Layoffs: Hang On in '03

Media dramatically slowed the pace at which they axed employees as the economy slogged through 2002, but that doesn't mean your job is safe quite yet.

TV and radio stations, networks, publishers and other media outlets laid off 11,516 workers through November, and the number likely rose by another couple of thousand workers just in time for Christmas, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm. That's a 70%-plus drop from the 43,420 media layoffs the firm counted during a bloody 2001. (The firm places the Internet in a separate category.)

But the trend toward the end of the year should give little comfort to anxious workers. Throughout most of 2002, the pace of media layoffs slowed month by month, not just fewer than the 4,000-8,000 axed monthly during the dark days of the summer of 2001 but also lower than 1,000 or so per month during the early part of 2002. Then, in late summer, the firings started drifting upward, from just a few hundred to 1,500. By the fall, they were about as high as they had been 12 months earlier.

"Layoffs took a big jump in October and November; they returned to the levels of 2001, which is the heaviest we ever tracked," said Challenger, Gray CEO John Challenger. "Media came in for its fair share. I'm not optimistic now."

Among the holiday casualties was CNN veteran business reporter Allan Dodds Frank. The network, he said, seems to be targeting those who aren't "young and chirpy."

His phone and computer connections were cut off when he was given the word, but Frank was back in CNN's New York City bureau "because no one else would want to clean out my office.

"I've always assumed I'm employable," said Frank. "We're going to see."

Other companies handing out pink slips for Christmas include troubled cable operator Charter Communications (1,500-plus); Viacom's WBBM-TV (10) and Detroit duopoly, WKBD-TV and WWJ-TV; Black Entertainment Television (40); and satellite radio startup XM Satellite (80). Website carefully chronicles media layoff notices.

Radio stations have been particularly hammered not just by the recession but by the concentration of ownership that has let a single owner corral up to seven
stations in a single market and eliminate a lot of redundant workers.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the number of radio-station workers has fallen from 117,000 in 2000 to 110,000 in 2002. That means radio now employs fewer people than the industry did in 1982, eliminating 20 years of growth.

"That shows you what consolidation and automation will do," said Sanford Bernstein & Co. media analyst Tom Wolzien. "A single studio doesn't employ as many people as six studios."

BLS data shows that broadcast-station employment has dropped 3% during the past two years, to 133,000, breaking a 10-year growth curve. The big gains continue to be among cable operators, who have hired throughout the recession, with employment rising 4.5% in the past two years. The launch of new digital video, high-speed Internet and telephone services has required new installers, customer service representatives and telephone sales people.

But that doesn't make MSOs immune. Charter, Comcast, Adelphia and Cablevision Systems all had layoffs in the last half of the year. "You'll see more," said a senior executive at one cable operator. "As Comcast digests the AT&T Broadband systems more fully, you'll see them cutting plenty of people at their systems."