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Here’s Why KQED Is Latest Public Media Outlet to Face Layoffs

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KQED's renovated headquarters in San Francisco. (Courtesy Jason O'Rear)

Updated 5:15 p.m. Tuesday

This week, KQED is expected to announce it will lay off as many as 25 employees as part of its second round of staff cuts within four years.

The layoffs follow voluntary departure offers that at least nine employees accepted and will be coupled with yet-to-be-announced reductions in discretionary spending and services, according to KQED President and CEO Michael Isip.

Simply put, the cuts are the result of rapidly rising costs, especially in the area of salaries and benefits, at the same time that revenue from individuals, corporate sponsors and other sources has declined.

“It’s painful,” he said. “The people of KQED are what make this organization so special. And when you lose colleagues, it not only impacts your day-to-day work, but it impacts overall morale.”


KQED says it currently employs 387 people, including 15 on limited-term contracts. Counting temporary workers and interns,  the total is 525.

Underlying the decision to shrink its workforce are factors unique to KQED and some common to public media outlets across the country. KQED’s layoff announcement follows similar news from WBEZ in Chicago, American Public Media, WBUR in Boston, KPCC and KCRW in Southern California and Colorado Public Radio, among others.

The cuts stem, in part, from a bet about future revenue that KQED made in 2013, when it launched its Campaign 21 — a $140 million initiative that raised funds for a $94 million renovation of its San Francisco headquarters and for a $45 million investment in digital production, distribution and local news and education services.

Isip said the company has no debt associated with the renovation and that the building’s $1.5 million annual maintenance cost “is not a significant driver” of costs.

Much of the increase in expenses, Isip said, came from KQED adding 54 new positions funded by the campaign into its operating budget. That was done with the expectation that as content expanded, revenues would grow to cover the added spending.

KQED financial reports show that in the company’s 2014 fiscal year, revenue and expenses were virtually identical, each at about $67 million. Revenues rose by about 35% between 2014 and fiscal year 2023, the most recent year for which publicly accessible data is available. But expenses grew even faster during that period, jumping 50%. (KQED’s fiscal year runs from October 1 through September 30.)

“The idea at the time was: Grow service. Transform digital. It will grow our audience, and it will grow financial support,” Isip said. “Our revenue has been positive. … But that’s just not matching the expenses.”

The company ended the past two fiscal years with deficits: nearly $3 million in 2022 and $10.5 million in 2023. Isip said KQED is anticipating a third year of deficits in 2024. This year’s initial budget forecasted the shortfall at around $6 million, but a review at midyear showed the gap had grown by another $2 million. Isip said that forced the company to pivot to permanent staff reductions.

“Unless we were to do something, the deficit would continue to grow,” he said. “We’ve been able to tap our reserves to fill the gap and give us a little bit of time, and that’s just not a sustainable approach.”

At least one member of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians-Communications Workers of America (NABET-CWA) Local 51 Chapter accepted the buyout, chapter President Carrie Biggs-Adams said. As of last week, the union was negotiating on behalf of a second member, she said.

The other union representing KQED employees, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), declined to comment for this story, citing “the ongoing, sensitive nature of the conversations.”

Biggs-Adams blasted KQED’s leadership for recent programming decisions, including the elimination last year of the station’s only television news show, KQED Newsroom. She characterized the move as short-sighted because, she said, television news is one area that has remained profitable for other stations.

“KQED doesn’t know who they are,” Biggs-Adams said. “They really have lost, to my mind, their mission.”

Isip defended the decision, saying viewership for the show had dropped to around 15,000 viewers a week.

“Honestly, nobody feels as bad about it as I do,” about cutting the show, he said, noting that he came to KQED as the executive producer of This Week in Northern California, the television news show that predated KQED Newsroom. “But the reality is … we need to make some choices. And when we make choices, we look to the audience and see where they’re going for their news and information. And more and more of them are shifting to digital platforms.”

