Lance Hardie, a volunteer at public radio station KHSU, was upset. None of the people calling the shots at KHSU had any true love for the station, its mission, its service to the community of listeners. Humboldt State University, owner of KHSU's broadcast license, was calling the shots from above, and without consulting the people who made the station what it was.
Hardie decided to speak his mind. In a letter to the station's internal e-mail list, he put it like this:
"Many in the volunteer staff have contributed programming, administration, ideas and money to KHSU over the years," he wrote. "We create, produce, engineer and host programs 24 hours a day. We are part of KHSU's community. We not only represent the community, we are the community. We are the people KHSU claims to serve."
Hardie went on to complain about a lack of forthcoming communication from the HSU administration regarding what he described as "a major change in the management of KHSU."
He could have been complaining about the recent forced retirement of KHSU General Manager Elizabeth Hans McCrone, but he wasn't. His letter was written five years ago -- back when the administration first appointed her to the position.
The general inside view of Hans McCrone's leadership hasn't changed much in the five years since she was first appointed. If anything, it has deteriorated. She was a controversial leader, one who was imposed on the station from above. Her salary was obscenely high, and she worked laughably short hours. She inflamed passions by firing a long-term staff member who was himself controversial inside the station -- this is public radio, after all -- and showed little concern, at least publicly, about the simmering anger and division that the firing produced. The university administration stood by her throughout.
Until a few weeks ago, at which point it abruptly offered her the choice of quitting or being fired. It's not really known why the turn took place, except to say that Humboldt State wanted more control over the station than Hans McCrone was willing to give. But since Hans McCrone released a public letter detailing past battles with the administration over left-leaning programs on the station, the listenership -- which perhaps skews even further left than generally left-leaning Humboldt County -- has mobilized to protect KHSU from overthrow by the neocon Christian conservative disciples of Karl Rove and Rupert Murdoch who are imagined to be taking charge. And the university rushes to mollify them.
This, of course, involves the expenditure of a lot of hot air, and on both sides. Look at it this way: The battle currently raging between Elizabeth Hans McCrone and the person who showed her the door -- Rob Gunsalus, Humboldt State's Vice President for Advancement -- is a battle between two seasoned public relations professionals, both of whom have years or decades of experience in managing opinion. It's a simple fact that truth, in this profession, is not a primary consideration. And such has been the case in the present instance. None of the parties in the brouhaha has a corner on the truth, nor on the bullshit.
With Hans McCrone's dismissal, Humboldt State University's administration -- led, for the past six years, by Dr. Rollin Richmond -- is asserting its bureaucratic dominion over KHSU, the top-rated station in Humboldt County. The administration has commandeered the station's accounts. There are definitely indications that it wants to muck around with its programming, to make it more a university mouthpiece than a community affair. At the same time, though, at least part of Hans McCrone's J'accuse left out or minimized certain key details, such as the fact that the question of canceling the syndicated Democracy Now! program -- a question that now roils the left side of Humboldt County -- had been asked and answered months ago. Also discomfiting is the fact that the Hans McCrone missive came only after the university failed to provide her with shut-up money, in the form of a retirement package that would have been more to her liking.
Now the troops are fully assembled. Pity poor KHSU, caught in the crossfire.
There's no question who won round one of the fight. On Wednesday, July 16, Humboldt State University Public Information Officer, Paul Mann, sent out a brief press release announcing McCrone's "resignation." It was a boilerplate redo of any number of disingenuous press releases involving the sudden departure of personnel, whether from government or the private sector. It claimed that the subject was leaving "to pursue other endeavors." It contained a quote from the person who pushed the subject out -- Gunsalus, in this case -- praising her work.
Hans McCrone drove a bulldozer through it two days later. In a long, widely distributed letter titled "Here Is What Happened," she said that Gunsalus had forced her to resign, using her university retirement package as leverage. Gunsalus, she said, gave her no specific reasons. "He said that my dismissal was about a 'new leadership direction' for KHSU," she wrote.
She took it upon herself to explain what that might mean. In particular, she mentioned two things: the control of station finances, and three regular programs that had been controversial inside the administration: Democracy Now! and two locally produced shows: The Econews Report and Thursday Night Talk, both of which can be fairly characterized as left-leaning in nature (and also very popular). She wrote that the university administration had asked her about canceling or altering the programs, and that matters came to a head back in March.
