More than a year ago, I published Breathing’s first article about a storm brewing at our local public radio station, WJFF. Since then, mostly inchoate rumblings of discontent have leaked from behind the station’s doors. The rumblings became decidedly more focused, however when WJFF’s Programming Committee released its proposed changes to the current weekend program schedule. According to one volunteer, “…it’s relevant to know that the shows that moved to prime or repeat time slots are all shows — exception of one — hosted by Board of Trustees [BOT] members, spouses of BOT members, PC [Programming Committee] members or station staff. This schedule was sent to the [WJFF Volunteer] listserv as a “done deal,” then came an outcry [and] PC chairman Brinton said there would be a comment period and the schedule is [now] on hold.”
(January 18th, Breathing emailed Mr. Clark and Mr. Van Benschoten a list of questions and requests, appended at the end of this column. As of January 20th, I’ve had no response. However, included below is a forwarded email I received this evening from the Programming Committee. It outlines their plan for proceeding.)
Following the Programming Committee’s (PC) release of its proposed new weekend schedule for WJFF, some of the station’s volunteers began organizing in earnest. Among them are those who believe the new schedule was created to reward “management-friendly” volunteers and to punish those who’ve spoken against management practices. At the January 17, 2011 Programming Committee meeting, John Webber displayed graphics which substantiated volunteers’ worries that the Programming Committee used a system of rewards and reprisals to create the new weekend lineup. Indeed, when Mr. Webber and other volunteers compared the proposed schedule to the current one, one volunteer whose program was shortened and moved to a later slot stated, “Your graphic’s clear and represents questionable relationships between management and volunteers.”
Volunteer Jason Dole asked, “Why change the programming?” and other members of the audience echoed him, “On the basis of what data, what survey results, what information did you decide changes should be made? And what those changes should be?”
Brinton Baker, Chair of the PC attempted to clarify his committee’s thinking and procedures, “We decided to be proactive and start with the weekend schedule. We attended some webinars and believed we could improve our lineup. The webinars with Ginny Berson of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) underscored three guiding principles: (1) the business of public radio is programming; (2) programming exists to serve the community; and (3) programming creates audiences and audience size begins with programming choices.”
PC member Julia Greenberg added, “The schedule has to be dynamic which means no single on-air volunteer owns a time slot. Generally, a consensus was reached that the weekend programming could be better, more dynamic.”
“But,” asked several audience members, “how did you decide which shows would be lengthened, which shortened, which moved to different time slots and which canceled altogether?”
“We sent out 200 surveys,” said Chairperson Baker, “and received back 100.”
“Who received the surveys?” asked the audience.
Baker replied, “We sent surveys to WJFF members who’d donated to the station at least twenty times.”
When the audience was polled, at least half raised their hands to indicate they’d donated the requisite twenty times. Of that number, however, only three people actually received the survey. Two –– of whom one is a member of WJFF’s Board of Trustees — represented a single household. The third recipient, Martin Springetti, is a new member of the station’s Community Advisory Board (CAB). As Mr. Springetti looked around the room, he said, “I wish we would survey anyone who’s donated forty dollars or more.”
A need for clarification was on Padma Dyvine’s mind. After studying the proposed changes, she said, “It sounds like you’re making changes to the schedule for the sake of making changes and because you think some volunteers have had shows too long. On what basis did you decide?”
Although no coherent answer was forthcoming from the PC members, Mr. Webber, who’d compiled the comparative graphics of the old schedule and the proposed changes, said, “It looks like favoritism.”
Programming Committee member, Julia Greenberg, responded, “We can’t ignore John’s statistics. Some structural changes are needed. We must address potential conflict issues between on-air volunteers and our committee.”
“How much influence did the station’s management wield in the process?” asked long-time volunteer and station supporter, Jonathan Mernit.
“It was a group process,” responded Mr. Baker. “I chaired the meetings and led the discussions. [Station Manager] Winston Clark and [President of the Board of Trustees (BOT)], Steve Van Benschoten were present. And we were aware of the survey results.”
Although there was a general hue and cry that Community Voices, Classics for Voice and the station’s monthly Open House — all locally-produced shows — were missing from the proposed schedule, according to statements by audience members and letters received from the community-at-large, the two most contentious changes involved moving Angela Page’s “Folk Plus” and Jesse Ballew’s “Jambalaya” from their earlier slots on Saturdays to later and shorter Sunday times. Despite their recognition of Ms. Page’s stature in the world of Folk music, several representatives of the entertainment industry expressed worry that the changes would harm both the shows and their businesses. They referenced the fact that Angela and Jesse frequently shine spotlights on musicians scheduled to play locally. They believe a Sunday spotlight wouldn’t help our local Saturday evening music scene. “Plus,” said Ms. Page, “I was told all shows would be reduced to one hour. That’s not what you’re proposing in the new schedule. Even though you did cut Folk Plus by fifty percent.”
