Between the early June departure of its popular afternoon drivetime host and the subsequent resignation of the station’s general manager, KRCL 90.9 FM got a sizable dose of drama in 2017.
So it’s perhaps not altogether surprising that the public radio station’s recent nationwide search to fill its leadership void culminated in the hiring of a familiar face.
Tristin Tabish — announced Friday morning as KRCL’s next GM — hasn’t worked there in two decades, but as far as some employees are concerned, she’s been there in spirit, if not in body, that whole time.
“I started at KRCL when I was just a teenager back in 1992, and the first day I came in, for my initial interview, nervous beyond belief, the first person to greet me at the door was Tristin. And she just had a way of putting me at ease,” said Ebay Hamilton, the station’s program director and on-air host of its “Afternoon Drive with Ebay” program since August. “She’s always been a huge part of the KRCL family.”
Tabish began her public radio career in KRCL’s membership department in 1991 and hosted two programs on the station. She has been working for KUER, the University of Utah’s NPR radio station, for the past 20 years in various capacities, including as content director since 2011 (which she will continue to be until mid-January). She’s also taught writing and public relations courses for the U.’s Department of Communication the past 10 years.
But she conceded that even as she dedicated herself fully to those jobs, she couldn’t help but keep an eye — or an ear, more specifically — directed toward her original employer.
“I’ve been with KUER for 20 years, and … I turned into an NPR news nerd, but I’ve always had this attraction to KRCL and to its music. KRCL’s music has been a reprieve from the news and the negativity going on these days, and it’s been a real source of joy,” Tabish said. “When this opportunity arose, I knew that if I didn’t at least apply, I would regret it. So I was beyond thrilled to actually get the job.”
Chip Luman, the chairman of KRCL’s board of directors, said the fact that Tabish was a known quantity with a proven track record certainly didn’t hurt.
“Our goal was to try to get somebody local. We had some national candidates, but it was really imperative to us to get someone who knows the community,” he said. “The experience she gained at KUER, with programming and content, we really feel she’s going to take the station in a good direction.”
Considering all that was transpiring half a year ago, it’s a wonder she did not inherit a mess.
“Bad” Brad Wheeler, host of the popular “Little Bit Louder Now” show, stunned listeners with a June 2 on-air announcement that he was leaving the station. KRCL’s then-GM, Vicki Mann, said she was as “in shock” as anyone, but Stephen Holbrook, one of KRCL’s founders and then a nonvoting “board member emeritus,” insinuated in an email sent out to KRCL’s board and media members that Mann’s approach was to blame.
“She has programmed weekdays to a semi-commercial sound with an overreliance on automation, which turns our on-air personalities into broadcast bureaucrats,” Holbrook wrote. Mann resigned in July.
What could have easily become a trainwreck situation didn’t go that way, though.
Luman credited the entire staff with “stepping up,” praising volunteers for filling in where needed, board members for handling some of the nuts-and-bolts minutiae, and the weekday show hosts — John Florence, Eugenie Hero Jaffe and Hamilton — for taking on bigger roles and providing a steadying influence.
Tabish said it was apparent to her, even as an outsider, that everyone on the staff pulled together.
“It’s been about six months since Brad and Vicki left. And in that time, I’ve watched the staff carry the station. They’ve been at every event. At any time, they could have held their hands up and said, ‘We don’t have the resources or the bandwidth to do this work. We’re too short-staffed.’ But they’re so dedicated to the mission and the notion of keeping KRCL alive,” she said. “They banded together as a team and kept it going. I’m stepping into a staff that’s embraced change and an opportunity to move ahead.”
Those efforts have yielded some intriguing results.
Chris Yoakam, KRCL’s board treasurer, pointed out that, per the 2016 Form 990, Schedule A, 100 percent of KRCL’s budget was publicly derived, be it through memberships, fundraisers or one-off donations.
Luman also noted that the station is running about a $200,000 surplus this year, which will enable KRCL to make some “capital improvements.” Acquiring a backup generator and boosting the station’s signal strength are potential options, but the unquestioned top line item on the to-do list was installing a new heating system.
“The heater works, but it’s too small for the building — don’t tell everyone that we were freezing the employees to death!” Luman said with a laugh.
Still, it’s the less-tangible upgrades that Tabish will be expected to deliver.
“I’ve watched the staff carry the station. They’ve been at every event. At any time, they could have held their hands up and said, ‘We don’t have the resources or the bandwidth to do this work. We’re too short-staffed.’ But they’re so dedicated to the mission and the notion of keeping KRCL alive. They banded together as a team and kept it going. I’m stepping into a staff that’s embraced change and an opportunity to move ahead.”
— Tristin Tabish, new KRCL general manager
She’s been credited with helping to expand KUER’s newsgathering operation and bolstering its membership. While she said “I’m not going in with a set agenda,” she does figure some similar tasks will naturally be in order once she segues over.
“I really want to see KRCL grow. That’s been a source of pride at KUER. So I want to take what I’ve learned here and implement it there. I want to grow membership and grow the audience,” Tabish said. “Technology is always changing, and we need to embrace that. Everyone’s on their smartphones these days. KRCL will always have a spot on the FM radio dial, but I intend for us to connect with younger audiences. That might include podcasts. Also, I don’t know if people know we have an app, so we need to make them aware.
“I do have high hopes and have faith that this community will support KRCL,” she added.
Some of her employees figure that can’t help but happen with Tabish leading the way.
“She just has got energy and is a really inspirational person,” Hamilton said. “I think everyone [on staff] who didn’t know Tristin certainly maybe felt uncomfortable at first, but after meeting her, everyone was just really excited — knowing her history, that she understood the station and she understands radio. … It’s a big relief for a staff that have been without a general manager since July.”
Jaffe, who has maintained a friendly relationship with Tabish over the years and credits her with providing helpful advice even when they were on opposite sides, agreed with that sentiment.
“It’s such a good move for KRCL,” Jaffe said. “We’re such a big part of the community, and having one of our own come back as general manager is so positive for us. … It’s such a right fit for us. We’re psyched.”