National Public Radio’s (NPR) Boston affiliate WBUR announced Wednesday it will lay off more than ten percent of its staff and drop multiple shows, including NPR’s long-running sports radio program Only a Game, as a result of “economic fallout” from the coronavirus pandemic.
In total, WBUR is cutting 29 employees and, in addition to Only a Game — which airs across 260 radio stations, is ending its Kind World and Modern Love podcasts. The New York Times, which partners with WBUR on Modern Love, will take over that program in full.
WBUR union members expressed frustration with the timing and handling of the layoffs, releasing a statement that they are “dismayed” that the radio station, owned by Boston University, made the decision while a contract was pending.
The statement also revealed that WBUR CEO Margaret Low, who took over the 70-year-old radio station five months ago, did not consult with union members or directly contact all of the employees losing their jobs, opting instead to relay the news “mostly through other managers.”
— We Make WBUR (@WeMakeWBUR) June 17, 2020
In a memo to staff, Low said of the “hard moment” that the station would be forgoing retirement contributions and non-union wage raises, ultimately lowering its annual budget by 13 percent to $40 million. She cited “economic fallout of the past several months” as the primary reason for the cost cuts and detailed restructuring plans for WBUR within the memo.
In conjunction with the layoffs, Low outlined additional expense reductions: “Most notably — we are eliminating seven unfilled positions, cutting travel and marketing costs and canceling various contracted services. I’m taking a 10% salary cut.”
Stopping production of Only a Game drew particular criticism given its longevity — having launched in 1993 — and its fan base built in part by longtime host Bill Littlefield, who retired in 2018.
Wall Street Journal sports columnist Jason Gay objected to the move, saying the show “deserves to continue”:
I can’t say this more strongly: @OnlyAGameNPR deserves to continue at @WBUR @NPR— at a time of such bland sameness in sports media, it told stories that weren’t being told & gave a platform to voices that weren’t being heard. What Karen, Gary Marquis & Martin do is exemplary.
— Jason Gay (@jasongay) June 17, 2020
Crushing news for fans of the smartest show in sports. @klgiven and Only a Game have been consistently spectacular every Saturday morning for years. I'm going outside now to smash something. https://t.co/LkV6RCVm8i
— ChristopherMcDougall (@ChrisMcDougall) June 17, 2020
— Don Van Natta Jr. (@DVNJr) June 17, 2020
This was one of the joys of my life for 28 years.
Adios, OAG. If you liked the show, write the totebaggers and ask them what they’re doing. https://t.co/QVyHHyvt7j
— Charles P. Pierce (@CharlesPPierce) June 17, 2020
Low justified terminating the show — which will leave airwaves in September — saying, “Stations weren’t saying they were dropping it, but the economics just didn’t hold up. We were spending more money than we were making, and when it comes to national programs, they have to be able to return the investment.”
Low said that although she is hopeful, she cannot say for certain whether more layoffs at the station will occur.
“One would be not smart to say anything’s impossible,” the WBUR chief said.