Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT STATE – The crisis touched off by the May 16 dismissal of a longtime KHSU employee hasn’t faded.
Two months and three meetings of the Humboldt State University radio station’s advisory board later, the revolt among employees and volunteers has expanded and intensified into a struggle over the station’s very identity and premise.
Further heightening tensions is a dispute between a KHSU staff member and the vice president in charge of the station.
If you missed last Wednesday night’s raucous meeting of the KHSU Community Advisory Board (CAB), or the Facebook stream, you can still weigh in, because a KHSU Town Hall meeting is in the works, date as yet unknown.
At the meeting, HSU Vice president of Advancement Craig Wruck waded into a maelstrom of open hostility to the university’s administration to address points of contention raised by the station community, and to pitch his plan for creation of a KHSU Mission and Vision statement (see below).
While Wruck cast the document as a fresh opportunity for creative collaboration, with his draft “purpose” points mere suggestions to be used for discussion or dispensed with entirely, many attendees saw them more as a patriarchal, top-down imposition of dictates that the administration wants to sear into their flesh with white-hot tines.
With that, the new visioning initiative joined other issues already on the boil at the station – the dismissal of Operations Manager Katie Whiteside, the management style of General Manager Peter Fretwell, an alleged incident of employee intimidation and what is seen by some as untoward meddling in the station by a distant and unresponsive university administration.
The CAB meeting kicked off without Fretwell present. Wruck said he told the embattled station manager, whom he termed a “lightning rod” for criticism, not to attend. Wruck said Fretwell had been subjected to “abuse and slander,” including criticism for his presumed religious beliefs and even his clothing.
According to some staff members who spoke, working conditions at the station are so trying that they are seeking professional help – or looking deeply within for solace and balance.
Development Director David Reed said there are good and bad days, with “a whole lot of actors acting on the station right now.” Morale, Reed said, is “not great every day.”
“I’m working on my meditation skills,” he said, emphasizing that he wasn’t joking about that.
Reed said the station’s canceled pledge drive has been moved to the end of September or early October.
Underwriting Director Jeff DeMark said that after an initial wave of cancellations and a loss of perhaps $30,000, things have “leveled off.” A lot of underwriters are “watching and waiting,” he said, while many others are happily renewing. Others, he said, don’t care about the festering controversies.
“I still believe in public radio and try to keep the station going,” DeMark said. “That’s my job.”
Producer and Content Director Jessica Eden said that all the scrutiny, with newspaper stories and concerned callers, station personnel are “feeling stress,” and some are seeking counseling. “It’s a pretty horrible experience for them,” she said.
Wruck then outlined his proposed timeline and draft Mission and Vision statement, saying it would help the station understand its potential and position itself for the future. He asked that the CAB and station community pitch in to create the statement, with his draft version as a starting point, calling for “really objective input.”
Input he got, but not necessarily of the type requested.
First to speak was Boardmember Barbara Boerger, who questioned whether President Lisa Rossbacher and her cabinet were qualified to oversee a visioning process. She said she was “very disturbed” by the “”disrespectful” approach, and that the station community should have been asked for its input first.
Boerger said the cabinet’s composition, as well as their relationship and relevance to the station, was a mystery. “We don’t even know who they are,” she said. “We don’t know anything.”
Wruck said the cabinet (whose members are listed at president.humboldt.edu/advisory) includes the four vice presidents, the director of Diversity and Inclusion and the Human Resources director.
Others agreed that the process was backwards. Some picked apart the talking points, stating they were redundant, irrelevant or already implemented.
Wruck said the list of talking points wasn’t a “manifesto,” but “a starting point.” He apologized “in case that seemed presumptuous.”
He also made the point, repeatedly, that the university is both the station’s license holder and that it is the largest donor, providing 45 percent of its funding.
Patty Hecht said the approach was “top down as opposed to a ground up” process. She voiced a concern frequently mentioned among members of the station community – that the administration has a “hidden agenda” to convert the station to a set of national feeds, eliminating the volunteers.
Wruck said that wasn’t the case. “If there’s a secret agenda, I’m not aware of it,” he said. “We want to take this treasure that we have and improve it.”
Serving almost as a metaphor for the dysfunctional communication among the station stakeholders, the makeshift PA system buzzed and rang throughout the meeting, occasionally shrieking with feedback. Even when functioning somewhat normally, an excess of treble made voices sound harsh and brittle, with incessant ringing. Speakers had to change locations or hold the wireless mic at odd angles to minimize the intrusive overtones.
As the discussion wore on, a number of historical incidents were cited as examples of the university’s poor judgment, including cancellation of the nursing program in 2011, closure of the First Street Gallery and the recent firing of Katie Whiteside. Speakers faulted Fretwell and Wruck for setting a disrespectful tone.
Wruck said that his private, one-on-one conversations with station personnel indicated a “deeply divided” staff, composed of those upset with management, another set who are “quite upset” with the anti-Fretwell forces but can’t speak up, and the largest group, who would just like to go to work and wish the controversy would go away.
He added that the discontent predated Fretwell’s arrival, setting off a murmur, with several attendees shouting out that he was wrong.
“You’re kind of looked at as the enemy,” said Alan Sanborn. He suggested that “very strong women” are under particular fire from the administration, a statement which gained a smattering of applause.
Sanborn rattled off a litany of university misfeasances the station community is “still smarting from,” including creation of the “stupid” gateways echoing the architecture of Founders Hall and HSU’s “hidden involvement” with developers of the proposed The Village student housing project.
