A group of listeners concerned about public-radio station WNCW sounded off last week to the community-college board that holds the station’s license.
Although the Isothermal Community College board of trustees listened attentively, they decided in the end to let the college’s president handle the many concerns raised at their Nov. 14 meeting in Spindale.
Bill Bost, a contributor and volunteer at the station, told trustees that his complaints include the station’s handling of the Mountain Oasis Festival, problems with current management, allegedly unfair business practices, and a lack of opportunity for public input. (See Xpress, Nov. 15, “Broadcast static.”)
Just before Bost’s presentation, the board had unanimously adopted a resolution that trustees agreed not to read to the 22 people in the audience, most of whom appeared to support Bost. The resolution reaffirmed ICC President Dr. Willard L. Lewis’ authority over the radio station’s management and personnel.
After handing out sheaves of documents to the trustees, Bost told them that he began looking into WNCW’s Mountain Oasis Festival (held Oct. 6-8 in Henderson County) three months ago. He complained that he still hasn’t been able to get complete answers about the station’s role in the festival.
“I’ve been stalled, stonewalled, put off, made to feel like a troublemaker,” Bost remarked.
He charged that the money and staff time the station devoted to the Mountain Oasis Festival, as well as the promotional announcements aired, violated FCC rules. Although the festival was billed as WNCW’s event, all of the profits generated went to AC Entertainment, the Knoxville-based business that produced it.
“It’s a big mess,” Bost proclaimed.
His allegations of unfair business practices stem from claims that some promoters get free listings on the station’s paid on-air calendar. (And some public-radio experts have questioned whether the calendar itself meets FCC rules, since groups or individuals who pay to have information aired on public radio are supposed to be identified.)
“It’s not right to charge one promoter and give preferential treatment to another promoter,” Bost declared.
He also mentioned thousands of dollars worth of donated items (called premiums) that had been tossed out by station management last year. General Manager DeLane Davis, who attended the meeting but didn’t address the board, said earlier that she had erred in throwing out the items, which were later rescued by staff members.
And Bost also alleged that, although public input was encouraged in the past, the public has been “locked out” under current management.
“People want to play a role in this station,” Bost offered. “They don’t want to be shut out.”
Station management has defended itself against Bost’s charges, saying — as reported in the Nov. 15 Xpress — that an attorney in Washington, D.C., who specializes in communications law had told them they had not broken rules with the festival promotion. Davis has also emphasized that she does not feel the public is “missing” from the radio station. And Program Director Mark Keefe asserts that the paid on-air calendar, in which promoters booking larger venues pay more, has been set up fairly.
Debbie Ryder of Asheville, seated in the audience, asked the board whether the public could speak. The trustees decided to allow limited public comment, even though speakers had not technically followed the board’s rules about being placed on the agenda.
Steve Govus told the trustees that he missed the station’s news coverage and community outreach.
“The station — it’s like it’s not there,” Govus mused.
Billie Jordan, a former WNCW staff member, revealed that she felt the station had departed from its mission statement — which is to “broadcast a world of music, news, information and diverse opinion in a noncommercial setting.”
WNCW has decreased its news and informational programming, she pointed out, including interviews with musicians, authors and others. The station also dropped National Public Radio’s popular All Things Considered program in July.
“The overall sound of the station has become more and more commercial,” Jordan complained.
She also mourned the demise of the station’s advisory council, which she described as a sounding board rather than a governing board — offering what she called “eyes and ears” into the community.
While WNCW announcer Amy Jones said she thought Bost had raised many legitimate concerns, she groused that she didn’t hear many “helpful hints” about resolving them.
Rutherford County potter Donald Craig told the trustees that craftspeople had helped get the station started, emphasizing that he is disturbed that the donated premiums had been tossed out. He also complained about the Mountain Oasis Festival: Although he paid the admission fee, he left without hearing any bands because of a lack of parking.
“I hope the station will get back to its roots, where it started from,” Craig urged.
Board Chair Jimmy Tanner told the crowd that the trustees are depending on the college president to handle problems at the station.
“I can assure you that the board is sensitive to your feelings and appropriate action will be taken,” Tanner announced.
Lewis reported that he has been studying the various allegations against the station and has hired an outside mediator to work on resolving “serious personal conflicts.” He also noted that he’s planning to bring in a nonprofit consultant to work with WNCW.
In addition, Lewis said he’s asked for a thorough policy review, to make sure policies are followed and consider what revisions might be needed. He acknowledged that WNCW’s mission statement calls for serious review (and possible revision), and said that task is being undertaken by a committee of trustees and listeners.
“The issue of public involvement is well-recognized,” Lewis acknowledged.
Bost asked Lewis how he would address external problems, and Lewis said he is working on that.
On the heels of that discussion, board of trustees Vice Chair Dr. Bobby England proposed that five trustees investigate the allegations and determine what the board needs to know or do.
But Trustee Jim Perry said he feared England’s proposal would interfere with Lewis’ efforts and violate board members’ roles as trustees.
“As the saying goes, the buck stops here,” England replied.
Another trustee said he thought such action would be premature, but wanted Lewis to report back to the board.
England was the lone supporter of this proposal. The trustees then moved on to other issues.
(A Web site — featuring comments largely critical of WNCW’s practices — has been set up to discuss current issues surrounding the radio station. The address is http://communities.msn.com/ICareAboutWNCW.)