These are trying times at WLRN. All media companies are struggling to shake off the death grip of declining ad revenue (New Times being no exception). The past year has been particularly turbulent for South Florida's public radio station, however. WLRN's best-known host, Phil Latzman, was canned in mid-July. A week earlier, news director Dan Grech was fired. And, as New Times reported last month, Miami-Dade County Public Schools slashed the hours of WLRN part-timers to avoid paying for their health care.
But amid all this turmoil, one side of the station is booming: its fundraiser.
Friends of WLRN is a private, nonprofit company created to raise money for the public radio station. Yet, as WLRN employees watch their wages shrink, Friends executives are making more than ever. Michael Peyton, the director of corporate marketing, pulls in $400,000 a year.
"He makes that kind of money on the backs of other people," says one WLRN employee who asked not to be identified for fear of being fired. "That's more than ten times what most of us make."
The discrepancy in pay is just one symptom of the strange relationship between WLRN and its fundraiser. "They are two separate, very distinct organizations," says Miami-Dade Schools spokesman John Schuster. "They have separate structures with distinct purposes, although at times their missions do overlap."
Few donors realize the difference. When WLRN holds a telethon, money donated doesn't go directly to the station. Instead, it belongs to Friends of WLRN, which can keep as much as it likes.
Executives from WLRN and Friends of WLRN refused to comment for this story. According to Schuster, Friends contributes roughly $5.2 million to the radio station each year. Meanwhile, records show Friends spent nearly $1.8 million on salaries in 2011 — the last year available — including $700,000 for just three execs.
Public officials have frequently criticized Friends' spending. In a 2010 audit meeting, Miami-Dade Schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho slammed the nonprofit. "Superintendent Carvalho expressed dissatisfaction with [Friends treasurer Charles] Tatelbaum's explanation on the high salaries and said he was extremely disturbed," according to minutes of the meeting. "He noted that, as the CEO of the M-DCPS, who is responsible for a budget close to $6 billion and with assets close to $9 billion, he does not make close to what one of the salespersons earns." Despite Carvalho's complaints, Friends' salesperson salaries have risen steadily.
On January 15, school board chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman introduced a measure requiring quarterly reports "on the actions and status of Friends of WLRN, Inc."
Such scrutiny is long overdue, says the WLRN employee.
"People give money to WLRN because they trust us and they believe in what we do," the employee says. "But the money just goes to Friends. They are going to bring in $10 million this year, but what are they doing with that money? It disappears into the great Friends black hole. I guess it goes into Michael Peyton's pockets and God knows where else."