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National Public Radio to cut shows, personnel

December 10, 2008 | 12:26 pm

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In a cost-saving move, National Public Radio said today it was canceling its midday newsmagazine “Day to Day,” the marquee show of the network’s NPR West production facility in Culver City.

Hamstrung by a souring economy and the resulting precipitous drop in corporate underwriting, NPR’s second-largest source of income, the network also plans to cut its workforce by 7% and trim other expenses. The cuts mean layoffs for 64 of NPR’s staff of 889, and the elimination of 21 positions that were vacant.

The 5-year-old program, hosted by Madeleine Brand and airing locally on KPCC-FM (89.3) weekdays from 9 to 10 a.m., was supposed to garner midday listeners and act as a bridge between the noncommercial network’s other, more established newsmagazines, “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” It airs on 186 stations but has not garnered the corporate underwriting necessary to remain viable, said Dana Davis Rehm, the network’s senior vice president of strategy and partnerships.
“This is strictly a revenue problem for NPR. It’s not an audience problem,” she said. “Our audience is healthy and growing.”

In fact, NPR said its shows overall garnered a weekly audience of 26.4 million.

But the $2-million deficit for the coming year that the network projected in July has ballooned to $23 million, mainly due to a sharp drop in corporate underwriting. NPR said it would draw down its reserves by up to 30%, but legal restrictions severely constrain what it can withdraw from the separate NPR endowment, which includes a $200-million gift from Joan Kroc, the widow of the McDonald’s founder.

Also getting canceled is the other program based at NPR West, “News & Notes,” an hourlong news show with an African- American perspective currently carried on 64 stations. It does not have a Southern California affiliate. Both will remain on the air through March 20 to allow stations to find alternative programming.

But NPR West — the network’s largest office outside its Washington, D.C., headquarters — will remain open and is still an important part of the network’s strategic future, said Dennis L. Haarsager, NPR’s interim president and chief executive. Renee Montagne will continue to co-host “Morning Edition” from there, and reporters will still work from there.

“This doesn’t signal a diminished support for our operation in Culver City,” he said. “It’s a very important part of our operation, even today.”

When NPR West opened to great fanfare in November 2002, it was supposed to signal a broadening of the network outside its Washington-New York comfort zone. The office would bring perspectives from Los Angeles and the West to programs up and down the NPR schedule. “Day to Day,” which premiered nine months later, was to be the main outlet for those stories.

In just the last week, “Day to Day” has featured stories about Mountain House, Calif., which has the nation’s highest percentage of homes worth less than what their owners owe on their mortgages; Eli Broad’s efforts to save Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art; the legion of homeless living in tunnels underneath Las Vegas,; and a San Diego teacher selling ad space on his tests.

But even though the creation of a midday newsmagazine was important to NPR, the time period has turned into a much more competitive environment in the five years since “Day to Day” launched, Rehm said, with a wider variety of shows, including many produced by local stations,  fighting for audience. “The midday is just tougher overall. It really is a difficult proposition,” Rehm said.

Both “Day to Day” and “News & Notes” were safe as recently as July, during the network’s annual budget review. But NPR executives said the steep drop in funding since then had forced their hand. They said that “Day to Day” cost about $2.5 million per year to produce, while “News & Notes” cost $1.7 million.

“We’re in the business of telling stories,” Haarsager said, but going forward the network will have to move toward a more a la carte way of offering those, instead of packaging them in 30- to 120-minute chunks. “There are other ways too of doing things, of distributing material. Not everything has to have a brand, a title. It wouldn’t have to be a branded show with a cute title and music.”

— Steve Carney

(Photo: Alex Chadwick, former co-host of "Day to Day," courtesy Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

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