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Foodies and gardening aficionados expressed shock and sadness Monday about the sudden cancellation of two local radio shows that have developed a loyal following in Sonoma County over the past two decades.

KSRO dropped "The Good Food Hour" and "Garden Talk" from its Saturday morning lineup as part of a cost-cutting measure by the Santa Rosa radio station's Connecticut-based owner, Maverick Media.

The two locally produced shows -- the longest-running garden and food shows in California, according to KSRO -- were replaced Saturday by nationally syndicated content.

Past interviews, recipes and gardening tips were immediately removed from the KSRO website, leaving no trace they ever existed. The hosts of the shows were informed of the decision Friday, but no explanation was made to thousands of regular listeners.

"It was so out-of-the-blue," said chef John Ash, who had been co-host of "The Good Food Hour" with Steve Garner since 1987. "It came as such a shock."

Garner, a longtime KSRO broadcaster who also hosted "Garden Talk" with Press Democrat gardening columnist Gwen Kilchherr, said he had just hours to inform his Saturday morning guests, including famed sausage maker Bruce Aidells.

The station also axed veteran news co-anchor Curtiss Kim and wine commentator Tom Simoneau.

"I got a call around noon Friday," Garner said. "I was told Maverick Media had reconsidered programming decisions. And we're making a decision to terminate both shows."

Kent Bjugstad, KSRO general manager, said the cuts came during a year-end review of the station's finances. The two shows attracted few advertisers and were costing about $20,000 a year, he said.

Other programs were self-supporting or made a profit, he said.

At the same time, he said, the station's payroll was too high.

"We just needed to get more in line with the industry and our competitors," Bjugstad said. "And we have to put our resources where we generate revenue."

Bjugstad said KSRO has the largest number of employees of any radio station in Sonoma County, yet is fifth in revenue. Of its 28,200 weekly listeners, just 4,200 tune in to the food and garden shows, he said.

"These were the least profitable of all the programs," Bjugstad said.

However, there's a chance the shows could return to the airwaves. Bjugstad planned to meet with Garner and others after the Thanksgiving holiday to discuss possible funding strategies.

In 2010, KSRO cancelled Steve Jaxson's "The Drive" but brought it back a few weeks later after the host developed his own sponsors.

"We made it work," Bjugstad said. "We left the door open to Steve and Gwen to do the same thing."

Media watchers decried the cuts as a further erosion of local broadcasting content.

Ed Beebout, a Sonoma State University assistant professor of communications and former anchor at the defunct KFTY TV-50, said the loss of such programs can have far-reaching effects.

Absentee ownership of radio and TV stations adds to the problem, he said.

"I think a lot of our identity comes through local media," said Beebout, who left the airwaves when the Santa Rosa TV station closed in 2007. "As we see that content shrink, it leads to a situation where we lose our identity as a community."

Meanwhile, loyal listeners of "The Good Food Hour" and "Garden Talk" expressed their unhappiness in angry phone calls and emails to KSRO management and burned up the blogosphere with accusations of corporate greed and mismanagement.

Betsy Fischer, an instructor in the culinary arts program at Santa Rosa Junior College, wrote a critical letter to the station, saying it "worships the money god" over all else.

Fischer said the programs showcased Sonoma County's wine, food, agriculture and tourism industries. Cutting them ignores why people are here, she said.

"It's really a shame," Fischer said. "And to do it as suddenly as they did is disheartening."

Joan Saxe, a Sebastopol real estate appraiser who listened to the shows from their inception, said she hoped another station would pick them up. She said KSRO could have done more to inform listeners of the coming changes.

"I learned how to cook from John Ash and I learned to garden from Gwen," she said. "This is just horrific. I can't imagine what they were thinking."

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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