"Mr. Gunsalus became adamant about engaging me on the merits of carrying Democracy Now! on KHSU," she wrote. "He claimed Democracy Now! was 'pedal to the metal' advocacy and had no place on a publicly-funded college radio station. He said he had listened to an episode of 'Winter Soldier' on Democracy Now! and stated that it 'made my blood boil.' ["Winter Soldier" was a series of programs featuring veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars talking about their experiences.] He said he and President Richmond were 'this close' to pulling Democracy Now! off the air."
The insinuation was that Democracy Now! continued to hang by a thread, especially now that Hans McCrone -- the author herself -- was out of the way. Her letter inspired an immediate uprising amongst the active portion of KHSU's listenership. Guest editorials and letters-to-the-editor appeared almost immediately. E-mail circulars and blog posts popped even more quickly. Nearly to a person, they expressed outrage that the administration would place pressure on the station in this way, and called for immediate action to protect threats to Democracy Now!
It didn't take long for the matter to spread beyond the activists. Wildberries Marketplace is one of KHSU’s largest underwriters. In an interview, General Manager Phil Ricord said that the company usually gives KHSU $18,000 a year. Democracy Now! is one of the programs they sponsor every month. Ricord said that he hadn’t heard much from the administration at HSU and only had the e-mails circulating around the web to base an opinion on.
“We are trying to give the university the benefit of the doubt, but this guy (Gunsalus) sounds like a you-know-what,” he said. “But there are two sides to every story.”
Over at the North Coast Co-op, General Manager David Lippman said that he hadn’t heard much about the controversy, “other than the 900 e-mails and blog postings that have been circulating around the past few weeks.” The North Coast Co-op gives KHSU a few hundred dollars every month as part of a package deal, and its sponsorship thank-yous appear on Democracy Now!, Econews Report and Thursday Night Talk.
“We are just going to wait and see," Lippman said. "I feel it would be the wrong message to react and pull our underwriting at this very moment (being that the programs the Co-op sponsors are the ones in question). We don’t want to send that message, because we have supported them all this time and we support them now.
“We will respond to differences in the programming if it happens. But as it is now, these programs are still on the air so we’re not freaking out. But if they did go off the air, these are the ones we sponsor, so I think we’d have to, ah, adjust our sponsorship levels."
Meanwhile, the anxiety in the community -- and even at KHSU itself -- has continued to grow. On Sunday, the popular deejay known as "Sista Soul" advised her large listenership inside Pelican Bay State Prison -- home of California's most violent and dangerous offenders -- to write directly to Gunsalus and express their love for the station as-is.
There are reasons why a good portion of the community distrusts the Humboldt State University administration under Dr. Rollin Richmond, and many of those reasons are well justified. When Richmond was hired in 2002, he successfully cultivated a reputation for openness and inclusiveness; in the last few years, he sometimes seems to have gone out of his way to undermine that accomplishment. The Richmond administration undertook a major campus-changing construction project -- the famous decorative "gates" -- while everyone was away for the summer, and with money that would have otherwise been used on the campus' aging infrastructure. He has unilaterally increased student fees while at the same time accepting large raises. A good portion of the faculty has turned solidly against him.
Then there are the more nebulous reasons, though perhaps not less important ones. Richmond and many of his top administrators are often seen as an occupying force that doesn't "get" Humboldt County culture and the way things are done here. This is embodied most famously in Richmond's strange and futile crusade to disassociate the term "Humboldt County" from marijuana in the country's popular imagination. Rob Gunsalus, who took a job at Humboldt State in 2006, fits nicely into this category. Lean, bespectacled and conservatively dressed, he is in person and bearing someone from anywhere but here.
Reached by phone last week, he declined to comment on specifics of Hans McCrone's dismissal. He would only say that the station required more "professional" management. In further conversation, he mentioned at least two specifics. One was the management of the station's financial accounts, which Hans McCrone also addressed in her letter to the community -- she said that Gunsalus had "pressured" her to hand over $100,000 of KHSU's reserves so that his office could manage the funds in KHSU's stead. Hans McCrone said that she was reluctant to do so, and that she feared they could be snatched from the station.
According to Gunsalus, though, this was simply an act of fiscal responsibility. The money will remain KHSU's, he said. "For years, KHSU has carried a $300,000-plus cash balance in a zero-interest checking account," Gunsalus said. "The lack of interest on that cash balance has cost the station tens of thousands of dollars. I requested that a portion of that cash balance be placed in an interest-bearing account and another portion to be invested for the longer term. Those funds still belong to KHSU, but now they are earning interest. This will earn the station around $10,000 this next year, and possibly more. This is an elementary and obvious step to take in managing the station's finances. Unfortunately it took 10 months to get this to happen."
