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Now, it’s MPR’s turn to cut back

The media recession: It’s not just for newspapers and Paul Douglas.

Minnesota Public Radio’s parent company told employees in a memo Monday that the network will “make real reductions in expenses, including personnel.”

The cutbacks will roll out near the start of July 1 fiscal year, according to a memo’s author, American Public Media Chief Operating Officer Jon McTaggert. In a newsroom meeting Monday, MPR News and Information Program Director Chris Worthington used the l-word — layoffs — according to staffers present who asked not to be named.

How will the cuts diminish newsgathering? At press time, Worthington and I hadn’t connected. However, Margaret Ann Hennen, vice president of corporate communications, says specifics haven’t been discussed. “We will look at and evaluate all services,” she notes.

Unlike the Strib, MPR is not in a revenue freefall, and even newsroom pessimists expect cuts to be skinnier than those at the dailies. Hennen says MPR’s revenue growth is slowing, but “we’ve never had a year where we’ve not grown, and we hope that to be the case in the coming year.”

American Public Media forecasts membership by July 1 will top last year’s 94,000, and sponsorship revenue is up 7 percent from a year ago. Which begs the question: Why rattle everyone’s cage?

McTaggert’s memo forecasts that “the current weakness in the economy will be significant and sustained. As a result, we are lowering our tolerance for revenue risks, lowering our expectations for revenue growth and increasing our budget contingencies.”

Translation: We’re hoarding acorns as winter gathers, and kicking some squirrels out of the tree. Or, as Hennen puts it, “we’re trying to be prudent stewards of our member dollars.”

The result: staff cuts through “attrition, purposely not filling open positions, restructuring or eliminating some positions, and redeploying staff,” McTaggert writes.

APM has been one of the fastest-growing local journalism operations: it employs 489 people, up from 380 four years ago, according to the memo. (In that time, MPR added the Current, its alternative-music station.)

It’s unclear how big a brunt MPR’s newsgathering will bear. According to staffers at the newsroom meeting, Worthington said MPR’s top brass hasn’t established a revenue target for the new fiscal year, so managers don’t know how much they must cut. Other divisions will share in the burden: the Current and MPR’s classical-music service, as well as the national shows American Public Media produces and distributes.

(For truly paranoid local music fans: No one expects the Current programming to go away; MPR still has national syndication dreams.)

McTaggert’s memo notes “ambiguity and change can be stressful,” and apparently tensions broke out at yesterday’s meeting.

One flashpoint was MPR’s pursuit of a program director to serve under Worthington, even as it ponders reporter/producer layoffs. According to meeting attendees, Worthington told staffers such an executive was more important than some of the positions that might be cut.

(The p.d.’s job, according to this posting, is to enforce the station’s “sound and stationality,” including promotion/production techniques that increase audience and therefore sponsorship dough. This sort of sorcery is a given in commercial radio, but there’s still plenty of resistance on the public side. The p.d. would also supervise things like new podcasts, blogs and other ways to reach “next generation” audiences.)

Other fault lines: a long-running competition between traditional radio and digital media for dollars; everyone wonders whether their bailiwick qualifies as the “more strategic and stronger programs and services,” that APM says it will focus on. Also, there’s a small but especially threatened subset of reporters who work on one-year contracts, and would have less reason to assume their employment will continue.

Quick conflict-of-interest statement: I’m MPR’s very sporadic media analyst, and though I once got paid for doing it, I don’t any more.

As always, here’s the memo:

In my last message, I focused on how we are all working to end our current fiscal year with a balanced budget.  Now I want to outline our approach to budgeting for next year.

FY09 budget planning is proceeding throughout American Public Media.  Like many organizations, our rate of revenue growth has slowed with the US economy, and that is a key factor in how we are budgeting for the coming year.

For our FY09 planning and budgeting, we are assuming that the current weakness in the economy will be significant and sustained.  As a result, we are lowering our tolerance for revenue risks, lowering our expectations for revenue growth and increasing our budget contingencies.

As good stewards of our resources, we are committed to balance our FY09 budget.  To align our FY09 expenses with our anticipated revenue, we will make real reductions in expenses, including personnel.

We expect the staffing changes to be accomplished in a number of ways, including attrition, purposely not filling open positions, restructuring or eliminating some positions, and redeploying staff.  We will add new positions only where strategically needed to pursue our vision and goals.  We will begin announcing these changes shortly and they will continue over the coming months.

MPR|APM staff has grown, significantly, over the past few years.  Since July 2004, we’ve added more than 100 employees – we had 380 employees at the end of FY04, and we now have 489.

This fiscal year alone we have added 34 new people, beyond replacements and filling open positions (our FY08 budget anticipated only about 10 new staff, however grant funding and other revenue helped us expand beyond initial projections).  Over this same period we have also eliminated many jobs, consolidated management functions, redeployed staff and eliminated some activities.  These changes better aligned our resources to accomplish our goals and serve our audiences.

Our operating reality and good business practices require that we continuously evaluate all of our activities, programs and services to determine where we can make the greatest impact and achieve our long-term strategic goals.  Our ongoing assessments will result in changes to our staffing and our programming, as they do each year.  More than productivity and efficiency improvements, we expect to focus on more strategic and stronger programs and services.

Our organization is fiscally healthy, fundamentally strong, and a recognized leader in public service media.  Our opportunities overwhelm our challenges.  But we don’t have the resources to do everything, so we must be disciplined and focused.

We are clarifying our long-term vision and updating our strategic goals, and we are considering ways to re-organize our work and improve our decision-making and accountabilities to achieve our ambitious goals for serving our audiences.  If you have input to share on any of these matters, please talk to your supervisor or Division leader.

I know that ambiguity and change can be stressful.  To keep you informed on our progress, we will redouble our commitment to regular communication, and we will closely monitor our monthly and 18-month rolling forecasts.  Again, please don’t hesitate to ask questions or offer suggestions to your supervisor or Division leader.

My confidence in our future has never been higher.  Thank you for all that you do, every day, to serve our audiences and strengthen American Public Media.

Jon McTaggart
Chief Operating Officer

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