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KHSU Gutted, Leaving Station's Future Uncertain 

click to enlarge Danielle Orr, a 39-year volunteer at KHSU, spoke with long-time volunteer and former staff member Tom Cairns on April 11 after the announcement that the station was being effectively gutted. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • Danielle Orr, a 39-year volunteer at KHSU, spoke with long-time volunteer and former staff member Tom Cairns on April 11 after the announcement that the station was being effectively gutted.

The dismantling of Humboldt State University's public radio station was sudden and swift.

Less than 48 hours after the administration announced sweeping changes at KHSU — including the "indefinite suspension" of community-based shows and the elimination of most staff — those who were left behind to run the station had resigned in protest.

With no one apparently left to take the mic, listeners tuning in now will only find national programming like BBC News or Fresh Air, in stark contrast to the previous emphasis on local shows. And that appears to be the plan going forward — at least for the time being — with the university release on the "reorganization" stating that "most recent audience data reaffirm this is, by far, the station's most popular programming."

The first sign of what was to unfold arrived April 10, when KHSU staff members received an email from Vice President of University Advancement Craig Wruck informing them there would be a mandatory meeting for all paid staff the next day at 9 a.m.

"I apologize for the extremely short notice, but this is an important meeting," Wruck wrote.

When staff arrived the next morning for the meeting at the new studio space in Feuerwerker House, however, they were separated. Morning Edition host Natalya Estrada and Development Director David Reed were sent to another building on campus, where they were informed of the changes and the fact that they would be the only staff members spared in the reorganization.

Reed stepped down the next morning and Estrada followed a day later.

Meanwhile, Wruck was informing the balance of the staff that their positions — seven in all — were being eliminated, effective immediately.

As this was happening, 32-year volunteer Ed Campbell, who hosts "A Wandering Ear," showed up to prepare for his 10 a.m. show to find his keycard no longer worked.

He knocked and Wruck reportedly agreed to let him in to do his classical music show. He played about an hour's worth of music before putting on Russian composer Igor Stravinsky's "Requiem Canticles." As it played, he walked out, later explaining that Wruck and administrators could deal with the dead air that followed the song. Campbell said he chose "Requiem Canticles" as the last thing he'd ever play over the station's airwaves because it was the last significant piece Stravinsky composed and has "a bunch of finality to it."

Outside, KHSU Producer Jessica Eden smiled and hugged volunteers who stopped by to inquire what was going on. A University Police Department patrol car sat parked nearby.

"It was a great station and we really put our hearts into it for years and years," Eden said. "They've just destroyed a beautiful community resource. Shame on them."

Eden pointed out that administrators announced this decision just days after KHSU finished a community pledge drive trumpeting how listener's donations would support local programing. The pledge drive hadn't fully met its goal but was widely considered to have been successful, staff said, noting that some donors and sustaining members who had walked away from the station last May in the wake of the controversial firing of longtime program and operations director Katie Whiteside had come back.

"Then they do this right after they took people's money," one volunteer grumbled.

According to HSU, this spring's fundraiser brought in just about $34,000 from 286 donors, missing the fundraising goal of $50,000. That was a marked drop from the previous year, when the drive raised around $71,000 from 622 supporters. But that was before Whiteside's termination set off a firestorm in the KHSU community.

Eden said she asked Wruck during last week's meeting what would happen to KHSU's programming schedule with staff eliminated and volunteer programming suspended indefinitely, and he replied that syndicated programming would be put in its place. She took this to mean that the plans for the station had been in the works for some time.

Two minutes after HSU went public with the reorganization, General Manager Peter Fretwell sent an email at 9:33 a.m. to all KHSU employees and volunteers announcing the changes. He noted that programming produced under the umbrellas of other nonprofits — citing EcoNews and Humboldt County Extension Services as examples — will be allowed to continue "during this transition time" and asked them to contact Reed to make arrangements.

