Light fills the airy rooms in WPVM’s new headquarters on the top floor of the Self-Help Building in downtown Asheville. Vintage radio sets and old rattan decorate the lobby; a bright shag rug adds a touch of whimsy to the broadcast studio while helping eliminate echoes.
But for Davyne Dial, the most beautiful part of the new space is the bundles of multicolored wires snaking from the old-school soundboard into a computer tower. From there, the signal travels to a server and then to a transmitter on the building’s roof.
“At the old station [in the Vanderbilt Apartments on Haywood Street], we had a 10-year accumulation of tangled wires and dust,” Dial, the station’s board president, recalls. “We got everything separated and tagged at the intake and outtake of a component. Now if a wire comes loose, we can look at the code on it and know exactly where it goes back in.”
Volunteer show host Paul Rollins shares Dial’s satisfaction, noting, “Even though it was a massive undertaking, it was all done right, so we can track mistakes and upgrades.”
But WPVM’s recent housecleaning went much deeper than clearing away dust and sorting out electrical connections. Disillusioned volunteers, allegations of wrongdoing and a decade of frustrated hopes litter the wake of the station’s new course.
A history of difficulties
WPVM was born in 2003 after the Mountain Area Information Network, a local nonprofit, secured a low-power license to broadcast at 103.5 FM from the Federal Communications Commission. From the beginning, however, the station was beset by conflict.
Run by volunteers under the direction of MAIN founder and Executive Director Wally Bowen, the station endured a series of clashes involving volunteers, Bowen and MAIN’s board of directors. In 2009, after years of dissension, the board dismissed a number of volunteers; many others chose to leave.
Another issue was the station’s extremely weak signal, due to problems related to the location and elevation of the Busbee Mountain antenna, former WPVM Manager Jason Holland recalls. And MAIN, which provided almost all the financial support, was having serious money troubles. In early summer 2012, the station went off the air, though it continued streaming programming online.
In February 2013, WPVM received a license to broadcast at 100 watts on a different frequency: 103.7 FM. That June, programming returned to the airwaves via a transmitter on the Self-Help Building.
A worsening picture
Nonetheless, past debts and disagreements continued to haunt both MAIN and WPVM.
A longtime progressive political activist and dedicated champion of independent media, Bowen spearheaded the push to secure the station’s license. But his management style alienated many volunteers. In a March 4, 2009, commentary in Mountain Xpress, Bowen wrote, “Since August, I have been called ‘dictator,’ ‘tyrant,’ ‘Big Brother,’ ‘keeper of the Gulag’ and ‘enemy of free speech.’”
And by 2013, MAIN was facing a severe financial crisis, says Patryk Battle, an organic food activist who was then the nonprofit’s board president. Bowen had taken out a loan with PNC Bank using WPVM’s equipment as collateral, but that merely bought the station some time. Eventually, says Battle, creditors and grant funders lost confidence in Bowen’s leadership and demanded his resignation as a condition for continuing to support the organization.
Bowen, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease, stepped down on July 1, 2013. Mark West, a professor of mass communication at UNC Asheville, was named interim executive director.
John Blackwell, who served on MAIN’s radio committee, says that after Bowen’s departure, the board asked WPVM to develop a plan for becoming financially independent. This was difficult, he says, because the station had never generated a significant portion of its support through fundraising or underwriting.
When no workable plan emerged, MAIN’s board decided to find a new owner for WPVM. “We wanted an entity which could successfully operate the radio station while MAIN focused on our core competency: providing high-speed broadband services,” West explains.
Blackwell, who’d worked with Dial and her husband, Dr. Herbert Johnson, at the now-defunct public access television station URTV, invited them to MAIN’s membership meeting in the summer of 2014 — an invitation he says he now regrets.
As MAIN’s board considered alternatives for WPVM’s future, Battle says he worked to preserve the station as a public resource. “I wanted WPVM to promote really good public discourse, with conservative voices as well as progressives,” he explains. To that end, Battle negotiated a low-interest bridge loan from his employer, Living Web Farms, to MAIN.
Once again, however, this only delayed what a majority of MAIN’s board felt was inevitable: transferring the station’s license to some other entity. Dial and Johnson were eager to create that entity and were willing to contribute significant financial resources. In the late summer of 2014, they began negotiating in earnest with the board.
There were many challenges. The station’s equipment had to be cataloged, its financial situation clarified and the extensive FCC application process navigated. Anticipating “some resistance to transferring the license,” says Dial, “everything had to be done in as pristine a way as possible. And that is what we have tried to do.”
