At The North 103.3, a year into PBS North ownership, changes cause excitement, concern
Hopes are high as collaborations between the public television station and the community radio station expand, but a management shift has led to some frustration, including a staff departure.
DULUTH — The studio landline buzzed, and a University of Minnesota Duluth student known on air as "DJ KC" picked up the phone to take a request.
"'Torture Me' by 100 gecs? Awesome." Listening to the caller's response, she laughed, made a joking reference to the Federal Communications Commission, and ducked across the hall to a CD library.
It was late on a winter Wednesday night, and DJ KC, whose real name is Justine, was broadcasting with her co-host, "DJ Rosie." They call their show "Two Shrimps," part of the "Road Salt Radio" college lineup on the radio station known as The North 103.3.
The station's studios are located on the UMD campus, in the basement of the university's humanities building. The station was launched at the university in 1956 and remained owned by UMD until 2021, when the university sold the station to Duluth's local public broadcasting corporation. Then called WDSE-WRPT, the corporation is now referred to as PBS North.
The sale preserved KUMD, subsequently renamed The North 103.3, as a community radio station. It made headlines as one of few instances anywhere, and the only instance in Minnesota, of shared ownership between a television station and a radio station in public media.
"There's been a lot of change in the radio landscape, particularly in Duluth in the last two years, where stations have had a dramatic shift in the format they are hearing," Tom Jamar, WDSE-WRPT director of marketing, communications and membership services, told the News Tribune at the time. "That is not happening in this case."
The intervening year has seen the hiring of Brian Rickman in the supervisory role of station manager and, effectively, program director. Collaborations between PBS North and The North 103.3 have included video recordings of live music sessions, and the radio station has received a new transmitter.
Under Rickman, the station has also moved to new music programming software and begun considering changes to its schedule, which combines adult album alternative music programming with volunteer-run specialty shows and music programming created by college students.
Listeners may thus far have noticed little difference in the station under PBS North ownership, but the changes behind the scenes have led to some internal frustration and caused the departure of a full-time staff member.
"It just felt like we didn't really have a say in anything," said Malachy Koons, who left The North 103.3 late in 2022 and now works for the community station KAXE in Grand Rapids. "It doesn't feel good, as a worker, to hear that if you have concerns you can essentially take a hike."
"Transition is hard. It's really hard," said Patty Mester, president and general manager at PBS North. "It's hard for people because one day you're working for a university, and the next, you're working for another organization."
Mester continued, "Learning processes, learning how do you communicate? Who does this? Who does that? Especially when they've had so much ownership of that, the roles that they've played over there (at the radio station), it's sorting all of that out. And that takes time."
"This year has been a year of transitions," said Justine, who is also student marketing director for "Road Salt Radio." "I don't really have much authority to say a lot about where the station's going and what the big changes are. I'm just glad to be a part of it and be included."
From college station to community station
KUMD launched in 1956 as a project of the UMD Broadcasting Club. WMMR, a campus station at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities (later merged with KUOM as Radio K), donated a transmitter and a pair of used turntables to help get the Duluth station started.
In a letter to the editor published at the time in the UMD Statesman student newspaper, a writer identified as Mr. Gruba complained that the university should not be investing in radio when television was the way of the future. "Radio can offer little to the college trained individual rather than spinning records," he wrote.
Spin records the students did — and read news and weather, among other programming that gradually expanded. The station remained student-run until the 1970s, when a financial crunch precipitated the first threat of the station's sale.
According to a history of the station compiled from its archives a decade ago, a UMD administrator confirmed to the Statesman in 1975 that the University of Minnesota system was considering transferring not only its Duluth station, but also its Twin Cities station to Minnesota Public Radio. As part of the exchange, the university system would get a seat on MPR's board.
Ultimately, KUMD (known for a time as WDTH after acquiring an FM signal) stayed at the university and became a member of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provided access to federal funding. With that funding came the requirement to employ several full-time staff members.
The station subsequently became a National Public Radio affiliate, and in the 1980s, KUMD started airing NPR programs like "Morning Edition," "Fresh Air" and "All Things Considered." The local radio landscape changed in 1988, when MPR News began broadcasting in Duluth.
By the early 1990s, KUMD had settled on essentially the format it has today: "Northland Morning" and "Music Through the Day" aired until midafternoon, when syndicated and specialty shows filled the air until the UMD students came on late at night with alternative rock.
"It started as a student station, and I think the community was a really important part of keeping it going all year-round," said Maija Jenson, a current UMD faculty member who was KUMD program director from 2008-2019.
"I grew up in the '70s," Jenson continued, "and we listened to it every time we drove up and down (Interstate) 35. Going from northern Minnesota to the Cities, we always turned on KUMD because it was the community radio station."