"To all our volunteers — thank you for your hard work and your years of service and commitment to our community," Fretwell wrote. "David Reed will be in touch with you regarding any personal music or other personal items you have at KHSU."

But Reed submitted his resignation the next day. In a Facebook post, Reed said he had "declined the offer to be KHSU's acting director, an appointment that was made without consulting me."

"To all of you who supported me and the station in my last 10 years, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you especially to those of you who volunteered to be on the pledge drive last week," he wrote. "We all made great community radio together, with your support. You can be proud of that."

Estrada, who hosted the station's Morning Edition, followed the next day.

In a column sent to local media, Estrada explained her decision and her views on the events that have unfolded at the station in recent months, culminating in Thursday's sweeping move, which the university said would result in "significant savings" with the intended goal of "preserving quality programming for the North Coast."

"Thank you all for letting me into your morning commute, for telling me your stories of hope, tragedy, triumph and love. Thank you for letting me speak your truths through an omni-directional microphone," Estrada wrote. "Thank you for letting me take your photos and for calling me in the morning to let me know it's White-THORN not Whitehorn. I will forever hold KHSU in my heart and memory as a place of acceptance, peace and home to the hardest working folks I've ever met."

According to the university, Wruck maintains oversight over the station but it was not immediately clear whether the search for a new interim manager is underway.

The release also states that HSU will "evaluate how students can return to a more substantial on-air role at KHSU" and is looking at "collaboration with other public radio stations and seeking CPB funding to support this effort."

Fretwell — whose tenure fraught with controversy, including Whiteside's ouster — was included in the upheaval, as his position was eliminated.

Whiteside, meanwhile, was in shock as news of the turmoil enveloping the station where she spent nearly 25 years spread in a growing series of social media posts and texts. As she scrolled through the responses on her phone while sitting in the Journal's office April 11, a picture of what had just unfolded was slowly coming into focus.

One thing was clear: The community-based model that had sustained the station for decades was abruptly changing — likely for good.

"If you look at schedules of NPR (National Public Radio) stations across the country, we were very different," she says of the focus on unique local programming rather than syndicated segments, adding that each time a new general manager was hired, the same questions were raised about the format, which was considered outdated by some. "It just kept working here in Humboldt County."

Community members were quick to make their displeasure with the sudden shake up known, with many — like Eden — noting how it came just one week after the pledge drive and calling for those who had donated to withdraw their support.

Similar actions were taken after Whiteside's removal, resulting in the postponement of a previously scheduled June fundraiser, and likely contributing heavily to this spring's low fundraising totals.

Since the news broke, about 170 donors or underwriters have withdrawn their support, according to HSU, with 28 having requested refunds amounting to $3,226 as of Monday morning.

Over the weekend, more than 100 people gathered on the plaza to protest the cuts at KHSU, holding aloft signs with a variety of slogans, including "We Want the Airwaves, Baby" and "Shame on You HSU."

"The fact that they did this right after the recent fund drive shows what a bad neighbor HSU has become," said Rick Levin, a former underwriter, volunteer musician for live shows and on-air helper during pledge drives. "And now they're blaming the community for not supporting it enough."

Many offered their support to the recently fired KHSU staffers present at the demonstration, while others were in early stages of grief over losing local programming on KHSU and the volunteers who produced it. A few gathered names and emails to help publicize future events, and brainstormed plans for responding in the future.

The university moved swiftly in response to the April 11 announcement. The staff list on the KHSU website had just Reed and Estrada when the Journal checked at 10 a.m. that day. Reed's was taken down the next morning and Estrada's followed.

By this week, the staff section had been taken down entirely.

Similarly, the "history" section of the website was updated to include a mention of the 2019 "reorganization" inserted in the second paragraph. The KHSU Facebook page was taken down although one for KHSU-BBC remained up as of Tuesday.

"Obviously it's a tough day for everyone at the station," Estrada told the Journal in the immediate aftermath of the university's decision. "It's very emotional and it's very uncertain as to what will happen next."

