On Tuesday, most of Andy Fales’ friends at work were laid off.
Fales holds down one-half of “Murph and Andy,” a sports talk radio show that airs every afternoon on Des Moines, Iowa’s KXNO. That morning, Fales rolled into work, like numerous iHeartMedia employees around the country, only to find out that the company had cut a large number of employees in the name of “transforming … operating structure.”
“The thing that pisses me off is that stuff [like this] happens and people say, ‘Well, you know, it’s corporate America, this is how it goes,'” Fales says. “That’s BS. You can understand that without accepting it. It’s not right.”
So Fales and his co-host, Keith Murphy, took a stand: Even though their show wasn’t among those being cut, they told their boss — and their thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook — that they weren’t going to go on the air that day. It was intended mainly as a gesture of solidarity with their laid-off colleagues; they didn’t expect it to have much impact, but at least they would go down swinging. Surprisingly, listeners and sponsors rallied around Fales and Murphy, and on Thursday, in a Hollywood-ready about-face, iHeartMedia re-hired all six of the laid-off employees.
The KXNO story represents a rare happy ending in a brutal week for radio. Estimates of the number of layoffs at iHeartMedia vary from hundreds to more than 1,000. (The company declined to comment on the total number of cuts this week.) In an email to employees, iHeartMedia said “there will be some employee dislocation — some by geography and some by function — which is the unfortunate price we pay to modernize the company.” In a subsequent statement, iHeartMedia said “the number [of cuts] is relatively small given our overall employee base of 12,500.”
Radio programmers say the KXNO episode illustrates the senseless nature of the iHeartMedia layoffs. The shows that were cut in Des Moines were highly rated locally, and at least one of the employees who got laid off was making minimum wage, which means that removing his salary from the books wouldn’t even amount to a rounding error in iHeartMedia’s bottom line. (At least two other iHeartMedia employees who lost their jobs this week said their stations were highly rated in key demographics.)
Nor is nationally syndicated programming likely to be an adequate replacement for locally pertinent content of the type offered by KXNO. “We don’t have any national teams, but there are a lot of very passionate sports fans,” Fales says. “They like having a local channel that talks about the University of Iowa [and] Iowa State. When that was going to be taken away by a bunch of guys in some office in some faraway city, that pissed everyone off. People can’t get this somewhere else.”
Fales and Murphy’s campaign also serves as a potential playbook for rebelling against an arbitrary corporate mandate and emerging victorious. As soon as Fales found out his colleagues were cut, he started texting with Murphy, who was on an overdue vacation with his wife in Cancun. “We just decided, we’re not going back on the air today,” Fales says. “It felt like being a scab crossing a picket line.”
iHeartMedia’s email explaining the rationale behind the mass layoffs only exacerbated the “Murph and Andy” hosts’ frustration. “It was one euphemism after another,” Fales says. “You’re replacing something successful with something that is not gonna be successful and calling that progress.”
It didn’t take long for KXNO’s sponsors to find out what had happened to their beloved radio personalities and rally behind them. By Wednesday, Fales and Murphy had compiled a list of more than a dozen businesses, including the nearby BMW dealership, Confluence Brewing Company, and more, who were ready to stop spending money on KXNO ads. “At a small radio station, that means a lot,” Fales says. “Everybody’s in full revolt; all these sponsors were gonna leave. That would be a crippling blow [to the station’s profits].”
At the same time, the fate of the KXNO radio personalities became a topic of heated discussion on social media. Fales and Murphy have more than 110,000 followers across their various Twitter accounts. “For Des Moines, we’ve got a lot [of followers], and we’re active,” Fales says. “And we have a lot of listeners who have pretty good followings of their own. You hit the right nerve [and] people get out there.”
And the story of the layoffs at KXNO hit a nerve. As word spread online, many listeners announced their intention to take their patronage elsewhere. In response to a post from Murphy on Facebook, a user named William Gilly Halling declared that “KXNO won’t be on my dial unless you and the crew are back on.” “I already deleted my iHeartRadio app because I have no use for it anymore,” added a user named Chris Eirikson. Adam Kalwishky echoed these sentiments: “I’ve already taken KXNO off of my presets.”
Fales and Murphy were ready to switch jobs, to pitch their show to another radio station or try to break in to the newly lucrative world of podcasting. But the furor in Des Moines caught the attention of iHeartMedia’s corporate center, which spoke with KXNO’s management about reinstating the men and women who had been laid off on Wednesday. The following day, the station announced that the cut employees would regain their jobs.
Not only that, the station will have new reach going forward: “It’s a 5,000-watt AM station, and now we’re gonna be [simulcast] on a 25,000-watt FM station,” Fales explains. “That means more opportunities for ad sales and endorsements. It’s quite a step up.”
Joel McCrea, who serves as general manager of KXNO, did not respond to a request for comment. But he chimed in on the station’s official Twitter account. “I heard you,” he told KXNO’s followers on Thursday afternoon. “I made a mistake. They are all coming back on Tuesday morning at six!”
“I’m delighted to learn that there are some people that are willing to admit that they’re wrong [and] are willing to go back and apologize,” Fales says. “I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s really human.”
Andrew Downs, the station’s cut-then-reinstated program director, also declined to comment. But on Twitter, he wrote that “people make mistakes … and when they do, the best you can hope for is a sincere apology and [an] effort to make things right.”
“I’m glad iHeartRadio locally and nationally saw the error of gutting KXNO,” Downs added.
Unfortunately, many employees in Des Moines-sized cities around the country were not as lucky as Downs and his five colleagues. “Something has value to a community because the community feels connected to it,” says Fales, reflecting on the importance of local radio. “If you get rid of that and start running nationally syndicated programming or constant music without a local DJ talking about local events, the people aren’t connected to that, and they don’t have any reason to keep shopping there.”
“It’s like an empty avenue,” he adds, “that doesn’t have a soul.”