Supporters of local public radio station KHSU, including volunteers, underwriters and staffers, showed up in force last night to a meeting of the station’s Community Advisory Board, and for more than 90 minutes they took turns voicing their concern, heartbreak and indignation over the recent firing of longtime program director Katie Whiteside.
The crowd also voiced contempt for General Manager Peter Fretwell, who has been on the job for just over a year and is allegedly the man responsible for Whiteside’s termination. A radio industry veteran who arrived from New Jersey, Fretwell sat beside the board members at the far end of a long table, looking like a late arrival to The Last Supper, and for much of the meeting he studiously scribbled notes on a yellow legal pad as one person after another lambasted him for ousting Whiteside.
The move has already cost the station money. Jeff DeMark, the station’s underwriting coordinator, was the first speaker of the evening, and he revealed that in the two weeks since Whiteside was fired, underwriters have withdrawn $16,000 in pledged donations for the upcoming fiscal year. They all apologized for pulling their support and said they’d gladly re-up if the decision to fire Whiteside were reversed.
Two of the underwriters had donated more than $50,000 over the past two decades. “I don’t know where we’re going to replace them,” DeMark said. A moment later he added, “I think if this decision isn’t reversed, altered or somehow changed, the good ship KHSU is in danger of capsizing.”
Praise for Whiteside was fervent and unanimous. Over the course of the evening she was described as the station’s backbone, its heart and soul, its pulse, and the cog that holds things together. A couple people quipped that she’s “the K in KHSU,” and many described her tireless dedication to the wellbeing of the station.
Sharon Fennell, better known to KHSU listeners as Sista Soul, said, “Katie has kept this station running through thick and thin, 24-7, whenever we needed her. I can’t count the times I called [her] when I couldn’t figure something out, and she arrived in a heartbeat — over and over again.”
A volunteer named Claire said, “Katie’s always been so respectful, so helpful, so open-minded. She has no ego. She just seems to care about doing the best job she can. She’s just a dream to work with.”
“If you can’t get along with Katie Whiteside, that’s on you,” local artist Alan Sanborn said, triggering cheers and applause. He said the heart of the station is the community, not the corporate programming offered by National Public Radio or the string of outsiders who’ve been brought in as general managers. “We can run the station,” he said on behalf of the community. “We want Katie back; we don’t care if you’re here or not.”
That sentiment was expressed repeatedly and in a variety of ways over the course of the evening.
“You’re obviously a corporate dude,” said a man named Jay. “Your picture shows you wearing a button-down shirt, a tie and a jacket. That’s not Humboldt County.”
A man named John Forsythe was even more blunt. “Mr. Fretwell,” he said, “you need to pack your carpet bag and go to your next thing.
Susan Andrews, who’s been involved with the station as a volunteer or staffer for 25 years, drove down from Del Norte County to attend the meeting. She produces the news program North Coast Update and she told Fretwell, “I consider her firing an assault on the KHSU community and on the broader community that we serve.”
Fretwell again kept his head down, writing furiously.
Several volunteers said Fretwell has been making other changes behind the scenes, killing off long-running shows and restricting inter-office communication.
Russ Cole, host of KHSU show Gus Mozart’s Music Box, said that shortly before Whiteside was fired she told him, excitedly, that the station would soon be moving into a whole new facility, a retrofitted space inside
HSU’s Theater Arts building the Feuerwerker House, but Fretwell had instructed her not to talk about it. “This is a guy who doesn’t want us to talk to each other,” Cole said. “It really pisses me off.”
He also alleged that Fretwell had instituted a “draconian listserv policy” prohibiting volunteers from certain types of email communications.
Kim Shank, host of the children’s storytelling show Redwood Earlines, said that after 33 years at the station she’d been “kicked to the curb” about two months ago, her show canceled. The same fate has befallen Paul Woodland, host of another children’s program, Shank said, and while she wasn’t sure who made the decision to ax those shows, Whiteside was tasked with breaking the news.
Shank turned her ire toward Fretwell. “To get rid of Katie Whiteside is worse than getting rid of children’s programming,” she said. “This is ridiculous.”
Numerous speakers said they are considering pulling their support, or have already done so. Terry Roelofs, a retired HSU fisheries biology professor and KHSU sustaining member (meaning he has a monthly contribution automatically deducted from his credit card), pledged to double his contribution if — and only if — Whiteside is reinstated.
