Discover more from The Squeeze
Contradictions, Confusion, and Staffers Who Say It Might Be Time to Leave (Or "New York Public Radio's Layoffs Are Worse Than You Think, Part 2")
Can Someone Please Forward This to LaFontaine Oliver
Emerging from my topsy-turvy life to bring you a belated piece regarding New York Public Radio’s recent layoffs. Despite my tardiness, the issues within this newsletter are still very much at play. If you find value in this piece, and happen to know NYPR CEO LaFontaine Oliver, please forward it to him. While you’re at it, try asking if he’d be open to having an off the record chat with me? I can be reached at 415-377-7591 or email@example.com.
Over the last seven months, I’ve interviewed upwards of 35 current and former NYPR/WNYC employees (NYPR owns WNYC, Gothamist, WQXR, NJPR and a few other things). Over a dozen current and former employees spoke to me in service of today’s story. With one exception, every person I interviewed asked to remain anonymous, for fear of retaliation by the company and its leadership. In an effort to protect sources, I’ve used minimal quotes and where necessary, “they/them” pronouns regardless of a person’s gender identity.
Please note that throughout the piece, I mention statements I heard while reviewing a recording of a two-hour all-staff meeting held by New York Public Radio. After the first instance in which I mention the meeting, I’ll be referring to it as simply “the all-staff.” Quotes from the all-staff included in the prologue have been edited for clarity and length.
If you didn’t read my first piece about the layoffs, I would recommend checking it out before digging into this one.
Finally, I don’t have an editor and I’m very tired so I regret any typos! (Mom, this apology is mostly for you.)
Alright, let’s hit it —
During a recording of an all-staff meeting at New York Public Radio, a WNYC-FM newsroom reporter can be heard expressing confusion over CEO LaFontaine Oliver’s decision to lay off many of the station's most experienced audio journalists. The reporter begins by saying that while she writes for Gothamist and produces stories for WNYC, she’s aware that more people encounter her work on the radio than online. “That’s just a larger audience,” she says. “I think that that's why a lot of us were confused by the decision to let go of so many people who knew audio so well. There aren't that many people who know radio and can mentor me.”
Oliver seems perplexed by her comment.
“So if I’m understanding you, you’re in the newsroom and you’re talking about people that were affected in Studios,” he says, drawing out his words for emphasis. “[Studios] had more, in your opinion, experience in audio — so even though they weren’t in your department…?”
“It just it feels like a really big loss that is confusing … it is still disheartening to lose so many of those skills and not feel like we could have maybe gained them in the newsroom —” she tries again.
“So I guess … why didn’t we trade some of those folks for people in the newsroom —”
“No, that’s not what — I think it’s just that we want to understand that decision,” she continues. “I don't know that it’s getting across that — maybe you or other leadership don’t understand what a loss this is....”
Eventually, the CEO comes up with an answer. “Uhm, what I would say to that is, I am happy to take up a broader conversation with Audrey and Kenya and others to make sure that we understand that we do have, or we can identify those audio skills.”
New York Public Radio's Layoffs Are Worse Than You Think, Part 2
Over the past couple of weeks, New York Public Radio CEO LaFontaine Oliver has positioned the termination of its podcast-first shows, and the people who made them, as a necessary step in bringing the organization back to financially sustainability. Publicly, Oliver has highlighted four new areas of focus for his organization — local news, multiplatform audio, classical music, and partnerships — but the fundamental strategy appears to be a return to radio-first programming. In conversation with Hot Pod, the CEO said that his decisions were driven by “the numbers” and the fact that NYPR is “still having material success in reaching people from traditional media broadcasting.” (At some point, it would probably be worth interrogating why leadership wasn’t able to monetize its top-notch podcast portfolio but for our purposes today, it doesn’t matter. The fact is that Oliver looked at the financials and made his cuts accordingly.)
On paper, the pivot made sense. If WNYC Studios wasn’t making money, it followed that Oliver had to cut its programs. However, when Oliver decided to cut the people who were making those programs, he (unknowingly?) cut many of the people who would have been most qualified to help him achieve his stated goals.
“I get that something had to be done to make the organization more financially sustainable,” a current employeee told me a couple of weeks ago. “But if the goal was to focus on live radio and audio journalism, why are we cutting the people who came out of the newsroom and live radio programs and leaving the jobs in the newsroom that involve people who don’t know the first thing about radio?”
My source wasn’t being hyperbolic. As I’ve reported before, under the direction of Editor in Chief Chief Audrey Cooper, dozens of talented and award-winning newsroom journalists at the station have been systematically replaced with staffers who have little to zero radio experience. This has all been done in service of Cooper’s mission to transform the public radio newsroom into a “digital-first” organization. However, due to Cooper’s poor implementation of this strategy, the number of in-depth audio features appearing on the air has plummeted and ironically traffic to Gothamist has dropped significantly as well.
