In this week’s issue… Saga axes veteran PD over COVID concerns – Connoisseur downsizes in CT – Forever Froggys Again – Schlesinger Grows in Central PA – Remembering Boston’s Morrissey, other virus victims – Breakfast Club’s delayed Toronto launch
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*As we head into another month of coronavirus disruptions to our industry, we once again have to lead off this week’s issue with news of staffing cutbacks (and, later in the column, too many obituaries) as a result of the pandemic.
In southern MAINE, Randi Kirshbaum has been a radio staple for decades, arriving in Portland from Boston’s WBCN and spending 38 years with what’s now Saga’s Portland Radio Group cluster, most recently as brand manager of WMGX (Coast 93.1) and WCLZ (98.9) and on-air work at WCLZ and WPOR (101.9).
As with most managers in the business, Kirshbaum shifted to working from home back in March, at least up until last Monday. In a Facebook post, Kirshbaum told friends and followers she had been terminated by Saga because she’s not yet ready to return to the office.
“Due to a serious medical condition that would make contracting Covid-19 very dangerous, if not fatal for me, my doctor has recommended that I continue to work from home in order to avoid exposure. I am not willing to ignore my doctor’s guidance and put my health in jeopardy,” she wrote. “Saga gave me an ultimatum, saying that if I did not show up to the office today, I would no longer be employed. I love my job, but I’m not willing to die for it.”
Amidst an outpouring of listener support and lots of critical media coverage (Portland is one of those markets where the newspapers and TV stations still pay attention to radio stories), Saga fired back.
“We need to have leadership in the building. You don’t lead from a bedroom in your slippers,” Saga SVP/operations Chris Forgy told Portland’s WMTW-TV. And the company pushed back strongly to several friendly trade publications, supplying them with contract documents that Saga says show that Kirshbaum had agreed to a work-from-home arrangement that would be reviewed every two weeks, with Saga having the option to cancel the agreement and bring her back to the office. The company also claims Kirshbaum’s doctor was unable to provide evidence of her medical claims.
Later in the week, Kirshbaum told the Portland Press Herald she’d hired a lawyer to file a discrimination complaint with the state, with a lawsuit likely to follow.
We’re not lawyers here at NERW, so we’re not qualified to render a judgment on the legal merits of either Kirshbaum’s case or Saga’s response. From a PR point of view, however, we’re a little surprised at Saga CEO Ed Christian’s strong statement to one of the trades that he “did not appreciate his company being maligned with untruths during these curious times.”
After all, these “curious times” are finding lots of companies in lots of industries finding creative ways to manage their employees from remote locations. And while the revenue downturn is hitting so many broadcasters so badly, it’s hard to ignore the publicity Saga has already reaped for itself in the Portland market with the recent dismissals of longtime morning and weekend hosts at news-talk WGAN (560), not to mention the (apparently voluntary) retirement of another market institution, WYNZ (100.9) morning man Chuck Igo.
Which is to say – Saga may indeed be on solid legal ground. But in a business that’s built so strongly on the personal ties between local voices and passionate audiences, it shouldn’t have been at all surprising that Kirshbaum’s termination was going to come with blowback. In a market as competitive as Portland, will it turn out to have been worth the goodwill Saga appears to have squandered, regardless of who wins once this whole process plays out?
We have a great lineup of podcasts here on our site. While you’re catching up with your summer reading, don’t forget about your summer listening. Now is the time to make sure you’re up to date with Top of the Tower.
Our latest one features Donna Halper discussing her life in radio, from her time at WMMS when she helped Rush get US airplay, to what she learned from Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg.
Don’t forget you can still visit our store to check out our other great products. We’ll be taking preorders for the 2021 calendar soon. Stay tuned!