WPVM volunteers present station-management plan

Volunteers at Asheville’s low-power community radio station on Tuesday presented a plan for a new management structure to the board that oversees the station.

The proposed structure for WPVM, which broadcasts at 103.5 FM from offices in the Vanderbilt Apartments building in downtown Asheville, aims to solve ongoing operational issues and keep the station going after months of turmoil, the volunteers said. The plan was presented to the board of MAIN, an Asheville nonprofit Internet service provider that holds the WPVM broadcast license.

“What we’re trying to do is address structural and operational issues as we see them,” volunteer Edwin Shealy told the MAIN board as he outlined the volunteers’ proposal. “It’s freedom for volunteers, within guidelines.”

The plan would create: a sub-committee of MAIN’s board to oversee the radio station’s policies and budget; a community advisory board that would provide feedback and promote the station in the community; an engineering group that would keep up with equipment needs and other technical issues; and five committees that would oversee operations, outreach, finance, programming and volunteers.

Shealy said volunteers drew up the plan by looking at what worked at other community radio stations and by interviewing WPVM volunteers with experience working at other stations. The goal is to address some chronic issues that “are long past due to be addressed,” Shealy said, and to make sure the station remains in compliance with Federal Communications Commission rules.

The MAIN board listened quietly, thanked the volunteers for the presentation, then voted to go into closed session. Outside the meeting room, the volunteers said they want to see the board take action.

“What we really hope is that this isn’t rejected out of hand,” said Mark Ritzenthaler, a station volunteer for two years and the host of the Saturday night show “Absolute Slackin’.”

“We’re trying to make it easier for the MAIN board to do its job,” Ritzenthaler added. “For a nonprofit, the human capital is sometimes greater its financial capital. The organization can gain strength from the talent and the time of all these unpaid people.”

The controversy started last fall when MAIN’s executive director, Wally Bowen, dismissed volunteer Gillian Coats, saying that she had continually questioned MAIN’s right to manage the radio station. That upset a number of WPVM volunteers, some of whom protested during their on-air shows or simply stopped volunteering. The stations’ one paid employee — the station manager — left the job about the same time.

A committee of volunteers has operated the station since, but volunteers on Tuesday said that model isn’t sustainable.

MAIN’s board apologized to both Coats and Bowen, and announced a new governance structure for the station and removed Bowen from that duty. But in December, the board announced that Bowen was back in control of the station. Bowen says that until MAIN’s by-laws are rewritten, he’s in charge.

— Jason Sandford, multimedia editor


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17 thoughts on “WPVM volunteers present station-management plan

  1. MAIN & WPVM are both lifeblood veins of this community, Asheville risks to loose too much if these organizations can not start working together for a greater cause. This internal strife needs to be resolved and the by-laws should be rewritten in order to allow the precious community resource of local independent media to grow.

  2. NormaJane

    I don’t think the controversy just started last fall. I think it’s been going on for years.

    Is it true what I heard that the Executive Director of MAIN wouldn’t even look up from working on his laptop to acknowledge the presentation that was being given by one of the people who literally built the station? That’s a serious lack of respect, if true.

    I never saw anything about the board announcing that Bowen was back in charge of the station in December. Does anyone have a link to that?

  3. Barry Summers

    It’s true – I was at that meeting. The Board members present listened politely and even asked a couple of questions. Unfortunately, I think everyone present would have to agree that Mr. Bowen’s attitude towards the volunteers verged on open contempt, not just a lack of respect.

    The December story link is here:

  4. Barry Summers

    Although I’m no longer an on-air volunteer, I think I speak for everyone at WPVM when I say we appreciate the great support we receive from the community, and we recognize the responsibility that comes along with it. WPVM has tremendous potential that hasn’t yet been realized, and we have worked hard to keep the station going through trying times, until we can come to a new place of cooperation with MAIN’s Executive Director. That being said, we have just been told by MAIN’s Board that this cooperation will only happen if it is completely on Mr. Bowen’s terms. In fact, the Board officially stated that they “can not conceive a structure” that doesn’t put Mr. Bowen directly in charge of all operations. This flies totally in the face of the promise that was made to us, and the whole community last September, that that was exactly what we were directed to do: propose just such a structure.

    I was at the meeting Tuesday night, when Edwin Shealy presented his proposal for a reorganized, reinvigorated management structure for the station. This proposal by the way, despite what you might hear, has a strong role for the Executive Director in station oversight, along with members of MAIN’s Board of Directors. The Board members in attendance listened politely enough, but I think everyone in the room would probably agree that Mr. Bowen’s attitude verged on open contempt.