Leaving the controversy surrounding her own program behind, Ms. Page stated the PC’s process was deeply flawed. In a seeming endorsement of Maureen Neville’s comment that, “This is a public radio station. You’ve made the most programming changes in twenty years and the public wasn’t even informed,” Ms. Page offered her own concerns about the station’s decision-making processes:
- The public is not properly informed of meetings and upcoming policy changes. “I asked three times that a Public Service Announcement be made about this meeting and there was none!”
- “Ginny Berson said in her Webinar that stations, ‘Must know their target audience. Must find out who’s listening,’ but your research was poor and you still haven’t identified a target audience. You still don’t know who’s listening. I gave you great research sites and you didn’t follow through.”
When Breathing Is Political asked for a list of media where WJFF meetings are advertised, I was told, “On-air at WJFF and on our website.” In September 2010 and again at the January 17, 2011 PC meeting, Breathing and others suggested that meeting notices be sent to all local media. Chairperson Baker admitted he was at a loss as to how to distribute such notices and Ms. Greenberg said, “We’re media! We can do it!” (Public Service Announcements are free and can be submitted online. ( WJFF Bylaws)
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting — which provides much-needed funding to our small station — has addressed the gnarly issue of Open Meetings by citing to Section 396(k)(4) of the Federal Communications Act:
“Funds may not be distributed pursuant to this subsection to the Public Broadcasting Service or National Public Radio (or any successor organization), or to the licensee or permittee of any public broadcast station, unless the governing body of any such organization, any committee of such governing body, or any advisory body of any such organization, holds open meetings preceded by reasonable notice to the public.
In its summary of what “reasonable compliance” entails, the CPB requires that the public be apprised of meeting particulars “at least one week (7 days) in advance of the scheduled date of an open meeting” and further requires that:
1. Notice is placed in the “Legal Notices” or the radio and television schedules section of a local newspaper in general circulation in the station’s coverage area; or, notice is available through a recorded announcement that is accessible on the station’s phone system; or, notice is available through an announcement that is accessible on the station’s Web page; and
2. Notice is communicated by letter, e-mail, fax, phone, or in person to any individuals who have specifically requested to be notified; and
3. The station makes on-air announcements on at least three consecutive days once during each calendar quarter that explain the station’s open meeting policy and provide information about how the public can obtain information regarding specific dates, times, and locations.
According to the CPB, the rules governing public notice and access pertain to all manner of public meetings whether they be telephonic, via the internet or in-person: “However, these alternative meeting formats must still meet the other statutory requirements such as providing reasonable notice and allowing the public to attend, which in the case of an alternative meeting format would mean the ability to listen, observe, or participate.”
In a prepared statement, Martin Springetti, a new member of the Community Advisory Board (CAB), addressed what some of WJFF’s volunteers have come to believe is the silencing of the Advisory Board. (“Winston” refers to Winston Clark, WJFF’s Station Manager and “Steve refers to Steve Van Benschoten, President of WJFF’s governing body, the Board of Trustees) :
“One of the great strengths of WJFF is our live locally produced programming. Midmorning on Saturday is prime listening time for many of our supporters. It makes sense to have live locally produced programming at that time rather than syndicated programs that are readily available on other public radio stations.
I am a current member of the all new Community Advisory Board. Last October 5th we had our first and only meeting. The agenda was set by Winston and Steve, the meeting was run by them. The proposed programming changes were never mentioned. I think the station missed a great opportunity to get input from the community before the changes were announced.
Last summer this survey was circulated among some select supporters. It reads: WJFF WEEKEND PROGRAMMING SURVEY. This shows that programming changes were being considered way before the October CAB meeting. The Community Advisory Board has been left out of the loop. If you were to embrace and engage the CAB instead of trying to marginalize us, you might find that we could be a great asset to the station.
I joined the Community Advisory Board because I want to help and support our station, not to get into arguments about whether we are meeting minimum requirements of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
My question is: Why was the Community Advisory Board not asked for input or in anyway involved in the proposed programming changes?
Although the Programming Committee said it “regretted” its exclusion of the CAB from its programming deliberations, according to Article IV of the WJFF Bylaws:
1. The Community Advisory Board (CAB) will implement the requirements for a CAB set out in the relevant CPB [Corporation for Public Broadcasting] and FCC [Federal Communications Commission]regulations. In particular, the primary purpose of the CAB is to advise the BoT [Board of Trustees] on how the corporation serves the educational and cultural needs of its coverage area.
