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They crowded into a meeting room at the Salt Lake City Main Library, more than 100 of them, to plead for the future of their beloved radio station. Some ranted. Others shed tears. Many looked stricken, as if grieving for a longtime friend with a terminal diagnosis.
They came in reaction to planned changes at Salt Lake City community-radio station KRCL (90.9 FM), which announced last month it will streamline its eclectic weekday music programming by replacing 18 volunteer on-air hosts with three paid disc jockeys.
"My heart is broken right now," said listener Lance Ashton to James Roberts, chairman of KRCL's board of directors. "Please, keep our volunteers. Find a way to do it. I'll give more money, and so will all these other people."
"I feel abandoned," longtime listener Vicki Armantrout of Midvale, said at the Tuesday meeting, her voice choked with emotion. "There's nowhere else I can go. This [station] is my life. These are more than disc jockeys. They are family."
If KRCL is a family, it's in danger of ripping apart. Management's decision to revamp its weekday on-air lineup has sent shock waves through the nonprofit station, founded 28 years ago to give voice to the Wasatch Front's progressive and minority communities. Some on-air hosts feel betrayed, listeners have vowed to stop giving money and Internet postings have railed against KRCL's perceived "corporate makeover."
"It's been rough," said KRCL general manager Donna Land Maldonado, who has received e-mails saying, "Why don't you just die?" "I expected some anger and some frustration. But the hate that's coming from the progressive community, I find shocking."
The station's current weekday format features "RadioActive," a daily public-affairs show, and volunteer-hosted programs on a variety of musical genres not heard elsewhere on the Utah radio dial. Under the changes to take effect by April, those music shows will be scrapped and "RadioActive" will move to weeknights to make room for a consistent stream of music from 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Managers say the changes were prompted by a letter KRCL received two years ago from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the largest single source of funding for public radio and TV. The letter warned that the CPB's annual grant to KRCL - about one-eighth of the station's $850,000 operating budget - would be in jeopardy unless KRCL increased its sagging listenership.
Although the Salt Lake Valley's population has grown by nearly half a million people over the past decade, KRCL's listenership - roughly 35,000 people - declined slightly over the same period, said Roberts, the board chairman. Roberts blames recent technology, such as Internet and satellite radio, that makes it easier for today's listeners to find the fringe music heard on KRCL.
The station may have been able to weather the loss of the CPB funds, Maldonado said. But the CPB also negotiates complex music-licensing agreements for KRCL - an invaluable service for a noncommercial station with seven full-time staffers, she said. So last year the station applied for and received an additional $195,000 grant from the CPB. Under the conditions of the grant, KRCL agreed to hire the three DJs, including a music director.
At a KRCL staff meeting last month, many longtime DJs were stunned to learn they were being replaced.
"I was just in shock," said Babs De Lay, a 28-year KRCL volunteer who hosts a weekly program of women's news and music. "Our mission statement is to serve the minority community. And they're cutting off the only women's program at the station."
At Tuesday evening's meeting, many listeners were angry as well. Some blamed management for changing KRCL's format without seeking community input.
"I feel like I've been duped," said Sandra Edwards of Salt Lake City. "I thought our mission statement was not about how many listeners we had but that all of us in the community felt like we had a voice."
Roberts, who bore the brunt of listeners' wrath for more than two hours, pointed out that 108 of 168 hours each week will still be programmed by KRCL volunteers, and that some volunteer-run programs may be spared by a shift to evenings or weekends. Some volunteers already have applied for the paid DJ jobs, he said. KRCL staffers insist the station's mission won't change.
"The reports of our corporate takeover have been greatly exaggerated," said Troy Williams, producer of "RadioActive." "KRCL is absolutely going to remain independent and commercial-free. We're still dedicated to the core progressive values that have always defined the station."
So what will the new KRCL sound like? Station managers are leaning toward the adult album alternative, or triple-A, format, which encompasses less-played tracks within the genres of indie rock, alternative country, folk, blues and world music. One model being studied is Seattle's KEXP-FM, a former college station that plays mostly alternative and indie rock and is now the leading music taste maker in the city.
Although some listeners are skeptical, Ryan Tronier, KRCL's program director, believes the station's musical palette won't sound much different from how it does now.
"We're still going to be playing music you're not hearing on the commercial end of the dial. It'll be more than just putting your iPod on 'random.' It'll be a cohesive mix of many genres," he said. "We're still going to be the best radio station in town - we're just going to have more people listening."