With Brown out, KCHO has new signal caller

NEW IN TOWN<br> New KCHO General Manager Brian Terhorst is shown here with his wife Amy. They met while working at KVMR, the vaunted community radio station in Nevada City.

New KCHO General Manager Brian Terhorst is shown here with his wife Amy. They met while working at KVMR, the vaunted community radio station in Nevada City.

Courtesy Of KVMR-FM

The venerable National Public Radio affiliate in Chico, KCHO, may have a new person at the helm, but any programming changes will be made cautiously, said new General Manager Brian Terhorst.

When it comes to the station’s listeners, who pony-up more than $100,000 two times a year in support of shows like All Things Considered and A Prairie Home Companion, Terhorst will do a lot of listening. Don’t expect reggae or the Grateful Dead on KCHO.

Terhorst replaces Jack Brown, who retired last week, one day before he turned 62. Chico State University, which holds the license for the station, has placed Terhorst in his position for six months while a decision is made for the long-term.

The station that was birthed, inauspiciously, in a work closet behind the stage at Chico State’s Wismer Theatre, and then barely pushed its signal through town, now reaches from Sacramento to near the Oregon border and up and over the mountains on both sides of the valley.

Since 1981, Brown has navigated the turbulent airwaves among rocks of Federal Communications Commission requirements, NPR obligations, budget challenges and a petulant rival to the north, Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland. He was 36 when he started at the station.

Terhorst, 44, was general manager for 10 years at the fabled Nevada City community radio station KVMR, taking the reins there in 1996. He is a board member of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, an organization he helped found, which assists small, local radio stations to become viable; he was its chairman from 2001 to ‘06.

Terhorst has a degree in anthropology from Sonoma State University. During graduate studies in cultural resource management there, while participating in field work “digs,” he noticed that it was harder for him to hoist the picks and shovels than it was for others. After nights of back pain and spasms, he sought relief from a chiropractor. The chiropractor recommended he see a nerve specialist, who in turn anticipated what tests later proved: Terhorst had muscular dystrophy. He was 25.

He chose not to finish his studies and instead began working for Caltrans. Disappointed with the bureaucracy there, he took a job assessing and recording historic buildings in Nevada County, where KVMR has its studios.

He was intrigued by the station, and in particular by a Saturday-morning show. Little did he know that within a year he would have that slot with his wildly popular Harmony Ridge.

Then, proving himself through a number of volunteer positions for the station, Terhorst became part of its paid staff in 1994 and its general manager two years later.

“I wanted to step out on top,” Terhorst said about the decision to leave the station early in 2006. “I had done everything I wanted to do—my personal and business goals.” Those included pulling the station out of a $120,000 hole into solvency and dealing with thorny battles with the IRS and the state of California, building foreclosures and squabbles among staff and volunteers.

He did hold on to his show a little longer. But when offered the position at KCHO, he decided to let go of Harmony Ridge as well—"I didn’t like the idea of stretching it out and trying to make it work by driving all that way [to Nevada City every Saturday].” (Terhorst has moved to Chico with his wife, Amy, who owns an event-planning business. They met at KVMR.)

Still, it was not an easy choice. The last show, Feb. 16, had the largest online audience in the station’s history.

As for now, Terhorst—with just a week on the job—is “getting to know the staff, getting to know the listeners, and getting to know the underwriters … and ‘the heart’ of the station.”

The latter is tangible. “There was a heartbeat powering KVMR, independent of all the people,” he noted. He says he can feel a heartbeat at KCHO, and that it’s very “distinct” from KVMR’s. “I want to learn about what it already is and what can happen to enhance it.”

It’s important not to make big changes quickly, Terhorst observed. “My experience has been, when you change anything, the first response in not positive. Ultimately, the change may be for the good, and in time you’ll come to hear positive responses.”

Those changes may be prompted from above. In meetings with Chico State President Paul Zingg and Dan DeWayne, director of University Public Events (which took administrative supervision of KCHO two years ago), Terhorst came away with what they wanted: more interactive programming and community involvement, more local news, live remote broadcasts—perhaps from Laxson Auditorium—and a full digital conversion of the station’s equipment. All are propositions he supports and has experience with.

Terhorst and DeWayne met 10 years ago when KVMR was negotiating with DeWayne to broadcast the California WorldFest music festival in Grass Valley. DeWayne started the festival and is its artistic director (the News & Review is a co-sponsor). That live broadcast, the volunteer base of hundreds, a local news department and the connection with youth that Terhorst developed at KVMR are the fit the university wanted when it offered the contract.

But he’s also “wide open” to suggestions: “I got used to people coming in the door [at KVMR] and saying, ‘Let’s do this!’ My tendency is to say, ‘Do it.’ “

The bottom line for the new GM is how public radio is unique and valuable. And its audience knows this.

“There’s a real sense of ownership,” he said. “It’s a human relationship between the listener and what’s going out over the air. People will sooner listen to an hour of someone who really knows what they’re doing than throw on a CD or download.”

As for his own public-radio tastes? American Routes, “because I’m a big music guy. It brings together common sounds you wouldn’t think of putting together.” He also enjoys This American Life, the story-telling venue originating from WBEZ in Chicago that was just picked up by KCHO a couple years ago, because “it celebrates the humorous and the human.”