3. The CAB consists of members representing, as far as possible, the diverse needs and interests of the communities served.
And also according to WJFF’s By-Laws (Article V, p. 10),
The [Program] Committee’s responsibilities include all matters relating to on-air and online programming, including maintaining the quality of existing shows; assessing and overseeing the development of on-air skills of volunteers; assessing and approving new shows (local and syndicated); scheduling programs; and identifying areas where programming needs strengthening and working to fulfil these needs.
A logical inference can be drawn from the By-Laws that the Board of Trustees is dependent on the Community Advisory Board for advice in meeting “the educational and cultural needs of its coverage area.” Equally, the PC requires the Advisory Board’s input when “identifying areas where programming needs strengthening and working to fulfil these needs.”
But what does the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) say concerning the presence, importance and function of a CAB? CPB has listed its compliance standards for public radio stations to follow and warned that CPB “may not distribute any of its funds to any community-licensed public broadcasting station that does not have an advisory board which meets the requirements of the law.”
In essence, the CPB requires each public radio station to establish a “community advisory board that will:
- be independent of the radio station’s governing body“;
- meet at regular intervals;
- “be reasonably representative of the diverse needs and interests of the communities served by the station;
- establish and follow its own schedule and agenda, within the scope of the community advisory board’s statutory or delegated authority;
- review the programming goals established by the station;
- review the community service provided by the stations;
- review the impact on the community of the significant policy decisions rendered by the station; and
- advise the governing board of the station whether the programming and other significant policies of the station are meeting the specialized educational and cultural needs of the communities served by the station. The advisory board may make recommendations to the governing board to meet those specialized needs.”
When a couple of audience members supported the PC’s request that comments be restricted to issues of programming, Barbara Gref addressed the PC, “Since the CAB was not part of your deliberations, I suggest you put any decision on hold till you’ve had a chance to meet with the CAB and make sure the CAB is involved. I hear your regret that they weren’t included but I’d like to see you make it happen.”
When another audience member said, “The CAB needs to take responsibility, too,” a former CAB member retorted, “The CAB wasn’t even notified of proposed changes. How could they ask for information they couldn’t possibly know about?”
Sonja Hedlund, host of Ballads and Banjos, told the Programming Committee, “At the first meeting, you asked if we had ideas for changes and I said then that two hours is too long for a show. And I disagree with the advice you got from the Webinar. I do my program to organize this community! I think you should be asking, ‘What shows are we missing?’ instead of sitting back and waiting for someone to come forward with ideas. By reducing the two hour shows, you can make more room for new programs. More youth programs. We’ve heard over and over again that we need more local news and it’s not on the schedule.”
An underwriter in the audience said, “I’m upset that hosts weren’t given the consideration they deserve.” And an eighteen-year supporter of the station chimed in, “The car I donated to the station? I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known this was going on. When I complained to someone about things happening at the station — I won’t mention the person’s name — I was told, ‘You’ll learn to love the changes.’ I felt dismissed after eighteen years of donating!”
WJFF’s management, on-air volunteers, PC and CAB members (both former and current) are at odds over some pretty hefty fundaments of democracy:
- The right to broach lawful opinions without fear of retaliation
- A fair, open and inclusive decision-making process
- A community’s participation in the workings of its public media
- Equal access to programming opportunities by the diverse communities within the station’s coverage area
But as the January 17th meeting wore on, I began to wonder about something not nearly so highfalutin’: incompetence.
- How is it that Programming Committee members weren’t aware that meetings must be properly announced?
- How is it that the PC didn’t know how to distribute Public Service Announcements of their meetings?
- How is it that the PC didn’t know that the Advisory Board must be permitted to advise?
- How is that the listener comment line was “dis-established?”
- How is it that no coherent response was on offer when the PC was asked, “Why did you inaugurate these programming changes? On what research did you base your decisions?”
- How is that only three audience members at the January 17th meeting received the bungled survey?
- How is it that neither the Board of Trustees nor the Programming Committee anticipated that their un-researched proposals would cause a brouhaha? (Especially in light of Committee Member Greenberg’s agreement that the schedule should be reviewed for conflicts of interests?)
- And how is it that neither the BoT nor the Programming Committee identified the station’s target audience before proposing program changes?