The Community Advisory Board, as its name suggests, has no authority of its own to make or reverse policy decisions. The group serves as a conduit between the listening public and the station’s staff and management, as well as university administration. But that didn’t stop people from demanding accountability and some sort of recourse for their grievances.
Ted Ward, a sustaining member who formerly served on the Community Advisory Board (CAB), said that if Whiteside did anything wrong, Fretwell should have used “progressive discipline,” taking incremental steps to address the issue rather than summarily firing her.
Another former member of the board read from the bylaws, which say, “Station management agrees to initiate meaningful and timely consultation with [the board] on topics of potential interest to community stakeholders.” Her implication was that Fretwell had violated those bylaws, potentially invalidating Whiteside’s termination.
Whiteside herself was not in attendance, but one speaker, Pam Mendelsohn, turned to a cellphone streaming the meeting and said, “Hi, Katie!” The crowd cheered in support.
No reason has been given for Whiteside’s unceremonious ouster. “There are a lot of rumors, which is awful,” Mendelsohn said. “There has to be transparency about why she was terminated in such a state of disgrace.”
Fretwell has said he’s legally prevented from discussing confidential personnel matters, but that didn’t satisfy Wednesday’s crowd.
“Maybe we should all write to the [California State University] chancellor,” Mendelsohn suggested. Then, defiantly, she turned back to the cellphone. “Just keep on keeping on, Katie, because you’re coming back.”
That sparked another round of raucous cheers. There were several such moments over the course of the evening, but these outbursts of momentary joy seemed to function as a pressure release amid the prevailing mood of agitated anguish.
“Like everyone I’m bewildered and dismayed and angered by Katie’s firing,” said Michael Eldridge, an HSU professor, longtime volunteer and former CAB chair. “I really don’t understand it, especially at this moment in the station’s history. … This is an absolute disaster in every way possible.”
Several speakers encouraged Fretwell to reverse his decision and reinstate Whiteside. Paul DeMark, twin brother to Jeff, said, “If you walk this back, you could do a tremendous service to this community and to yourself. Look at it and realize you made a mistake. Walk it back. People will respect you. Otherwise, I don’t see how you are going to survive.”
The meeting was scheduled to conclude sharply at 8 p.m., though when the time arrived the crowd remained unsatisfied. “Who was involved in the decision?” someone shouted from the back of the room.
Board Chair Tim Hinz was making his third or fourth attempt to wrap up the meeting when KHSU Office Manager and frequent on-air host Lorna Bryant spoke up.
“I think it’s appropriate, if any of the staff members who’ve been silent for two-and-a-half weeks, if any of us would like to speak now I think we should be able to have the opportunity,” Bryant said, and the audience cheered in support.
“I don’t even know the words to say because my life has been devastated and rocked in the last two weeks by a man that I had faith and trust in for 13 months,” she said, referring to Fretwell. “I stand in a room that I started my radio career in, at [HSU student radio station] KRFH. And now I feel like my radio career is coming to an end because I don’t know if I’m the next at-will employee to be asked to leave, and that’s devastating.”
She proceeded to offer a couple of theories on possible justifications for Whiteside’s firing — theories apparently rooted in KHSU staff meetings. Bryant said that at a recent staff meeting, Fretwell suggested that there had been violations of U.S. labor law — specifically the Wages and the Fair Labor Standards Act — and he mentioned that KHSU had missed some major HSU-related news stories, including the 2014 bus crash that killed 10 aspiring college students on their way to HSU’s Spring Preview.
Bryant said neither of those situations should be blamed on Whiteside. Labor issues fall under the purview of the general manager, she said, while news stories should be caught by HSU’s Marketing and Communications team, she argued.
It should be noted that these allegations are just two among many rumors surrounding Whiteside’s departure. Reached Thursday Fretwell reiterated that he can’t discuss the reasons behind the decision. “I know how it was handled, and I can’t speak to rumors,” he said.
As for what comes next, Fretwell said he’ll reach out to HSU President Lisa Rossbacher and Vice President for University Advancement Craig Wruck and ask them to set up a meeting with the Community Advisory Board. “At that point I’m not in the room, and the administration and CAB are doing what they’re commissioned to do,” he said.
Meanwhile, KHSU continues to hemorrhage money, and the woman described as the heart and soul of the station has disappeared from the public eye. With the station’s supporters in revolt, moneyman Jeff DeMark may be correct: The station’s very existence could depend on what happens next.
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