The world's biggest broadcast company, iHeartMedia, on Tuesday (Jan. 14) laid off dozens of employees, including veteran DJs and program directors in top U.S. cities. "It's been a bloodbath across the whole country," says one who lost a job this morning. "My [superiors] came into my office and closed the door and said, 'Hey,' and gave me the talk of, 'This is your last day.'" Billboard could not confirm the exact number of layoffs and iHeart wouldn't comment on that subject.
"It was a shock. I definitely didn't see it coming. I'm sure a lot of people didn't," adds a program director, on-air DJ who goes by Dent, who lost his job on Tuesday morning. After 20 years at Dayton, Ohio, rock stations WTUE and WZDA, he says, "You can never really sit too comfortable, can you?"
iHeart, which has more than 850 stations, has struggled financially in recent years. The company restructured its debt in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding last year from $16 billion to $6 billion. It has also been moving towards digital streaming, with the iHeartRadio app, which has 128 million users but commands far less in advertising revenue than its AM-FM stations.
iHeart spokespeople wouldn't comment or confirm the number of layoffs, but said in a statement that "the number is relatively small given our overall employee base of 12,500."
"We are modernizing our company to take advantage of the significant investments we have made in new technology and aligning our operating structure to match the technology-powered businesses we are now in," the statement continued. "This is another step in the company’s successful transformation as a multiple platform 21st century media company."
Tuesday’s layoffs sent a ripple through the company, as employees' phones started lighting up with texts in the middle of breakfast. "People are concerned," says a source at an iHeart station. A laid-off iHeart employee added by e-mail: "My meeting with the GM this morning lasted maybe 45 seconds or so. He read a statement from a piece of paper (that I barely remember) and I was shown the door." Another laid-off source has been hearing all day from colleagues and speculates that the job reductions are disproportionately hitting "mid-major markets," like Pittsburgh or Richmond, Virginia, as opposed to more lucrative big cities, or smaller markets where the company can more easily install syndicated programming from its central office.
"Definitely a move away from the live and local," says the source. "I just don't think you can have a market of this size without any local talent -- if you want good quality radio, anyway."
Spotify-and-YouTube-style streaming, as well as alternative entertainment options such as Netflix and video games, have pounded traditional broadcast companies in recent years, and tracks no longer have to catch on at once-all-powerful radio stations in order to become major hits. "That's where iHeart is headed," says another iHeart employee laid off Tuesday. "Their focus is going to be on their app and podcasting and not as much on local markets and terrestrial. It's definitely got me considering what my next step is going to be."
Still, radio remains important, and Tuesday layoffs are likely to reverberate in the record and concert industries: "It's such a sad day," says a label source who frequently works with radio programmers. "We already have such a hard time getting music played/exposed properly . . . to downsize or take away any music station is such a huge loss for the formats."
Bob Pittman, iHeartMedia's chairman and CEO, frequently compares the company, and radio in general, to a valuable house with a hefty mortgage payment. He cites studies such as a Nielsen report that shows 270 million Americans listened to radio in 2018, compared to 255 million a decade ago. "Radio's been growing," he said last year. "From 1970 to 2018, the reach of radio is virtually unchanged." Pittman and Richard J. Bressler, the company's chief operating officer, sent a memo to employees Tuesday morning about "transforming our operating structure to more fully utilize the technology assets we have built"; the memo outlined four new divisions as well as "centers of excellence" such as a recently launched digital "innovation center" in Nashville.
IHeart's debt issues remain challenging. Late last year, cable giant Liberty Media Corp., which specializes in buying damaged media properties and turning them around, reportedly asked the U.S. Department of Justice to expand its iHeart investment from 5% to a controlling stake. If that turns out to help iHeartMedia, it would be too late for the laid-off DJs. "Every job has a shelf life," says Pete Kaliner, who on Tuesday lost his job as a seven-year afternoon host at news-talk WWNC in Asheville, North Carolina. "That's the nature of radio. It's the nature of all things."