He said Rossbacher was down in Long Beach “voting herself a $9,000 raise.” Sanborn concluded his softspoken jeremiad with the accusation that “you will be forever remembered, you and Peter, as the people who fired Katie Whiteside... either walk it back, or walk.”
Wruck fact-checked Sanborn on a number of points, including Rossbacher’s whereabouts (she was at the university, he said). He stated that the president has no vote on her salary, but that a 3 percent raise was approved.
A number of other speakers further cited Whiteside’s firing as creating a climate of hostility at the station, with Fretwell noncommunicative about vital station business, including the upcoming move of the studio.
Boardmember Jana Kirk-Levine took Wruck to task over his objections to mockery of Fretwell for his appearance and presumed religious beliefs. “That is an example of this community that you live in,” she said. “That’s what happens here. This shows again how you do not understand this community that you live in.” She said such criticism was commonplace.
“In my world, it is absolutely unacceptable to for someone to persecute someone else for their religious or political beliefs,” Wruck said. He said popular presumptions about Fretwell’s beliefs are incorrect.
Jennifer Knight faulted Wruck for what she said was a backwards scoping process, and for failure to follow “policies and procedures.”
Much of the rest of the meeting involved rehash of the same issues, with the martyred Whiteside – who has since been hired by PBS North Coast (KEET-TV, Channel 13) – frequently mentioned.
Office Manager Lorna Bryant said efforts to improve diversity at the station were a subterfuge to qualify for new forms of funding, and that Fretwell’s “eyes lit up with dollar signs” at the opportunity.
“Poor people of color equate to grants,” she said. “That was his motivation.”
She said Wruck’s characterization of the station staff as divided into three camps was “a divisive tool” intended to pit staffers against each other.
Bryant vs. Wruck
Earlier in the week, Bryant claimed that she “was subjected to abusive behavior” by Wruck during a July 11 KHSU staff meeting.
Bryant said that Wruck yelled at her with attempts to shut down her speech, with none of the fellow staff members speaking up for her.
Bryant stated that she has been “traumatized” by the incident, which left her “cautious to interact with unfamiliar people in my community.”
Bryant, who also serves as media liaison for the Eureka NAACP and has announced her intention to run for Arcata City Council, made the allegations in a letter sent to several Humboldt State and California State University officials as well as state and congressional representatives.
Bryant described the incident and the trauma she suffered in a letter sent to various university officials and elected representatives.
Wruck responded with an explanation and apology.
“I’m very sorry that I hurt her that way,” Wruck said.
He said the meeting was a heated one, with people in attendance talking over each other while discussing some violations of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules and an impending audit of the radio station. The exchange between him and Bryant took place amid the chaotic crosstalk, Wruck said.
“The discussion was difficult at times,”he said. “I did apologize at the time and later, but I fell short.” Wruck said he would apologize to Bryant again.
“The staff is under stress,” he said. “I’m sorry that came out that way.”
Bryant later contradicted Wruck, stating that he didn’t apologize once, not to mention twice. In fact, she said, Wruck stated after the meeting that he said, paraphrased, something to the effect that, “I hope I don’t have to come back and yell at Lorna again.”
She said the meeting’s discussion wasn’t heated, as he had claimed. She said Wruck said that Fretwell had met or exceeded expectations and that his job was safe.
Bryant stressed that she didn’t feel singled out as an African-American. “I want to make it abundantly clear: never in any way in the email did I imply that Craig Wruck is a racist or treating me differently simply because I’m his lone African-American on staff,” she said.
However, Bryant noted, African-Americans and people of color are being disrespected in the community, and Wruck’s stated goal of the station leading in achieving racial equity “is a contradiction to be noted.”
She cited “an ongoing pattern of speaking over women and speaking past women as relates to this issue, and this is a continuation of that behavior.”
Bryant said she didn’t utilize the university’s Human Resources or ombudsman to resolve her issue with Wruck before writing the letter, because precedent has shown that going through proper channels is ineffective.
She said staff member Jessica Eden wrote to Rossbacher about the hostile work environment, and received no response. Outreach to the Human resources director was also ignored, she said. “So why would I have faith in going through those processes?” Bryant asked.
Exacerbating the present contentious climate, Wruck said that “anxiety is amping up” at the station over some recent violations of FCC rules. Those have been discussed at meetings of the Community Advisory Board, and include missing station identification announcements and an incident of profanity used on the air. Though seemingly minor infractions, Wruck said that “There is no such thing as a minor violation when the FCC is involved.”
But, he said, the complaints were resolved without fines.
Still looming though, is a top-to-bottom audit of the station to be conducted by California State University. While a forensic audit had been urged by at least one CAB member during its June monthly meeting, HSU President Lisa Rossbacher is looking for for something much more comprehensive.
In a July 19 letter to CSU Vice Chancellor and Chief Audit Officer Larry Mandel (see below), Rossbacher asks the Office of Audit and Advisory Services for a review of the station “as soon as your staff’s schedule permits.”
Writes Rossbacher, “I believe HSU will benefit greatly from an evaluation of KHSU operations, administration, and oversight, including a review of processes for authorizing access to KHSU work areas and transmitter sites.”
She also asks for reviews of the station’s accounts payable, intra-staff and HSU-KHSU communication, FCC license oversight, volunteer engagement and training, and whether compliance audits should be asked of the California Broadcasters Association.