Community radio static

KVMR manager criticized as he works to bring the station back from insolvency

KVMR’s general manager, Brian Terhorst, was brought in to improve station finances, but he has clashed with some station stalwarts.

KVMR’s general manager, Brian Terhorst, was brought in to improve station finances, but he has clashed with some station stalwarts.

Photo by Jill Wagner

Though Nevada County liberals and conservatives agree on few issues this political season, many concur that community radio station KVMR 89.5 FM doesn’t represent its Nevada County community. Slamming KVMR for liberal bias and “personal attacks,” supervisor candidate Drew Bedwell snubbed a debate the station co-facilitated last week.

Longtime KVMR supporters well to the left of Bedwell grouse about the nonprofit’s philosophical shift, evidenced by removal of the phrase “community access” from its mission statement. When community radio quits listening to the community’s needs, supporters say, it loses its reason for existence.

For more than 50 years, listener-supported community radio stations worldwide have sought to inform, educate, entertain and involve listeners, by encouraging the expression of differing points of view and covering current events and public affairs in greater depth than in mainstream media. Community radio provides airtime to individuals, groups, issues, music and local events that typically are overlooked or underrepresented. For the left and right, KVMR seems to be taking more static than ever before.

Founded a quarter century ago in Nevada City by a group of artists, visionaries and activists, KVMR was the place where “the community could talk to itself,” said Dan Scanlan, a lifetime member and programmer who has been with the station since 1981. The shift in direction is “subtle, but absolutely different,” he said. “We’re filling time slots and pushing content and seeing what the ratings are.”

To the casual listener, little seems changed. Employing 13 staff and more than 100 volunteer broadcasters, KVMR still transmits a potpourri of eclectic music, opinion and news 24 hours a day. Tune in, and you’ll hear music that spans the globe, including African, zydeco, bluegrass, blues, Celtic, country, folk, Hawaiian, jazz, Latin, reggae and rock. You’ll also hear poetry, stories, phone calls, radio theater and pieces on health and science issues.

Amid cluttered desks and stained carpets, littered with boxes of LPs that are being packed away in favor of the ever-expanding CD collection, are the station’s broadcast and production studios.

KVMR’s previous mission statement was “extremely long,” general manager Brian Terhorst said. With community input, it was shortened to reflect changing times, which gave the station its “fourth mission statement in 10 years,” he said. By contrast, Pacifica Radio, which fought a corporate takeover in 1999, has had the same mission statement for 50 years and has only amended it once, in 1971.

Terhorst said that the changed mission statement doesn’t represent a change in KVMR’s mission or operations. “We haven’t made decisions to do things differently,” he said.

Local businessman “Cowboy Wally” Hagaman disagrees. Throughout the years, Hagaman has purchased three lifetime memberships to keep the station afloat. Disturbed by KVMR’s new direction, he withdrew the underwriting his business had provided since 1987.

Previously, Hagaman said, anyone could do a show, by bringing in their “unique music collections … [and] the station would provide someone to engineer for them.” Nowadays, he said, the station’s broadcaster-training classes are a revenue stream. New broadcasters can’t get on because longtime DJs feel they “own [their] block of airtime.”

Terhorst said KVMR discloses the limited airtime before accepting money for the class. The tenure problem is characteristic of community radio, he said. Shows have been shortened from three hours to two “to allow more people to get on the air,” and the programming committee considers listener feedback and reviews shows annually.

“How do you get on the air, if you’re not one of the old-timers already established?” asked former news director Joan Buffington. Through her work, the station garnered two awards in April from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters: a special merit award for her profiles of remarkable women, and the national “community impact” award for coverage of a random shooting rampage and related mental-health issues.

In June, Buffington tendered an on-air resignation in which she said it was “impossible … to produce … quality, professional news” because of roadblocks “created by management.” Tired of secrecy, Buffington decided “that listeners needed to know what was going on with their community radio station,” she said.

Though she had filed a grievance, and the station’s board of directors had apologized and ruled in her favor, Buffington said the ruling giving her “power to select news stories” and “assign and edit the news,” was not enforced.

Board Parliamentarian Jean Soliz, a civil rights attorney who formerly managed an agency of 17,000, agrees with Buffington’s assessment. With approval of fellow grievance-committee members, Soliz had drafted the document restoring Buffington’s editorial control.

“I had differences with management regarding the implementation of that decision,” Soliz said, “and continuing practices including censoring of information given to the board, so I resigned. I’m concerned that KVMR management has lost touch with basic issues of human respect.”

Buffington continues working as an independent producer through grants for health and women’s issues but worries that community radio is an “endangered species.” Our job is “not to create programming for our listeners … [but] to provide the space where the community creates the content.”

As corporate takeovers homogenize the media, Buffington said, it’s “imperative that a community radio station preserve and defend free speech and open access to its listeners … particularly women and others who are not served by major media.”

Although KVMR touts equality and diversity, Buffington notes that three-quarters of the broadcasters and staff are male. “It’s all guys when you walk into the station,” she said.

Terhorst shrugs off those numbers. “We are an equal-opportunity employer,” he said. “We hire the most qualified candidates.” Terhorst added that far more men than women attend broadcaster-training classes.

Looking at the program lineup, the graying of KVMR is indisputable. Community radio is now a “format” focusing on a target demographic of college-educated 35- to 55-year-olds, but not everyone is happy about that.

“We need more young people,” broadcaster Richard Dunk said. “We need the people we used to be on the air, playing the music we can’t stand. That will tell me we’ve got the community involved.”

KVMR has had its share of trying times. As KVMR was embroiled in a battle with the Internal Revenue Service, the State of California nearly padlocked the station for neglecting to pay payroll taxes. The station’s former building was foreclosed upon, and mismanagement put KVMR $120,000 in the hole.

Under Terhorst, KVMR is solvent, but many gripe that mounting bureaucracy strangles its broadcasting ability. Studio equipment is “primitive,” one broadcaster said, and there’s “no capital equipment-replacement budget.”

A longtime volunteer laments that KVMR operates on less than 2,000 watts, though it could have been a 12,000-watt station. Despite such internal conflicts, it’s the external ones that still define the stations. During the first week of October, all squabbles were set aside as KVMR broadcasted a 12-hour peace vigil.

“It felt like the old days,” Scanlan said, “local musicians, poets, storytellers playing and speaking their hearts out on the radio like one big family.” Scanlan said he hopes the “vigil can be a springboard” to get back on track. “It was the first time I felt good about the station in some time,” he said.