A unanimous yeehah!

“It’s a great day for public radio.”

SPINDALE – Charlotte listeners Hugh Ashcraft and Rosemary Lucas may speak for many WNCW fans who learned last week that the eclectic public-radio station would not be sold.

“Yeehah!” exclaimed Ashcraft after a meeting of the Isothermal Community College board of trustees.

“Make that a unanimous ‘yeehah!’” added Lucas.

The trustees (who collectively hold WNCW’s license) voted unanimously Aug. 26 to keep the station and endorse ICC President Bill Lewis‘ proposed “operating principles” for running it.

Those principles include making the station’s mission compatible with the community college’s, increasing news coverage, reminding WNCW staff to be courteous to the public, and reviewing existing operating policies to ensure full compliance with federal and state regulations.

The combination of keeping the station and putting new guidelines in place struck a chord with Lucas, who observed, “I think it came out positive from both sides of the argument.”

Back in May, the trustees had asked Lewis to examine their options regarding the station after three years of turmoil, including a 2001 admonishment by the Federal Communications Commission and the dismissal of a number of station employees.

Clearing the air

At the beginning of the meeting, Lewis revealed that Preserve WNCW, a group of Asheville business owners and others, had offered $1.5 million for the station. (The bid topped an earlier $1.3 million offer from WAY-FM, a Christian broadcasting outfit.)

However, Lewis said he favored keeping the station’s license and implementing his proposed operating principles.

Board members then embarked on a discussion that touched on a number of the issues that have fueled the ongoing controversy.

Trustee Bobby England, a state representative, noted that WNCW has fulfilled its legally mandated mission by helping provide a public-radio signal to every North Carolina resident. England added that the criticisms he’s heard haven’t been about the station or its programming.

“What I have read and heard has been about people, about personalities, about accusations, about alleged wrongdoing, about alleged mismanagement, and about the need for change in some persons,” said England. “I see ICC as above that. WNCW is above that. … We must take whatever action is necessary to resolve and remove those things which have been distracting from this truly outstanding radio station and the goals and purposes of this educational institution.”

Trustees had different recollections of the station’s original purpose, with Doug Pearson, a retired school superintendent, saying he believed the primary reason had been to serve as a lab for students in ICC’s broadcasting program — a function the station fulfilled for a time and one Pearson said he wants to renew.

In response to a trustee’s question, Station Manager David Gordon reported that only 3 percent of WNCW’s listeners are in Rutherford and Polk counties. (The station recently announced that the number of weekly listeners in Asheville, Charlotte and Greenville, S.C., has increased to 202,200.)

“I’m concerned about the station getting away from this community,” said board member James Hutchins, a retired Forest City teacher. “The board serves Rutherford and Polk County.”

Lewis promised to keep the trustees updated on WNCW. That seemed to please Hutchins (who admitted that until recently, the trustees didn’t really know much about the station).

Chairwoman Elizabeth Owens chalked the station’s troubles up to growing pains and asked the WNCW community for help and patience.

The roughly 35 people attending the meeting welcomed the trustees’ unanimous vote with a hearty round of applause.

And in a surprise move, Pearson extended an olive branch to those folks who believe they haven’t been treated civilly.

“On behalf of myself — and I hope the rest of this board — I’d like to officially say I’m sorry to those people who have been offended or who feel that they have been offended in any way with their relationship with any of our staff,” said Pearson. “I do think we need to clear the air and all move together to support this radio station.”

Looking ahead

After the meeting, Asheville business owner Blake Butler, co-founder of Preserve WNCW, said he was happy with the outcome, since his group’s goal was to maintain the station’s format and programming. “It’s a great day for public radio,” he declared.

At the same time, the level of interest sparked by the crisis convinced Butler that group members would have no trouble raising the $1.5 million to make good on Preserve WNCW’s offer.

The group’s other co-founder, Ashevillean Sean O’Connell, predicted that the trustees would continue to field offers for WNCW’s license.

“We have to make sure we don’t take it for granted,” cautioned O’Connell.

WNCW Community Advisory Board member Ray Guenthner likewise applauded the trustees’ decision. “I am delighted they’re gonna keep the station,” he said. “And I think they need to let the staff manage it.”

After the meeting, a smiling, relaxed-looking Gordon called the decision a good one, noting that now station management will have a clear set of expectations from the board of trustees.

Asked whether the board’s decision would put to rest any lingering controversy, Gordon reflected a moment, then answered, “Well, I hope so.”

In his view, however, the more important focus is how the station deals with future issues.

For her part, ex-station employee Linda Osbon (who sat with fellow critic Bill Bost during the board meeting) said she accepted Trustee Pearson’s apology, adding: “My reaction is, ‘Thank God that someone recognized that an apology’s in order.’”

Osbon said she wasn’t surprised by the trustees’ decision to keep the station (in fact, she felt Preserve WNCW had overstated the threat that ICC’s head would be turned by a Christian broadcaster).

Meanwhile, she e-mailed the trustees a proposal last week suggesting that an ad-hoc committee — made up of station and college staffers along with members of ICC’s foundation and the community at large — be appointed to oversee the implementation of Lewis’ principles.

“Less oversight is not what’s needed here,” insisted Osbon.

But Gordon (who hadn’t seen Osbon’s proposal) asserted: “I think that the board of trustees, the administration, the Community Advisory Board, and the staff and management of the radio station are well qualified to figure out how this is going to proceed.”

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