Peter Fretwell took the helm as general manager of local public radio station KHSU last April. | Image from KHSU’s website.

KHSU General Manager Peter Fretwell today said he understands why local community members are confused, concerned and even outraged over last week’s sudden and unexplained firing of Program Director Katie Whiteside, who’d worked at the station for more than two decades.

Whiteside. | KHSU

“Absolutely,” he said. “This was a beloved and respected person in the community. I would expect nothing less from her friends and supporters than to make their feelings known.”

That they have. In the absence of an official explanation, which Fretwell said he’s both legally and ethically prevented from offering, Whiteside supporters are up in arms, and they’ve taken to social media to express their indignation.

“The many volunteers and the staff members are in shock over this,” reads a May 18 Facebook post from KHSU’s classical music programmer, Ed Campbell. He described her as virtually indispensable to the station’s day-to-day operations:

If you ever listen to KHSU, you’ve heard her voice. If you listen regularly you probably wonder when (and if) she ever sleeps.

For many of us involved with KHSU, Katie is the “Go To” person for any and ALL questions, crises, imaginary (or not) radio catastrophes and a million other things, whether professional or personal. …

We’re hoping for some kind of clarification.

Others have issued calls to action. Michael Fields, producing artistic director at Dell’Arte International, wrote, “Please contact HSU President if you want KHSU to remain your communities [sic] public radio station. I withdrew my membership today and I know of many other individuals and organizations in the community who have done the same.”

One listener sent a message to the station, saying, “Katie Whiteside is the heart, soul and brains of [the] operation of KHSU. She has more institutional knowledge in her little pinkie than thousands of possible replacements. KHSU OWES THE PUBLIC an explanation.”

In the absence of that explanation, rumors have propagated. Some say Fretwell intends to overhaul the station’s programming. Others say Whiteside’s firing was just the start of a trend.

“Continue to spread the news that the dismantling of KHSU has begun in earnest,” wrote KHSU volunteer and programmer Russell Cole, aka “Gus Mozart.” And he urged people to resist. “Despots can be deposed.”

A comment under Fields’ post struck a similar note:

… studied speculation has it that there is a move to remake KHSU into a corporate NPR station with little or none of the local programming we all enjoy and which makes it OUR station and all the hard-working volunteers [will be] tossed out on their duffs.

Fretwell said none of that is true, and while he can’t discuss the reasoning behind Whiteside’s termination, it wasn’t a rash decision.

“This went through the normal HSU processes,” he said. “[The decision] was gone over with a fine-tooth comb because this was painful to everybody. It was revisited repeatedly, before and after the decision was made. I think everybody in the line of review took extra care and extra time because this was painful.”

Fretwell came to KHSU in April of last year, having spent the previous nine years in New Jersey as general manager of The Classical Network, where he oversaw six public radio stations in two states.

In a video interview recorded shortly after he took the helm locally, Fretwell told Access Humboldt’s Dave Silverbrand, “My basic philosophy coming into KHSU is the Hippocratic Oath for radio: first do no harm. There’s really not a lot broken in terms of the personnel, the programming, etc. Most of our issues are just technology issues, transitioning from the analog age to the digital age.”

Fretwell acknowledged that the station has taken a financial hit in the wake of Whiteside’s termination. The Outpost left a voicemail for Whiteside early Thursday afternoon but didn’t hear back by the time of publishing.

Regarding the rumors of drastic changes planned for KHSU’s programming, Fretwell said he doesn’t know where that’s coming from.

“I have no intention of changing anything here,” he told the Outpost. “I’ve been here for 13 months. If you listen, there are not as many [signal] dropouts from technical problems. There’s every bit as much local music, probably more local news. Our public affairs hosts are expanding what they’re talking about. I can’t speak to rumors and fears. All I can say is listen, watch and see what’s happening.”

Judging by the public’s response thus far, Fretwell’s words seem unlikely to placate angry listeners. But they’ll soon have a forum (besides social media) to voice their grievances. KHSU has invited the public to attend the next meeting of the station’s Community Advisory Board, scheduled for Wednesday, May 30, from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

The board’s meetings are always open to the public, but they’re typically held inside a classroom in the Student & Business Services building. Next week’s meeting has been moved to a larger space in Gist Hall (room 218).

“The room change was made to accommodate the anticipated attendance of concerned KHSU volunteers and community members,” the meeting announcement notes.

Below is a map showing how to find Gist Hall, with helpful red arrows showing where to park. (The station warns that fees will be enforced.)  KHSU also plans to stream the meeting via Facebook Live for those who are unable to attend.