"For public media, there's the state license, the university license and the community license and we are the community license," said Mester. "The community now owns the television and radio station, and that's really important because it means our largest support comes from members."
Becoming The North 103.3
In early 2020, then-UMD Chancellor Lendley Black told the institution's Board of Regents that selling KUMD to WDSE-WRPT was the "best solution" for a station that the university could no longer afford to operate.
"Although I enjoy KUMD quite a bit and appreciate its many contributions to our campus community and the larger community," said Black, "it has become increasingly difficult for us to provide much needed O&M (operations and maintenance budget) financial support for the ongoing operation and maintenance of KUMD and its broadcasting equivalent."
In late 2021, ownership was officially transferred and KUMD became The North 103.3. At that time, the station had four full-time staff members. "Northland Morning" host Lisa Johnson, a longtime KUMD staffer, chose to leave the station as it changed hands; Luke Moravec subsequently became host of that show.
At that time, Johnson told the News Tribune she felt rushed into the decision regarding whether to sign a contract with the station's new owners. She said there had been a shortage of information in the months leading up to the sale, and decided to step away after what had been a stressful period of understaffing.
"The minute I hit send, all of a sudden I felt like a human being again," said Johnson regarding her resignation from the station. "Like I had not been a human being for two years."
WDSE-WRPT moved to hire a station manager to help alleviate the overwork. "There were a few people over there wearing so many hats," said Mester. "If you were to talk to Christine Dean, she'd tell you she was wearing five hats. Chris Harwood, five hats."
Harwood (now production director) and Dean (music director and webmaster) continued on, reporting to Rickman after he joined The North 103.3 in January 2022. Harwood was unavailable for an interview before this article went to press. Dean declined to comment, saying: "I don't know what I can contribute at this point."
"I think myself and others were initially pretty thrilled it was a public media group, which seemed like the best option," said Koons, who continued as a host and full-time employee after the station's sale.
"College stations all over the country are really having trouble right now," said Rickman. "The stark reality of it is that students these days, radio isn't the first media they think of initially. A lot of times, they're more interested in becoming a YouTube influencer, maybe, than they are being on the radio or even TV at this point. So radio stations at universities: understandably, universities have started to back off their support for them, just due to a lack of interest."
Facing the music
"We just pick out our own music," said Justine, or DJ KC. "It's all CD for the student show. More of the daytime radio is using our new PlayoutONE, which is automatic digital, but we're sticking with the tried-and-true CDs."
PlayoutONE is the brand name for radio broadcast software of the type commonly used by music stations. Music is saved on a hard drive that functions like a giant iPod. Music can be classified into different rotation categories and scheduled for playback either with a live host on air or automatically when no host is present.
"The software can be super helpful," said Koons. "They (WDSE-WRPT) invested into the station to improve equipment, to add different features, and that was well-needed after, I would say, years of neglect from our previous owner, the university."
"Our transmitter had been on the air since 1972," said Rickman. "(W)DSE bought a brand-new HD 100,000-watt transmitter, so now we are up to 100% full power. When we purchased the station, the automation system that we had was really antiquated, and so (W)DSE invested in a brand-new, complete system called PlayoutONE."
Rickman is a 35-year radio veteran. "I've worked all over the country," he said. "I've done both commercial, and some consulting work on the public (broadcasting) side." When his previous job helping a Grand Marais client wrapped up, he said, he was introduced to Mester by a public radio consultant who was a mutual acquaintance. "Patty and I started talking, and kind of went from there."
Fully implementing the software will be a multi-year process as music is added to the digital library and hosts — including students and community volunteers — are trained in its use. Koons said that when he was at the station, at the very beginning of the implementation process, hosts on staff were asked to adhere as closely as possible to pre-programmed playlists. Rickman's view is that ultimately, the software will facilitate a more collaborative process of music selection.
"Before it's been, Luke picks his music for three hours, Christine picks her music for three hours," said Rickman. "They all have good taste in music," he continued, but under the new process, "Luke will bring his suggestions to the table every week. So will Christine, and then we'll collectively decide, all right, we're going to put these into regular rotation, and then we all share that."
Koons, who started at KUMD as a student and eventually became a full-time employee after his 2019 graduation, said he wished those conversations had begun prior to the implementation of the new system.
"That was something that I thought we should start prior to starting this new music library," Koons said. Instead, "we switched libraries to a library of music that our new manager, Brian Rickman, chose."
"You have to grow with the times, you have to grow with the community, and you have to grow with music," said Mester. "One of the things we have done is, we have definitely introduced more AAA music that you weren't hearing before."
AAA, or adult album alternative, is the industry classification for The North 103.3 radio format. Emphasizing music discovery and making room for deeper, older cuts than a straight alternative format, AAA is also the format of Minnesota Public Radio's The Current.
