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NPR cancels 4 podcasts amid major layoffs

caption: The headquarters for National Public Radio in Washington on April 15, 2013.
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The headquarters for National Public Radio in Washington on April 15, 2013.

NPR moved this week to cut 10 percent of its staff and stop production of a trio of acclaimed seasonal podcasts - Invisibilia, Louder Than a Riot and Rough Translation - as it seeks to close a yawning budget gap that stands in excess of $30 million.

The network also canceled a comedy podcast unveiled just a year ago called Everyone & Their Mom, a spinoff of the mainstay radio program Wait Wait Don't Tell Me.

"We literally are fighting to secure the future of NPR at this very moment by restructuring our cost structure. It's that important," NPR chief executive John Lansing said in an interview. "It's existential."

Lansing said the network sought to protect its core public service mission of journalism while preserving what he calls its "North Star." That is his push to ensure the network has a bigger and broader audience base in the future, rooted in younger and more diverse listeners, readers and consumers.

Those laid off are likely to include some familiar NPR voices. The network has not made any specific announcements, however, choosing instead to let those affected decide how to tell people of their departures.

The layoffs also affect people who work behind the scenes to produce the shows and podcasts, design visual elements for the web, conduct audience research, and do the myriad other functions required of a major news network. National Public Media, NPR's ad-services arm owned jointly with PBS and WGBH in Boston, is not included in this round of layoffs because it went through its own downsizing earlier this year, Lansing said.

Lansing said that executives moved quickly as the scope of the problems became more evident - NPR in November froze most vacant positions and sharply reduced travel - so a full strategic overhaul was not possible. But the network is unifying its newsroom and programming division, which makes most of NPR's podcasts. Lansing said the current separation artificially cleaved NPR's journalism and editorial creations.

"We've tried very hard to sustain the essential things that will keep us moving forward," said Anya Grundmann, NPR's senior vice president of programming and audience development, who oversees the network's entertainment and music content and also most of its podcasts.

"That includes our ability to be meaningful to audiences on digital and visual platforms, our radio audiences, our podcast audiences - our narrative journalism," Grundmann said. "I think we lose some excellent projects that have made NPR stand out.... And we're losing some great people, who are incredibly talented and who have contributed so much to NPR and to public service."

NPR says that the investigative podcast series Embedded, which has appeared irregularly, will become the umbrella under which all of NPR's investigative and enterprise narratives series will stream. Officials say it will become a frequent, dependable channel for listeners to consume NPR content.

Lansing said no member stations would have to shuffle their program schedules, as NPR had not canceled any of its radio shows. He noted that no podcasts that had evolved into radio programs had been dropped by the network.

Through the layoffs of about 100 people and the elimination of dozens of vacant positions, NPR intends to cut back its workforce from approximately 1,200 to about 1,050 employees. The nonprofit network's layoffs represent its largest reduction in staff since the 2008 recession.

"It's been emotional, I have to tell you that," said Pat O'Donnell, executive director of SAG-Aftra's Mid-Atlantic division. The union represents 570 people at NPR, primarily in news and programming. "The financial paperwork and the meetings with SAG-Aftra proved they needed to do something. They had to do something. It's real."

O'Donnell said the company agreed, in negotiations with the union, to enhance the severance package for laid-off workers above what was required by the collective bargaining agreement.

"To me, it seemed like they had a lot of thought behind this," O'Donnell said. "Nobody will be happy. But I do believe they told us in good faith, they negotiated this in good faith, and they carried it out to the best of their ability."

Other media outlets, including Gannett, CNN, Vox Media, and major digital powerhouses, such as Amazon, Google and Meta, have also experienced significant job cuts in recent months.

Lansing said the network intended to remain a leading force in audio and podcasting. NPR places third in the Podtrac industry tracker, which ranks publishers based on U.S. audience size, though the network currently boasts just 49 titles - far fewer than many of its major competitors.

Most affected NPR staff will stay on until April 28.

Disclosure: This story was reported and written by NPR Media Correspondent David Folkenflik and NPR Intern Mary Yang. It was edited by Acting Chief Business Editor Emily Kopp. Under NPR's protocol for reporting on itself, no NPR corporate official or news executive reviewed this story before it was posted publicly. [Copyright 2023 NPR]

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