Thursday, February 25, 2010

Diary Of A Layoff 11: One Year Ago Today

We all knew it was going to be bad news. That Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 25, 2009, the publisher of Radio & Records, had called a “Town Hall” meeting for all staff, both on the East and West Coasts. He, in fact, had flown from New York to L.A., along with the head of human resources. If that’s not a sign, then the sky is green.

Our New York bureau comprised the smaller group of staffers for R&R—my editor P, a sprinkling of fellow editors and writers, and the charts department—all shared with Billboard. As the conference call began at 3 p.m., we shifted anxiously. “As we all know, these have been difficult times in publishing, with ad revenues down and a challenging economy,” H, the publisher began. “Unfortunately, today is not going to be a good day for R&R. There are going to be layoffs.”

And then—in what might possibly be among the cruelest, if not least professional methods to follow up such an announcement—we were told to return to our desks and wait for a phone call, which would then reveal our fate. Apparently, the publisher was a pro when it came to “Layoffs for Dummies.” I sat, locked at my cubicle, explaining this unorthodox maneuver to my Billboard co-workers, when... ring.

It was editor P, asking me to join him in the human resources office. It took all of two seconds to figure this one out: My boss is calling. He sounds tense. If I’m staying, why would I be called into human resources? Standing up, I announced, “It’s me.”

In the office sat a human resources woman I’d never seen. Editor P was seated on the other side of her desk, beside a chair for me. He did not look good. “As you know, we’ve had to make some tough decisions today,” he began. The room began to spin as I watched him make words, until he said, “Please know that this has nothing to do with your performance.” “Damn straight,” I thought. Then, silence. The human resources chick was stoic. Editor P looked grave. Jesus Christ, I can’t deal with the weight in the air, so I decided to slice it with humor. I said, “Well, shit.” She almost smiled. Editor P’s posture eased.

Next came 10 minutes of goop about the execution of my layoff… I would be allowed to stay on payroll with benefits for one month, to continue working… then 13 weeks severance… Cobra… on and on… I finally said, “I hope all of this is written down, because I’m not hearing a word you’re saying.”

Once the script was completed, I told the woman and editor P, “I’m dreading, more than anything, walking out this door, because I know everyone is staring, waiting to see what happens when it opens.” I was correct. With heads down, all eyes focused on me as I exited. I waved my blue folder, containing all of the info about “what happens next, now that we’ve kicked your booty out,” and said, “Yes, they got me.” God, I fucking hated those sympathetic stares.

First stop: my work wife Kristina’s desk. “Honey, I’m out.” Blue folder. She was stupefied. “I need to walk around the block. Can we get out of here… now?” Without a word, she grabbed her coat and we high-tailed it to the elevator, before anyone had a chance to ask well-intentioned questions that I didn’t want to answer. I didn’t even think to get my coat, in the middle of February. It made no difference. I felt nothing. At the building’s entrance, co-worker and friend Christa was coming back in. The three of us circled the block for 15 minutes, cursing a good deal and sensing the weight: Everything is different now.

We went back in. A few conversations. I quickly learned who else was canned—six in total, including my sweet, hard-working friend A, who sat next to me. Out of the half-dozen of us that worked in NYC, three were canned. Out of the 40 in L.A., three were canned. Nice division there.

As it turns out, H the publisher—who is also pub of Billboard—hadn’t bothered to let the editor of Billboard know that I was being fired. As single reviews editor and a contributor for Billboard, he hadn’t just laid off R&R’s features editor, but also sacrificed an integral role at Billboard. Savvy planning on the publisher’s part. Dummy, indeed.

From there, I had to call Ayhan. I was utterly calm. “What are you going to do? What’s going to happen?” He was not calm. “We’ll figure it all out,” I said, explaining that I was working for another month and had severance through June. “This can’t last forever.” Of course, as we now know, on Feb. 25, 2010, I was obviously very wrong about that.

I walked. Heading nowhere. I ended up six blocks from the office, in Union Square Park. People were chatting, laughing, milling about. Vendors selling food and art. Life looked perfectly normal. How is that possible? I sat down and leaned against a tree. “Everything has changed.” It kept going through my head. After nearly 14 years, I would no longer have a routine. A defined purpose. A career. God, an income. What a major mind-fuck.

Little did any of us know then that four months later, Nielsen would pull the plug on R&R, and dismember a 35-year-old brand. No print, no Web site. Gone. Along with 40-some employees. The way I saw it at that point: at least I was pushed off the gang-plank before the ship went down. Over the course of 2009, some 75 staffers were sacrificed, as Nielsen streamlined operations in preparation for the sale of its business publications division, which was finalized Dec. 31, 2009. Again, where they couldn't find a buyer for a title, they simply shuttered it.

I can write about this day as if it happened last week. Despite the overall blur, I recall every moment and feeling and movement of that fateful afternoon. I’ve dealt with the aftermath, the fall-out, the emotions, anger, resolution and finally picking up the pieces in numerous posts since, but that occasion remains so very clear. A year ago today.