In order to qualify under FCC rules, however, Dial and Johnson needed to establish a nonprofit community organization with engaged volunteers. Accordingly, they began setting up the Friends of WPVM. Battle, who also hosted a show on the station, says he was one of the first volunteers to join the group, along with Justin Harrison, a 20-something radio newcomer.
Christopher Lawing, who’d previously hosted a show on Asheville FM, says he was surprised when, after Dial invited him to visit WPVM that September, Dial, Johnson and Harrison asked him to join the fledgling nonprofit’s board.
A week later, Jacquelyn Hammond was also invited to join the board. Hammond, who manages the Goddess Underground event space on Broadway, says she’d never even considered hosting a radio show before meeting Dial and Johnson socially but thought it would be a fun way “to highlight other women entrepreneurs.”
On Oct. 2, 2014, Friends of WPVM Inc. filed bylaws and articles of incorporation with the state. Under the heading “initial directors,” the bylaws named Harrison as president, Dial as vice president, Johnson as treasurer, Hammond as secretary and Lawing as member at large. Those five plus show host Carol Anders were listed as initial members of the corporation, with full voting rights, including “authority … to confirm, modify or reverse amendments to these bylaws by the board of directors, and … to fill any vacancies on the board.” Battle says that due to his leadership role with MAIN, he opted not to be included as an initial member, to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest.
During those first months, the new nonprofit was busy filing paperwork with the FCC, negotiating with MAIN and lining up show hosts. But as fall moved into winter, station volunteers began to suspect that some board members — namely, Dial and Johnson — were more equal than others. When Hammond and Dial met with a graphic designer to discuss a new station logo, Hammond says Dial told her, “I’m paying for this, so I get to decide.” Others, including Blackwell, were upset when they saw that new marketing materials had changed the station’s tag line from “The Progressive Voice of the Mountains” to “Voices of Asheville” without a board vote or discussion with volunteers. Hammond, Lawing and Battle say policy changes were frequently dictated by Dial and Johnson, rather than a board vote.
At a membership meeting in early December, Lawing says he discovered an iPhone on a small tripod, tucked behind a computer monitor and wondered why it was there. At a subsequent board meeting, Dial accused Lawing of drinking alcohol during his radio show, saying she’d seen it on a live-stream video feed to her home. Lawing says he was drinking iced tea and that the label was clearly visible in the video.
Meanwhile, station volunteers were upset to learn that they and their radio show guests were being monitored by the iPhone. According to the minutes of a mid-December committee meeting, volunteers voted to remove the camera, though affidavits later filed by Lawing and Hammond indicate that the monitoring continued at least until Dec. 31. At an early January meeting attended by volunteers and members of the public, tempers ran high as Dial and Johnson were confronted about the surveillance, Hammond and others say.
In emails and Facebook posts, Dial and Johnson said they wanted to know how the station was being used throughout the day, were concerned about the security of the equipment and suspected that alcohol was being consumed on the premises.
A rancorous meeting
Even as the debate raged, however, the board was expanded. Battle was unanimously elected on Dec. 17 and Anders on Jan. 21, 2015, meeting minutes show.
But in early March, Harrison resigned as president. In an email announcing his decision, he wrote, “It was my only intention to be a part of a radio station where anyone who put time into a show was given adequate and sincere consideration when voicing any concern, no matter how offensive it may be to those in leadership roles.”
In a March 19 email to Dial, Johnson, Hammond, Harrison and Anders, Asheville attorney Mike Wimer, acting as counsel to the Friends of WPVM, advised, “With Justin’s resignation, you are down to four board members, which means you need the affirmative vote of three board members to fill any vacant board position, including the president’s spot.” The email wasn’t addressed to either Battle or Lawing, even though they’d been attending board meetings and voting as board members up till then, meeting minutes show.
The board of directors normally met at the station, but on April 1, the group convened at Wimer’s Haywood Road office. A video recording shows that Dial tried to call the meeting to order with Johnson, Hammond, Lawing, Anders and Wimer present. Battle arrived shortly afterward, and Johnson tried unsuccessfully to prevent him from entering the room. A dispute immediately arose over the attempt by Wimer (who was not a board member) to direct the meeting. After about 10 minutes of heated discussion, Hammond, Lawing, Battle and Anders left.
According to the minutes, Dial and Johnson then voted to add John Miall and Roger McCredie to the board. Miall, a conservative City Council candidate this year, failed to make it past the Oct. 6 primary. McCredie, a reporter for The Tribune Papers, is a former executive director of the Southern Legal Resource Center, which consults on cases defending “America’s most persecuted minority: Confederate Southern Americans,” according to its website.
But Wimer’s email had said three votes were needed to fill vacancies. Asked about the discrepancy, he said the situation was “very fluid” and that his legal analysis showed that only Dial, Johnson and Hammond held valid board memberships on April 1. Thus, two board members constituted a quorum.