This week, with the help of Gothamist’s staff list, LinkedIn, and other marvels of the Internet, I took a deeper dive into how Cooper’s leadership has impacted the newsroom. A few caveats: I did not count internships, fellowships, or similar programs as “work experience.” I did not include the experience of the visuals editor in my calculations, as I imagine that person isn’t expected to edit radio. In cases where someone’s exact levels of experience were unclear, I rounded up. Finally, LinkedIn pages and staff lists are not always 100% up-to-date. With that said, here’s what I found:
Cooper has hired 15 of the 24 reporters currently working in the WNYC-FM newsroom (she’s actually hired more, but not all have stayed). Of those 15:
11 (or 73%) had zero experience working in radio prior to being hired by the radio station.
6 (or 40%) have been employed by NYPR for approximately one year or less.
Of the 24 total reporters in the newsroom:
5 (or 20%) currently have less than 1 year of total experience reporting for radio.
11 (or 45%) currently have less than 2 years of total experience reporting for radio. (This includes time spent working at NYPR.)
Cooper has hired 14 of the 19 editors currently working in the WNYC-FM newsroom (she’s actually hired more, but not all have stayed). Of those 14:
12 (or 85%) had zero experience working in radio prior to being hired by the radio station.
13 (or 92%) have been employed by NYPR for two years or less.
Of the 19 total editors in the newsroom:
11 (or 58%) have had 2 years or less of total experience working in radio.
Cooper has hired 2 of the 4 people currently working in newsroom leadership: the deputy editor, and the director of digital news and audience. Of those:
2 (or 100%) had zero experience working in radio prior to being hired by the radio station.
And finally, 100% of Audrey Cooper arrived at NYPR with zero experience working in radio.
These numbers are bananas, but the reality on the ground is even more bananas. According to multiple sources, Cooper requires reporters to write at least two, sometimes three 500 to 750-word stories for Gothamist each week, leaving even the most seasoned reporters with barely enough time to file their own radio stories, much less produce in-depth features or mentor new recruits. (According to multiple sources, Cooper is careful not to call this writing requirement a “quota” — a journalistic no-no — but multiple employees shared that those who don’t meet this standard are often dinged for it performance reviews.)
Current and former employees describe what’s happened to the newsroom as “crisis,” a “catastrophe,” a “disgrace.” They’ve said that the impact of public radio resources “being poured into non-radio work” (and non-radio people) for over three years has put the New York institution in a perilous situation. “We’re at a tipping point,” a current staffer said to me the other day, urgency in their voice. “We have editors assigning radio stories when they have no idea what it takes to make one. Everything is being edited on paper instead of by the ear. We have print reporters arriving who are not getting the benefit of institutional knowledge and training. A million paper cuts are eroding our ability to make quality radio.” (Loads of current and former employees have also told me that in the midst of the chaos, Cooper has turned what used to be a collegial atmosphere into one ruled by fear, paranoia, and mistrust1 and according to my reporting, since 2021, upwards of seven employees have gone on mental health leave. When reached for comment, VP of Communications Jennifer Houlihan Roussel said that “New York Public Radio does not comment on confidential personnel matters or the personal circumstances of our employees, but I can confirm we offer mental health benefits and staff are encouraged to access them as needed.”)
Over the years, the station has hired plenty of print journalists who have become talented radio reporters, but — as many of the people reading this know — mastering the craft of high-quality audio journalism takes time — as in, years. In April of 2022, the station hired accomplished editor George Bodarky to train new recruits, but only a leader who doesn’t understand how to make radio would think one person would be enough to transform a room full of green print reporters into radio experts. As one employee said during the all-staff, “George is amazing … but George is one person and it doesn't replace being surrounded by people who know radio.” Regardless, Cooper — who likes to tout the fact that her newsroom is “on track to become our region’s largest local news-gathering force” — is still hiring reporters, despite a hiring freeze.
So what does this have to do with the layoffs?
Welllllll, many of the folks Oliver laid off, including the biggest names within that group, started their WNYC careers reporting in the newsroom or producing other radio-first programming such as The Brian Lehrer Show and On the Media. The people on that list are a who’s who of podcasting: Alana Casanova-Burgess, Tracie Hunte, Amy Pearl, Joe Plourde, Julia Longoria, and Anna Sale.2 These folks had proved their radio chops by the time they started at Studios and could have hit the ground running in the newsroom, had Oliver offered them the opportunity to return to their stomping grounds rather than showing them the door.
“I admired them so much,” a young and still-employed staffer told me recently. “They started out as producers, they produced high-quality work that won awards and got recognition, and eventually they were hosting their own shows and getting more accolades for that — and this is how the station responds? If those people were disposable, why would anyone aspire to that? It does not make me want to stay here for long.”
Another troubling aspect of the layoffs came into view during the all-staff when an employee stated that 57% of the people who were laid off are people of color. When asked what that said about how NYPR values racial inclusion, Oliver responded that it “does not speak to where I, as a leader or our senior leadership team place our values,” but sources told me that these statements felt hollow, when weighed against the CEO’s actions.