(Disclosure: From 2013-2022, this writer worked as a digital producer for The Current, which is based in St. Paul and broadcasts in locations across the state, including Duluth. Until leaving for WDSE-WRPT in 2017, Patty Mester also worked at Minnesota Public Radio in the role of regional network manager.)
"They are trying to incorporate more of our music into daytime and really going for, like, the younger demographic," said Justine, recounting a recent conversation with Rickman. As is the case with many professional radio DJs for privacy reasons, The North's undergraduate hosts don't publicly use their surnames in the context of their radio work.
"Once it is clear that everybody really knows how to use (PlayoutONE)," said Mester, "we can start focusing on, how are you going to create your shows? What kind of music are you going to choose to complement your shows? To me, that is the important thing, is that (hosts') programs are really focused on this community, and what does the community want?"
The challenges of consistency
Rickman said that in addition to tweaking the rotation, he's aiming to add consistency to the listener experience.
"One of the things the station needs to grow membership is a consistent audience," he said. "One of the comments that stood out to me when asking people about the station was effectively, they love the station, they love what it represents, what it stands for, but they don't understand what we do."
He elaborated: "When they tune in, they'll hear reggae, and then they'll tune in again, and they'll hear some indie cut. It's all over the map. All right, that's the nature of this format ... that's not going to change, but what we can do is make adjustments to make the playlists over the week a little more consistent.
"So when you tune in the morning on Monday," Rickman continued, "and you're listening to the station when you go home from work on Thursday, you're also going to hear the station you liked on Monday. Instead of, OK, now why is it an hour of Minnesota polka music?"
After Koons' departure, The North 103.3 posted a job for "on-air talent/content creator/special projects producer." The new position's responsibilities include: "Host a live, daily program from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. (CST), Monday through Thursday, and Friday from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. (CST)."
Those hours are currently home to programming including volunteer-hosted specialty shows like "North Country Jukebox." Scott Lunt, host of that show, said he was confused when he saw the posting.
"I recently emailed to see if, you know, are they canceling my show?" he said. "They say they're not going to cancel anything, but there may be some schedule updates, which probably wouldn't work very well for me."
"We, the full-time staff, were told that volunteers were lucky to be on," Koons remembered. "They were lucky to have on-air slots, and so it wouldn't be a big deal moving them to the weekend. They get to be on the radio, and so that's reason enough to change their schedules."
"It's hard to comment on a meeting that took place months ago," said Rickman when asked about this exchange, saying he didn't recall making that specific remark.
Koons said he was troubled by Rickman's attitude toward the volunteers. "People who have been doing these shows, they've been giving up their weekday nights for years, some of them, for a long, long time to help out at the radio station. ... I saw that as not being really how, in my mind, a community radio station should treat its volunteers and think about its volunteers."
"We have discussed moving certain programs to better benefit those shows" with respect to audience size, Rickman said in response, "but that's all dependent on whether or not, No. 1, the volunteer is interested in moving. There's a ton of stuff that we would have to consider before we actually did anything like that, and of course the volunteers would be involved with that from day one."
As of press time, the on-air talent position remains posted with listed responsibilities including weeknight shifts that coincide with present volunteer shows. "As far as where they wind up on the air," said Rickman regarding the new hire, "that'll probably be a collaborative discussion."
Other indications that Rickman would or could exercise greater control over staff and volunteers concerned Koons.
"We were also informed that our students would lose some of their autonomy," said Koons. "They would have to run most of their marketing and community events through the marketing director at the TV station. And we were also told that they would have to run their music through Brian Rickman, our station manager, so they were going to lose their some of their autonomy, in my opinion."
Rickman confirmed that he does plan for "Road Salt Radio" to eventually use the automation software, and for student representatives to join station-wide music meetings. He said that he and other staff would become more involved in the student shows' music selection "to an extent, only because — and this (concerns) training them for future positions — we want them to understand the process that some stations go through when they're deciding which songs to add, and things like that."
The last straw for Koons, he said, was a meeting in which staff were told that their job descriptions were in the process of being updated. "I said, 'What if we don't agree with the new job descriptions? What if it's not work that we would like to do?' Basically just asked a few questions of that nature. And all the full-time staff were told that if we didn't like it, we could move on. That was the day that I, right then, I decided I didn't want to work there any more."
Rickman again said he didn't recall that specific conversation. "Let's put it this way," he said regarding ongoing employees. "Everybody has been given their job descriptions, or the proposed revisions. Everybody's still with us." Rickman said his goal with the revisions is to "free up the full-time employees to be able to create more content about stuff they are passionate about."
