88.1 WYPR’s logo
88.1 WYPR’s logo

The staff at WYPR, Baltimore’s NPR affiliate, faces a Friday deadline for three employees to accept buyout offers as the station deals with the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

The offer was first extended on July 10.

All employees are eligible to accept a buyout, and anyone interested is asked to contact president and general manager LaFontaine Oliver or business manager Roy Ennis.

Employees who take the buyout will receive a severance package determined by their years at the station. Anyone with one year of employment or less gets two-and-half weeks of pay. Between one and five years at the station gets five weeks of pay. Employees with five to 10 years get 12 weeks of pay. And workers with between 10 and 20 years would receive 20 weeks of pay.

If more than three staffers express interest, their applications will be chosen by seniority, the package says.

Speaking to Baltimore Fishbowl, Oliver, who took over WYPR a little more than a year ago, said that from the time the pandemic escalated in March to the end of the fiscal year on July 1, the station’s budget took a hit of a little more than $500,000.

Many businesses that would sponsor programming are either closed or only partially open, and a lot of the events that would advertise on the air have been canceled, he said.

After several discussions, senior leadership at the station opted for a voluntary buyout program over furloughs, layoffs or pay cuts, realizing there were several people on staff who are close to retirement or otherwise considering a move, Oliver said.

Oliver said he feels confident the buyouts will help WYPR avoid other cost-cutting measures in the future.

“Obviously I don’t have a crystal ball here, but I’m hopeful this particular program is going to help us close our budget gap, reorganize ourselves a bit and emerge stronger from this.”

He declined to say how many people have expressed interest in the offer, since the program is still open.

WYPR is not unionized, meaning management could have laid off employees without any kind of severance. A 2014 effort to unionize the staff at the public radio station failed.

Around 50 people are employed by WYPR, with about 15 of those handling the hosting and production duties of the station’s original programming and another six reporting and editing news stories.

Across all formats, media outlets around the U.S. have been hammered by the COVID-19 pandemic, as advertisers, facing their own losses, rein in spending. According to a running tally by the Poynter Institute, public radio stations in Chicago, Houston, St. Louis and Boston have all laid off staffers.

In a July 21 email to staff obtained by Baltimore Fishbowl, Oliver wrote that WYPR raised $123,281 from 919 pledges during its fundraising campaign at the end of the fiscal year, running from June 15-30.

Oliver told Baltimore Fishbowl the station is trying to project what financial impact the pandemic will have in the next fiscal year. He thought the month of June may have been the nadir, “but with states and local jurisdictions rolling back restrictions, we may not have seen the bottom,” he said.

Aside from listener donations, public radio stations make money through sponsors, underwriters and grants.

Two sources at the station, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the buyouts, praised Oliver for his handling of a delicate situation, noting the station has avoided furloughs, pay cuts or outright layoffs.

But one said the mood among the staff is understandably solemn.

“It’s a bad situation any way you cut it, and management could have been a lot more cutthroat than they’re being,” the source said. “At the same time, I think that it worries people at the station. It’s never good hearing that people are getting buyouts.”

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Brandon Weigel

Brandon Weigel is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of the University of Maryland, he has been published in The Washington Post, The Sun, Baltimore Magazine, Urbanite, The Baltimore...