Karen Given, the program’s executive producer. “It’s always been a fight to keep this show going. It’s hard to sell sports to public radio management, and it’s hard to sell public radio to a sports audience.”
Given said her team will continue to tell important stories about sports and race in the final months of “Only A Game” and added that she is proud of the show’s legacy of showcasing women and people with disabilities.
“It’s a beautifully produced show,” Low said. “Stations weren’t saying they were dropping it, but the economics just didn’t hold up. We were spending more money than we were making, and when it comes to national programs, they have to be able to return the investment.”
Editor’s note: WBUR’s Callum Borchers reported this story, and WBUR’s Elisabeth Harrison is the story editor. Under standard practices for reporting on WBUR, no other BU or WBUR staff were allowed to review the story before publication.
This article was originally published on June 17, 2020.