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‘An audio gathering ground’ is slashed: The purge of a public radio station

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, addresses lawmakers at the Capitol earlier this year.
State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, addresses lawmakers at the Capitol earlier this year. AP

Dramatic funding cuts, staff firings and the sudden clear-out last week of KHSU-FM, Humboldt State University’s popular public radio station, have outraged North Coast listeners and lawmakers who are demanding to know what has happened to a community institution.

The removal of staff was done under the watch of university police.

“KHSU is the heart of this community and that heart was ripped out,” state Sen. Mike McGuire told The Sacramento Bee on Friday.

The North Coast Democrat joined state Assemblyman Jim Wood along with former state Sen. Wes Chesbro and former Assemblywoman Patty Berg in a letter to California State University Chancellor Timothy White and obtained by The Bee that blasted the university’s April 11 decision as reckless, secretive and short-sighted.

As first reported Thursday in the Eureka Times-Standard, Humboldt State officials, in a sweeping series of moves, fired five staffers, ended direct funding from the university to KHSU-FM, eliminated the station’s general manager and chief engineer positions, shelved programs run by station volunteers and installed new requirements that funding for an interim station director come from outside sources.

“The way this went down was completely avoidable and a slap in the face to Humboldt County and the North Coast,” the letter read. “Major decisions made behind closed doors, and with zero transparency, simply do not work for this community,” the joint letter continued. “There was absolutely no reason for this situation to unfold as it has and we want it to stop.”

Humboldt State officials cited what it said were the station’s struggles with declining community, listener and underwriting support and the university’s broader enrollment-driven revenue woes for the sharp cuts.

The cuts came after a California State University auditors’ 18-page review of KHSU released days before the purge that offered 19 recommendations on how to improve the station’s operational practices and procedures. The recommendations ranged from governance and oversight to payroll, training and security.

A chancellor’s spokesman Friday called the move a campus-based decision based on financial realities at the university and said the CSU’s White will soon talk with the lawmakers. McGuire expects that to happen as early as next week.

University president Lisa A. Rossbacher is catching much of the static. Rossbacher announced she will retire from Humboldt State June 30 after five years at the helm. A nationwide search is underway for Rossbacher’s successor.

Lawmakers in the letter scolded the “reckless manner and timing” of the university’s decision calling for “the long-time decision making by a short-term administration to stop” and issued a series of demands to the CSU chancellor:

  • Make no further decisions with Humboldt State on its radio station until a new administration is seated.
  • Cease immediately any effort to “abandon, sell, transfer or contract out” KHSU-FM until new leaders have had a chance to review the plans.
  • Involve the community in any future talks with the station.

“KHSU goes far beyond being a University asset and should not be evaluated and disposed of without community input,” the letter read.

But an animated McGuire minced no words Friday in criticizing the decision calling the cuts in staff, volunteers and funding “an outright slaughter of a community institution.”

“How this unfolded is completely unacceptable. KHSU isn’t just a radio station – it’s an audio gathering ground that’s been in existence for a half-century,” McGuire said.

University police were posted outside the on-campus radio station as staff and volunteers were escorted from the building, the Times-Standard reported.

University officials told The Bee on Friday that though people were sent out of the building April 12, the station stayed on the air.

Programming was supplied by pre-produced, syndicated content, university spokesman Grant Scott-Goforth said. An unrelated power outage knocked the station off air for a time that weekend, he said.

Officials on April 11, 2019, imposed dramatic funding cuts and staff firings at KHSU (90.5 FM), the California State University, Humboldt, public radio station.

Scott-Goforth declined to comment further on the firings and the resulting fallout instead referring a Bee reporter to a release sent out April 11 announcing the personnel moves.

The statement, under the heading, “Organizational Changes at KHSU,” called the housecleaning a reorganization “intended to address operational changes at KHSU, prevent further negative impact to the University’s budget and better align HSU’s financial support with its mission and with opportunities for students.”

University officials in the lengthy statement later said Humboldt State will “evaluate how students can return to a more substantial on-air role” at the station.

Sacking the station’s general manager and chief engineer will save Humboldt State more than $250,000 a year; while jettisoning the five other staffers would mean “significant savings” in other portions of the budget that come from listeners, government and business supporters.

University officials said underwriting revenue and listener support have fallen off by double-digits for the year while staff payroll costs continue to increase. The station’s struggles come atop tough budgetary times for the Redwood Coast campus as it faces a drop in enrollment, said university officials.

But the moves also rankled the lawmakers coming as they did from a lame-duck campus administration soon to make way for a new university president and on the heels of what McGuire said was a successful fund drive for the station.

“The community is in an uproar. KHSU is beloved on the North Coast,” McGuire said. “All of this could have been avoided and we want it to stop.”

Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.