Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT STATE – It’s hard to tell which emotion the KHSU staff and volunteer community feels more strongly – love for dismissed Operations Director Katie Whiteside or loathing for the man who fired her, General Manager Peter Fretwell.
The station has been in severe turmoil ever since Whiteside’s May 15 dismissal, with longtime station staff, volunteers and listeners voicing objections to the substance and style of Fretwell’s management. Among other consequences, the station’s regular June fundraiser was cancelled.
The station’s first Community Advisory Board (CAB) meeting on May 30 following Whiteside’s sacking was tumultuous, with expressions of support for her and disdain for Fretwell.
The Wednesday, June 27 CAB meeting was little different, with impassioned support for Whiteside and characterizations of Fretwell as someone unpleasant, even unsafe to work with.
The meeting concluded with a CAB vote of No Confidence in Fretwell, but it’s unclear what, if any, effect the essentially symbolic vote will have.
[Clarification: the initial motion and second was for the CAB to vote "no confidence" in Fretwell. The CAB member who made the motion, Barbara Boerger, later amended it to say that the CAB would pass along a letter from the station community advising the board that it had no confidence. That was the motion that passed. – Ed.]
Fretwell wasn’t present at the June meeting, nor were other university officials cast in a negative light, including Vice President Craig Wruck and President Lisa Rossbacher.
The meeting began with an extended moment of silence to honor beloved Fogou host Gregg “Vinny” Devaney, who passed away the day before.
Development Director David Reed said the station has lost about $35,000 in annual revenue from canceled station memberships and underwriting. CAB member Jana Kirk-Levine said Wruck told her the HSU Advancement Foundation would make up the loss. (Wruck denies that this would happen.)
Also of concern is the 75 members who have pulled out, whom CAB Chair Tom Hinz described as “influencers” in the community.
Some of the CAB members had met with Wruck and Rossbacher in the wake of Whiteside’s termination, but the results were not especially heartening.
Boardmember Barbara Boerger said Wruck told the CAB that Fretwell had been hired as an “agent of change.” She noted that Wruck never told the CAB, the staff or volunteers about any changes he thought should be made over the six years.
Kirk-Levine lamented the lack of a strategic plan for the station, and said the board needed a retreat to develop one. She also said the station needs a “forensic audit.”
CAB member Ben Winker said he was appalled at the audacity of the administration’s “subterfuge” and “secret agenda that we don’t know about.” He urged those concerned with the matter to write letters to Rossbacher, the CSU Board of Trustees, and even Governor Jerry Brown.
Kirk-Levine said some relatively trivial problems at the station put KHSU on Wruck’s radar. Apparently some expletives were blurted out on the air by interview guests, and some inaccurately stated station identification announcements. “They were really small,” she said. “These were just little tiny housekeeping matters that Mr. Wruck chose to show us were the big deal.”
Some attendees objected to the administration’s opacity with regard to its intentions for the station. Volunteer Bonnie Burgess said she had written letters to Wruck and Rossbacher but received no response. She called on Fretwell to resign, a statement that drew applause.
Ethnic Excursions host Halimah Collingwood voiced a suspicion many have privately expressed. “Most of us feel that they want to turn the station into a really easy, NPR/PRI syndicated programming and... maybe have a couple of volunteers on the weekend,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to run a station like that.”
Boerger said Wruck had denied this, but not shared his vision for the station.
Station staff and volunteers said the same lack of communication is in play within the station. “It’s clear to me that the university does not care about us,” said volunteer Russ Cole. “Fretwell doesn’t talk to his own staff.”
“That is correct,” said Office Manager Lorna Bryant.
Cole said Fretwell holds volunteers in disdain, and that Wruck had condemned the volunteers as “entitled” and mostly concerned with their own egos.
Support and work safety
The dirge of dudgeon for station and university leadership continued along these lines until a few genuine bombshells dropped.
Phil Ricord, owner of Wildberries Marketplace and a donor of about $20,000 to the station annually, read a letter he had written to Rossbacher which he said elicited no reply.