Several other organizations associated with Humboldt State now have their money handled under the branch of the HSU bureaucracy that Gunsalus heads. Among them are the First Street Gallery in Old Town Eureka, the Natural History Museum and the Schatz Energy Lab. Each of them participates in a similar program with Gunsalus' office, and none of the directors contacted had any complaints. "I have no qualms about [how Gunsalus handles our endowment]," said Peter Lehman, director of the Schatz Energy Lab. "It’s professional. Things over the last three to four years have been remarkably better -- the returns we’re getting and the investment professionalism."
In another critique of the station's "professionalism," though, Gunsalus was dead wrong. "Past leadership at KHSU had no process for evaluating programs," he said. "We're weren't even getting the Eastlan Rating, which is an elementary step in evaluating programs and making decisions on programming." In fact, the station has been buying the ratings for three years, a fact confirmed by Eastlan Client Services Director Dave Hastings. (Gunsalus later contacted the Journal on his own and admitted his error in this regard.)
At no time did Gunsalus mention Hans McCrone's lax work ethic, which is legendary at the station and was independently confirmed with numerous sources -- including supporters -- who insisted on staying off the record. Despite her short hours, fundraising activities at the station grew over Hans McCrone's tenure, due in no small part to the addition of Democracy Now! The program is the station's number one fundraising draw, by a large margin.
Since the controversy erupted earlier this month, Gunsalus has insisted that he will not cut Democracy Now! from the station's line-up. On Tuesday, as the Journal was preparing to go to press, university spokesperson Paul Mann distributed a question-and-answer leaflet with Gunsalus' signature that stated this in the most direct manner possible. "Democracy Now! enjoys above average financial support and has a relatively large audience," it read. "While we obviously cannot commit to any show forever, we expect Democracy Now! to be on KHSU for many years to come."
This wasn't a change of heart -- or not a recent one, anyway. Hans McCrone herself convinced Gunsalus that it would be financial suicide to pull the program way back in March, when the flare-up between the station and the administration over the program that she referenced in her letter came to a head. (The proximate cause of the flare-up was a complaint from a professor at the university, who thought the "Winter Soldier" program one-sided.)
"Because of this unusual -- and I thought alarming -- conversation with Rob about Democracy Now!, where he described it as 'pedal to the metal advocacy' and 'inappropriate' for KHSU, I put together some reports to use to talk with about how the show performs for the station and the value of the program," she told the Journal by phone last week. "We showed him graphs from listeners from the pledge drive who indicated their favorite shows. We showed him graphs from our streaming statistics and how it peaked during that hour. We showed him financial data about how the show performed during pledge drives."
Though Gunsalus still didn't like or trust the program, Hans McCrone told us, he did understand that there would be a "strong reaction from the community, perhaps a storm of protest, if we took Democracy Now! off the air." (The conversion of Gunsalus' inner money-man to this point of view several months ago did not make it into Hans McCrone's letter to the community.)
However, Gunsalus has not addressed the other two shows on Hans McCrone's list of programs in jeopardy -- The Econews Report and Thursday Night Talk. Both shows can be fairly characterized as "advocacy journalism"; both are hosted by rotating panels of local social and environmental activists. (Greg King, executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center, is the principal host of Econews Report, and one-time Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb, a Eureka resident, is the principal host of Thursday Night Talk.) Both are said to irritate both Richmond and Gunsalus, and not just by Hans McCrone.
Though Gunsalus has not addressed the fate of those two shows, there is evidence that the university had -- and perhaps has -- plans to either replace or "balance" them. The aforementioned Paul Mann -- a former journalist, now the university's principal public relations officer -- confirmed to the Journal that he has been planning his own evening KHSU talk show. (It wasn't clear whether the show would be placed on the schedule instead of or in addition to Thursday Night Talk.)
Mann told the Journal that the show would "resemble something like the Jim Lehrer News Hour." In it, he said, an HSU professor with expertise in a certain subject area would discuss issues of the day with another expert from out of town. The show has been put on hold because of the controversy, Mann said.
"Originally it had been scheduled to start Aug. 12, but in view of the leadership change at the station it has been decided to make no program changes until a new general manager is found," Mann said Tuesday. He said that he hoped the show would be live by Oct. 1.
