THE ETHICAL EDGE by Jon Entine

September/October 1999

The Dust Settles at KCLU: Why the Process of Change Is as Important as Change Itself

"The reason we're so popular," said KCLU general manager May Olson in a glowing late-June newspaper profile highlighting her commitment to the local community, "is because we're so parochial."

That was then. Within weeks, the public radio station for Ventura and Santa Barbara counties found itself the subject of scathing headlines: "KCLU Dumps Local Programming in Favor of Syndicated Radio" was just one that threatened to reverse its public image from local champion to bungling hypocrite.

The brouhaha resulted after Olson sacked four of its five weekday evening talk shows and replaced them with reruns of National Public Radio's nationally syndicated "Fresh Air," which already was running each morning.

The blow-up underscores a prickly issue for business: how to manage controversial change while respecting the conflicting expectations of stakeholders--in this case, KCLU and its management team, loyal employees, and the stations customers, its listeners. (Full disclosure: I had been tentatively slated to appear on two KCLU programs.)

In what has been dubbed the "Friday Morning Massacre," program director Jeff Barry all but changed the locks on the studio doors in his haste to usher out the hosts, some of whom had been with the station since its inception five years ago. Olson jetted off to Hawaii and does not return reporters phone calls since her return.

That left the inexperienced Barry to field angry calls, running about four to one against the decision. At first, he came across as candid, praising the "volunteer-hosts," for their loyal service, but asserting that poor ratings had necessitated the change. "The reality is that one of the canceled programs had a zero rating according to Arbitron. The others had 400 listeners or less," he said.

As Barry explained it, by substituting reruns of a national show for fresh programming, KCLU is now more customer-focused, not less: "The fact is that these four shows weren't presenting local issues that appealed to our audience. Am I serving listeners by offering programming that they have no interest in? Listeners told us what they wanted by staying away in droves."

Even in the world of public radio, whose mandate is to be independent of the mediocrity that ratings frequently bring, Barry had a point. If almost no one is listening, local programming is an empty gesture. Plus, now that government money has dried up, public stations can only survive if listeners or corporate donors feed cash.

Barry also seemed forthright in acknowledging that Olson, who does not live in the listening area and does not often hear the programs, did not discuss her concerns with the hosts, none of whom had an inkling of the low ratings. Moreover, the advisory board of donors was never consulted, although it has no official say in such matters. "We probably should have informed our board of the changes," said Barry. "We just didn't anticipate that there would be such a campaign."

The local paper has been filled with scathing letters, which he attributed to the most outspoken of the sacked quartet, Beverly Kelly, a communications professor at California Lutheran and columnist at the Ventura County Star. "I know who put you on to this story," Barry had said when I first phone him, noting that there had been bad blood between Kelley and Olson for some time. Nonetheless, Shaw assured me, the board had since endorsed the reorganization. "I'll get the president to call you. The entire board is behind us," he said. Unfortunately, almost as soon as I hung up the phone, Barry's story began to unravel like a ball of string in the paws of a peripatetic cat.

His promise to fax the latest ratings that he claimed justified the cancellations never materialized, so I called Arbitron directly. Zero listeners? That's not accurate, insisted the ratings service, which takes a random sample of 1,700 adults out of 800,000 people in the region. The spokesperson emphasized that the ratings for almost all of KCLU's shows are so small as to be statistically suspect at best. What about the claim that the board backed Olson? "It didn't come before us and I'm kind of disturbed it didn't," said Jack Phillips, marketing director for the Star, a paper that has editorialized against the move.

Camarillo attorney Tom Malley said he had a "high regard for what the station is doing," but was miffed no one sought its feedback. As for repeated promises from Barry that the head of the board, NovaStor president Peter Means, would call to offer his support, only silence.

So how does California Lutheran University, which holds the station license, feel about what's transpired? "What controversy?" said Linda Fulford, public relations spokesperson for the school, in her best Hill and Knowlton voice. "No one was fired. These were just volunteers."

I asked to have Vice President of University Advancement George Engdahl, charged with supervising KCLU, call me with his thoughts. No call came. Could she provide numbers for KCLU's advisory board so I can gauge their feelings? "That's private," Fulford said defensively, then injecting a note of incredulity into her voice. I just don't get why you think there is an ethical issue. You know, the station could just carry National Public Radio and have no local programming at all. . . . trust what the Star printed. That's not how the board members feel."

"I was quoted accurately," responded Malley, clearly exasperated about how the mess what he called the "terminations" -- was handled. "Do I think the procedures for the change were proper? No. There was no consultation."

KCLU's fumblings, the loose play with the facts, as well as the continued lack of transparency makes the decision appear suspect at best. Changes may very well have been timely and management clearly had a responsibility to reassess commitments made when the station was just getting off the ground. And the argument that KCLU was abandoning the community is a bit disingenuous, for many of the guests on the "local" shows were not locals.

But these explanations beg the point. Public businesses must manage the expectations of their stakeholders if they hope to survive, and that's not just an ethical maxim, it's a mandate in the ultra-competitive world in which we live. That's doubly true for KCLU for there are no stockholders to assert special claims; it is a community forum whose stakeholders are as important as the station itself.

Plain and simple, the station and university botched this shake-up and are adding to their woes with their unresponsiveness. That's the fastest way to squander an organization's reputation. That's when change, even when well reasoned, can be a brand (or ratings) killer. Unhappy listeners need only spin the dial to register their concerns.