Broadcast static

WNCW has always pushed the envelope of what a public-radio station should be.

With its eclectic programming and fresh attitude, the Spindale station has built a devoted following, including thousands of listeners in Western North Carolina and throughout its listening area.

But some of the very people who love the station also say they’re troubled about the direction it’s been taking. Now they’re speaking out, claiming that the community-college-licensed radio station is losing its way.

“I think we have strayed somewhat from our role of a public — underline that — public radio station,” says Kim Clark, a WNCW announcer and underwriter/marketing specialist.

Other voices, however, have offered less restrained criticism, saying the station mishandled its promotion of the recent Mountain Oasis Festival and its relationship with the event’s for-profit producer. They also complain about donated items that were tossed out and the scarcity of opportunities for the public to be involved in the station.

The station’s management, however, says the 11-year-old WNCW has done nothing wrong and is simply going through a puberty of sorts. They point to the success of this fall’s record-breaking fundraiser and the enthusiastic listener response as signs of continued public support for a station that has always tried to set itself apart from the pack.

“We’re having growing pains, no doubt about it,” concedes General Manager DeLane Davis.

And WNCW Program Director Mark Keefe discounts the critics, saying: “I think the station is headed completely in the right direction. We’re all working very hard to see that it does.”

Festival furor

Bill Bost, an outspoken volunteer and contributor, claims WNCW misled its listeners about the station’s role in the Mountain Oasis Festival, held Oct. 6-8 at Deerfields Retreat in Mills River, which featured Bela Fleck & the Flecktones and other performers. He planned to bring the matter to the public’s attention this week by airing his complaints at a Nov. 14 meeting of Isothermal Community College’s board of trustees, which holds the station’s license.

“I am not out to hurt WNCW, but to help repair it, and return it to [being a] station that everyone can be proud of,” Bost declares.

Bost is perhaps best known as co-founder of Acoustic Stage (an all-volunteer, nonprofit group in Hickory that promotes and books acoustic music), which has had a long association with WNCW.

Since the Mountain Oasis Festival was billed as WNCW’s event, Bost and others think listeners and festival-goers were led to believe the festival was a benefit for WNCW, when in fact all the profits went to AC Entertainment, the Knoxville-based producer of the event. That perception, they say, was reinforced by on-air promotions and advertising (including an ad in Xpress) that didn’t mention AC Entertainment’s role in the festival.

“It’s a huge, huge deal,” asserts part-time WNCW announcer/transmitter engineer Alan Tinney. “Certainly the radio station’s in deep doo-doo.”

But Keefe says the station never represented that it was receiving the profits.

“If that was at all confusing, I apologize,” he said.

Keefe concedes that people could have viewed the festival as a station fundraiser, although he hasn’t heard from them.” I guess people can see it that way,” said Keefe, adding, “If they thought that, why didn’t they call and say that?”

Both Keefe and AC Entertainment President Ashley Capps maintain that each side got what it wanted out of the festival.

To Keefe, the Mountain Oasis Festival was a way to raise the station’s profile and build its mailing list (through the names and addresses submitted for a prize drawing) of people who are fans of the type of music played on WNCW and who are therefore more likely to donate money to the station.

“In terms of what we wanted it to do for us, it was an overwhelming success,” notes Keefe.

Capps says his goal was to create a “really great festival,” which he thinks it was, despite a few logistical problems of the kind that are perhaps inevitable in staging a first-time event.

Bost, who began raising his concerns in August, claims that the for-profit festival producer benefited greatly from its partnership with the tax-exempt WNCW. He cites promotions, including a station mailing, a free 80-second recorded announcement that was aired repeatedly, as well as a free listing on the station’s on-air calendar (which bands and even nonprofits must pay for).

Both Bost and Tinney recall on-air “calls to action” during the station’s fund drive encouraging people to attend the festival.

“I heard Amy Jones twice on the air say she hoped everyone would go down to the festival and support the radio station,” Tinney says.

But Keefe said, to his knowledge, the call to action didn’t happen. However, he added: “If that slipped out, that was erroneous.”

Jones says she doesn’t question what Bost and Tinney remember, adding that she didn’t mean the festival would financially benefit WNCW — and nobody specifically said that it would. Instead, she meant that people would be supporting the music and the radio station’s part in the festival.

“I have no doubt I said something along those lines,” Jones allows. “I’m sure I did. There are a lot of different lines of support.”

Bost also raised concerns in August that WNCW had used its nonprofit postal permit to send a flier promoting the festival to the people on its mailing list. (The flier did mention that the festival was being produced by AC Entertainment.). Keefe says WNCW went back to the Postal Service after the mailing was sent out and paid the difference between a nonprofit and regular-price mailing. AC Entertainment agreed to reimburse the station for the postage costs, according to an Aug. 18 letter Bost received from the college’s president, Dr. Willard L. Lewis.

Keefe maintains that the promotional announcements were done strictly by the book. Even though AC Entertainment didn’t pay for the announcements, he points out that they were kept informational and were no different than promotions the station has done for events like Bele Chere.

“I was completely, 100-percent sure that we’ve done nothing wrong,” says Keefe.

But to be on the safe side, he says, the station took transcripts of the promotions and other festival announcements to an FCC lawyer in Washington, D.C.

“We have been completely exonerated of anything at all,” Keefe reports, adding that he thinks Bost is “misguided.”

Clark, however, adds a cautionary note.

