The gutting of KHSU

On April 11, Humboldt State University President Lisa Rossbacher along with former Vice President of University Advancements Craig Wruck decided to eliminate all 59 volunteer positions and fire all but two paid employee positions at the local NPR affiliate radio station KHSU. Caught up in the decision were five student interns who also lost their employment as learning experience. The university has been in charge of the station since the 1960s and it grew into an integral part of the community. Below I have attached my coverage of the events as well as a long form narrative I wrote that combines the pieces with a little more information. I hope you enjoy the series and feel free to reach out if you have any questions.

 

Radio silence: How the gutting of a radio station disrupted airwaves and sent shockwaves through a community

A light mist trickled from the sky as Ryan Lee stood outside of the KHSU studio at the Feuerwerker House on the morning of April 11. Every week since 1990 Lee has hosted a ten o’clock radio show, but this morning is different. Just an hour before, at around 9 a.m., Lee’s world, and those of his peers, was upturned. The beloved local radio station of Humboldt County, KHSU, was essentially gutted by a decision from the Humboldt State administration.

“The station is shut down, everybody is fired, all the volunteers have been let go,” Lee said solemnly as the mist gathered on his long white hair. “All accounts for current staff have been locked. We have no plans for programming. There may be nothing.”

Now former volunteers and station supporters meet outside of Feuerwerker House after hearing about the elimination of jobs and volunteer positions at KHSU on April 11.  Photo by Thomas Lal

The mist soon turned into a light rain and Lee milled about outside the studio waiting for David Montoya, an HSU human resources representative, to let him in the station to gather his belongings. Inside with Montoya were two police officers and a man named Ed. Ed was live on radio but answered the phone when it rang.

“They got the friggin’ cops in here,” Ed said in between songs. “I can’t give you any specifics as to what is going on, but I think the station is done for. You gotta figure what the hell happened for us.”

The emptying of KHSU devastated the Humboldt community. Feelings surrounding the station were tense ever since the abrupt firing of KHSU program director Kate Whiteside on May 15, 2018. Whiteside worked at the station for 23 years and some mark her termination as the beginning of the end of KHSU. Lisa Rossbacher, President of HSU, said the firings and layoffs were due to budget issues, a realignment of values and a desire for more student involvement. However, given the fallout after the firings and lack of a long-term plan for the station, it’s hard to see to where Rossbacher is coming from. To tell the story of KHSU, and to explain the convoluted tale, one must start at the beginning—back when the station was founded in 1960.

A historical report by journalism Professor Emeritus Mark Larson details the history of KHSU and its beginnings in 1960 as a club. The theater department soon took over control of the student-run station back when the wattage was low and only reached a limited audience. However, the “programming was diverse and locally produced…reflecting a ‘sand box’ playground analogy,” Larson wrote in his report.

In 1971, the first bits of journalism-related coursework entered the KHSU studio when a radio news workshop began. The program continued for many years and in 1980, Tom Trepiak, radio news faculty advisor at the time, won a Society of Professional Journalists award for student news coverage of a 7.0 earthquake that rocked Humboldt County. The public came to greatly appreciate the news coverage from the students and, according Larson’s report, community members would complain when “news casts disappeared during semester breaks and the summer.”

Inside the KHSU station at the Feuerwerker House. Photo by T. William Wallin

Student involvement at KHSU was heavy at first, but that began to change as the years passed. The catalyst for this change was the boost in the transmission range of the station in the 1980s. During this time, demands for better quality shows helped to fuel change at the station and many in the public started to pressure those in charge at HSU to start carrying broadcasts from National Public Radio. In order to air such programming a “significant cost and management commitment” was necessary and a plan was devised.

A professional staff was hired to run the KHSU radio station while a strictly student-run station was being devised. The student-run station, KRFH or “Radio Free Humboldt” as the DJs call it, came about in the late 1980s. As the two stations began to bifurcate and hone their own styles, KRFH essentially became the breeding ground for KHSU. Many of the longtime DJs and former employees of KHSU came directly from the KRFH station and the student intern program.

The intern program attracted some of the best from KRFH. At the KHSU station, students got professional experience working under the tutelage of industry professionals and many of them were hired on or became volunteers after they graduated. Lorna Bryant was such a student and worked at KHSU for more than 10 years after graduating. She moved to Humboldt County from Los Angeles in 1986 because it had “out-of-state distance and in-state tuition.”

