For many, Katie Whiteside was the K in KHSU

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA – For nearly 23 years, Katie Whiteside lived and breathed KHSU 90.5 FM. At times, Whiteside virtually resided in her office and car, staying close by to manage emergencies, soldiering on for the station even through vacations and days off. As “Ramona,” Whiteside hosted the Pagan Dance Music show late Sunday evenings.

To many, she was the living embodiment of everything right about KHSU.

Katie Whiteside

On May 15 at 1:45 p.m., Whiteside, the operations and program director and an employee since August, 1995, was fired for unknown reasons by General Manager Peter Fretwell.

News of the key KHSU employee’s abrupt dismissal sent shockwaves through the station community. It also uncorked a deep well of resentment over myriad other decisions Fretwell has made during his brief tenure of just over a year.

Much of the pent-up anger was released at a meeting of the station’s Community Advisory Board (CAB), held last Wednesday, May 30.

Something like 140 members of the station community – listeners, underwriters and station staff and volunteers – turned out to support Whiteside, call for her reinstatement and demand answers from Fretwell.

Many lamented the cancellation of popular shows, but the central source of outrage was the inexplicable termination of one of the station’s most beloved and enduring staffers.

A number of attendees called for Whiteside’s rehiring, describing her as, among other things, “the heart and soul of the station.”

Peter Fretwell

Underwriting Coordinator Jeff DeMark disclosed that station sponsors have withdrawn $16,000 in support over Whiteside’s firing.

“They left because they’re upset,” DeMark said. “If this decision isn’t reversed, the good ship KHSU is in danger of capsizing.”

Even before Whiteside’s dismissal, some staffmembers and volunteers had been unhappy with what they said was Fretwell’s top-down, brusque management style.

People familiar with station operations said he had shut down open discussion on the station’s listserv, refused to hold volunteer meetings, arbitrarily canceled shows and inflexibly enforced the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which restricts compensated employees from doing volunteer work in some circumstances.

Some held that Whiteside’s firing involved her assigning volunteers to do work of employees, but that couldn’t be confirmed.

Whiteside has declined comment on the situation. Fretwell referred inquiries to Humboldt State’s administration and the California State University Office of General Counsel. He said that CAB is planning to meet with the HSU administration to review what they heard from community members.

Letters to KHSU/Humboldt State regarding Katie Whiteside's dismissal

Note: The following letters were submitted to KHSU in the aftermath of the dismissal of Program and Operations Director Katie Whiteside. – Ed.

A kick in the teeth

26 May 2018
Peter Fretwell
General Manager, KHSU
Wagner House
Humboldt State University
Arcata, CA 95521

Dear Peter:

I attended last week’s staff meeting as a long-time KHSU volunteer, underwriter, sustaining member, former CAB Chair, and member of your hiring committee who, like many others in our community, was stunned by Katie Whiteside’s sudden firing. I chose to stay silent because, not wanting to pre-judge, I was hoping as far as possible to learn more about the facts of the case, take the temperature of the room, and get a better feel for the concerns and reactions of the various parties affected.

I’m sure you’ll agree that there was plenty of heat at that meeting and not much light, with the notable exception of several of the staff. I was certainly not enlightened — or impressed — by your accounting for your actions, or by Craig’s. But I left thoroughly convinced that you have made a grave mistake and done a terrible injury to KHSU. I feel strongly that you should walk this back, clear the air, and — if you ever hope to regain the trust of your staff and volunteers — renew your commitment not only to the “mission-based” management approach that you profess, but to a genuinely collaborative and consultative approach based on the model of shared governance.

I’ve served on enough personnel committees to know that things can be more complicated behind the scenes than they might appear to an outside spectator. I also understand that the job of a General Manager is to manage. That said, I don’t believe for a minute that you had “no other option” than to fire Katie, let alone to fire her as you did. On a purely procedural level, as the Sponsored Programs Foundation personnel manual makes clear, you had the option of giving her the courtesy of two weeks’ notice. The fact that you didn’t gives the impression that removing her was a pressing matter requiring both secrecy and surprise — that it involved some heinous crime, egregious dereliction of duty, or gross insubordination for which she could never make amends.

It doesn’t help that you are not required to disclose, to Katie or anyone else, whether she was even dismissed for cause; among other things, that’s a reminder of just how few protections Foundation employees enjoy, and it effectively means that she was fired at whim (which signals to the rest of your staff that they should all be looking over their shoulders). It also means that the reputation of someone who has served KHSU not just faithfully but extraordinarily for 20-plus years is now under a cloud.

But never mind the murder method: if there was nothing urgent or irremediable at stake here, then why in the world would you take out Katie Whiteside at all? If there was a smaller issue — even a chronic one — with Katie’s performance, or a misunderstanding or dispute about one of your directives, then why not communicate those things gently, reasonably, and supportively, then give her the time, the resources, and the encouragement to correct course? You could even take the opportunity, as part of a broader review of job descriptions and organizational structure, to adjust her duties and responsibilities in ways that would lighten her tremendous workload and best match her strengths and talents.

A healthy organization finds ways to overcome even the biggest challenges and the bitterest disagreements, and with a person as generous and compassionate and as Katie, I can’t believe there was any acrimony involved here. Whatever the problem, sacking one of the most tireless, conscientious, and beloved members of your staff is no solution.

Indeed: I can’t think of anyone more selflessly devoted to KHSU and to the ideals of public radio than Katie. It’s only a very slight exaggeration to say that there have been times over the past two decades when, with no general manager in place and a dearth of support from the university, she has almost single-handedly held the place together. She has an institutional memory longer than anyone else at the station and a broad understanding of its operations.