Local news outlets across the country are facing similar choices, said UC Berkeley School of Journalism Dean Geeta Anand. The news industry has been in flux for the past 40 years — first as a response to the emergence of the Internet and, more recently, as social media and artificial intelligence have entered the fray.

With changes in technology, so, too, have come “changes in how people consume journalism, changes in how the journalism industry gets its revenue, and also changes in how people are able to find and access journalism,” she said.

“You have to take risks and make your best bets on things,” Anand said. “Hindsight is 20/20, so maybe some decisions [KQED] made didn’t turn out to be the right ones, but we’re all just figuring out how to chart a course.”

National Public Radio, of which KQED is a member station, has seen its weekly listenership decline from 60 million in 2020 to 42 million in 2024 — a roughly 30% drop, according to internal NPR data reported by the New York Times.

KQED saw a similar reduction in weekly listeners, which fell from more than 734,000 in June 2021 to just over 546,000 last month — a 26% decline, according to Nielsen Audio, which tracks broadcast and streaming listenership. The station’s market share was 7.1% last month, a decrease from the 8.7% share held in June 2021 but an increase from last May, when the share dropped to 4.5%.

Some of the changes in listening habits can be traced to the pandemic, said Mike Janssen, digital editor at Current, a trade publication that covers public broadcasting. When more people began working from home, fewer people commuted in their cars, where they typically listened to the radio.

“Our routines changed, and a decline started in radio listening — not just for public radio but radio overall — that has not bounced back,” Janssen said. “There’s been a bit of a return, but it isn’t back to pre-2020 levels. And public radio is taking a brunt of this pretty badly, as well.”

KQED laid off 20 employees in 2020, a roughly 5.5% reduction in staff, amid a steep decline in corporate sponsorship.

In fiscal year 2021, KQED received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan of $8.2 million and saw revenues rebound as more listeners began tuning in for coverage of the presidential election, KQED spokesperson Peter Cavagnaro said. Fundraising revenue benefited from higher donations, and KQED ended the year with a $22 million budget surplus.

“We had nearly $60 million in contributions that year,” Cavagnaro said, “a number we have not since matched.”

KQED membership peaked that same year at just over 250,000 before falling to 233,000 last year.

Historically, public radio stations have relied on their on-air pledge drives to fund operations. As listership declines, Janssen said, “Then what’s going to replace that?”

“Everyone knows that they need to work harder to monetize digital platforms, but that’s a big lift,” Janssen said. “There aren’t easy answers about how to do that.”

A Pew Research Center survey released earlier this month found that people’s consumption of local news has shifted online, with 48% of respondents reporting they accessed their local news online or through social media, up from 37% in 2018. Roughly 9% said they got their local news from a radio station, a number that was virtually unchanged from 2018.

As consumption habits change, public radio stations are struggling to keep up, said Tim Eby, who was the general manager of St. Louis Public Radio until 2020 and continues to write about trends in public media.

Part of the problem, he said, is a tension between trying to reach new audiences while still maintaining public radio’s core listenership.

“That’s one of the big challenges public radio is facing right now,” Eby said. “It is really creating some tension in terms of both the best way to reach audiences as well as the best way to operate from an efficiency standpoint.”

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Isip said KQED is devoting increased resources to its digital efforts, including expanding the company’s product team, which is responsible for developing its website, apps and other digital services. But, he acknowledged that, like other public radio stations, KQED is still struggling to find ways to monetize its digital content or convert digital readers and social media viewers into paying members.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2024 survey, just 15% of consumers said they paid for a local news outlet subscription in the past year.

“Everyone’s just trying to figure out what the monetization approach will be, and we’re just in it right now,” Isip said. “We’re sort of in this transition from a declining but still profitable broadcast model to this emerging digital environment where we don’t really know what the potential is for financial support.”

Story updated to include current number of KQED employees. 


This story was reported and written by KQED senior editor Erin Baldassari and edited by KQED’s Dan Brekke, who contributed additional reporting. Under KQED’s standard practices for reporting on itself, no member of KQED management or its news executives reviewed this story before it was posted publicly.

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