Gibbs, known to his fans as "The Thrasher," is hardly the only person connected with KRTU - Trinity University's jazz-based radio station - who feels this way. Donnelly is widely credited for energizing the community behind the station, for leading the station's shift last fall from a classical to jazz format, and for spearheading its fund drives and concert events. As Gibbs says, "The people that worked under Ben will all agree that Ben Donnelly is KRTU."
One person who doesn't share that opinion is Dr. William Christ, chairman of Trinity's Communication department and general manager of KRTU. While acknowledging Donnelly's contributions to the station, Christ likes to say that KRTU is bigger than any individual. So, after a month of nearly intolerable bickering between the two men over Donnelly's responsibilities at the station, Christ determined that he had to choose between the station and Donnelly. He chose the station.
On Wednesday, January 29, Christ relieved Donnelly of his duties at KRTU. The move throws San Antonio's only jazz station into limbo on the eve of its annual fund drive (February 21 through March 3), and raises questions about its creative and financial viability.
Days after his dismissal, Donnelly can barely contain his bitterness. Sitting in his Olmos Park apartment - replete with a lava lamp, two-turntables-and-mixer setup, vintage radio, electric guitar, and organ - the 28-year-old Donnelly ruefully talks about being escorted out of KRTU's studio on the day of his firing, and having his image immediately removed from photos on the station's Web site - a site he designed.
Donnelly, a graduate of Miami University in Ohio, moved to San Antonio four years ago. After working part-time as an announcer for classical station KPAC, he switched to KRTU in 2001. At the time, KRTU was primarily a classical station, covering the same ground as KPAC, but Donnelly - with Christ's support - advocated a move to jazz, which would give the station a distinctive niche in the San Antonio market.
Gibbs says Donnelly approached him in 2001 about hosting a weekly show on KRTU. Up to that point, Gibbs had no radio experience. But he says Donnelly believed in his abilities and allowed him to be himself. He also praises Donnelly for identifying the needs of jazz listeners. "Ben was a great marketer," Gibbs says, "and he understood the historical interest of the average jazz fan."
Using Gibbs' national jazz connections, he and Donnelly began to promote the station by bringing a series of concerts to the Carver Community Cultural Center and Carmen's de la Calle Cafe: artists like Larry Coryell, Gary Bartz, and Ravi Coltrane. Donnelly also found approximately 1,000 vinyl records locked in a basement at the station, and tirelessly spent nights burning them into the station's system, to expand KRTU's catalog of music.
But Donnelly also chafed under Christ's leadership. Donnelly felt that he was carrying more than his share of the workload at the station, and he says Christ either failed to respond to his complaints, or blamed him for someone else's failures. He says the station's transition to jazz last semester went smoothly enough, with Christ away on temporary leave. But Donnelly says when Christ came back after the Christmas holidays, the professor began to question his every move.
"He came in and wanted to know where I was every minute of the day, and he wanted me to post it on the door," Donnelly says. "He wanted me in the office from nine-to-five everyday. That wasn't really realistic, because I was on call 24 hours, I had to stay late in the evenings, and come in on weekends. I was also teaching two broadcasting classes last semester, and I had to supervise those students."
Christ declined to discuss the specifics of his differences with Donnelly, but he makes it clear he wants Donnelly's successor to be more accessible. "The operations manager that I'm going to hire, I want that person to return phone calls, to return e-mails, to talk with the secretary every morning to let her know what she's supposed to do," he says. "I want that person to be available to faculty and students."
Gibbs says several KRTU staffers approached Donnelly after his firing, expressing their willingness to leave the station in protest, but Donnelly told them not to do anything to hurt the jazz community. At this point, the station's personnel appears to be sticking - albeit somewhat reluctantly - with the station.
The success of KRTU's fund drive is less certain. It comes at a crucial time, because in 1999, after nearly selling the frequency to a Christian satellite network, the university gave KRTU only five years to become financially self-sufficient. By all accounts, with less than two years to go, the station is nowhere close to achieving that goal. "I think we're still going to get good numbers," says Daniel Purdy, a former PR manager, who is currently the station's PR assistant. "But I think they'll be lower than what they would have been with Ben getting people involved in it."
Although the station's commitment to its series of jazz concerts is unclear (Christ: "Anything that we can do to hook up in partnerships is terrific, but we've got to take care of the station first"), Gibbs says he and Donnelly will continue to brings artists to San Antonio through their joint venture, Thrasher and Wa Productions.
Christ enthusiastically talks about the station's decision to add two full-time staffers (a chief announcer/producer and a secretary), and thinks that KRTU can continue to build on Donnelly's ideas.
"I like Ben, everybody likes Ben," he says. "He's a great guy. I don't think that's an issue. A decision had to be made, and I hope people don't take it out on the station because of a decision that was made by me." •