Rumored since Wednesday, layoffs whittled the ranks of Chicago Public Radio’s two stations Friday. WBEZ lost nine staffers, including 848 producer Shawn Campbell, arts reporter Gianofer Fields, and Web designer Josh Andrews. At Vocalo, on-air hosts Darlene Jackson and Usama Alshaibi were let go.
The prelude to the layoffs was a tempestuous board meeting Tuesday attended by several WBEZ staffers. I wasn’t there, but I got a report that CEO Torey Malatia alarmed the WBEZ contingent by describing public radio as a “house on fire burning to the ground” and calling Vocalo the “fire escape.” This wasn’t anything new — as online media become more and more intrigued by the public radio model of not-for-profit status + grants + subscribers, Malatia has declared the radio version of this model — with its dependence on periodic pledge drives — ultimately unsustainable.
At WBEZ, staffers dream of rounding up the reportorial cream dumped by Chicago’s staggering print media and turning the station into a spectacular news operation. Malatia dreams of reinventing public radio’s business model. So far, he’s had CPR’s board behind him. The alienated, diminishing WBEZ staff is stewing in its juices.
UPDATE: Malatia, CFO Donna Moore, and board chairman Tony Weisman talked to the WBEZ staff at midday Friday. I’m told they made these gloomy points:
Individual contributions during the October pledge drive were down about $30 a pledge. There’s a $1.5 million shortfall shaping up for the current fiscal year, which ends in June. Senior staff are taking a salary cut for the balance of the fiscal year. The Third Coast Audio Festival and Sound Opinions are at risk. “I’m horrified. This is a kind of out-of-body experience,” said Malatia, warning that the financial crisis devastating print media could become the future of Chicago Public Radio.