    As a longtime volunteer and supporter of WPVM, MAIN, and Wally Bowen himself, I find myself at a crossroads. As the producer of his show “Not the Corporate News”, and later, “Making Progress: News for a Change”, I found myself defending Mr. Bowen’s sometimes off-putting behavior. I try to maintain contacts with members of Asheville’s activist community, even as I moved more into a journalist role. I continually came up against a negative image of Mr. Bowen among folks in this town, and I was torn. I argued that his personal style aside, he was doing much good in the community, and on the larger national issues as well, and I felt compelled to defend him and persuade others to look past his foibles and support the work he was engaged in. Even during this latest controversy, while I have made hard accusations in private, and tried to get Mr. Bowen and MAIN’s Board to recognize his personal limitations in dealing with a large group of volunteers, I have thought to be working towards a place of cooperation and accountability that would bring everyone’s talents to their full potential, including Mr. Bowen’s.

    I have now reluctantly turned a corner. I no longer have faith in Wally Bowen, or in MAIN, as long as his ‘my way or the highway’ rule holds sway. I consider MAIN to be dramatically failing in their mission and their duty in this community, which has to include the ability to attract and encourage volunteer participation, and nurture strong relationships among the diverse groups and individuals that make up Asheville’s progressive community. The disrespect and abuse shown towards the WPVM volunteers has been a hard lesson for me. I realize now that Wally Bowen is threatened by an organization that is too large and diverse for him to personally control, and that is the point where his stated belief in ‘citizens access to media’ and ‘participatory democracy’ unravels.

    It’s not too late for MAIN’s Board to turn this around, but so far they have not shown a willingness to challenge their employee, the Executive Director, on anything. This is a dangerous combination, in my view – a strongly ego-driven Executive with no boss, no oversight, no check on his behavior.

    Asheville deserves a real community radio station. Unfortunately, in my view, under the current un-democratic top-down structure, catering to one man’s ego, it will always drive away talented, independent thinkers, and it will always fall far short of it’s potential.

    Barry Summers

  5. NormaJane

    “we have just been told by MAIN’s Board that this cooperation will only happen if it is completely on Mr. Bowen’s terms”

    According to their website, one of MAIN’s missions is “participatory democracy”, and this sounds like quite the opposite to me.

  6. Barry Summers

    It’s very much a top-down vs a grassroots model of democracy. Only if you accept the Unitary Executive Theory of Democracy, and acknowledge the infallibility and benevolence of the Executive in question are you allowed to Participate.

  7. Barry Summers

    From the Wikipedia page on Founders Syndrome:

    There are a number of negative dynamics that can occur when an original CEO stays on beyond the initial growth period of an organization.

    * The first is that the CEO’s passion and charisma that initially created the successful organization starts to become a negative rather than a positive force. As the organization moves in to a more mature phase additional, professionally-trained and talented people are engaged and the board is expanded. The founder’s domination of the decision making process can frustrate effective group decision making.[3].

    * The organization can, over time, come to be overly identified with the person or personality of the founder and a loss of public trust.

    * During the early phases of the organization the board tends to be selected by the founder and are either like-minded individuals or people who can be trusted to ‘rubber stamp’ the founder’s decisions rather than offering a more representative view.[3]

  8. MusicLover45

    As long as Wally is in charge, and he has so much contempt for the volunteers, the station can only fail. If this happens, it will be the responsibility of the Board of Directors for allowing Wally to remain as Unitary Dictator. He cannot work with the people that have tried to remove his authority.

  9. NormaJane

    Isn’t there an upcoming fund drive for WPVM? I think it will be disastrous, as I don’t see how the community could support this station with donations, knowing how MAIN treats the volunteers and (correct me if I’m wrong) doesn’t the money from the fund drive go to MAIN, and not WPVM solely?

  10. Barry Summers

    The money from the fund drive does indeed go to MAIN. I know, because I personally tabulated the money & handed it over to them after the last fund drive. They pay the bills – the station’s license is held by MAIN. There is a fairly vague accounting of exactly how much it costs to run the station; money raised by the volunteers basically goes into MAIN’s general operating fund, and the Executive Director sets the budget as he sees fit. To be fair, I think everyone agrees that it costs more to operate the station than we take in from our fund drive. The part that never gets considered however, is, of the grant money that MAIN receives, how much of it comes in at least in part, because of the radio station? Shouldn’t that be counted as revenue generated by the station volunteers, who are basically free labor?

    I know that unless a serious shake up happens at MAIN, and the volunteers are treated with more respect, I won’t be volunteering OR donating anymore.

