Radio static

The removal of an on-air personality at Asheville’s WPVM, a low-power station at 103.5 FM, and the subsequent resignation of the station’s manager has roiled some station volunteers and has the executive director of WPVM’s parent organization defending his decisions in running the station.

Can you hear me now?: The downtown-Asheville studio of WPVM, a low-power FM station recently beset by infighting, the dismissal of one show’s host and the resignation of the station’s operations manager. Photo By Jason Sandford

In the wake of the cancellation of 7 Layer Dip, a show co-hosted by Gillian Coats and a fellow station volunteer, two other program hosts have announced they’ll put their shows on hiatus, and several other show hosts have protested by not speaking during their shows. Meanwhile, the station’s operations manager, Jason Holland, has tendered his resignation. Holland, the station’s only paid employee, has not responded to requests for an interview.

The controversy also triggered a meeting between board members of the Mountain Area Information network, which holds the WPVM broadcast license, and radio-station volunteers. According to a copy of one volunteer’s notes from the meeting obtained by Xpress, volunteers expressed frustration about internal communications, concern about the leadership style of MAIN’s executive director, Wally Bowen, and worry over funding pressures.

Bowen told Xpress that he cancelled Coats’ show because of “a pattern of behavior that’s just antithetical to our organization’s mission and our right to carry out that mission.” Bowen said the program—a humor show that featured a selection of off-beat, older music—included some “questionable” content, but that that wasn’t the reason for his move. The show’s last broadcast featured a play list of songs all focused around the theme of money—a reference to an on-air fundraiser. (The episode can be heard online at http://archive.wpvm.org/seven-08222008.mp3.)

“The volunteer in question, Gillian Coats, has a long and established record of questioning MAIN’s right to manage and control WPVM,” Bowen said.

MAIN is a nonprofit Internet-service provider and community-news network. WPVM is a nonprofit station run almost completely by volunteers. Bowen said WPVM shares MAIN’s mission, which includes supporting “participatory democracy, citizen access to media, independent journalism, social and economic justice, locally owned businesses, local cultural and artistic expression and environmental stewardship,” according to a statement on the station’s Web site.

Coats, a well-known local businessperson, operated the Reader’s Corner bookstore on Montford Avenue for years before putting it up for sale earlier this year. She works on podcast production for New Mediacast Productions in Asheville and helped get WPVM started when it was born five years ago. She’s currently the interim director of the Media Arts Project, a nonprofit aimed at cultivating arts and technology in Western North Carolina.

Coats said she regrets Bowen’s comments on her reputation as a volunteer. “I think that the whole thing is a little ridiculous, and my reputation as a volunteer stands because there are so many people who support me,” said Coats, noting that she’s had a hand in either recruiting or training a majority of station volunteers.

Coats said that if her on-air personality—“Simone”—were to comment on the situation, “Se’d say that Wally just needs to go through the paddle machine. He’s been a bad boy and he needs to be spanked.”

Brewing disputes

Bowen said his removal of Coats and her show is subject to the review of MAIN’s governing board. Members of the board met with a group of station volunteers on Sept. 3, and the board planned to meet again Monday, Sept. 8. Josh Jourdan, a MAIN board member who also hosts the WPVM radio show Pathways to the Sacred, mediated the meeting between the board and volunteers.

“The board members listened to what the volunteers had to say about how they were feeling and made no promises, no decisions. It was more of an informational meeting so the board could hear from the volunteers directly,” Jourdan said. “The next step is to meet and see what to do with that information.”

According to a copy of notes of the proceedings kept by a volunteer during the Sept. 3 meeting, volunteers expressed concern that decisions made by committees of volunteers weren’t being honored by Bowen.

“There has been a real lack of communication between the Board and WPVM volunteers,” one volunteer said. “There’s only been one person communicating between those groups.” Another volunteer said, “If you are told in small ways and large that you have no authority, it wears you down. I urge that you [the Board] take Wally out of autocratic control,” according to the notes.

Several volunteers suggested that the board remove Bowen as executive director of MAIN. “It is unfortunate, but perhaps the board needs to ask him to stop being executive director and get out of the way,” said one. Another said, “Nothing will change unless the leadership changes, until Wally goes or his role changes.”

Invited to comment at the end of the meeting, the MAIN board members thanked the group for their input, according to the meeting minutes.

“It is heartening that this kind of group exists around a little low-power station with, literally, a worldwide reach. Your metaphor, about growing up, is well put, and growth is always tricky. We have more than enough to take back tot the board.”

Bowen said he’s yet to see evidence that substantiates volunteers’ claims of an autocratic leadership style. “I haven’t seen a single e-mail or minutes from any committee meetings to substantiate those claims. I see people claim I have an autocratic style, but it’s people saying ‘I heard.’ I’m not going to respond to hearsay.”

Bowen said the station conducted training on its policies and governance when it was created. “I can’t dictate that people follow the structure—they’re volunteers. But the structure is there, and that’s not to say it can’t be improved.”

WPVM is based in small offices next to the Vanderbilt Apartments on Haywood Street in downtown Asheville. It calls itself “The Progressive Voice of the Mountains” and features a variety of programming produced by a cadre of passionate volunteers.

In a talk-show interview with WWNC-570 AM’s Matt Mittan last week, WPVM volunteer Cecil Bothwell said the station’s lack of policies regarding volunteers was the crux of the issue.

“I think we need a system of rules for on-air people, rules concerning how people are brought in as volunteers and how they can be disciplined if there’s a problem,” Bothwell told Mittan, stressing that while he respected Bowen’s work, he didn’t think it was proper for Bowen to summarily dismiss Coats. Bothwell told Mittan he had suspended his volunteer work with WPVM until Coats had been offered her slot back.

Bowen said he hopes WPVM can move past the current dust-up. “I think it’s part of a life-cycle of a community radio station that’s run by volunteers,” he said. “They start to acquire a sense of ownership. It can be tough to put structures in place.”

“So this is part of a learning process—growing pains. I want to see the station get back to its mission.”

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