The Media Notepad: Fallout continues from Chicago Public Media layoffs

Paramount, Skydance advance merger talks; Iger survives Disney proxy board vote

The fallout continues from the decision to lay off fourteen employees at WBEZ and Sun-Times owner Chicago Public Media last Wednesday, with a Chicago alderperson from the city’s 49th Ward on the far North Side being the latest to weigh in.

“Seeing the increases, seeing the benefits, and then knowing that this person is on their way out, making these types of decisions, it seems imprudent … If your organization is not doing well, and this is the basis for making decisions around layoffs, I’d love to see those cuts start at the top,” said Maria Hadden as reported by Sun-Times, who represents neighborhoods such as Rogers Park and Edgewater and is a WBEZ listener. “If the future is not continuing in these spaces, in podcasting and Vocalo, then what is the future vision they have for WBEZ in Chicago?”

She’s obviously referring to CPM CEO Matt Moog, who took a nineteen percent pay raise adding to his six-figure salary. Moog – who announced in December he was departing – but now won’t leave until August, defended the moves – and the pay raise.

“Vocalo and our podcast unit were important and innovative initiatives that consistently ran at a substantial loss, and fell far short of the goals that we set for them,” he said to the Sun-Times. “We made the difficult decision to scale back these programs to focus on initiatives that have a sustainable model.”

He also said in a press release, “All employees, including executives, are paid based on a market compensation study. CEO compensation is carefully reviewed and approved by the compensation committee of the board.”

There are also questions about transparency. While CPM’s financial and investment committee and board meetings are generally open to the public, eleven out of the last fifteen were not – including the one March 5 in support of the company layoffs. Several donors – including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, continue supporting CPM – who believe the consolidation of WBEZ and the Sun-Times can still work.

WBEZ eliminated its content unit Wednesday, leading to the cancellation of three of its podcasts and laying off nine people from that department. Similar to what happened to other local radio stations when their terrestrial radio runs end, Vocalo – which was heard on three FM stations, would convert to a 24/7 jockless online stream on May 1.

This means a format playing indie R&B, hip-hop, and jazz music will be reduced to the same distribution method used for JackFM and Walmart Radio (yes, you can actually listen to the Walmart in-store radio format online.)

It’s a very bad look for Chicago Public Media, its donors, and Moog. While donations and federal money support both the Sun-Times and WBEZ, most of the funding for “non-profit” public radio comes from wealthy donors, grants, and foundations, like the one mentioned above. For Moog to go public with this pay raise is asinine as he should’ve stepped down immediately after announcing his departure in December while CPM could’ve installed an interim CEO and not hung around the office for eight months.

Employees have a right to be angry. Moog said he’s not promising there would be more layoffs, but this only uncovers the seedy way public radio and television are run – much like their “for profit” counterparts and it’s even worse than we imagined.

It looks like Paramount is about to do the Skydance.

According to several media outlets, David Ellison’s independent production company is poised to buy Shari Redstone’s stake in Paramount Global. The two are now in exclusive negotiations, meaning Paramount can’t engage with other bidders for 30 days.

Shari Redstone’s National Amusements – her late father Sumner Redstone’s holding company – holds 80 percent of Paramount. The holding company acquired Viacom in 1987 and merged with Paramount Communications in 1994, fending off a bid from Barry Diller.

A lot can unravel during this time, but from the look of things, it might be a done deal. This comes after private equity Apollo Global Management made a reported bid of $27 billion, but was rebuffed – likely due to concerns over Apollo owning a majority in Cox Media Group, who owns local TV stations in Atlanta, Charlotte, Seattle, and other cities. Given CBS and their owned stations (such as CBS 2 here) are included in any deal, Paramount was concerned an Apollo buyout would not pass muster with the FCC, seeing what happened when the agency fined Nexstar and Mission over violating the ownership cap with their purchase of WPIX New York.

Paramount stock predictably dropped in trading last Thursday, backtracking eight percent after surging fifteen percent the previous day. Warner Bros. Discovery had also pursued the company, but anti-trust concerns sunk any idea of a deal. Apollo was also rebuffed when they made a $11 billion bid on the actual brick-and-mortar studio on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.

Skydance was behind the top-grossing movie of 2022 (Top Gun Maverick) and is owned by David Ellison. Should the deal come to fruition, Skydance would own CBS and a portfolio of cable networks including MTV, Nickelodeon, and CBS Sports Network, and streamers Paramount Plus and Pluto TV. However, some analysts believe some kind of breakup is inevitable.

Paramount’s future has been questionable as the company lost millions of dollars in Paramount Plus as it struggled to compete in the streaming arena and has a ton of debt. Six years after Viacom purchased the network it spun off, the two split but reunited under the ViacomCBS banner in 2019 and rebranded as Paramount Global in 2022.

While not as intriguing as the recent Cook County Attorney’s Race which saw Eileen O’Neill Burke squeak out a victory over Clayton Harris by some 1700 votes and took a week to decide, it didn’t take that long for a victor to be declared in the Disney proxy war.

And it was more decisive: shareholders voted to keep Disney CEO Bob Iger in the captain’s chair with a whopping 94 percent of the vote and easily keeping Trian Partners activist billionaire investor Nelson Peltz from taking a seat on the board.

Peltz recently criticized Disney’s efforts for diversity, even going as far as to rip making the wildly successful Black Panther movie, despite being one of the highest-grossing movies of the 2010s. Disney has been front and center of the so-called “culture wars, as a backlash is building against diversity efforts (one WBEZ responded to Wednesday by dropping Vocalo and much of its programming geared toward Black audiences.) Peltz also criticized Disney for their $71 billion purchase of 20th Century Fox studio, which closed in 2019.

It’s the latest victory for Iger, who considered selling ABC and its owned stations last year but backtracked. Disney also recently settled lawsuits with Florida and Gov. Ron DeSantis after the state took over and dissolved the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the governing body surrounding Walt Disney World located sixteen miles southwest of Orlando. The District was founded in 1967 to create the park, which opened in 1971.

Iger’s victory doesn’t mean all is magically fine in the Magic Kingdom. Disney’s stock price has stagnated as its streaming service – despite millions of subscribers worldwide – is still losing money, and ABC, its stations, and ESPN continue to lose ground to cord-cutting.

Disney plans to launch a direct-to-consumer ESPN service next year, not to mention partnering with Fox Corp. and Warner Bros. Discovery in a yet-to-be-named sports VMVPD service slated to launch this fall.

Meanwhile, this isn’t the last we may hear from Peltz. He plans to keep watch on what Disney does and could try again to run for a board seat.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *