Last week, KSFR board president Marilyn Mason sent out a simple but drastic message to the public radio station’s volunteers, staff and members.
“It is with sadness that we report the resignation of Linda Highhill as general manager,” she wrote. “She has decided to pursue other interests.”
Mason’s email, which came just days after the untimely death of KSFR’s drive-time host Diego Mulligan, prompted a backlash from many of the station’s volunteers. One of them, “The Jazz Experience & The Bopera House” co-host John Trentacosta, voiced his frustration in a message back to Mason.
“Getting your email was like coming home from school to an empty house with doors wide open and finding your mother had abandon[ed] you without an explanation,” he wrote. “I don’t believe Linda would do that to us.”
Soon, it became apparent that Highhill’s departure, rather than voluntary, was a part of a change in direction decided by a mostly new board of directors. (When reached by phone, Highhill declined to comment.)
“Our plans are focused on the future,” Mason wrote back to Trentacosta. “We have a transition plan that calls for an executive director who has a strong background in fundraising and can work closely with the board in developing a fiscally strong station.”
That didn’t stop roughly 20 KSFR volunteers and radio show hosts from airing their concerns in a weekend meeting organized by Trentacosta at the Rose Park. The attendees came away with a list of demands, including that the board share its financial vision and publish the station’s financial statement, board meeting minutes and contact info for all board members online. Many volunteers lamented having never met the board members.
“We want to do this with the feeling we’ve had for the past three, four years, which is a family feeling,” Arlen Asher, another jazz co-host, says. “If this continues to happen, we’re not going to have that feeling. And a lot of us probably will not want to participate.”
The tension illustrates the unique challenges to a public radio station like KSFR, which depends on the local community to make up the bulk of its programming and funding.
On one hand, KSFR’s purpose rests on the slogan of “open-minded, unintimidated public radio.” It relies on volunteers to conduct roughly 80 percent of its operations, effectively giving the community control of the station.
But on the other hand, KSFR is run by the Northern New Mexico Radio Foundation, a registered nonprofit operated by a volunteer board of directors. The board must manage the station’s finances, which have always been a challenge in its 20-plus-year history.
KSFR began in 1991, when it aired mostly classical music and was run by the Santa Fe Community College; the foundation took over in 2001. Since then, KSFR has become known for its mix of community programming and syndicated BBC Radio, Pacifica Radio and Public Radio International programs. Yet as the number of public-radio listeners has declined slightly nationwide, fundraising has remained an uphill battle.
Mason says the new plan—eliminating Highhill’s general manager position and hiring an executive director to prioritize fundraising—will help solidify KSFR’s financial future. She says the board plans to raise the position’s salary by a few thousand dollars (perhaps up to $50,000) and has advertised the job locally and nationally.
“Unanimously, we decided we needed someone with a different background—a background with fundraising,” she says.
But some critics suggest the changes have more to do with a clash of egos. Although KSFR lost a total of roughly $100,000 in 2009 and 2010, it ran a $19,000 surplus in 2011, according to the most recent data available on the nonprofit database GuideStar.
Robbie Dobyns, a former board member who volunteers with the station during pledge drives, is skeptical that the board can find a “superstar fundraiser” in a small market where many nonprofits already compete for donors. He adds that reaching out nationally and raising the position’s salary could actually end up harming KSFR.
“The growth capacity for that position is extremely limited,” Dobyns says. “The idea of people raising a ton of money outside of what we’ve normally done, I think, is limited, also.”
He adds that Highhill’s multiple hats—as bookkeeper, general manager and lead fundraiser—were a “bargain” for the station.
“Whoever it is is going to have to step in and raise money tomorrow,” he says. “They’re not going to get a honeymoon, and I don’t think [KSFR] can afford it.”
Either way, both sides seem to agree that communication between the station’s board and its volunteers is a problem, though where to place the blame is another question.
“Communication is two ways and not one way,” Mason says. “We know that they don’t know us, and we want to correct that.”
She adds that the board is working on putting its budget information and donor list online. And to volunteers upset over Highhill’s departure, she says, “I understand loyalty.”