Tuning in to KHSU-FM (90.5) for much-needed emergency information never occurred to me after the magnitude-6.4 earthquake hit at 2:34 a.m. on Dec. 20 or following the Jan. 1 aftershock. I've lost interest in listening to KHSU, given the sad status of Cal Poly Humboldt's public radio station since the administration got rid of all the staff, volunteers and local programming in April of 2019 — just after completing a week-long, live-on-air fund-raising campaign.
KHSU's programming and management are now contractually in the geographically remote hands of Phil Wilke, general manager of North State Public Radio in Chico, and Jun Reina, general manager of CapRadio in Sacramento.
In April of 2021, Cal Poly Humboldt signed CapRadio to a 10-year public service operating agreement to run the day-to-day operations and make programming decisions at KHSU and its network of transmitters. Humboldt retained the FCC-issued broadcast licenses.
So where does providing local emergency information currently stand as a programming priority for KHSU?
Last February, Cap Radio invited KHSU donors, business supporters and community members to its first virtual town hall meeting at which Reina and Wilke outlined its partnership with Cal Poly Humboldt, discussed future programming objectives for the station (given the goals and direction of CPH administrators) and responded to questions from Zoom attendees. At the time, they were avoiding dead air at KHSU-FM by replaying limited NPR programing or canned music on repeat.
Those goals for KHSU-FM and direction of Humboldt administrators included:
• Expand national programming to broaden the range of news, entertainment, talk and storytelling shows;
• renew business underwriting opportunities to highlight local businesses and increase revenue;
• strengthen emergency communications infrastructure;
• explore more local reporting and programming; and
• begin coordination of student training opportunities.
I again Zoomed in when Reina and Wilke recently hosted a second KHSU town hall meeting on Dec. 7, offering a progress report on changes made since taking over station management, given those goals and direction of CPH administrators. (A recording of the town hall can be found at youtube.com/watch?v=SAefGHP3dBk.)
During the update, Reina and Wilke summarized the disappointing progress they have made in managing KHSU since last February:
• Programming: Wilke and Reina again repeated the point that CHP administration asked them to present a more traditional on-air NPR format and that has guided their programming decisions since signing the operating-agreement contract. Starting April 1, they began scheduling 30 national programs throughout the daily lineup on KHSU that reflect, they said, "a diversity of programming and viewpoints." (One can see the new full schedule at KHSU.org.)
• Local reporting and programming: KHSU now airs daily local news breaks created by Alejandro Zepeda, a recently hired KHSU part-timer — the only local employee at the station other than a retired engineer who works on a contract basis— at 4:19, 5:19 and 6:19 p.m. during All Things Considered. These breaks usually contain local Humboldt County content with a wrap up of weather, community information, and COVID-19 health information. Zepeda also airs a community calendar and hosts a four-minute "North Coast Conversation" weekly feature that airs during All Things Considered Tuesdays and Wednesdays, repeating the following day during Morning Edition. On the station website, "North Coast Conversations" is described as "a weekly segment where we meet with local community members developing ways to improve the quality of life on the North Coast."
As of Dec. 15, a new eight-minute recorded bi-weekly feature "Talking Humboldt" aired for the first time during All Things Considered with Cal Poly Humboldt President Tom Jackson Jr. and College of the Redwoods President Keith Flamer interviewing local people about what they do in their jobs. This new programming was initiated and produced by CPH's Marketing and Communication Department. A shorter version airs the next day during Morning Edition and past shows are archived on the station's website. In the first episode, Jackson and Flamer interviewed HSU alum and outgoing Eureka mayor Susan Seaman. The second episode featured an interview with Wiyot Tribal Chair Ted Hernandez.
• Underwriting: Wilke reported the station has added six local businesses in rotation, several event-based messages that have come and gone, and a couple of national ad buys. (Before the dismantling of the KHSU development office, there were typically between 100 and 150 local underwriters, according to Jeff DeMark, the station's former development staffer.)
• Emergency infrastructure and live on-air reporting of emergency information: Wilke and Reina said there are apparently technical challenges that prevent breaking into national NPR programming with live, on-air local emergency information on KHSU from the Chico NSPR studio. They said they're working to develop local infrastructure so it will be possible in the future to air local emergency information with more immediacy. The goal is to be able to break into national programming on KHSU from Chico with emergency and other information relevant only to the KHSU listeners.
• Begin coordination of student training opportunities: There is currently no plan to do this, as Wilke reported no progress has been made on coordinating training Cal Poly Humboldt students at the station, attributing that failure to COVID, the distances between Arcata and Chico and Sacramento, and a lack of resources (meaning there's no money or professional staff at KHSU for face-to-face training opportunities). Wilke and Reina were also already busy with their full-time jobs prior to adding on the management of KHSU, and likely also lack interest in or awareness of the broadcast training in CPH's Journalism and Mass Communication Department and the student-run radio station, KRFH-FM (105.1).
What else is in the pipeline ahead for KHSU, according to Wilke and Reina?
They reported they hope to get resources to add a local full-time KHSU staff position "that will liaison with community, sell underwriting and work with community events." They're also brainstorming creating a future "North Coast Roundup" talk show with local journalists weighing in on topics they're covering and making a fundraising push at CPH to help pay for even more KHSU staff. A brief mention was also made of the coming transition from KHSU "listener membership" to CapRadio "listener membership."
As for any helpful, important, timely earthquake emergency information on KHSU? No one I know turned to the station after our recent earthquakes. Instead they were listening to KMUD, which, under News Director Lauren Schmitt's guidance, delivered helpful, timely community information. After the earthquakes, on KHSU's website's first page, I only found a banner that read: "Latest earthquake and recovery updates from the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office," with a link to the county's website. KHSU's page also had Associated Press earthquake stories posted days later that were written on Dec. 20. As for the usefulness of the network of transmitters, currently the banner reads: "Radio Bilingue, KHSM 103.3 FM; KHSF 90.1FM; and 88.7 FM are currently off air. We appreciate your patience as we pursue a solution. You can listen to the KHSU stream at the link below," offering a URL where people could find Radio Bilingue online.
During the recent Zoom meeting's question and answer segment, an attendee commented that when she's listened to KHSU since the takeover, she doesn't feel like there's a "connection" to Humboldt. "I'm having a hard time feeling this is a (local) public radio station rather than a national radio station," she said.
"For the most part, you're right," Wilke replied. "We haven't had the resources on the ground to reestablish a vibrant, local presence. That is the long-term plan, though we don't have the ability and money to do that right now. I'm trying to do incremental things with the resources that I have. And I ask you to give us your patience and take a journey with us. When the station collapsed, all the resources went away and we're also working to rebuild that as well."
As for resources, Wilke failed to mention KHSU's Rescue Act for COVID Relief grant of $266,877 in 2021 or how it was used by the station or CPH. (To see KHSU financial reports, go visit khsu.org/khsu-transparency-resource-guide.)
To the ongoing dismay of thousands of former KHSU listeners, not only have we lost the station as a source of entertainment, but also as a critical source of information in times of emergency.
At the end of the Zoom meeting, Wilke and Reina provided contact information for any follow-up questions or comments: Phil Wilke, general manager, NSPR and KHSU: [email protected], (530) 898-6100. Jun Reina, general manager, CapRadio: [email protected], (916) 278-8925.
Mark Larson (he/him) is a retired Cal Poly Humboldt journalism professor and active freelance photographer who likes to walk.