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NPR Goes Into New Year Leaner

How the Recent Cuts Will Affect Engineering, NPR Labs and Other Operations

WASHINGTON The economic downturn has affected powerhouse pubcaster National Public Radio and its employees.

NPR has 26.4 million people listening to its programs each week and 8 million people visiting each month; but because of the uncertain economy and a sharp decline in current and projected revenues from corporate underwriting, it is reducing its workforce by 7 percent and trimming expenses.

Some of the staff cuts have become effective already; most will take place in the first quarter.

NPR West in Culver City, Calif., will remain open and NPR Labs will continue its research initiatives.

Staff and expense reductions are being made in reporting, editorial and production areas; station services; digital media; research; communications and administrative support. A total of 64 filled positions have been eliminated out of NPR’s staff of 889; also, 21 open positions will not be filled, and travel and discretionary expenses have been cut.

Of the 64 eliminated positions, six were in engineering, Radio World confirmed. Of the six, three were bureau recording broadcast recording technicians at NPR West related to two cancelled programs; one was the same position in the New York Bureau and the other two were engineering management positions.

The majority of the personnel cuts result from the upcoming cancellation of two NPR produced programs “Day to Day” and “News & Notes.” The programs, produced out of NPR West, will remain on the air through March 20. The network said the shows had not garnered the corporate underwriting necessary to remain viable.

Some 30 employees will remain at NPR West, which opened in 2002. The facility remains a part of NPR’s future, according to Dana Davis Rehm, the network’s senior vice president of strategy and partnerships.

“If we had closed NPR West, we would still need to place people in another facility,” said Rehm, asked by Radio World to respond to rumors that NPR West was going to be shuttered.

Workers remaining at the facility include the support team for the “Morning Edition” co-host Renee Montagne, as well as staff involved in reporting, engineering, IT and development.

NPR West remains a big part of NPR’s disaster recovery plan, the back-up facility in the event of a disaster affecting the network’s ability to transmit out of Washington, Rehm confirmed, while Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul is the back-up operations center for the Public Radio Satellite System.

Mike Starling, NPR vice president of engineering, chief technology officer and executive director of NPR Labs, reports to Rehm. NPR Labs lost one full-time technical position and filled a different full-time technical position that had been vacant. It also lost one temporary position. As of Jan. 12 it will have three full-time staffers, two temps and one contractor.

Other part-timers and work for the labs on an occasional basis; the figure varies quite a bit because the nature of the labs work is highly grant dependent.

The network did not name the people affected by the changes. Sources not named in this article indicated that a broadcast technical position was cut and a software technical position was added to the labs.

NPR Labs has been relatively self-supporting with grant revenue, said Rehm, estimating the cost of running the lab at $1.2 million a year.

“It doesn’t generate net revenue but it does cover its own costs,” she said. With grants, it costs NPR about $400,000 to $500,000 a year to run the labs.

The labs has been successful in securing grants; however that may become more difficult in the tough economic environment, she said, though she was confident the lab’s accessible radio and HD Radio data-associated projects would continue.

Indeed, NPR recently told the FCC it’s in discussions with CPB, iBiquity and others about alternative approaches to increasing IBOC power and has begun planning to conduct additional tests.

The network could see the economy tightening awhile ago and that, in part, drove its decision to turn over running the annual Public Radio Engineering Conference to the Association of Public Radio Engineers, Rehm said. NPR Labs had previously planned and executed that event on its own, which was a time-consuming process for its small staff. Now the lab supports APRE’s efforts to run that event.

In announcing the cuts in December, NPR’s interim President and Chief Executive Dennis Haarsager said that in July, NPR had projected a $2 million deficit for fiscal 2009. However with the rapid downturn in the economy, corporate sponsorships — its second-largest source of funding after fees paid by stations —declined and projections dropped, raising the projected deficit to $23 million and prompting the need for cuts.

NPR said it would draw down its reserves by up to 30 percent. Legal restrictions constrain what it can withdraw from the separate NPR endowment, which includes a $200 million gift from the late Joan Kroc.

Not affected by the cuts are NPR’s equipment and technical plans for its new headquarters building, said Rehm. No one has yet been named to be in charge of new equipment for the building.