Citing costs, HSU Admin purges most staff, the rest resign; Chico feed takes over; station community livid, organizing; sponsors quit, donors claim fraud, demand refunds; future plans vague, uncertain
Public radio station’s airwaves go dead on Sunday as outrage mounts
Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – The biggest mediaquake to hit Humboldt in recent memory, perhaps ever, struck Thursday morning on the outskirts of Humboldt State University.
With police standing by, the administration fired seven of nine staffmembers of radio station KHSU, changed the locks to the Feuerwerker Building in which the station is housed and switched the broadcast feed from local programming to that of North State Public Radio in Chico.
Such a purge had long been feared by station staff and loyalists over the past year or more, as fierce controversies over station management and the university’s policies piled up.
For its part, the HSU administration cited the station’s financial drain on the university and findings made in a “comprehensive station review” received Monday, April 8. Created at the request of President Lisa Rossbacher, the audit by CSU Office of Audit and Advisory Services, identifies a number of shortcomings in the station’s management, organization and relationship with the university.
The review states that KHSU’s mission and goals “appear to have drifted from the station’s initial purpose” of training students. It also finds that there is no need for a Community Advisory Board (CAB), a group which was sidelined by the administration as the station became embroiled in increasingly heated controversies over the past year.
The administration’s intervention set off an uproar involving former staffers, volunteers, sponsors and listeners. Along with social media backlash, a well-attended protest took place on the Arcata Plaza during Saturday’s Farmers Market. Station activists are planning a meeting, possibly to be held at Arcata’s Sanctuary on Sunday, April 28. They also planned to attend Tuesday’s meeting of the University Senate to air their thoughts and feelings. Letters of protest are reportedly being sent to the California State University Chancellor’s Office in Long Beach.
The abrupt termination of a 59-year Arcata media institution to which hundreds of volunteers had contributed time and creative treasure was made especially more acute by its timing – right after a recent pledge drive – and by the administrators had given the go-ahead for the purge – President Lisa Rossbacher, Vice President for University Advancement Craig Wruck and station General Manager Peter Fretwell. All are held in exceedingly low esteem by station loyalists over their management style and policies, and have been characterized as outsiders with no understanding of, or interest in KHSU.
In addition, Rossbacher and Wruck are soon to retire and leave the university. Fretwell, whose position was eliminated in the purge, is still assisting the university with station matters on an as-needed basis, according to a spokesman.
Dismissed in the staff purge were employees Jessica Eden, Lorna Bryant, Mark Shikuma, Kevin Sanders, Wendy Butler and Jeff DeMark. Sanders, a CSU employee of the campus, was tasked with assisting with technical matters in the programming changeover.
Though the university had campus police and human resources personnel in place, and a semblance of a plan for continuity, the station takeover was riddled with glitches and setbacks for the administration.
Some news media and station supporters had been alerted to pending action on Thursday the previous day. When Wruck appeared at the station to explain the actions to staff behind locked doors, a volunteer, Ryan Lee, was still in the studio.
First, programmer Ed Campbell played Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles.
Then Lee, in a production studio, managed to insert a feed from the staff meeting into the station’s live broadcast. UPDATE: Lee denies that he was responsible for the unauthorized meeting feed.
Lee later released a paraphrased transcript of the meeting, including his personal observations. Listeners heard Wruck and dismissed Underwriting Coordinator Jeff DeMark discussing the station’s recent financial problems.
DeMark was briefly heard detailing the decline in underwriting support “because of the recent chaos,” following the never-explained, abrupt termination of former Operations and Program Director Katie Whiteside. Lee, a non-staffmember, was subsequently discovered by Wruck and expelled from the building.
As Thursday wore on, concerned listeners and volunteers gathered outside the Feuerwerker Building’s locked front door – ironically still labeled “KHSU, Diverse Public Radio” – with only a keyhole view through the front door to satisfy their curiosity about the goings-on inside.
Inma Thompson, a Spanish teacher, turned up with her students for a Home Page interview that wasn’t to be. The students had created storybooks in English as an exercise, had shared them at area schools and were supposed to describe them for listeners. Instead, KHSU’s air carried a pledge drive from the Chico station.
On Friday, newly named Interim Director David Reed tendered his resignation. In a Facebook post, Reed stated that appointment to the new position “was made without consulting me.”
“I as saddened, disappointed and angry,” Reed said.
That left Morning Edition Host Natalya Estrada as the station’s sole employee. Saturday, Estrada resigned too. She said she had stayed on to help ensure that station volunteers were able to access the wealth of content they had generated over the years.
In a letter distributed to the news media, Estrada said of the administration’s actions, “I don’t understand their narrative or their reasons. Perhaps I never will.”
Estrada had been the final remaining employee listed on the “staff” page at khsu.org. That page has entirely disappeared from the website, and many of the menu selections are inert.
