By Ed Ryan and Adam Jacobson
Cumulus Media isn’t commenting publicly, but its CEO on Wednesday (8/11) — in a video message sent to all employees — declared that combating the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus means anyone who works for the audio content and distribution company “must be fully vaccinated” by the official return-to-office date of October 11.
News of the internal communiqué was first made known publicly by radio industry blog RadioInsight.com. Further details were gathered by both RBR+TVBR and Radio Ink on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning.
In the video, Berner said, “All employees, except for those few who are already designated permanent remote like our traffic organization, must be fully vaccinated by our grand reopening date.”
The mandate is the first for a radio broadcasting company, and it includes the entire Cumulus market-by-market sales force and each of the Cumulus Media corporate employees in its New York and Atlanta offices.
Further, it is believed but not confirmed that all Westwood One employees are impacted by the vaccination order from the C-Suite.
“The company is not commenting,” a Cumulus spokesperson told RBR+TVBR Tuesday evening.
“There will be no exceptions unless it’s mandated by law,” Berner added, noting that the vast majority of Cumulus employees were already vaccinated. “If you are someone who has not made that choice, it is for your own protection.”
In its 10Q SEC filing made along with its second quarter 2021 earnings, Cumulus stated, “Since March 2020, most of our employees have been working from home, with only certain essential employees working on site at our radio stations. Beginning in the third quarter of 2021, a majority of our employees will be returning to our stations or offices. For all employees returning to work, we have instituted COVID-19 protocols, increased the level of cleaning and sanitizing in the offices and radio stations and undertaken other actions to make these offices and stations safer for our employees.”
Now, it is clearly going one step further. Issues tied to existing employee protection initiatives, Cumulus stresses, are not fueling the vaccination mandate.
“We are generally following the requirements and protocols published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and state and local governments and will continue to monitor the latest public health and government guidance related to COVID-19,” Cumulus said. “As of the date of this filing, we do not believe these safety protocols, including the remote working environment, have adversely impacted our internal controls, financial reporting systems or our operations.”
Thousands of employees are impacted, as Cumulus Media owns and/or operates 413 stations across 86 markets. Then, there is Westwood One, which offers national programming ranging from 24/7 formats, syndicated music programming, a bevy of sports talk and play-by-play coverage, and daily and weekly Talk shows.
The hosts of those shows include Dan Bongino, viewed by many as the true heir to the late Rush Limbaugh‘s conservative talk radio throne. Westwood One’s syndicated talk shows also include The Ben Shapiro Show, The Mark Levin Show, The Michael Knowles Show and The Bob & Tom Show, largely tied to Classic Rock stations thanks to its many years based at WFBQ/Indianapolis.
With Cumulus not commenting, how these hosts would be impacted by the vaccination mandate — if at all — is unclear; with home studios and auxiliary facilities more common, the hosts and other air talent may not be impacted.
That said, thousands of Cumulus employees are impacted.
As of December 31, 2019, Cumulus employed 4,732 people, 3,139 of whom were employed full-time, the company said in its SEC 10-K filing earlier this year. Of these employees, approximately 170 employees were covered by collective bargaining agreements.
“We consider our relations with our employees to be positive,” Cumulus said.
Could that have changed on Wednesday, with a potential rebellion in at least one market possible from the mandate from the corporate office? There’s also chatter that the vaccination mandate is also a way for Cumulus to further trim its employee roster as it continues to seek ways to deleverage.
While that’s simply gossip and internet chatter, one thing is clear: Cumulus has taken a step not replicated at its peers.
Audacy is mandating that all new employees receive a COVID-19 vaccine but has refrained from requiring its current employees from getting it or risk losing their job.
A Townsquare Media executive tells Streamline Publishing that the company has “encouraged our team to get vaccinated given the benefits and protection it provides from COVID-19. We have provided [Paid Time Off] to allow the time to get vaccinated. But, we have not mandated it as a condition of employment.”
Meanwhile, the industry’s largest audio media company, iHeartMedia, has not issued any statement regarding the COVID-19 vaccine and its employees.
The Cumulus announcement comes as NBCUniversal on Wednesday issued its own internal memorandum to staff, alerting them that it has delayed its return-to-office date until October 18 “at the earliest.”
According to TVNewser, an opening after the Jewish New Year on September 6 was planned. Until then, fully vaccinated employees can return to the office on a voluntary basis.
CNN last week offered a similar announcement, stating that its reopen date of Sept. 7 was now delayed to mid-October, TVNewser reports. The network, similar to NBCUniversal, has a vaccination advisory in place for anyone who wishes to work from the office. Three individuals who were not vaccinated and worked from CNN facilities were fired for not adhering to the advisory.