The bylaws, however, state, “The board of directors of the corporation shall consist of a minimum of five and a maximum of seven directors.”
Wimer says Battle was ineligible because of his role with MAIN, and the original incorporation documents didn’t list Lawing as a director. The paperwork appointing Anders was incomplete, says Wimer, adding that during the April 1 meeting, she resigned, saying she couldn’t participate in a body characterized by dissension and distrust.
Anders was reluctant to comment on what happened at the meeting. But Lawing and Hammond contend that Wimer was merely acting as Dial’s personal attorney. “The board never voted to appoint Mike Wimer as legal counsel to the organization,” notes Hammond. “Justin Harrison, as president, never co-signed a check to pay Wimer through the WPVM bank account.” Thus, she maintains, Wimer lacked the authority to run meetings, interpret the organization’s bylaws or weigh in on the composition of its board.
In addition, Hammond and Lawing argue that since the April 1 meeting never actually came to order, no official decisions could be made, and that Miall and McCredie, lacking previous involvement with the station, didn’t meet the criteria for board membership stated in the bylaws.
Wimer, however, says Hammond and Lawing were part of a “cabal whose motivation was to be so disruptive that the transfer of the license would be jeopardized.” Battle, says Wimer, also “tried to form an alliance to stop the sale” of the station’s equipment.
Asked to respond to Wimer’s assertion, Hammond said, “If I were part of a cabal, the cabal was working to save the station from imploding.”
And Lawing said, “Far from being disruptive, my efforts have been to hold Dial and Johnson accountable for their questionable management decisions, often taken without consulting the board.”
In the dark?
On May 8, 2015, the FCC authorized the license transfer; it was finalized on June 26. Wimer and others say that Bowen, MAIN’s founder, lodged an objection with the FCC, but it’s not included in the agency’s online public file.
Bowen, though, says, “When I stepped down as [executive director], I knew that selling the radio station was a real possibility. That’s why I repeatedly requested first right of refusal if they did decide to sell.
“In addition, I purchased the station’s new transmitter with my own funds in 2013 ($2,676) when MAIN didn’t have the funds. I made it clear to the board that I needed to be reimbursed, but I didn’t press the issue. I figured my owning the transmitter would prevent the station being sold on the sly. That’s why I was stunned to learn last April that a sale was not only pending but had been underway since January.
“If I was in the dark, I wasn’t alone. Apparently, the community of MAIN supporters, and the community as a whole, were unaware that the station was being sold. … I did not write a letter to the FCC. I did, however, email both the MAIN board and Friends of WPVM to put them on notice that I own the transmitter, but I never got a reply.”
Dial says that she and her husband, fearing that the license might be surrendered due to the station’s ongoing troubles, “decided to do everything in our power to see that didn’t happen.” She continues: “My husband was willing to finance it [the transfer] because he has a commitment to independent radio. He is our benefactor. Without him, this station would not be on the air today. … If other people wanted the license, all they had to do was step up to the table and hire their own legal team.”
In a May 29 comment on the Buncombe Politics Facebook group, which she moderates, Dial responded to questions about the license transfer and board reshuffling as follows: “The truth is we have spent $35,000 on legal fees to make sure every step in the process was done legally as required by the FCC. Spurious & libelous statements will be handled in due time in court.”
Police investigate alleged wiretapping
On May 8, the same day the license transfer was approved, Lawing, Hammond three radio show guests filed a complaint with the Asheville Police Department alleging that the secret video recording constituted wiretapping. Affidavits by Lawing and Hammond asserted that Dial and Johnson had collected audio and video recordings without their knowledge or consent during December 2014.
The city obtained a search warrant for Dial’s email address, which Lawing and Hammond say received notifications of new recording activity from Dial’s in-station iPhone when an app called Presence detected motion. On June 11, attorney Sean Devereux filed a motion to quash the search warrant, to prevent review of Dial’s email account. On June 22, the city responded by filing a motion to strike or dismiss Dial’s motion; the city ultimately prevailed.
The investigation was later closed. City Attorney Robin Currin declined to comment on the case, and Sarah Gross, the city’s records facilitator, said the file is protected from release by state law.
Wimer says the wiretapping complaint “was brought by people who had a vendetta against Davyne Dial. It was completely without merit.” Video recording in a public place is legal in North Carolina, he says, and volunteer workers “don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace.”
Asked whether audio recording is legal under those circumstances, Wimer said, “I don’t know.” Asked whether radio show guests had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the station, Wimer again said he didn’t know.
