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Radio Station Mass Firing

Houston radio station fires its main on-air talent: A classical music bloodbath?

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CEO Lisa Trapani Shumate during the recent KUHA nine-day fundraising campaign. KUHF/Facebook
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The controversial $9 million sale that saw Rice University's college radio station KTRU come under the umbrella of Houston Public Media may have triggered a ticking time bomb that would eventually destroy any hopes of establishing a long-term 24-hour classical music station that highlights the local arts scene.

A source tells CultureMap that Houston Public Media's main classical music personalities, including veterans Bob Stevenson, Elaine Kennedy, Chris Johnson and Chris Hathaway, plus a handful of behind-the-scenes KUHA employees, were laid off Thursday morning.

The Front Row, a radio series that regularly featured local artists and nonprofit arts organizations, is history.

CEO Lisa Trapani Shumate met with staffers individually to terminate their positions. Shumate provided a letter that promised a 30-day severance package, which in the case of one employee she crossed out by hand and doubled to 60 days — but rather than showing compassion, the gesture was construed as being premeditated.

Employees were told that lack of funds accrued from the recent nine-day fundraising campaign, which a source described as a colossal failure, was to blame. When the fundraising drive ended on Friday, KUHA was $74,000 short of its $200,000 goal while KUHF was only able to secure $800,000 of its $1 million goal — losses that had never before been experienced in appeals for funds in years past.

 According to the Texas Tribune, Shumate makes $270,000 a year.

This round of dismissals continues what Shumate began in February 2011, when 12 employees in production, programming, technology and administration were given marching orders as part of a reorganization plan that combined KUHF  88.7, KUHA Classical 91.7 and PBS affiliate KUHT Channel 8 as one entity. At the time, Shumate said, "This is a one-time move we're going to make to align expenses and revenues."

In June, however, Shumate eliminated the positions of director of operations and fired station manager Debra Fraser and director of communication Emily Binetti. Fraser's departure upset KUHA major sponsor George Geary, who was the station's most generous single donor. Geary withdrew a $500,000 matching challenge upon learning of Shumate's decision.

Despite the growing number of dismissals, Shumate has found money in her budget to create other jobs. She's hired more than 15 people since the summer for positions in customer service, finance, development and production. According to the Texas Tribune, Shumate makes $270,000 a year. In comparison, the highest-paid salary at Austin KUT is $152,000.

With the purchase of KTRU, it was former KUHF CEO John Proffitt's vision to split the then single station to accommodate a 24-hour classical music station. CultureMap's source says that a feasibility study to discern whether the Houston market could support a 24-hour classical station was never completed prior to that decision.

Adding to the troubles since KUHA's launch is the limitations of its Kingwood-based station transmitter tower. The tower is too low for the signal to pass through tall buildings downtown. Listeners have consistently complained about the spotty reception and static noise.

As for programming moving forward, KUHA will broadcast content from Classical 24, a nationally syndicated service from Minnesota Public Radio. Still employed at KUHA are director of classical programming St. John Flynn and content producer and announcer Catherine Lu, who's on maternity leave.

CultureMap reached out to Houston Public Media officials for comment, but they have not responded yet.

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Update: In a press release, Houston Public Media officials stated that a new Arts and Culture Team will be created to increase and enhance coverage of local arts, an initiative that's "the latest in a series of moves by Houston Public Media to add increased capabilities in local multi-platform content development and realign staff to strengthen local news coverage, web initiatives and public affairs programming.

"The new Arts and Culture Team will continue service to the local arts community via multi-platform initiatives with Arts Insight, Manor of Speaking, and Houston Matters — all local programming that launched in 2013," Shumate writes.

A media relations representative claims that the leaked results of the recent fundraising drive are not accurate — and that they did not play a role in the layoffs.

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