Thirty-four WHYY journalists signed a letter to top managers last February complaining about how they were running the newsroom at the biggest public media outlet in the Philadelphia region.

The journalists complained of poor organization, lack of communication, and a focus on quick stories instead of the longer pieces that National Public Radio has long championed. “Inspiration, communication, and morale are low, while burnout, siloing, and attrition are high,” the letter said.

By the end of the year, 13 of the letter-signers, all members of a union that was then more than a year into negotiating its first contract with WHYY, had left. The contract was signed in September.

But that doesn’t even capture the full extent of the exodus from WHYY, which had strong radio ratings at the end of last year. Since the beginning of 2021, at least 25 newsroom staffers — about half — have left or given notice, most recently a string of editors, including the assistant news director and those who oversee the state-focused Keystone Crossroads and PlanPhilly, focused on neighborhoods.

“The desire to retain our talented colleagues was one of the many reasons we formed a union and fought so hard for our first contract,” according to a statement from SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents about 75 WHYY employees, not all of them in the newsroom. “But WHYY has not addressed all the underlying issues contributing to turnover.”

» READ MORE: WHHY staffers' letter to management dated Feb. 26, 2021.

In interviews, 10 former and six current WHYY staffers cited lower pay than at other media outlets, a lack of opportunities for advancement, a haphazard emphasis on short news pieces to the detriment of longer stories that attracted them to public radio, and a feeling that management is not firmly committed to podcasts and other newer approaches to journalism.

Turmoil in journalism

The turnover at WHYY has been happening during a time of volatility and disruption in local news media, including The Inquirer, as outlets here and across the country try to diversify their newsrooms and improve their coverage of communities of color — all while under pressure to find new ways to reach audiences and win their financial support.

The departures at WHYY include Sandra M. Clark, WHYY’s vice president for news and civic dialogue, who left Feb. 11 to become chief executive of StoryCorps, a Brooklyn nonprofit that records and shares the stories of ordinary Americans.

“It is not trying to flee `HYY. It’s not running away from anything, but I have an opportunity that I can’t pass up,” she said of her decision. Clark led WHYY’s efforts to diversify its on-air hosts and news staff and make the station sound more like the region it covers in part by encouraging more community contributors. And she has been praised by outside experts for those efforts.

Clark, a former managing editor at The Inquirer who started at WHYY in 2016, attributed the wave of resignations to the times: The Great Resignation hitting every industry, the intensity of news since 2020, a period of media experiments opening new opportunities, and the increasing availability of remote work.

“I’m not sugar-coating anything,” she said. “It feels like hell every single time somebody leaves, particularly people we weren’t able to get to the promise of what we thought they could be and what they wanted to be. But this is a very unique moment, too.”

Many of the staffers interviewed by The Inquirer agreed that large-scale socio-economic shifts — including remote work allowing people to change jobs without moving — contributed to the exodus. But departing staffers also said WHYY management was a major factor. None of the journalists would allow their names to be used for fear of reprisals that could hurt their careers.

Compounding those long-term frustrations was a bitter unionization fight that secured raises, family leave, and other improvements, but didn’t change company culture. There’s also the stress of covering COVID-19, protests after George Floyd’s murder, and a tense presidential election followed by an insurrection.

WHYY is not alone

Turnover and staff retention are challenges throughout the news industry, said Andrea Wenzel, an assistant professor at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication. Wenzel is researching diversity, equity and inclusion as well as community engagement efforts at The Inquirer and WHYY in the context of larger efforts to make local journalism more equitable and antiracist.

“It’s tricky to make it a neat and tidy story about WHYY. They have some big challenges, but they are not alone,” Wenzel said. It’s the media landscape of the moment.

Comparable statistics for other NPR affiliates are not readily available. Spokespeople for both the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio said they had no data on turnover at local affiliates.

The Inquirer asked 10 of the nation’s largest NPR affiliates for 2021 newsroom staff turnover data. Only one responded with statistics. In Seattle, KUOW had a turnover rate last year of 2.7%, according to news director Gigi Douban. One staffer out of 37 left.

