WBEZ union charges Chicago Public Media with unfair labor practices in wake of layoffs (2024)

There is some static in the air at Chicago public radio station WBEZ.

The local unit of SAG-AFTRA, which represents more than 60 employees at WBEZ, filed an unfair labor practices complaint Monday against Chicago Public Media in the wake of layoffs and buyouts thinning the ranks at the NPR station.

The charges at the National Labor Relations Board allege the nonprofit parent company of WBEZ and the Chicago-Sun-Times “failed and refused to provide information demanded by the union” regarding an employee headcount and financial data.

The unfair labor practices complaint is the first filed against Chicago Public Media by the union since it began representing WBEZ employees more than a decade ago. It preceded an annual board meeting Monday shifted from in-person to chat-disabled Zoom, thwarting an opportunity for union members to voice their concerns about cutbacks at the radio station.

“We have been asking and asking for a dialogue, and for a chance to work together on some of the issues that we face at WBEZ,” said Mary Dixon, host of “Morning Edition” on WBEZ and a member of the union’s labor management council. ”It just is so disappointing to have that annual meeting moved online. To me, that’s not what public media should be about.”

There has been significant uncertainty at Chicago Public Media in recent months, beginning with the December announcement that CEO Matt Moog would be stepping down two years after combining WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times under the same nonprofit banner.

Despite a launch backed by $61 million in philanthropic support, declining revenue has been putting the potentially groundbreaking media model through an increasingly stressful financial test, forcing cost-saving measures to keep operating losses in check.

In April, Chicago Public Media announced the decision to dramatically scale back WBEZ’s podcasting unit, eliminate its urban alternative radio platform Vocalo and lay off 14 employees across the station and newspaper.

In addition to the layoffs, three employees accepted voluntary buyouts and departed last month. The downsizing represents a 5% reduction in headcount this year at Chicago Public Media, which has 294 remaining employees, according to a presentation at Monday’s board meeting.

Moog, who is serving as interim CEO during a search for his replacement, said Chicago Public Media has increased investment in its newsroom by 25% since 2020, despite a more challenging media landscape.

“We’ve also tried to make some strategic decisions about where our resources are best used in an environment where subscription revenue is declining and advertising declining, membership is just barely holding on,” Moog said Monday. “We felt it was important that in order to continue that kind of investment, that we make some tough choices.”

Chicago Public Media projects operating revenue at about $70 million for fiscal year 2024, which ends June 30, according to its financial reports. That’s $5 million or 6% below its budget for the year, and down from $72 million last year.

Cutbacks — including the recent layoffs — helped Chicago Public Media carve $5 million out of its annual operating expense, getting it to roughly breakeven in fiscal year 2024.

The board approved a 2025 budget Monday at just under $70 million in operating revenue and nearly $71 million in expenses, projecting a net operating deficit of $1.14 million. Chicago Public Media plans to increase the headcount next year to 303 employees, including five open positions to be filled on the content side.

Moog said Chicago Public Media has launched a number of revenue initiatives to help close a funding gap at the Sun-Times over the next two or three years.

“That gap is currently being funded by the philanthropic funding that we received two-and-a-half years ago,” Moog said. “We are reducing that sustainability gap and getting to the point where the Chicago Sun-Times and ‘BEZ will be well integrated, supporting each other, leveraging our resources, serving the community, and very importantly, establishing a sustainable financial base going forward.”

While Chicago Public Media shared both employee and financial projections Monday, it wasn’t enough to satisfy SAG-AFTRA, which sources said is looking for more detailed breakouts on the Sun-Times side of the ledger, where employees are represented by the Chicago News Guild.

In an emailed statement Monday, Paula Weinbaum, director of broadcast for Chicago SAG-AFTRA, said the unfair labor practice charge filed against Chicago Public Media is based on the company “not providing information requested by the union to administer and enforce terms of its collective bargaining agreement in connection with recent reductions in force.”

Weinbaum did not respond when asked if Monday’s disclosures provided the information sought by the union.

“Chicago Public Media has responded to multiple information requests over the last six weeks from SAG-AFTRA with detailed financial statements,” the company said in an emailed statement Monday. “CPM has also shared financial information in all-staff meetings and communications throughout the fiscal year. The decisions on allocation of resources are difficult, and these decisions were not made without considering the alternatives and impact on employees.”

Moog, a Chicago tech entrepreneur, has been a Chicago Public Media board member since 2010. He was elevated from interim to permanent CEO of Chicago Public Media in 2021, overseeing the merger of its flagship public radio station WBEZ-FM 91.5 with the Sun-Times in January 2022.

But in the two-and-a-half years since its consummation, the merger has also led to significant and abrupt leadership changes at Chicago Public Media, including Sun-Times CEO Nykia Wright stepping down in January 2023, putting Moog directly in charge of overseeing both the radio station and the newspaper.

By the end of last year, Moog was ready to relinquish the job.

On Monday, Robert Pasin, board chair at Chicago Public Media, said Koya Partners, an executive search firm, had reached out to 400 leaders, drawing 83 expressions of interest. From there, the board winnowed the pool down to eight candidates, of which four remain following a first round of interviews, according to Pasin, whose day job is CEO at family-owned Radio Flyer.

The board expects to announce its choice for CEO at Chicago Public Media by the end of the month, Pasin said.

For Dixon, a longtime Chicago news anchor who joined WBEZ in 2020 after her position was eliminated at rock station WXRT, the broader plans at her new radio home remain a little too fuzzy.

“We’re an organization in flux, at an inflection point,” Dixon said. “We do have concerns about our direction, we would like more clarity about our direction. And after today, I do not feel any more clarity than I had a week ago or two months ago.”

rchannick@chicagotribune.com

WBEZ union charges Chicago Public Media with unfair labor practices in wake of layoffs (2024)
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