News organizations don’t like to become news items, but that’s what has happened repeatedly in the past month at Minnesota Public Radio and its parent company, American Public Media (APM).
First was an internal memo that John McTaggart, the nonprofit’s president and CEO sent to employees on June 29. He announced changes “that will enable us to focus our resources in ways that will create stronger and even better experiences for our audiences.” That would include layoffs and reassignments within APM, McTaggart said, with additional changes in staffing and programming to follow last month.
“We cannot succeed with ‘business as usual,’ ” he wrote.
True to his word, McTaggart announced on July 14 that APM had sold its three-station classical network in Florida, eliminating about 10 positions and an operation that was losing money. On July 23 came word that MPR had eliminated 11 positions in its newsroom, about 13 percent of its workforce.
And then came last Monday’s announcement that APM had pulled the plug on the radio version of “Wits,” a music and comedy show produced in St. Paul and geared to a younger audience that aired in more than 100 U.S. markets.
“It’s not a general belt-tightening,” said Dave Kansas, executive vice president and chief operating officer at MPR and APM, in an interview. “Like other media companies, our audience demands are growing rapidly, and we have to make strategic choices about how we’re going to direct our assets and the time that we spend on things.”
St. Paul-based APM is one of the largest producers of public radio programming, with a portfolio that includes “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Marketplace” and classical music programming. The shows run across the nation. APM also has units that include MPR, Southern California Public Radio and, until last week, Classical South Florida.
The organization and its subsidiaries reported $123.7 million in total support and earned revenue, and $124.8 million in expenses, according to an independent audit of APM’s consolidated financial statements that cover the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014.
Both MPR and Southern California Public Radio reported balanced budgets and gains of $154,000 and $13,000, respectively.
However, Classical South Florida posted a $1.5 million loss.
Kansas said that budgets since then are balanced, and the system is growing, but it needs to adjust to the kind of “on-demand listening” that audiences expect.
“APM-MPR is forecasting growth this year,” he said. “We’re not growing fast, but we are growing.”
Mark Neuzil, University of St. Thomas professor of communications and journalism, suspects that while technically true, public radio stations are worried about their numbers.
“I’d be a little skeptical of the claim about growing,” he said. “Most of the data I’ve seen suggests that audience size is relatively stable for public radio, but that the amount of time listening is down.” Neuzil said another factor driving changes is probably revenue.
“In commercial radio, we call the important revenue stream ad sales,” he said. “In public radio, we call it corporate underwriting. Neither is particularly growing, or even all that healthy.”
Revenue was certainly an issue with the three-station Classical South Florida system, in which APM reportedly invested about $30 million since 2007. “We’ve not succeeded in providing the distinctive value that motivates a sustainable level of support,” McTaggart said two weeks ago when the stations were sold for $21.7 million.
Kansas said that job reductions, reassignments and hiring for new positions also are part of the restructuring changes. He said that an additional MPR news employee has been laid off since last week’s announcement, bringing the total to 10 positions eliminated and two vacant spots not being filled. An APM spokeswoman said that seven additional positions in APM have been eliminated.
The company declined to identify who was laid off.
Even with staff reductions, Kansas said MPR will spend more on news this year than ever before. “We’ll be investing in people in the investigations area, which is being built up,” he said, and in areas of reporting that include health, education and the environment. “And we’ll be investing in technology and other ways to develop information and news reporting to audiences.”
That’s puzzling and frustrating to some MPR newsroom employees who spoke confidentially, and noted that two of the reporters who got layoff notices covered education and analyzed the truthfulness of politicians’ statements. Others reported to be leaving include three other reporters, a veteran news editor and three photographers. APM has also announced a national search for a new leader of MPR News, since former managing editor Chris Worthington will move to a new role heading the reorganized investigations and documentary unit.
Neuzil said he wasn’t surprised by the changes.“Public radio is just a bit behind commercial radio in the layoff game,” he said. “Public broadcasting fundamentals are different from commercial radio, but that does not mean the sector is immune to changing economic and social forces.”