The administration view
A media release announcing “Organizational Changes at KHSU” detailed the changes and laid out the administration’s reasoning.
“The decision to realign the station reflects a comprehensive assessment,” states the announcement. “Factors included the station’s increasing cost to the University; KHSU’s limited capacity for additional fundraising and underwriting; challenges identified by the CSU Office of Audit and Advisory Services; feedback from listeners and volunteers; the University’s commitment to public service; and the appropriate role of student involvement in station operations and programming.”
The release states that due to declining support from the public, the cash-strapped university had to subsidize a station budget deficit of $135,000, with even larger deficits to come.
“The budget challenges at KHSU come as HSU has been working to address an overall structural deficit as well as funding declines related to an enrollment drop. The University has reduced its spending by $9 million over the last two years, and is making nearly $1 million in additional reductions for the coming year,” states the release. “For context, over the last year HSU has funded nearly half the cost of KHSU. Listener support provided about 22 percent, corporate underwriting 17 percent, and government grants 12 percent. HSU directly paid more than $265,000 in salary, covered at least $250,000 for space and utilities, and spent at least $80,000 receiving and processing contributions to the station.”
Associate Vice President Frank Whitlach addressed a number of salient issues regarding the station overhaul.
He said volunteers will have access to their archives via some kind of orderly process yet to be worked out. He wasn’t sure as to the fate of the station’s trove of records, discs and other recorded media.
He said North State Public Radio were “being great colleagues and helping out” with the program feed.
He said Fretwell is still assisting the university with the station as part of his severance package, which includes an obligation to provide assistance as needed.
Whitlach was hesitant to commit to refunds for those who’d made pledges during the recent funding drive, but that they could call University Advancement at (707) 826-5101 and make a request. “Be generous and kind to those folks,” he requested.
Some donors report having successfully obtained a refund by calling University Advancement.
Whitlach said that the station overhaul had been discussed over the past year or so, but that this “Way forward” was finalized after receipt of the CSU review on Monday, April 8.
As to the unidentified “partners” mentioned in the media announcement, with whom the university might engage in rebooting the station, Whitlach said there are “numerous possibilities,” but that the discussions are taking place in private.
He said KHSU’s future includes closer involvement with the university’s curriculum as student training facility “across quite a few departments.” These will include Speech, Journalism, Communications and others.
Station loyalists gathered on the Plaza during Saturday’s Farmers Market to protest the station’s effective shutdown. Bearing a plethora of protest signs, participants decried the university’s actions and planned next steps to reverse them.
As Wildberries Marketplace owner Phil Ricord harvested signatures for a Union “In Memoriam” ad, former employees were unsparing in their criticism of the administration. Wildberries, along with the North Coast Growers Association which puts on the Farmers Market, are among the station backers who have withdrrawn their support of KHSU.
Dismissed Underwriting Coordinator Jeff DeMark said the station’s financial woes were real, but of the administration’s own doing. A turning point downward was the inexplicable firing of Whiteside last May, which alienated many supports, both private and in business.
“Eighty to $90,000 of it was directly attributable to their actions,” he said. “They caused the loss, and now they’re blaming the victim,” he said. The Whiteside firing and subsequent lack of transparency alone cost the station $45,000, he said.
The recent pledge drive, conducted even as administrators mulled a station shutdown, was “dishonest and fraudulent,” DeMark said. “It was definitely fraud.”
The Thursday staff meeting was handled poorly, DeMark said. “There was never a word of thanks for our service, nothing,” he said. “It was dark.”
“They decided to turn over the table and flip the Monopoly board,” said Office Manager Lorna Bryant. She said she planned to “regroup for a month” in the comforting company of her grandchildren.
Radio Bilingue Host Yojana Miraya echoed similar sentiments. “It was very unfair the way they treated people who worked so many years,” she said. “We are not criminals, but we were treated like criminals.”
She said there were ways for the university to address financial problems other than wiping out the station staff, raising questions about the administration’s true aims.
“We don’t know what is the object, what is the goal, why are they doing that?” Miraya said.
Sunday afternoon, 90.5 FM was off the air. While an online feed continued to stream, radio station KHSU was broadcasting only a silent carrier, possibly due to the lack of staff at the station. It was back on the air Monday, with an unfamiliar female voice handling routine announcements.
Mission and vision
The station’s future is uncertain. Embittered supporters suspect that the university may sell its license, ending it permanently.
Last August, Wruck appeared before the Community Advisory Board, asking it to assist with creation of a new Mission and Vision Statement, which he described as an essential document to be used to chart the station’s future. The CAB rejected his request.
Whitlach said Friday he wasn’t sure what was to become of the vision statement. “Craig’s working that out,” he said. “I’m not sure where that’s headed.”