A group of volunteers at WPVM, a radio station founded by the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network in 2003, have come to believe that their vision should trump MAIN’s bylaws, governing board, employees and strategic vision.
This is a familiar pattern in the life cycle of community radio. It goes like this: A new station is launched and volunteers pour in, following a dream of having a radio show. All is well until the schedule fills up and space for new hosts is restricted.
Some established volunteers feel a sense of ownership or entitlement, justified by many hours devoted to the station over a number of years. Cliques may develop, based on seniority, taste in music or other cultural factors. Newcomers may find it difficult to be accepted.
Attempts to change the station’s direction lead to all-out war. This pattern has repeated itself—with local variations—in community radio for decades. The upheaval at WNCW earlier this decade is one example.
WPVM is undergoing this life-cycle, but with a difference. MAIN’s media-reform vision is based on systems-thinking; WPVM is critical to this system. Most volunteers, through no fault of their own, haven’t been oriented to this larger vision. A few simply oppose MAIN’s control of WPVM.
As executive director, I am the flash point as we attempt to orient volunteers to the strategic vision. Most volunteers are not aware that a behind-the-scenes power struggle—smoldering since 2003—intensified in early 2008, culminating in the August suspension of a volunteer who sought WPVM’s independence from MAIN. This was the first disciplinary action against a volunteer in the station’s five-year history. The board reviewed 14 documented incidents and upheld the suspension.
Sympathizers made the issue public and picked up the independence torch. In control of the station, Web site and volunteer listserve, the sympathizers created an echo chamber in which any allegation assumed the mantle of established truth. Anyone asking for evidence was called a traitor or fool.
At the Feb. 10 board meeting, a respected volunteer called for changes to MAIN’s bylaws and WPVM’s management “because the executive director has cancelled or blocked a number of programs over the years.” Yet there is no evidence for this claim.
This respected volunteer later wrote that evidence is irrelevant because this “perception” persists among volunteers. This troubling conclusion echoes another volunteer’s posting that “it doesn’t matter if the board sides with us or the ED, we can make it so uncomfortable for him at the station that he will stay away.”
Since August, I have been called “dictator,” “tyrant,” “Big Brother,” “keeper of the Gulag” and “enemy of free speech.” Since August, I have offered to go on the air and discuss this crisis with any show host. Only one accepted the offer. I even phoned in during the last broadcast of Making Progress and was put on hold for 20 minutes, before being told that I could not speak. The hosts later said they were afraid that I would start yelling on the air, even though I have no history of such behavior.
While limiting the flow of information on WPVM, these volunteers claimed that they alone represent the listeners of WPVM. But here’s a telling statistic: For more than a week after the board’s Feb. 10 refusal to change the bylaws, listeners have been urged to e-mail the board in protest. To date, the board has received only two e-mails, one of which was later retracted.
Despite the one-sided rhetoric on WPVM, our listeners can tell reality from perception. Like MAIN’s governing board and employees, they’re voting to turn the page and get on with our pioneering media-reform work.
— Wally Bowen, executive director, MAIN