Utah lost a reckoning force in the community radio scene on Sunday.
Donna Land Maldonado, one of the first staff members at Salt Lake City station KRCL-FM 90.9 who eventually served as general manager, uplifting diverse voices as she worked her way up the ranks, has died. The member of the Northern Ute tribe was 78.
“She was willing to do what needed to be done and it wasn’t always easy to do,” said Stephen Holbrook, founder of the KRCL station. He brought Maldonado on in July 1979, just five months before the station went on air in December 1979.
The magnitude of Maldonado’s work at the station, Holbrook said, is even greater when considering the context of the media landscape as Maldonado got her start. Her position was originally grant-funded through a federal anti-poverty program introduced by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Holbrook said.
“She was completely new to [broadcasting],” Holbrook recalled. “It was unique to have a Native American woman [on board], [especially at] a time when there weren’t that many women in the workplace in general.”
Maldonado’s chief responsibility was to find various underrepresented groups and recruit people who could be on the air representing those groups, Holbrook said.
During her time at the station, she started several programs including ”Living the Circle of Life,” the only music program in the state dedicated to Indigenous people, and “Concerning Gays and Lesbians,” previously known as “Gayjavu,” an hourlong show dedicated to the LGBTQ community. It was the first such program on a regularly scheduled basis in America for many years, Holbrook said.
Maldonado got significant pushback for that program in particular, Holbrook recalled. When she became general manager in 1998, Holbrook knew KRCL would be in good hands.
“She knew what [KRCL]’s purpose in the community was,” Holbrook says. He will remember her as a dedicated person who was willing to be assertive, even if it was against her nature.
For others, like Ebay Hamilton, the current director of programming and an afternoon host at KRCL, Maldonado will be remembered as a mentor — someone who pushed those around her to be better.
He was just 14 years old when he interviewed with Maldonado through a summer youth program, which he learned about through listening to the station with his family. He was a shy kid, and it was his first ever interview, so he mumbled, he said.
When Maldonado called after the interview, she said, “I couldn’t understand a word you said. I think that taking you on as a summer intern would be really good for you.”
Later, with Maldonado’s guidance, the station would offer Hamilton his own radio show.
“I learned so much about radio and working with the community from Donna,” Hamilton said. “I certainly wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it hadn’t been for her.”
Everyone who worked with her at the station has an individual story to remember her by, Hamilton said.
“She not only recognized that she was given that opportunity; she made sure others had that opportunity moving forward,” Hamilton said. “She always pushed, always made sure we had diverse voices on air.”
Maldonado always rooted for the underdog, he said. When she left the station in 2009 and even now, 13 years later, the staff strives to continue that legacy.
“We know what she would expect from us, but we also believe in the importance of doing that,” Hamilton said. “It’s in the spirit of community radio and in the spirit of Donna that we continue making sure there’s a place for marginalized and underserved communities to have the opportunity to be on the air.”
In a 2019 interview for the station’s 40th anniversary, Maldonado talked about her work at KRCL, saying, “I spent 30 years there, most of my adult life, so KRCL is in my DNA.”
KRCL plans to air tribute programming in Maldonado’s honor from 6-7 p.m. on Thursday, where stories about her will be shared.
Her cause of death was not publicly known as of Thursday morning. No details on funeral services were immediately announced.