In the April 11 public announcement, the university cited an April 8 advisory report on KHSU's operation, which was conducted by the office of California State University system's vice chancellor and chief audit officer at the behest of HSU President Lisa Rossbacher.

The conclusion states that the station "provides an important service to the surrounding community" but KHSU also "appears to have drifted from the station's initial purpose" of providing training and course work opportunities for students to "the current object of providing education and entertaining programs to the community."

KHSU's roots date back to the 1930s and one of its iterations — KHSC — became the first licensed non-commercial FM station in the California university and state college systems.

The 18-page CSU report goes on to make a number of recommendations, including evaluating KHSU's mission and goals, organization and oversight and use of social media accounts. Also suggested were finding ways to facilitate better communication between staff and management, a review of payroll arrangements and updates to job descriptions for the staff.

Several recommendations focus on tightening up access to facilities and equipment and addressing past lapses by coming up with protocols to deal with the risk of lost or unreturned keys.

On the issue of KHSU's budget and finances, the report notes that the university made a one-time allocation of $135,000 to cover shortages in the 2017-2018 fiscal year and recommends "the university evaluate the level of funding KHSU receives from the state and ensure that budgeting practices involve realistic projections."

In closing, the report states that the reviewers "suggest that the university consider practices used by other stations serving the CSU and identify and evaluate opportunities to reduce the costs of operating KHSU and improve the public service provided by KHSU to the regional community."

On the day of the announcement, University Associate Vice President Frank Whitlatch told the Journal he wasn't sure when the decision was made to eliminate most of KHSU's staff and indefinitely suspend the bulk of its volunteer programming. But he confirmed that arrangements have been made with another NPR affiliate to provide KHSU with programming, as necessary, to fill any potential dead air created by today's announcement, which appears to gut much of the station's programming schedule.

KHSU started airing programming from a station in Chico on April 11, which was in the midst of its own pledge drive — only adding to community ire. Then on April 13 and April 14, the airwaves went silent for hours at a time.

Whitlatch said KHSU employees were given two weeks' severance pay, with the exception of Fretwell and Kevin Sanders, the station's engineer, both of whom are state employees and subject to different processes.

Fretwell has been out of the office for at least several weeks on family leave, Whitlatch said, adding that he has done some remote work during that time, both with station staff and HSU administration.

Under CSU policy for managerial employees, Fretwell "will be working for up to 90 days following his layoff notice and will not receive a severance package," Whitlatch said in response to follow questions this week, adding that Fretwell will be assigned projects by Wruck.

As far as the resignations by Reed and Estrada, Whitlach states that the univerity is "trying to determine what the staffing needs will be."

"We are striving to preserve a public radio service for the North Coast," the email response states. "The resignation of two employees with no notice has complicated matters considerably and we are working through options."

As to the timing of the announcement, Whitlatch said HSU administration has been grappling with issues surrounding KHSU for some time. While the CSU audit arrived this week, Whitlatch said he believed HSU administration had been in touch with the CSU auditors prior to receiving the final report.

Asked whether the announcement stemmed primarily from budget concerns or the results of the audit, he said, "It was all of those issues combined that led to this decision."

KHSU staff took issue with the university's charge that the station's "community support has been flat or declining, with underwriting revenue down approximately 14 percent for the year and listener support down approximately 17 percent." They point to the administration's controversial decision to fire Whiteside as the reason those numbers plummeted.

Among the 170 station contributors who pulled their support in the wake of the April 11 announcement was Wildberries Marketplace, long one of the station's biggest supporters.

"Wildberries has canceled all KHSU underwriting effective immediately," the store's president and founder Phil Ricord wrote in a Facebook post. "As KHSU's largest underwriter, Wildberries is shocked and saddened by this unilateral and ill conceived action. Our hearts go out to all volunteers and staff who have contributed to what used to be our community radio station. This is a dark day."

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the latest pledge drive numbers that were provided by Humboldt State University after the April 18 edition of the Journal had gone to press.
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