  11. Barry Summers

    I’m sorry that the community that wants to support us has to witness this back & forth. However, I know that the record will show that the volunteers have tried & tried to come to a fair accommodation with MAIN’s Board and Executive Director, but haven’t always met the same good faith in return. The most recent example is the way the volunteers proposal for reorganizing the station is being characterized. It’s certainly within the Board’s authority to reject this proposal (even if it does represent breaking the promise made to us back in September). However, let’s correct the record. There is a statement from the Board posted on the station website http://www.wpvm.org. It reads in part:

    “Delegating (the Board’s) authority to paid staff is the standard model for organizational accountability in the nonprofit world. Volunteers, by definition, are free agents and are not subject to the same degree of accountability as paid staff.”

    For the record, the volunteer proposal, which you can link to at wpvm.org, clearly states that authority for station management stays under a committee made up of three MAIN Board members, the Executive Director and Station Manager (two MAIN staffers), and two volunteer representatives. This committee oversees and approves all station policies and operations, ensures compliance with FCC requirements, ensures coordination with other MAIN initiatives, etc. The Station Manager (a paid MAIN staffer) then directly oversees station operations. How is this like turning the keys to the station over to a bunch of unaccountable volunteers? (Actually, the station has run smoothly under volunteer control these past 5 months, you’re welcome, but we’ll let that pass.) This proposal is a serious compromise between outright volunteer control vs. outright Executive control. Why is that not acknowledged by the Board?

    The experienced radio veterans who have been volunteering their time, money, and creative energy on this deserve better than to be treated like a bunch of kids wanting to play pirate radio. There are good people on MAIN’s Board, some of whom I’ve known and been friends with for years. Unfortunately, I don’t think they are seeing the damage that is being done in their names, and I urge them to reconsider the course their Executive Director is leading them down.

  12. The irony in all of this is that the MAIN Board of Directors are actually volunteers themselves.

    So, these volunteers (the MAIN Board) have “ultimate authority over all aspects of our organization, including WPVM”, but the volunteers who do the work and know how the radio station needs to be structured and operated are viewed as nothing more than “free agents”.

    That is disgraceful.

    I’m surprised the MAIN Board would issue such a statement. Actually, no I’m not.

  13. Dwayne

    I used to run across Bowen in another venue, when MAIN was just getting started. It is fascinating to read this now, and realize that my instincts were spot on in this case. He means well, and he’s done a lot. As I understand it, local philanthropist Julian Price gave him his start. That seed money got him going, just like Laughing Seed and Greenline and lots of other businesses — Price invested in downtown and published Citywatch when you still saw boarded up windows on Haywood St. He’s done a lot of good work, but yep. He was difficult, a very controlling person, not much sense of humor. The kind of leftie that sort of rubs you the wrong way, even when you are a leftie yourself. Too much ego, and he seemed kind of angry underneath. So now you have this paid-for TV station, in a wonderfully creative city like Asheville, and rather than maturing in his leadership style, wow. Sounds like it just kept going down that wrong road. But now attention has been focused on it, and its actually in the news. He must be a real fun guy right about now. Yeah, that’ll foster creativity and increasingly better programming. I mean, don’t you want to go hang out down there, after reading all this? All the signs are there. Then you have glolady, defending the status quo. She must be getting what she wants right now — oooh don’t rock the boat! What the heck does that mean? Don’t upset Wally? Sort of sounds like that to me.

  14. MusicLover45

    Unfortunately, the only thing that the volunteers can do, with the attitude and lack of respect from the Board and Wally, is to walk away from the station together in a planned protest, without warning. Then Wally can put his select people in the station, as he has done with MAIN’s Board. Does anyone think that Wally won’t use this problem against the volunteers who do stay and are just trying to make the station better? If you don’t think so, then you do not know Wally.

  15. Austin

    I have been with WPVM for over 5 years and dropped out of any leadership/committee position soon after beginning my service because Wally single handily disbanded a very functioning committee. I supported him through that and through the whole Gillian business because I chose to see him in his highest and best. I personally voiced my support to him as early as last week. After hearing the details of the meeting and reading MAINs response to the volunteers I got a broken heart. I’m sorry Wally, but now I am realigning my support to stand by the rest of the volunteers, and I regret not understanding the breadth of what has been transpiring all along. You can make right if your ego will let you. We want to hold you in the light and to respect you and work with you. Please be an executive director that we can appreciate and work with. Let this wonderful entity shine forth with important information and cutting edge music. Is this community radio, or have I been lying to myself and everyone else all along? That is almost to much to think about with out feeling used.

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