Mar 13, 2024 - News

Colorado Public Radio fires a top host and lays off 15 in massive cutback

In this illustration, an old fashioned metal radio mic is surrounded by giant red exclamation marks.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Colorado Public Radio is experiencing its largest layoff in at least a quarter century and a new discrimination complaint related to the firing of one of its most prominent hosts.

Why it matters: The media outlet's image as a pillar of local journalism is taking a hit just as it increasingly relies on listener support to propel its operations.

State of play: CPR laid off 15 employees last week, mostly in the audio and podcast production unit, amid a 40% decline in major sponsors and financial pressures to turn a profit.

  • CEO Stewart Vanderwilt called it a strategic restructure to focus on news content rather than lifestyle, such as podcasts "Back from Broken" about addiction recovery or "¿Quién Are We?" about racial identity.
  • The unit that produced both podcasts and others is being shut down.

Between the lines: The shift came after a significant period of expansion in the newsroom and more bandwidth with the acquisition of KRCC, the NPR station in Colorado Springs, and Denverite.

  • The layoffs landed shortly after the station hosted its regular fundraising drive in late February, which staff said was successful. It also recently received an $8 million gift of a new headquarters at 777 Grant St. in Denver.

The latest: Vic Vela, the host of the award-winning "Back from Broken" and one of CPR's most recognizable on-air personalities, filed a complaint Tuesday with the Colorado Civil Rights Division and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging he was fired in January for asking for accommodations related to his own addiction and recovery disability.

  • He accused the station's management of mocking his condition and using it to manipulate his bosses.

What he's saying: "CPR was more than happy to monetize my recovery podcast … but found my ongoing recovery to be inconvenient," Vela wrote on X.

  • "I truly hoped that CPR … would live up to the reputation they've projected to the public that they care about equity, diversity and how they treat their workers. I found out the hard way that it was all just window dressing," he added.

The other side: CPR went to the extreme length of posting a statement on its website about the separation, saying "over the past several years, this person has demonstrated behaviors that are not in alignment with the values, culture and environment we have at CPR."

  • Vela's attorney Iris Halpern responded, telling Axios: "Colorado Public Radio's reaction to Mr. Vela's charge is common amongst employers who are called out on discriminatory or retaliatory conduct."

Editor's note: John is a Colorado Public Radio donor and occasional on-air guest.

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