“I'm shocked that the station didn't offer to redeploy Julia Longoria, Tracie Hunte, and Alana Casanova-Burgess,” Beth Fertig, a 26-year veteran of the WNYC newsroom wrote in a text to me the other day. “These are three very talented, very experienced women of color who are also still young enough to play major roles in shaping the sound of the station for the next generation of talent and listeners. The station could have kept their jobs by moving them to the newsroom to form a very powerful narrative unit, paid for by cutting some recent hires who are not going to contribute much to the radio side of WNYC News.”
Oliver’s words regarding this matter are also complicated by the fact that after arriving at WNYC earlier this year, he allowed former Chief Content Officer Andrew Golis (who, I’m told, departed the organization without a goodbye party) to lay off the majority-POC team making The Takeaway. (If The Takeaway was still around, technically it would have fit with Oliver’s new radio-first programming strategy. Hmm.)
There are other contradictions in what Oliver has said he values moving forward. For example, during the all-staff, Oliver was bullish on the idea of NYPR becoming “multiplatform,” explaining that the station should “meet our audience on whatever platform they may roam on.” However, Oliver laid off two (of the very few) staffers who have significant multiplatform experience, Amy Pearl and Kousha Navidar. “It’s not like we had a big digital or multiplatform team here,” a current employee pointed out. “Now we have to start from scratch during a hiring freeze.”
Another head-scratcher — especially given Oliver’s focus on financial sustainability — is his decision to let go of the person responsible for creating a new revenue stream for Radiolab via the Patreon platform. According to my reporting, the station had planned to replicate the successful program with other shows due to its strong results. When a staffer asked how the already-stretched Radiolab team would now “deliver on the content promises we have made to thousands of paying Radiolab subscribers” during the all-staff, Oliver said he’d have to check with someone else “to be able to answer that question.”
But perhaps most
infuriating baffling to staffers who attended the all-staff, was a comment the CEO made without any prompting:
As an organization, we absolutely must make a shift to becoming more audience focused. And I know that's probably hard for some of you all to hear because you think that we've been audience focused, but we have not. We have been much more internally focused and we have to put the audience at the center of what we are doing and part of what I am thinking about…is how do we prioritize and put the audience first because that is going to be the key to our success going forward.
Multiple current and former employees told me they felt outraged at the notion that their work was not focused on the needs and interests of the station’s audience. Many pointed out that much of the programming Oliver cancelled was explicitly externally focused. For example, Casanova-Burgess’s dual-language hit show La Brega was one of the first projects made by WNYC that was aimed at a non-white audience. And More Perfect, a recently rebooted show about the Supreme Court, was on track to launch its second season at a time when Americans — and definitely New Yorkers — are paying more attention to judicial decisions than they have in decades.
If however, Oliver was referring to a decline in audience engagement in the newsroom, I would point him toward a previous piece, in which I explain — in even greater detail — how the misguided decisions of his editor in chief have provided audiences with way less in-depth radio journalism and far fewer personality-driven digital news pieces over the past three years. Perhaps after he finishes reading that issue of The Squeeze, he’ll have someone other than staffers to scold.
That’s all from me for now. Thanks for reading. Check out a few final things in the postscript and a couple of footnotes down below.
Have a good weekend, everyone. Take care of each other out there.
Postscript: A Few Final Things
Notes from the all-staff:
Regarding the possibility of more layoffs, Oliver said “it would be irresponsible for me to say, but there are no plans for that at this moment.”
Regarding the future of NYPR’s Jerome L. Greene Performance Space venue, Oliver said “we've reduced the number of events in that space and I know that at some point fairly soon some of the foundational support that had been there for the Greene space comes to an end. That is all I can say at this point.”
Regarding whether Oliver would be willing to do a postmortem on the negotiations with the union because, as a staffer put it, “there were inexplicable actions and a lack of real transparency on the part of the company that would be helpful to talk out,” Oliver agreed.
I’ve heard rumblings from multiple sources that the board may want to dispense with the WNYC Studios brand, but this is not confirmed.
For those of you keeping a tally, I’ve recently learned that a New Yorker Radio Hour producer quit the month before the layoffs and that person will not be replaced. So essentially, that team lost two members, not one.
Many of my sources have shared stories with me about Cooper’s “vindictive, mercurial, and difficult” management style which has been widely reported on in the press. According to current and former staffers, as well as four sources I interviewed who worked with Cooper at the San Francisco Chronicle, Cooper has a pattern of regularly speaking ill of employees behind closed doors, and creating a culture of favoritism, mistrust, and paranoia. In addition, staffers from NYPR have noted that under Cooper’s watch, Slack channels where reporters previously shared and brainstormed story ideas have been shut down, and for a time, reporters were disinvited from the newsroom’s daily editorial meetings (this decision was eventually reversed, but I’m told that the gathering hasn’t regained its previously collegial vibe). Multiple former staffers told me they left NYPR in order to protect their mental health; two of them shared that due to work-related trauma during their time working for the organization, they had nightmares the night before I interviewed them.