In the letter, he explained his long relationship with the station and concerns and his concern about Whiteside’s dismissal. Ricord asked for a meeting with Rossbacher and Fretwell to address his concerns about whether he should continue his support.
“If money talks, my money should talk, and it apparently doesn’t seem to talk,” he said. “I’ll pull my $18,000 a year plus what I give if that’s in the best interests of KHSU, and I’m not sure that it is.”
Ricord said the administration doesn’t care about the station, so financial reprisals may not sway them.
He also offered to hire an attorney for Whiteside to see about restoring her employment, but only if she wants the job back. “What does Katie want?” he asked repeatedly. “Does she want her job back?”
Whiteside has steadfastly declined all comment on the grinding controversy. Friends say she is uncomfortable with the attention lavished on her since her dismissal and wishes to maintain what privacy she can.
“What do you want me to do?” Ricord asked. “Do you want me to pull my $20,000 a year out? Hold them to the fire? And do you think that’s gonna do any good?”
Ricord later said he was “conflicted” about pulling his station support, because it could give the administration “a reason to push it over the edge.”
Another headline happened when Program and Operations Coordinator Jessica Eden said Fretwell lied to her and made inappropriate comments about Whiteside. She said she had a “profound lack of confidence” in Fretwell.
“I found him lying to my face on a regular basis,” Eden said. She said he also spoke disparagingly of Whiteside several times, labeling her “damaged” and other unpleasant terms, and that he withheld information from her. “He was undermining her professionally,” Eden said. She said Whiteside was “targeted and harassed” by Fretwell. She referred to him as “his own little package of mess.”
“I feel completely unsafe at work,” Eden said. “I consider it a hostile work environment. I don’t know what’s coming next out of this guy.”
Added Eden, “Much of the staff comes up and hides in the studio with me because they do not want to be in Wagner House with him.”
“I can vouch for that,” Collingwood said. “Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury,” Bryant said. “I’m the one who interacts the most now, and it is most uncomfortable.”
Though he hadn’t seen the CAB meeting (viewable at the KHSU Facebook page) Vice President Craig Wruck interrupted a family vacation to offer interim responses to the major issues raised.
He said “there is a lot of misinformation out there” regarding the station.
Wruck said the administration is looking at a strategic plan to best deliver KHSU’s unique hybrid model of public and community radio. That, he said, must include new “delivery channels” apart from the traditional broadcast radio.
One facet he said he’d like to restore to the station is “a bigger role for undergraduates,” with the station playing a larger role in curriculum. :”That was its roots and we’ve sort of deviated from that,” Wruck said.
He said a draft policy statement should be ready by fall, and that the CAB, staff and public “have to be involved.”
Wruck said he was initially “stunned” by the no confidence vote, but welcomes its feedback. “A healthy and creative environment requires diverse ideas on how to serve the public the best and we need an array of different perspectives,” Wruck said.
He said Fretwell came to KHSU with 30 years of radio experience, and that “he is here to make change and improvements.” He said he didn’t intend for the term “agent of change” to come off as negative, “but people definitely heard it that way.”
The questions before KHSU include “the station’s role in connection with the university’s mission, and how it relates to other university priorities.”
“The university needs to be confident that the radio station is fulfilling its mission.”
He said the lost support comprised perhaps 3 or 4 percent of station revenue, and called the losses “disconcerting.” He said the station will run a deficit this year, but that “We have the resources to operate at a deficit.” But, he said, the funds will not come from University Advancement.
With regard to Whiteside’s dismissal, Wruck said it was “very difficult” but that the management should be given “the benefit of the doubt.” He again took the blame for the messy way it went down.
“I should have done a better job of communicating with staff earlier,” he said. He said he understood how well-liked Whiteside is, but that “I don’t think she can be reinstated.”
Wruck confirmed that the CSU Office of Audit and Advisory Services (OAAS) will be looking at the station. Among the matters the OAAS will evaluate are liability when non-employees do programming, as well as liability for volunteers’ safety and security on state-owned facilities.
“It’s going to take time to rebuild trust and confidence, and we have to do that,” Wruck said. “The radio station is not going away.”