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ISSUE 119 VOL 9 PUBLISHED 11/18/2005

Old voices, new places

By Lisa Gulya
Arts Editor

Friday, November 18, 2005

How we wake up in the morning can affect the rest of our day. Imagine, for instance, that instead of waking up to soothing classical strings, you rise to your radio blaring the Shins. Then Elvis starts in. What is going on?

That was the question for many at St. Olaf and beyond, when St. Olaf sold the radio station Classical 89.3 WCAL, replaced in a handful of months by Minnesota Public Radio’s (MPR) eclectically programmed station, The Current. Listeners may have lost their music, but WCAL employees lost their jobs.

In a commentary in the Dec. 28, 2004, issue of the Star Tribune, St. Olaf Regent Mark Johnson ’82 mourned the Board of Regents’ decision to sell the station.

"The decision saddened all of us on the board," he wrote. Johnson went on to compare the struggle to a decision "to sell the family farm."

Despite his emotional sentiment, Johnson neglected to mention the sale’s effects on WCAL employees, the people who kept the "farm" running.

The radio station was founded as a student physics experiment in 1918. It was licensed as an AM and an FM station in 1922 and 1968, respectively. In 2004, WCAL had over 80,000 listeners in the Twin Cities and Rochester area.

President Christopher Thomforde notified the St. Olaf community Aug. 10, 2004, that WCAL would be sold to MPR for $10 million. His purpose was partly "to thank and support the staff of WCAL." But the decision to sell was made, he wrote, for students.

"[The sale] is good for our students, who will benefit from new resources to invest in academic programs," Thomforde wrote.

WCAL, which had a staff of roughly two dozen, ceased broadcasting from St. Olaf on Nov. 21, 2004, at 10 p.m.

During the period between the sale’s announcement and its finalization, WCAL supporters fought a heated battle to stop the sale of the station. Arguments from both sides tended to focus on the loss of music or impact on St. Olaf students. Relatively little attention was paid to WCAL employees’ future. MPR’s decision to replace WCAL with a non-classical station meant that classically-focused WCAL employees would need to look elsewhere for work.

Many employees were surprised by the decision to sell.

Although he is now happily self-employed, former WCAL general manager John Gaddo had anticipated staying at WCAL for some time.

"It was a very rewarding place to work, both professionally and personally, and I had no intention of leaving any day soon," he said.

Others agreed. "I was deeply saddened by the sale of the station and might well have continued to work there for another year or more, as I loved the job and my co-workers," Penny Hillemann said. She was the WCAL part-time web manager and a member of the marketing department since 1997.

When WCAL employment ended last November, Hillemann secured a full-time position with Neuger Communications Group in Northfield. While she was with WCAL, Hillemann worked with Dave Neuger, former senior director of communications at St. Olaf, so her work through the college connected her to her next job.

While jarred by the sale, Gaddo said that in the following months St. Olaf was helpful.

"While I don't believe that employees' professional interests were given much consideration in making the decision to sell the station, I do believe the college had the employees' personal well-being in mind as the sale proceeded," Gaddo said.

St. Olaf provided career transitioning training, grief counseling and severance packages.

"The college was not heartless with WCAL's employees. They were very fair, in fact," said Deborah Ward, former membership manager at WCAL. She now works for the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Although Ward’s work ceased with the announcement of the sale, all employees retained employment through Nov. 30, 2004.

Some employees felt that the connections they made at WCAL helped them secure their current jobs.

"St. Olaf let me go, but through St. Olaf I had acquired the connection through which I found my new position," Hillemann said.

Hillemann considers herself fortunate to have avoided a commute. Though she is satisfied with her new job, WCAL holds a special place in her heart.

"It was an amazing combination of a wonderful mission, a ‘product’ we all believed in and gifted and creative co-workers," Hillemann said.

Hilleman was diplomatic about 89.3’s new sound. "I think that The Current is a great station in its own, very different way," she said.

The situation of WCAL employees is not unheard of. Job stability is not what it used to be, in any sector of society.

"The whole idea of staying in one place for one’s entire career is going away," said Bill Sonnega, associate professor of theatre and director of media studies.

Perhaps the most dramatic instance of the flexibility required to find satisfying work is former WCAL host Stephanie Wendt. She now works in Denver, Colo. Wendt does not commute, she has a commuter marriage: her husband, Brent Johnson, remains in Minnesota.

"As hard as it is to leave Brent, the fact I've found a place that seems to be a fit feels pretty darned good,” Wendt said in a Sept. 4, 2005, Star Tribune article.

Wendt spoke of the employees’ stake in WCAL.

"This wasn't just about radio. [WCAL] listeners had developed personal relationships with those of us on the air," Wendt told the Star Tribune.

Now, Wendt is connecting with new listeners on 49 stations nationwide.

After the publication of the Star Tribune article, Wendt said that former WCAL listeners contacted her to tell her that they were still listening to her. Some even pledged support for Colorado Public Radio.

Most of Wendt’s colleagues stayed closer to home, though many never expected to leave WCAL for MPR. Ironically, a February 2004 City Pages article profiling WCAL on-air hosts said that those who had worked for MPR previously were "strenuously diplomatic about their old friends." Now former WCAL employees are with MPR, some returning and some new. They include former WCAL host/producers Karl Gehrke, Bill Morelock, Melissa Ousley and Steve Staruch.

Gehrke said his new MPR co-workers went out of their way to invite him to lunch, ask how he was doing and make sure he felt at home.

"That’s something that’s quite rare in starting a new job," Gehrke said. "People at MPR were very sensitive to it."

Gehrke said he is content at MPR’s St. Paul location.

"The people that achieve that level, they tend to stay," he said.

Working for a larger radio station has its advantages, musical choices can be restricted.

"In my new job, there is much tighter control on what is played," Wendt said. She believes that some WCAL standards have disappeared from radio altogether.

"It's gone for good – the vocal music, lieder, the 20th- and 21st-century music, the music with an ethnic accent," Wendt said.

The closure of WCAL was emotional, both for listeners and employees. The former WCAL building, its CD stacks mostly bare and its staff gone, except for two Sing For Joy employees, seems to reflect the reordering that has happened in employees’ lives, and the vacancy and disorder that still remain for some.

Most employees have moved on to new jobs. But some, who wish to remain unnamed for reasons of professional standing, are still waiting.

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