Bryant’s passion for radio stems from childhood experiences. She used to watch her older siblings dance around their home to the tunes pumping through the radio. Bryant and her siblings would spend hours laughing and dancing to the melodies that played over the speakers from the radio. Nervous excitement filled their stomachs as they would call in to the local radio station to request songs. One of Bryant’s favorite stations was KDAY out of Los Angeles—the first hip hop station in the country. As the year’s rolled on, Bryant’s taste for entertainment changed.

“I started listening myself and was swept away by the depths of a story,” Bryant said. “I was mesmerized by it.”

It took Bryant two tries to graduate from HSU. She initially dropped out because her “social life and academic life didn’t align,” she said. She returned to HSU when she was 39 years young.

“Radio kept pulling me,” Bryant said. “I’ve had a passion for it since I was 8 years old.”

Bryant wanted to finish what she started when she came back to HSU in 2007. She wanted to finish her degree and get her son out of the Los Angeles neighborhood where late rapper Nipsey Hussle would be gunned down on March 31. During her senior year, Bryant interned at KHSU. She was a mom with a teenage son, a student with a full academic load and an intern hire at an NPR affiliate station

Humboldt State University student and former KHSU employee Megan Martin hugs former station manager Lorna Bryant outside of the station on April 11, 2019. Photo by Thomas Lal

“I got hands-on experience at a working radio station, that was one of the greatest things about the [intern] program,” Bryant said.

In 2009 Bryant was hired as a full-time employee at KHSU. During her tenure, she oversaw interns and guided them in the pursuits of their radio dreams.

“We’ve had interns produce on-air stories, edit and engineer stories,” Bryant said. “They’ve shadowed key hosts and actually would sub-in for shows.”

Megan Martin is currently the KRFH station manager and was a student intern enrolled in KHSU Experience class—the class where internship at KHSU is possible. Martin, or “Midge” her nickname and DJ moniker, is a tall blonde that is rarely seen without her signature red lipstick and black leather jacket. She is what one professor described as a “goody two-shoes” who fronts as a badass chick who rides a motorcycle and blasts rock n’ roll during her station sets.

During her time at KHSU, Midge grew close to the staff and volunteers. On the morning of the firings, Midge walked up to the university and saw police cars outside of the station house. That was when she knew something was off.

“I was reading stories in the Mad River Union about how the student interns were out of luck,” Midge said. “[Frank Whitlach] was giving interviews about us students, without ever reaching out to us.”

Midge said she was given no notice of the lay-offs and on the day of the firings, Whitlach, associate vice president of marketing and communications at HSU, sent an email to the student interns reassuring them that their “student assistant positions will continue as planned for the remainder of the semester.” However, that “reassurance” seems to have fallen apart. As of now the student interns are out a job, out a class, and wondering if their work and a semester’s worth of studies was all for nothing.

“I was paid for that position,” Midge said. “I was making audio for them and learning new techniques. This internship feels more important than my degree. I don’t see how this benefits students.”

Martin and the other student interns are currently in discussion with Journalism Department Chair Deidre Pike and Whitlach about what the steps moving forward will be. One option is to pay the students out for the remainder of the semester and to figure out how they will be given course credit for their work so far.

“I feel cheated out of these last couple of weeks,” Midge said. “I really felt that these last few weeks were going to be beneficial to my college career.”

Since the day of the firings, trying to find someone in the administration to answer any questions about the lack of student notice has a been quite the ordeal. Whitlach, has been hard to reach and was on vacation the week after the firings.

Craig Wruck, Vice President of University Advancement and one of the main persons in charge of the firings, was out of his office since at least the day of the KHSU firings and “isn’t available for an interview.” He also retired on May 1.

On the evening of the firings, President Rossbacher headed to her vehicle parked in front of Gist Hall around 5 p.m. It had been a long day and long week for Rossbacher. She had received an advisory review from the California State University Chancellor’s office just three days before about recommendations about the future of KHSU. It is a report she relied on to guide her decisions. No where in the report did it mention the gutting of the station.

