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KQED Cuts 34 Positions Amid Budget Shortfall

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A KQED sign in the lobby of the organization's headquarters in San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Updated, 2:25 p.m. Thursday

KQED, one of the nation’s largest public media organizations, announced Thursday it’s laying off 19 people as part of an 8% overall reduction in staff.

President and CEO Michael Isip said the company is eliminating 34 positions. In addition to the employees being laid off, 11 accepted an early retirement or voluntary departure offer and four vacant positions will not be filled.

Isip also said KQED would sunset its arts and culture podcast, Rightnowish. Other budget reductions include eliminating on-air television pledge drives beginning in October.

The staff cuts were organization-wide, Isip said, impacting television and radio broadcasting operations, membership, live events, audience intelligence, corporate sponsorship development, human resources, digital video and podcasts.


“Our top objective was to protect our public service,” Isip said. “Then we looked at the impact on operations, and then we wanted to minimize the scale of any layoffs that we needed to make for staff.”

Altogether, Isip said the budget reductions are expected to save the company $4.5 million in annual expenses. KQED is running an $8 million deficit in fiscal year 2024, which ends September 30.

The station’s most recent on-air pledge drive generated $500,000 more than its $1.1 million target. However, Isip said that alone wasn’t sufficient to reverse the trajectory of sustained expenses outpacing projected revenues.

The budget cuts would enable the media outlet to “rightsize” its deficit, Isip said. He said the company anticipates reaching a balanced budget by fiscal 2027.

“Really, what we’re focused on is the next couple of years,” he said. “We found permanent savings. … and based on our revenue projections, the deficit should continue to decrease over the next three years.”

Among the many cuts announced was a decision to shift KQED’s television master control to a centralized hub service called CentralCast.

The union representing KQED master control employees who face layoffs, the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, is challenging that move as a violation of its contract.

“The transfer of this work done by our engineering members for well over six decades would decimate our engineering bargaining unit,” Carrie Biggs-Adams, president of NABET Local 51, wrote in a letter (PDF) to KQED management earlier this week.

Molly Lacob, KQED’s deputy general counsel, said the company is “aware of their challenge, and we look forward to working with them on a resolution.”

Representatives for the other employee union at KQED — the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists — did not return a request for comment.

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Peter Cavagnaro, a KQED spokesperson, said nine of the employees to be laid off have worked for the organization for fewer than six years. The other 10 had worked for the company for seven or more years.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, a politics reporter at KQED and board president of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter, confirmed Wednesday that he was one of the 11 employees who accepted a buyout, which he said was an opportunity to reflect on his 12-year tenure in journalism.

“Different people have different levels of stamina for [the job],” he said. “The pace has gotten me to the point where I just needed a little time to rest, and that might mean a month or two. That might mean a year. Who knows?”

Fitzgerald Rodriguez first became engaged in journalism in middle school when he was named co-editor of the school paper, the Penguin Press. His father had recently died, and he said he was struggling in school.

“But seeing a purpose behind learning, seeing a purpose behind writing, seeing a purpose behind meeting people in your community really gave me a purpose in school,” Fitzgerald Rodriguez said.

Rightnowish host Pendarvis Harshaw said he will continue to work for KQED within its arts department. At least one other member of the show’s three-person team will be laid off. The show’s last episode will be on July 18.

The podcast has won several awards, including the 2021 Black Podcast Award for Best Film and Television Podcast and the 2020 Black Podcast Award for Best Culture Podcast, and in 2023, it was named a finalist in the 2nd Annual Signal Awards’ Individual Episodes category.

Harshaw began the show in 2019, transforming what was then a photo series on Twitter into a radio show, which later morphed into a podcast. Last fall, he and the team launched a special series, Hyphy Kids Got Trauma, an introspective examination of a Bay Area youth culture that swelled into a national hip-hop phenomenon.

He said it prompted people to interact with KQED, and by extension, public media, in ways they hadn’t previously.

“People really engaged with me and said that they felt seen and heard about the pain that they experienced during the hyphy movement,” Harshaw said. “We talk about diversifying public media. That is part of it.”

But Harshaw said the deep reporting that went into the series wasn’t always possible to sustain with a weekly show.

“It’s not easy to convince people — young folks of color, young Black folks — to listen to your public media station,” Harshaw said. “It’s difficult to bring people into a place where they feel like they’ve been told not to go for so long.”

Jen Chien, KQED’s director of podcasts, said the show’s audience numbers have seen “an overall downward trend.” The decision to end it is “not a judgment on the quality of the show, or of the capacity or talents of the team that makes it.”

“It’s about making strategic decisions during a time of financial distress,” she said.

When asked whether canceling Rightnowish reflected a retreat from KQED’s commitment to representing diverse voices, Isip defended the decision. He pointed to the company’s $1.9 million acquisition last year of Snap Judgment, which produces the podcasts Snap Judgment and Spooked, as evidence.

“The reality is, we’re investing in productions that will drive audience and growth,” Isip said, “and [Rightnowish] wasn’t hitting our goals.”

In an effort to drive digital growth, Isip said the company recently launched the KQED Studios Fund, a $10 million initiative to grow podcasts and online video production that will focus on “stories and programs rooted in the Bay Area.”

As KQED looks for ways to monetize its digital content, Isip said the local news outlet is entering “uncharted territory.”

“We’re still serving our broadcast audiences, which gives us some financial stability, and that gives us a time to experiment and expand into these digital platforms,” Isip said. “It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition for us.”

Other budget cuts include automating overnight radio master control, reducing the maximum amount of paid time off employees can build up and shrinking daytime security staffing by one officer. The company will also not renew its leases for its satellite office and signage in downtown San José, a decision Isip said would not impact the outlet’s South Bay news coverage.

The budget reductions come as the station has completed a major $140 million expansion, which included a $94 million renovation of its headquarters in San Francisco and a $45 million investment in its programming and services.

It’s the second round of layoffs within four years. The public media nonprofit laid off 20 employees in 2020 amid a decline in corporate sponsorship.

KQED’s staff cuts announced Thursday were the latest to hit public media outlets across the country. On Wednesday, GBH in Boston announced it would lay off 31 employees. That 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.


This story was reported and written by KQED senior editor Erin Baldassari and edited by KQED’s Dan Brekke. 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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