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Louisville Public Media laying off eight staff to meet budget shortfall

A photo  of the windows form inside LPM.
Ryan Van Velzer
/
KPR
Louisville Public Media will lay off eight staff, joining public radio outlets across the country in reductions amid rising costs and lower than expected membership growth.

Kentucky’s largest public radio station will cut its workforce amid lower than expected revenues and rising costs.

Louisville Public Media will lay off eight employees as part of a plan to cut operating expenses by about 10% for the upcoming budget year.

The nonprofit is facing a $755,000 operating budget deficit for the year. To make up for the shortfall, LPM is laying off six full-time staff, two part-time staff and eliminating the budget lines for two unfilled positions.

LPM’s board of directors made the decision Tuesday. The reductions will impact all of the nonprofit’s stations WFPK Independent Louisville, WUOL Classical Louisville and WFPL News as well as the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, KyCIR.

The cuts include one staff member in news, two working with WFPK, one working at WUOL, two in marketing and two in operations among the 63 full-time employees at the station. One staff member that will be let go has worked at the station for more than four decades.

“We’ve had to say goodbye to some of our colleagues. It’s painful and sad and it’s a thing I and every business leader out there hopes to never have to do,” said LPM President Stephen George.

Last week LPM took home four regional 2024 Edward R. Murrow awards for stories about Louisville’s merger, JCPS’ transportation troubles and the 2022 flood cleanup in eastern Kentucky. The investigation into the disaster cleanup – which included contributions from Kentucky Public Radio – also won the prestigious Daniel Schorr Journalism Prize in April.

LPM announced a newsroom expansion in 2022 – supported by a more than $1.7 million capital campaign – that brought on five additional reporters and a vice president of content to manage editorial operations. Alongside that expansion, LPM added more live events to its programming and hired additional full-time hosts and development positions.

Engagement analytics indicate that the expansion contributed to a 20% increase in audience growth, “mostly in digital and news,” and increased the number of public service stories produced in the newsroom by 50%, George said. But, the expansion has not translated to an increase in membership needed to keep up with expenses.

“What we expected to happen at this point three years ago was considerably higher membership growth,” George told the board ahead of the vote. “For every dollar that we’ve raised on the air, [there] used to be around a dime digitally. We’ve doubled that to about 20 cents, which is still not enough.”

LPM’s membership has largely remained flat. George said underwriting revenue is only now returning to pre-pandemic levels. The COVID-19 pandemic and recent years’ rising inflation undermined the station’s position as costs rose for programming, benefits and other expenses, he said. It also affected members’ ability to support the station.

Laid-off staff will receive a severance package and George said the company will do what it can to help them find other employment.

George expects the cuts to put the station back on the path of financial stability by the end of the fiscal year in June 2025. In the coming year, LPM leadership hopes to drive up membership through new initiatives, including a new local radio show and a reorganization of the newsroom.

Industry-wide trend

LPM’s financial struggles aren’t unique in the world of public radio. At least a dozen public radio stations have announced staff reductions this year, including some of the largest outlets in the nation like WBUR in Boston, WBEZ in Chicago, WAMU in Washington DC and KQED in San Francisco. National Public Radio also laid off about 100 people last year.

LPM has not been immune to the challenges facing public media organizations across the nation, and after careful consideration the board chose to reduce the budget in an effort to ensure the longterm sustainability of the organization, Louisville Public Media Board Chair Abby Shue said.

“We looked at scenarios that ranged from making no changes at all to the operating model to considering a more significant reduction in headcount and ultimately landed somewhere in the middle,” Shue said.

NPR has seen a decline in weekly listenership since the onset of the pandemic from 60 million listeners in 2020 to about 42 million, about a 30% drop, according to an internal March audience report from the New York Times.

The share of Americans who say they closely follow local news has fallen 15 percentage points since 2022 to 22%, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in January. That survey also found that two-thirds of Americans say they follow local news at least somewhat closely.

Nonetheless, most U.S. adults hold largely positive views of local news organizations with seven-in-10 saying local journalists accurately report the news and cover important issues, according to the report.

All-staff meetings, leaked calendar

George’s public calendar was leaked Thursday morning ahead of meetings scheduled to tell staff members that they had been laid off.

In the months leading up to the decision, George discussed the organization’s finances and operations in regularly scheduled all-staff meetings where employees had opportunities to ask questions.

Several staff who declined to be named said they believe management could have been more transparent, particularly around the criteria used to arrive at their decisions about why certain employees are being laid off, the timeline of those decisions and the fiscal oversight of the company.

Others said that George and the rest of the leadership team have done the best they could in a challenging media landscape, and are proud of the growth the station has experienced the last few years.

News Editor John Boyle is among the staff who received notice Thursday that he will be laid off.

“While I’m disappointed, and I believe it’s unfortunate that it did come to this, I’m not going to let it affect my pride in everything this newsroom has accomplished and everything I have accomplished with this newsroom,” Boyle said. “We have an incredible newsroom that does phenomenal work every day and they are true servants of the public and they are here to put their hearts into this and not just pulling a paycheck.”

Boyle started his career at LPM in 2020 as a Report for America Corps. Member amid Louisville’s racial justice protests following the police killing of Breonna Taylor. In October of 2022, Boyle was promoted to news editor where he most recently has managed a team of four reporters.

LPM last laid off employees in 2020 when it sold the Do502 team back to its parent company. George said the organization also let go of one employee who has since been hired back.

Editors note: Ryan Van Velzer is the managing editor of Kentucky Public Radio, but is still an LPM employee. This story was edited by Derek Operle, news director for LPM’s fellow Kentucky Public Radio member station WKMS. 

This story has been updated.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.
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