No stranger to controversy
The brouhaha over the license transfer wasn’t the first in which Dial’s name had figured prominently. In April 2009, URTV members removed her from the station’s board of directors on a 33-12 vote whose legality she disputes. Dial subsequently took her case to City Manager Gary Jackson and also sued the city seeking financial records; Wimer served as her attorney.
In 2013, Dial ran afoul of the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County while serving on its board. With the approval of at least two fellow board members, Dial began live-streaming video of Buncombe County Board of Education meetings in conjunction with the league’s Observer Corps initiative. While filming, she sometimes cheered for statements made by then-school board member Lisa Baldwin. In letters to the league, school board members Pat Bryant and Steve Sizemore complained that Dial’s vocal support for Baldwin suggested bias or partisanship, which they felt was incompatible with league policies. Dial eventually resigned from the board and published a website, ablwv.blogspot.com, detailing her contention that the organization had curtailed her freedom of speech.
Several former WPVM members interviewed for this article expressed concern that their statements to Mountain Xpress might result in legal action against them. “Knowing Dial’s litigious nature,” said Lawing, “I am worried that my comments may result in a lawsuit.” And in response to an initial interview request, Hammond wrote, “If I start talking about the station will I be ensured that the board president [Dial] won’t sue me?” To substantiate her concern, Hammond provided an email from Dial titled “Jackie I’m hearing [expletive] through the grapevine.” Talking about a dispute over the administration of WPVM’s Facebook page, Dial wrote, “If that doesn’t not [sic] stop you, I have the option of legal action for your slander that hurt our reputation and the stations [sic].”
Some people considered challenging the Friends of WPVM’s legal right to the license but concluded that “would take more money than any of us had,” Battle explains. Attorney Eileen McMinn, whom Battle, Lawing and Wimer say assisted the group challenging Dial and Johnson, declined to comment for this story.
Battle and others involved with WPVM during this turbulent period have since moved on to other projects. But some have continued working with the station.
Anders, who hosts the weekly “Asheville ’N the Arts” program, says “There was a lot of controversy” during the transition period. “While I was sympathetic to all sides, I was just hoping that we would preserve what we set out to do, which was to provide an outlet for the voices of Asheville.”
At this point, she continues, “I feel we are on a good path, and I think we have a bright, sustainable future. Kudos to the current leadership: I’m glad they had the resources and energy to make it happen. There are always going to be issues and challenges.”
On a mission
“The advantage of having a local-led, volunteer-run radio station with low overhead costs is that you can go into subjects that mainstream media cannot afford to take on,” says Dial. “That’s one of our main goals: to present voices that are unheard elsewhere.”
Busker Abby Roach, aka The Spoon Lady, hosts two weekly shows and also spontaneously pulls in buskers off the street. “The buskers really like being on live. … I think it’s just going to grow and grow,” says Roach, who believes her broadcasts are the only ones of their kind in the U.S.
“We want to be the true voice of what’s happening in the community,” says Dial. “We’ve had about six months of developing show hosts, and we are in the market for more of those folks who really reflect the richness of this community.”
Hosts also get a chance to learn technical skills, notes Dial: “A commercial radio station has a producer, a host and talent. A lot of times here, one person is doing it all at the same time.”
Ironically, WPVM’s new facility is next door to MAIN. When the station received word on July 31 that its Haywood Street lease wouldn’t be renewed, Dial explains, West, who’s now MAIN’s board secretary, said, “You should really consider taking that space next to us, because we are trying to sublease it. It’s got all the wiring you need, plus your signal will be much closer to where it’s going.”
That signal carries an average of 3 miles from Wall Street, though the granite of Beaucatcher Mountain limits its range to the east. “But if you go west,” notes Dial, “we have a strong signal all the way out to Canton, and to the north we have a signal up to Weaverville.” Dial plans to continue recruiting show hosts representing a range of perspectives, and program underwriters who want independent media to flourish.
Some passionate former volunteers, though, no longer feel welcome at the station. “When I look at the four years I put into trying to ensure that WPVM remained a resource for the progressive community of Western North Carolina and look at the results,” Battle says with a sigh, “it’s a pretty tragic outcome.”
Lawing, meanwhile, says, “I still believe the just resolution of this situation would be to re-establish the duly appointed board of directors, who should have an opportunity to vote on appointments and decisions made since April 1.”
Wimer, however, sees things differently. “You [Mountain Xpress] have to decide what’s newsworthy,” he says. “It seems to me that the intracompany politics with regard to boards and members is a sideshow, but you may decide that it’s the most important thing in the reporting of it. We think the most important thing is that the station has survived, and survived despite some incredible financial difficulties and in spite of some pretty intensive efforts by people both inside and outside of WPVM to kill it.”