The Inquirer newsroom lost 48 writers and other newsroom employees last year, including about 20 veteran writers and others who took a buyout. That amounts to 23% of the 210 people who started 2021 in the newsroom. The Inquirer hired 47 for newsroom positions during the year. Turnover has continued this year, with at least five departures so far in 2022.

WHYY confirmed 19 newsroom departures in 2021. The station started 2021 with 51 people attributed to the newsroom, the same number it has now. That works out to a 37% turnover rate. So far this year, an additional six people have left or are about to leave. That lifts the rate to 49% since Jan. 1, 2021.

Five of the former WHYY staffers came to The Inquirer.

William J. Marrazzo, WHYY’s president and chief executive since 1997, said employee turnover at even a much lower rate than has happened in his newsroom is “not helpful.”

“But fortunately for us,” he said, “even in a super tight labor market, we’ve been able to replace those people in kind and in some instances with people with a higher skill set.”

What’s more, Marrazzo said, the turnover “has not come at the expense of our operating margins, which have remained super strong because of audience growth and audience support and it hasn’t come at the expense of what is ultimately our strategic goal to reach more and more citizens in the tri-state area.”

Total WHYY membership rose from 124,328 in mid-2020 to 127,162 in mid-2021. Membership remains the biggest driver, bringing in $23 million in annual revenue, compared with $16 million for contracts and grants and $3.6 million in sponsorships.

WHYY’s weekly radio audience averaged 370,700 in the last three months of 2021, still down 7% from the last thee months of 2019, before the pandemic. That’s normal for the industry, experts said.

Marrazzo, whose compensation of $740,000 in 2019 was a flashpoint for union members during contract negotiations, attributed the departures to disruptions caused by consumer demands.

» READ MORE: In 2017, WHYY's Marrazzo tops in pay among peer public broadcasting chiefs

“Our audiences still want in-depth information. They want it in a balanced way, but they want it in, relatively speaking, more bite-sized, not necessarily long-form pieces,” Marrazzo said. “That creates a dynamic which is not comfortable for some people. And I respect that, totally.”

SAG-AFTRA and WHYY agreed to a contract in September, nearly two years after the journalists and other employees voted 70-1 to unionize. Union organizers cited “untenable working conditions” that they say caused high turnover even then.

Public radio gains

The turmoil at WHYY happened against a backdrop of public media outlets nationwide expanding local news coverage, experts said.

Some, such as WHYY, grew in part through acquisitions. WHYY acquired PlanPhilly in 2015 and Billy Penn in 2018. PlanPhilly covers neighborhoods with an emphasis on development and transportation. Billy Penn is a local news site. They helped make written stories on WHYY’s website central to its news operation.

Nationwide, NPR and PBS affiliates added 1,345 local journalism jobs between 2011 and 2019, according to a report by Station Resource Group, a nonprofit alliance of public media organizations in Clarksburg, Md. The total fell 188 in 2020 during the first year of the pandemic, as radio audiences collapsed and sponsorships declined, but remains high.

“A number of stations that had been marginally competitive in the past all of a sudden were vying for top-shelf ratings in some very big markets,” Fred Jacobs, a radio consultant in Michigan, said of public radio.

That was the case last year in the Philadelphia region.

In December WHYY became Philadelphia’s most-listened-to morning drive station, WHYY and other industry sources said. Overall, WHYY was number five in the rankings, ahead of perennial news leader KYW, according to InsideRadio.

“It wasn’t too many years ago that we were 12th, 13th, 15th, 16th place. We’re in the game, big time. Our impact here is material,” Marrazzo said

But KYW radio is not sitting still. Kevin McCorry, longtime editor of Keystone Crossroads, a statewide collaboration of NPR stations, announced Feb. 4 on Twitter that he is leaving WHYY to be news director at KWY “as it starts a new chapter and grows its capacity for ambitious, original, multimedia journalism.”

Clark’s departure has Wenzel, the Temple scholar, watching with interest who will replace her. Clark made significant progress in changing structures at the station to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion are at the forefront of decision making, Wenzel said.

“It’s really important who comes next in terms of sustainability,” she said.