Needless to say, KHSU volunteers and listeners -- to say nothing of journalism professors and ethicists -- might look askance at this sort of thing. Having the university's public relations contact bring university professors on the university's radio station reeks more of a promotional activity than a news program. If some people are concerned about the agendas of lefty Thursday Night Talk hosts, others might be reasonably concerned about a show run by the university's promotional arm.
People can reasonably credit Hans McCrone for bringing these issues to light, but it's not clear how much of the laundry ever would have been aired if Gunsalus and the university had simply done the usual thing and paid Hans McCrone off with the attractive retirement package she had been gunning for. Hans McCrone has been handsomely compensated ever since being appointed KHSU general manager five years ago. Previously, she had essentially worked the job Paul Mann has today -- she was "director of community relations." The KHSU job paid her $87,300 a year, according to the Sacramento Bee's database of state salaries; according to Mann, as quoted in the Eureka Reporter, her actual salary, including benefits, was closer to $120,000 per year.
This at a time when, despite increases in contributions from the community, the station was losing money. Contributions from the university to KHSU's operation were decreasing -- the university has been under significant budget pressure -- and so were grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. KHSU lost $63,000 in fiscal year 2006/07, according to an annual audit, and was set to lose more. Humboldt State had told Hans McCrone that its contributions would continue to decrease in the upcoming years.
But management at the station has been its largest expenditure -- $274,098 out of nearly a million dollars last year. Programming costs were around $250,000, most of it going to syndicated services like National Public Radio, Public Radio International and others. (Garrison Keillor's show, A Prarie Home Companion, is one of the most expensive items on the budget. Democracy Now! is another.)
Gunsalus and Hans McCrone tell the story of their final confrontation in different ways. Hans McCrone told the Journal that she was not happy to leave, but she tried to cut a deal that would have been somewhat mutually satisfactory. She wanted to continue to be a nominal university employee until the middle of next year, at which point the state university retirement system would allow her to draw higher benefits because of her age.
"I had told him when he offered me the opportunity to resign that since he and I did not share the same vision, and he was wanting to take the station in a new leadership direction, I said I would be willing to retire -- that I will turn 55 on June 7, 2009, and I would help him with the transition," Hans McCrone told the Journal. She said that she could help arrange the transition to a new station manager for a few months, and that she could use accrued time to make up some of the remainder. This offer, she says, was rebuffed.
Gunsalus remembers it much differently.
"She left my office with the clear understanding that she was to think about her options for resignation and then we were to have another conversation the next day," he said. "She did not return my calls and did not get back to me. I left six voice mail messages and e-mailed her several times. She did not respond. In the meantime she started spreading rumors about the station, damaging and false rumors about the station. It wasn't until Wednesday afternoon, a week and a half later, that I got her resignation. Immediately after that I informed the staff and the KHSU listserve letting them know that Elizabeth had departed the university."
In any case, it wasn't until after Gunsalus sent that original note to the KHSU e-mail list -- the one that regretted her "resignation" and had nothing but praise for her service -- that McCrone went public with anything that might be considered "damaging" to KHSU. Or if not to KHSU, then to his office. If Gunsalus could have done the standard government thing and cashed her out at a higher retirement level in exchange for her loyalty, he may well be regretting that he did not.
At the time of this writing, the issue is set to come to a head at the meeting of the station's Community Advisory Group -- which, as the title suggests, has no direct power over station operations. The group's regular monthly meeting was on Wednesday, July 30 (a day after this issue went to press). Gunsalus was still on vacation and could not attend, but his deputy, Frank Whitlatch, was scheduled to be there on his behalf. As was Paul Mann.
It's easy to forecast the general outlines of what the meeting will be like. There will be crowds of very angry people, there to forestall the evil neocon takeover of their public radio station. They will win Democracy Now! back to the schedule, and will congratulate themselves for doing so, even though that particular program was never really in danger in the first place. There will be people in suits and ties shaking their heads with puzzled looks on their faces, confused at the actions of the mob. They come from different worlds. Typical politically charged Humboldt County meeting, where the elusive common ground once again evades discovery.
What's not easy to tell is whether there will be any sort of exploration of the kind of station KHSU should be. What is its purpose? Why does it need to raise and spend so much money on canned programming, especially programming available elsewhere on the Humboldt County dial? Why do no current Humboldt State University students have their own shows? Why do there only seem to be two options -- each of them exceedingly safe, at least to one faction or another?
Heidi Walters, Hank Sims and Meghannraye Sutton contributed to this report.