There are reports from current and former volunteers that an uneasy — some say hostile — atmosphere is growing at the station. Rumors abound of volunteers being told by management, “You need the station more than we need you,” and “Don’t talk about our dirty laundry on the listserv.” Many of our longest-serving volunteers have said in an open meeting that favoritism and retaliation were at the root of the new scheduling proposal. There have been managerial decisions that resulted in apparent breaches of law. Is there potential for those actions to jeopardize the station’s CPB funding? Only the CPB can say for certain, but managerial decisions vis a vis the CPB-mandated CAB have raised serious questions of community representation and inclusiveness.
I’ve emailed Steve Van Benschoten (President of the Board of Trustees) and Station Manager, Winston Clark asking for, among other things, manuals used by the station to train its volunteers and board members. I’ve also asked how many volunteers and/or employees have left the station in the past two years and in the previous five. And of those who’ve left, I’ve asked how many complained about or cited to either management or the atmosphere at the station. I’ve also asked who received the 200 surveys and how recipients were chosen.
My original article about WJFF provided some history of the station and a very partial record of its troubles a year ago. I talked about the enormous community effort that gave birth twenty-plus years ago to, “The Best Little Radio Station by a Dam Site!” Crucial to that endeavor were community leaders like Chuck and Andrea Henley-Heyn. For me, the most surreal moment during the Programming Committee meeting came when Andrea suggested ideas for improving station structures and processes and the Chair of the Programming Committee asked her who she was.
Answer, Mr. Baker: “Andrea is the volunteer who has continued over the years since Maris’ passing to create a loving home for her Calendar at WJFF. And according to your own WJFF website, ‘…has been a member of WJFF since before it went on air…'”
And finally, the on-air fund drives aren’t fun anymore; just a few well-scripted voices with all the juice squeezed out. (Even as controlling as WAMC’s Alan Shartock is rumored to be, his fund drives are frequently exercises in giddy chaos.) Until this moment, I haven’t referred to an elephant in the room: one of our most successful Station Managers, Christine Ahern. She and fund drives were chocolate sauce on ice cream. How many times did we listen, mouths agape during a gaff-filled morning late in the fund drive? And the laughter! It was like listening to children play. Nevertheless, I was often reminded that she knew every inch and corner of the station and the rules that regulated it. But more, she was a deft manager of people and knew not only the communities in WJFF’s coverage area but much of their history. Under her ten years of leadership, the station grew in range, volunteerism and loyal listeners. Perhaps she spoiled us. She was on a mission to make WJFF and its community a watchword in Public Radio. Perhaps it’s foolish to expect one person to do what Christine did. Perhaps the fair thing would be to divide the position of Station Manager into its parts.
Perhaps We, The Public should be regular attendees at Board of Trustee and Committee meetings.
At the very least, the sense of fun, family, and service to the community-at-large must be restored.
Emailed to WJFF’s President of the Board of Trustees and its Station Manager:
Dear Steve, Winston and John:
In preparing to publish an editorial about recent events at WJFF, these questions sprang to mind:
1. How many volunteers and/or employees have left the station in the past 2 years? Of those, how many complained about or cited to either management or the atmosphere at the station?
2. How many volunteers and/or employees left the station in the previous 5 years? Of those,
how many complained about or cited to either management or the atmosphere at the station?
3. Does WJFF have a training manual for new volunteers?
4. Does WJFF have a training manual for new board members? (All and any of the boards)
5. What training is provided to new board members?
6. Does training of new board members include FCC, CPB and station rules and regulations concerning the new members’ functions on the board? Does it include information concerning Open Meeting legislation?
7. Does WJFF maintain a record of complaints made by volunteers against WJFF management.
8. Does WJFF maintain a record of its response to any such complaints by volunteers or employees.
9. Does WJFF have a written policy concerning the advertisement/announcement of its public meetings?
10. When was the last time WJFF sent announcements of its public meetings to media venues other than WJFF?
11. On what bases were the former members of the CAB not asked to continue their service to the station?
12. On what bases were the former members of the CAB replaced by new members?
13. Who participated in the “disbanding” of the former CAB and its replacement by new members?
14. How was the public notified that a new CAB was being engendered?
15. Through what means was the public asked for its input in establishing the new CAB?
I plan to publish the editorial in the next few days and am asking you to make available:
digital copies of any such training manuals and your volunteer training schedule.
a copy of the survey that was reportedly sent to members who’ve donated at least 20 times.
a record substantiating that 200 surveys were sent
substantiation that WJFF has a record of members who’ve donated 20 times.
WJFF’s policy on informing the public of upcoming & public meetings
As a member of your WJFF signal area, I have lots of question concerning recent events at the station. I am asking these questions in order to write as balanced an editorial as possible. As always, once the editorial is published, I will send you the link and you will have every opportunity to comment or even write an opposing & unedited piece.