Mester said she didn't want the ownership transition to be an abrupt "flip-the-switch" situation. "We want to bring people along with us, internally and externally ... not just employees, but also audience, and we're seeing an increase in streaming, we're seeing an increase in comments and listenership."
"When you look at the big picture of how the processes transitioned and are now in place, and everybody has basically learned, OK, if it's a marketing question, I've got to go through Tom (Jamar)," Rickman said. "I can no longer just sign that check without Patty's permission. You know, that kind of thing. And that's just normal. If you work at a grocery store, and they change ownership, that's going to be a transition as well. So all things considered, I think everything has gone pretty well."
Salting the airwaves
According to Justine, the students — who are largely managed by Harwood — so far have seen the benefits of the ownership change without experiencing the frustrations. Initially, she said, "it was basically just a name change. I know that the name changed because the piece of paper that we have to read every hour changed from KUMD to The North, and that was it. Nothing else changed."
A year later, Justine said, she's noted the management change but hasn't been much affected by it. There's been a "change in the way that people get to know about things. The communication is more spread out, but everybody gets on the same page eventually."
The student program segment, formerly known as "The Basement," is now "Road Salt Radio." Students worked with Jamar on the rebranding process, which is intended to remove the exclusive identification between the student programming and UMD.
"It's a great opportunity for students of Duluth to be involved with radio now," said Justine. "We can branch out to St. Scholastica and Lake Superior College, basically the broader Duluth area, to get students involved with the show, which I think is a really positive thing."
Working with Jamar and other PBS North staff, "Road Salt Radio" celebrated its new name with a Jan. 20 concert by Minneapolis band the Shackletons in the Depot's Great Hall, as well as a studio session with the same band, captured on video at PBS North.
"We have the TV studio now that WDSE owns us, and they were really pushing for that to happen," said Justine. "This was the first test run and it went great. Definitely going to do more of that in the future."
"To have students involved with that whole process and tweaking the design and bringing a band into the studio and having a concert," said Jamar, is "exciting for me, because that's really what we're about, is to help them."
In the long term, said Mester, "we definitely want both platforms in the same building." Whether that means The North 103.3 moving into the PBS North studios, or some other sort of move, has yet to be determined.
"Radio is needing to move into that visual side of things," said Rickman. "It used to be a novelty for a radio station to have a YouTube channel. Well, now it's a necessity. It has to be there. And most radio stations don't have the facilities to really do full-on high-quality productions. And now, of course, we do."
The future of The North
The North 103.3 is many things. It's a non-commercial community radio station. It's also a AAA music station, and although not technically a college station any more, it continues to function as such for both students and listeners. It's now also one of multiple platforms run by a public media corporation, PBS North.
"I love the mixture that it is," said Koons, "and I hope it continues to be that way. You know, I still listen. I still live in Duluth, and there's a lot of good people who are working there, (both at the) TV station and radio station. And our volunteers there, I think, are more knowledgeable about certain genres than anyone in the state of Minnesota. I hope that it continues to allow that type of diverse, interesting radio."
"My favorite shows are the volunteer shows," said Lunt. "I love the community. I wish they would lean more into the community side of things, but I see them wanting to be a little more professional during the day."
"I hope that it continues to be kind of a community beacon," said Jenson. "It's still a public station, which is a benefit to everyone."
"For so many years, UMD was struggling with lack of resources," said Mester, "to the point that (KUMD) wasn't really on the radar, if you will. It was just kind of like, well, give them enough to keep them going. And so that was part of the reason that I suggested that we purchase it to begin with ... The history of it, the significance of it, and coupled with (WDSE-WRPT), made sense for this community to truly have their own community, public media."
In a diversifying media landscape, the question of radio's relevance remains as present as it was in 1956. "In my mind, at least, radio is alive and well," said Justine. "A lot of my friends listen to their phone or Spotify in their car. I am a fan of radio. ... I'm like, guys, give it a chance."
"There's just so many media options," said Lunt. "There's nothing better than radio that is like, there's a human picking the songs and playing the songs. That seems better than a computer."
"Road Salt Radio" remains so hands-on, Justine said, that the students have even tried spinning vinyl a few times. "I forgot that you have to turn it like, halfway to speed up before the song plays, and so I started right at the song playing so it gets like..." She made the sound of a record playing slowly. "That was the warm-up, and then I panicked and just played a CD."
Later, Justine and Sophie were chatting about grandmothers when it came time for them to go on air between songs. "Did we want to talk about something?" asked Justine.
"Can we talk about grandmas?" Sophie suggested.
"Cool. Love grandmas. She's listening."
"Yeah," said Justine with a grin. "Me, too." She punched a button, and went live.
This article was updated at 8:03 a.m. Feb. 7 to clarify the subject of a comment by one source. It was originally published at 6:31 a.m. Feb. 7.