“We have been assured that no laws were broken, but we are walking a very fine line with what a nonprofit should do,” she notes. “We lent our name to an event that AC Entertainment put on. Once again, is that illegal? We’ve been told it’s not. Is it unethical? Maybe.”

In retrospect, Clark believes the festival would have been “totally OK” if the station had hosted the event instead of presenting it as its own.

The festival (which AC Entertainment spent about $250,000 to put on) was modestly profitable, says Capps. About 13,000 people attended the three-day event.

The concert apparently was an outgrowth of a relationship that WNCW and AC Entertainment have developed over time. Keefe says AC Entertainment has been advertising on the station for as long as its been presenting music in WNC. Capps notes that WNCW plays the type of music that AC Entertainment presents in its featured concerts. The station, says Capps, has created an environment that’s supportive of live music.

Davis notes that the festival was not something the station could have undertaken on its own, nor would she have wanted WNCW to risk fronting the money when it needs to be saving up for such big-ticket items as ongoing transmitter repairs.

And as for Bost’s concerns, she notes: “I cannot please all the people all the time.”

Carl Beason, who shares hosting duties on the station’s “Saturday Night House Party” blues show, says any problems should be addressed, but feels Bost may be “a tad overzealous” about the festival issue.

Capps is disturbed by the criticism directed at the station: “I think it’s sad — WNCW is such a tremendous asset to the area and for people to take potshots based on questionable allegations is just unfortunate.”

A little turmoil

Linda Osbon, WNCW’s assistant program director for operations, who also hosts “Morning Edition,” says her problems with the station began early one morning last September when she was on the air by herself.

A college employee asked her about eight garbage bags full of compact discs, handmade goods, books, flutes and other items — including five signed drumheads from the band Widespread Panic — which had been set out in a radio station hallway to be picked up with the trash. The merchandise had been donated to the station to be used as premiums (public-radio lingo for things offered to entice listeners to pledge money during fund drives).

She rescued the items (now in private storage) and later learned that Davis had decided to throw them out when she was cleaning out one of the studios in preparation for last fall’s fund drive. Marshall Ballew, a part-time announcer at the station, says he also found premiums set out for the trash.

“I still don’t quite understand her whole reasoning for doing it,” say Ballew. “It’s a pretty big violation of public trust, for me.”

Davis explains that the station has little storage room, and she was merely trying to clear out items that had been around for a couple of years.

“It was my mistake, and I fully admit it was my mistake,” she says. “We all have to remember that we all make mistakes. I’m admitting I made one. I don’t know of any of us that are perfect.”

According to Osbon, she and three other staff members brought the matter of the tossed-out premiums to Keefe’s attention. Osbon then spoke with Davis about it last November. Dissatisfied with that exchange, Osbon says she and Ballew decided to report the matter to Davis’ then-supervisor at Isothermal Community College, John Condrey.

“Since then, there has been pretty open hostility to Linda and myself for going to John over that,” reports Ballew. “It just seems like we tried to do the right thing, and we’ve been victimized because of this.”

In addition, Osbon says she was taken off favorite projects, denied professional-development training and had her on-air hours changed. Ballew says his on-air hours have been cut, and he complains that Keefe rarely speaks to him. Both say they’ve been left out of staff meetings and didn’t get performance evaluations this year.

“I sort of consider myself as working for the listeners … because that’s the only way I can emotionally and ethically deal with it,” says Ballew, adding: “It’s just a funky, funky situation. I love my job. It’s just getting really hard to do, really hard to stay here.”

As state employees, both Davis and Keefe say they can’t talk about personnel matters involving people they supervise. State personnel law requires an employer to release very limited information about an employee, which is confined to items such as name, age, date of original employment and so forth.

But Davis notes that every organization experiences turmoil from time to time. And WNCW has experienced changes in staff, which will produce differences in how things are handled. She herself has been general manager for only two years.

“Nothing’s ever in paradise,” says Davis. “There’s always a little turmoil.”

But the charges made by staff members haven’t escaped the notice of the college administration, which last month conducted individual interviews with WNCW staff to get to the root of the internal problems plaguing the crew. The college president even met with the station’s staff a couple of times. Now, staff members say they’ve been told that the college administration is hiring an outside mediator to work with them.

Davis, meanwhile, reports that she has now developed a policy for dealing with leftover premiums. If a donated item isn’t snatched up by a listener after two fund drives, a few staff members discuss whether it should be offered again or perhaps given to another nonprofit.

Clark also says the station is working to prevent a repeat of the incident.

“This is an extremely regrettable thing, and there’s no way in hell it’s ever going to happen again,” she declares.

Is the public missing from public radio?

Some staff members feel that, for a public radio station, WNCW lacks an emphasis on the public.

“I think we have strayed a little bit from community service,” Clark says. “We don’t really do anything.”

Osbon is more blunt.

“The only thing ‘public’ about the radio station anymore is when we stick our hands out and we ask for money,” she complains.

For example, the station doesn’t run public-service announcements, those freebie listings for nonprofit and community groups that many public and commercial stations air.

Keefe explains that WNCW has built-in problems in running localized public-service announcements that would appeal to the majority of its listeners, since it covers a five-state area. But Clark says she recently got permission to start running such announcements, provided that they’re regional in nature, such as a MANNA Food Bank event.

“It’s a concern,” acknowledges Keefe. “It’s something we’re working on internally.”

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