In April, when large swaths of the economy were shut down because of COVID-19 and commuters stayed put, their car radios off, WHYY’s radio audience plummeted 39% from March. That led to a steep revenue drop from corporate underwriting and other sources.
But unlike some of its peers around the country facing the same evaporation of listeners and advertisers, WHYY, the Philadelphia region’s largest public media organization, has not cut staff or instituted furloughs and doesn’t expect to in the foreseeable future.
That doesn’t mean the nonprofit has an easy road ahead, given continued uncertainty over how corporate sponsorships and individual giving will fare as the pandemic’s economic disruption continues. WHYY is expected to report a net loss for the year ended June 30, its first since 2009.
“While we feel good about where we are, we are hardly without financial challenges. We got a boatload of them,” but they “won’t trigger some of the more arbitrary or unfortunate cuts in staff or cuts in benefits or cuts in wages, at least not for the foreseeable future,” chief executive William J. Marrazzo said.
To save money, WHYY has frozen wages this year and will consider a reduction in its matching contribution to employees’ retirement accounts, if necessary, a spokesperson said.
WHYY, which has expanded in the last decade through the acquisitions of news sites PlanPhilly and Billy Penn and of radio licenses at the Jersey Shore, still has plans to hire, including a mid-day radio host. It is something of an outlier in an industry that has seen peers in some other big cities, including Boston, Chicago, and Houston, cut jobs and institute furloughs, according to a tally by the Poynter Institute.
“That last fiscal quarter, April, May, June, was just a major wipeout — there’s no other word, really, to use — in terms of corporate sponsorships for public television and public radio. That just collapsed for most stations,” said Tom Thomas, co-CEO of Station Resource Group, an alliance of public media organizations. “I think we still have a very rough patch ahead in this quarter that we’re now in.”
At WHYY, corporate and nonprofit sponsorships — elsewhere in media known as advertising — fell by $1 million in fiscal 2020, to $4.4 million. Two-thirds of that decline came in the three months ended June 30. The station is budgeting for even lower numbers in the current fiscal year.
This year’s final total revenue figure was not yet available. In 2019, WHYY had total revenue of $42.7 million, which means that advertising accounted for 13%. The organization’s biggest revenue source are memberships and contributions, comprising $18 million last year.
Thomas — his organization’s board includes Kyra McGrath, WHYY’s chief operating officer said organizations such as WHYY, which operate both a public television outlet and a public radio station and have been managed in a financially disciplined way through the years, are better equipped than some others to withstand the current turmoil.
He named Oregon Public Broadcasting and KERA, in Dallas, as other examples.
Last year, WHYY journalists and other employees voted 70-1 to unionize with the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, citing “untenable working conditions” that they say have led to high turnover at one of the only growing local media outlets in the region.
“We’re glad that WHYY’s financial health remains strong,” the union said in a statement Wednesday. “We look forward to resuming negotiations on a first contract that values the content creators at WHYY.”
As the economy gradually reopens, WHYY radio has seen its audience recover from a low of 262,700 average weekly listeners in April to 336,000 last month, which was 1.5% more than in July 2019, according to data provided by WHYY. The July figure remains under the January peak of 453,600 listeners.
Digital news has also seen strong recent gains, as measured by unique visitors to WHYY News and Billy Penn. From March through June, the two sites had a combined average of 2.65 million monthly visitors, double the average in the four months before the pandemic, according to Google Analytics data provided by WHYY. The figures do not include users of the station’s FM livestream.
WHYY’s TV audience climbed 3% in fiscal 2020. Officials attributed the gain in part to added educational content for students who were stuck at home while schools were closed. That focus on education, which Marrazzo said would not generate immediate revenue but might attract large gifts from wealthy individuals and foundation, will expand in the coming school year.
Marrazzo’s long view is that the pandemic-induced media turmoil might have a different flavor, but it’s not new. He said he’s been working for years to ensure that WHYY survives the ongoing shakeout.