For many in the community, including many faculty, volunteers, local leaders, and KHSU underwriters, she is the station’s voice and face and primary point of contact. Your announcement of Katie’s dismissal — with barely a single line of boilerplate acknowledging her career achievements and her importance to KHSU — didn’t just show a tin ear, then, it delivered a kick in the teeth. To damn her with such faint praise was a shabby way to treat someone who has served KHSU so long, so well, and with so much heart.

Your staff are now angry, fearful, and demoralized; a large cross-section of volunteers — and not just those you might regard as the “usual suspects” — is outraged; and as the news travels to more and more underwriters and listener-members, they are bewildered and distraught. You can’t afford to alienate these constituencies without doing grievous harm to the station, and you truly can’t afford to lose Katie Whiteside, especially not at such a critical juncture in KHSU’s history. With a growing deficit, an imminent fund drive, and an impending move, you’ve thrown the station into crisis. I urge you to reverse this ill-advised decision.

Sincerely,
Michael Eldridge

cc: Craig Wruck, vice president for Advancement
Lisa Rossbacher, president

The incomparable Katie Whiteside

Dear Lisa, Craig and CAB board members:

I attended and spoke at Wednesday night’s KHSU Community Advisory Board (CAB) meeting. I know that, following testimony at that meeting, the CAB board committed to bringing the issue of Katie’s inhumane firing to those in positions of power at the university. I know, too, that Peter had told at least one person ahead of the meeting that nothing was going to change. I watched him take notes, maybe as a way of buffering himself from the comments that sometimes were blatantly angry and directly targeting him. Maybe he took notes from which to figure out how to respond.

Many comments directed toward Peter were hopeful and aimed at encouraging him to back out his decision. Many community members and volunteers who have rescinded sustaining memberships offered to double them if Katie is brought back. Others suggested the environment is too toxic to wish that on Katie. In any case, there is a problem. I would surmise from comments and reactions that none of us in that room admire what he has done and those who trusted him before this (some — including myself — had already been treated poorly by him), most likely do not now. The damage done will take some time to repair, no matter the course of action taken after this meeting. And because it is apparent Peter’s decision was backed by at least some of HSU’s management mistrust is likely to extend to the university itself.

I have volunteered with KHSU for about 25 years. I was honored to be selected as Volunteer of the Year twice. Currently I do what I can to give a voice to Del Norte County through the North Coast Update. I’ve taught Del Norte middle, high school and community school students to do radio. I’ve been asked, recently, to work this summer and perhaps into the school year with Jessica Eden and the Yurok tribe in offering a voice to local youth. I also produce School Days.

I began volunteering with KHSU while a student at HSU. I was student news director while earning my BA in Speech Communication with a minor in Broadcast Journalism, graduating summa cum laude and selected as Senior Woman of the Year. While an undergraduate I helped produce a morning news show on KRFH and an afternoon news show on KHSU; and I produced, with Professor Bryan Whaley, a show called Agrinews, also on KHSU. I worked, too, for KHSU in a part-time paid position. I began producing School Days just ahead of taking on the master’s program in school psychology at HSU.

I’m now a full-time school psychologist in Del Norte, and have been for 21 years. I additionally taught nights and summers at CR’s Del Norte campus for seven of those years. I’m a member of and a trainer for the Del Norte Community Emergency Response Team, and part of the county’s Emergency Operation Center. I’ve served on the board and built homes for Del Norte’s Habitat for Humanity. I’ve served on the Grand Jury twice. I am on the board for Redwood Parks Conservancy, which supports state and national parks spanning Humboldt and Del Norte counties. In other words I, like all those in the meeting in Gist Hall, value community. Katie Whiteside has been a hub of KHSU’s community and her firing is a direct assault on this community and indirectly an assault on the broader community we all serve through KHSU.

Katie was the one who trained me to work on air at KHSU, and back in the day, I trained Jessica Eden, Fred McLaughlin and others. And throughout my time as a volunteer Katie has provided me with guidance and direction. I haven’t always agreed with her, and she has always been the first to know when I have not, but I have often turned to her. And she hasn’t always gotten back to me in email as fast as I might like, but she’s always gotten back to me. And dear God, that woman knows her stuff and does more than her share of the stuff needed at this station.

Once, when training with Katie, something planned for the Home Page — now the Magazine--fell through at the last second. She ran over to the production studio from the air booth to quickly cue up a show on a reel-to-reel, lift the two reels up and run them back to load them onto the machine in the air booth and smoothly start that piece without a hitch. Over the years I’ve watched her become equally efficient with digital production and the ever-changing workings of the air booth. Katie has burned the midnight oil to cover local elections, to get breaking local news to NPR; and she once facilitated my role in producing and adding KHSU’s name to an NPR piece on the anniversary of the 1964 tsunami in Crescent City.

Katie has been the soul of the station. She’s always filled in wherever and whenever management needed, and she has subbed for so many volunteers during personal crises. Katie’s been the one to stay in touch with sick, injured and even dying members of our KHSU community and to report back to the rest of us, to ask for our thoughts and prayers. She does this because she knows that volunteers — those of us who serve the community with the care and respect it deserves — cannot do so unless we are served the same. It’s similar to that airplane oxygen mask advisory, you know — make sure yours is on before you try to help someone else. Katie’s firing knocked the breath out of us in the KHSU and broader community and I think it’s fair to say we’ve got our masks on now and we are ready and willing to do whatever it takes to assist in getting the care and respect Katie Whiteside deserves.

I trust you will give this matter the consideration it warrants.

Respectfully,
Susan M. Andrews, M.A.

 







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