“People think of volunteers of not costing anything, but in fact it takes two to three hours of paid staff time to support every hour of programming that is generated by volunteers,” Rossbacher said.

Some of the volunteers at the station had been there for over 30 years and when asked about how much oversight they would need Rossbacher acknowledged her lack of insight on the specifics. On the future of KHSU, Rossbacher said the university is looking for partners to collaborate with and could not speak of the details of what that collaboration would look like or who it would involve.

“We still want to have local programming,” she said. “We still have to cover it within our budget and so I can’t tell you right now exactly what that looks like. Some of what has appeared in the past may show up again through other media, but I don’t know exactly what the future is going to hold.”

HSU students,Damian Jimenez and Megan Martin. Photo by Freddy Brewster

One of the reasons behind the drastic change at the station was a desire for more student involvement, however that seems contradictory due to the lack of support for current students in the intern program. Damian Jimenez is another one of the students affected by the KHSU firings. Jimenez said he was “pissed” about the whole situation.

“The university keeps on having this top down management style that says, ‘you need to support students more or more students need to be involved in the station,’” he said. “But I don’t think they understand the value of the station to me as a student. No one ever asked me why it’s important.”

One of the people tasked with asking students about the importance of their roles with KHSU was Bennet Perrault. Perrault was a member of the Associated Students of HSU during the Fall 2018 semester. Perrault became intrigued about the dilemmas surrounding KHSU after reading articles about the tense relations after the Whiteside firing in the Mad River Union.

Perrault said his knowledge of KHSU and the intern program was minimal. He said he knew about the two student interns involved with Radio Bilingüe, but not the other three in the KHSU Experience class. According to Perrault, Wruck told him that a lot of the volunteers at the station used to be students and have not left the station since they were brought on years ago.

“I think he saw the opportunity to get AS involved and jumped on it,” Perrault said. “He told us what to say. He just painted this picture as all these volunteers not allowing students in there.”

Wruck’s vision for KHSU would keep its current model, but with just more student involvement, Perrault said. The ideal vision for the future of the station involved more student content such as podcasts and shows focused towards a younger audience. With more student involvement at the station, the university could use it as a marketing tool to advertise to prospective students, Perrault said.

“Craig said that the whole station was run by people that haven’t left since the 80s and that HSU is putting a lot of money into it,” he said. “He told me that that they wanted to change KHSU and have the best students from KRFH run their own shows on KHSU.”

Perrault said that he reached out to professors involved with KRFH and the KHSU Experience classes and heard back from Cliff Berkowitz. Berkowitz, a professor at HSU for 11 years and founder of Lost Coast Communications, told Perrault that “KHSU was fine as it is.”

After he conducted his research, Perrault drafted a resolution titled Draft Resolution No. 2018-19-08 “An Act of Formal Support for Increased Student Involvement in KHSU Radio Station.” The goal of the resolution is to “encourage the KHSU station to increase student positions, student-produced content, student air time, and more.”

“It all seemed realistic and like a good idea, I didn’t say fire a bunch of people,” Perrault said. “I think Craig and the people at the station were already butting heads. He said that a bunch of people are leaving and this would be a good opportunity for this to happen before [Rossbacher] left because she is in an interesting position.”

President Rossbacher is set to retire at the end of the Spring 2019 semester and Whitlach took over the day-to-day operations that Wruck once held. Over the last few years, the university reigned in budget spending and KHSU came into the view of the HSU administration as well as the CSU chancellor’s office.

During Rossbacher’s five-year term at HSU she oversaw the closing of the HSU Third Street Art Gallery, the cutting of the football program, and now the massive firing and change of direction at KHSU—all integral components of the Humboldt community. When asked about the reasoning on why she made these decisions Rossbacher said it had to deal with shortfalls in money.

“My goal is to get to a balanced budget,” she said. “There have been some difficult choices in the process of getting there.”

Balanced budgets are an important factor to consider in the future of HSU. The university is currently 17% under enrolled and still needs to find cuts for another million dollars, according to Rossbacher. There have not been any new plans announced about the future of the radio station and it has fallen in a state of limbo. Currently there are zero employees or volunteers at the station and a broadcast out of Chico fills the airwaves. With the dismantling of the radio station, the football program, and the Third Street Art Gallery, one has to wonder—what’s next?

 

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