Within six months of my arrival at KBOO, a minor dispute arose between me and another volunteer. I looked to the KBOO documents provided to me earlier and followed the dispute resolution process to the letter. The other volunteer chose to ignore the printed KBOO process and took actions that turned this minor dispute into a fiasco of public defamation and character assassination.
During eventual KBOO sponsored mediation, the other party denied any prior knowledge that there was a dispute resolution process, and many other details of programmer responsibility. Had KBOO been internally consistent in requiring actual contracts with programmers, there would not have been any plausible deniability in this fiasco.
At that time programmer’s responsibilities included not attacking the character of other programmers or other shows on-air, or actions that harmed KBOO. As the dust settled it became clear that the way other media was used to attack my character harmed KBOO. But shortly thereafter several other public disputes followed including several between volunteers, Board members, and a former Station Manager. The comments section of the KBOO website then was changed to no longer allow anonymous postings. At this point the flame wars at KBOO calmed somewhat, though they moved to other websites and blogs.
So limited progress towards better internal process at KBOO was made, but still no programmer’s contract was ever presented to me to sign ... even when I asked station management several times over the years when this would occur. Still no formal accountability.
After this debacle I decided that if I wanted to be part of KBOO, I couldn’t stay in my music programmer bubble but should pay attention to the larger picture. I began listening to programs in the entire schedule and found the news and public affairs programming to be something I’ve come to describe as "Neo-Progressive", something actually quite removed from the progressive values I’ve held during my lifetime. When I complained to the volunteer coordinator about extreme bias in some of the programming, I was told that KBOO is a place that accommodates "principled dissent", and that if I had ideas for programming I should present this to the program committee.
Thus began a two year long adventure into the bowels of KBOO. I worked within the process, and eventually became a member of the program committee. There I witnessed vicious in-fighting and personal attacks that should never occur between adults. What I learned from my participation is that KBOO programming is controlled by a very small group of staff and long time volunteers, independent of any accountable process. During this time I repeatedly presented a proposal for a public affairs show that received literal silence every time it was brought up. No one dared directly say no, but the entrenched committee sure wasn’t going to upset the status quo. During a well attended meeting to adjust the morning schedule, the former Program Manager thought this proposed new show would make an interesting addition to the schedule for Friday mornings, to make a "Mideast Block" (his comment was that the addition would be "hot"). But after Shalom Portland was listed on the board in the new schedule over two hours, another long-time staff member made a last minute objection (the only person in a crowded room to object) and had the show removed. Although I did try to revive the show and produced eight segments, with no regular program time and a total lack of encouragement or support by staff, it never had a chance. I’ve given up and now produce content for podcast elsewhere.
What I learned from this experience is that KBOO is a closed shop. The Programming Charter says that KBOO shall be a place for unpopular and controversial content ... but what it doesn’t explain is that you can’t get program time for views that contradict those of entrenched staff and volunteers who have been running the place for years. Remember the new T-shirt during the last membership drive?
"KBOO, not just for commie pinko freaks self-righteous gutter punks drug-addicted peaceniks anarcho-syndicalists hippie tree-huggers gay hillbillies militant vegans "Jerry-atric" deadheads or the foil-hat brigade anymore!"
I read this and thought to myself, that’s precisely what KBOO is! To me KBOO is just like right-wing commercial radio ... you have to toe the very narrow ideological line or you don’t get on. It’s the same, a polaric opposite in viewpoint but it functions exactly the same way.
Since that time, and since leaving the program committee I’ve seen board members be sued, I’ve seen people banned from the station then become elected board members, I’ve seen a station manager harassed out the door. I’ve watched a dysfunctional radio station decline in listeners, decline in membership and in revenues. In case you don’t know, before KBOO finally dropped the service due to lack of funds Arbitron consistently put KBOO in last place in total listenership in the metro area (lower than internet only business news ... lower than low power AM stations from down the valley). Our revenues aren’t suffering because we’re not doing a good job of pitching during membership drive, our revenues are suffering because most public and community radio stations only can get about ten percent of listeners to contribute. Declining listeners means declining revenues. I’ve suffered through the lack of effectiveness of the staff collective management model. I’ve watched consensus meeting styles come and thankfully go. I’ve been making plans for where to take my radio show producing habit after what I’ve seen as the inevitable demise of KBOO.
Imagine my surprise when the KBOO staff and Board finally realized it needs some sort of Station Manager. Imagine my surprise when the new Manager announced that all programmers actually need to come to meetings and actually discuss the meaning of and then sign Programmer Contracts.
But what floored me was the conversation afterwards. Lynn Fitch described a change in focus, where KBOO’s purpose was to be a media center for the entire Portland community, not just the people described by the now infamous T-shirt. She described a vision where competing viewpoints could have airtime, and by expanding the concept of "community" KBOO could return to it’s proper place as a open and welcoming community radio station. It would still be a place for programming that was extreme left wing, controversial and unpopular, but not exclusively. By reaching out and being a media resource accessible for a larger demographic KBOO would solve it’s issues of declining listenership (relevance) and gain new members and new revenues.
I thought to myself as I listened quietly ... "good luck with that".
So now we’ve had some well publicized issues arise between our new Station Manager (that’s what she is, let’s stop wasting time with silly titles) and the entrenched staff and volunteers that have been running KBOO. This was interesting enough for me to come to the meeting May 4th and see for myself how this would be handled by the Board, the Station Manager, and the community.
My recollection is that 1) brush did a superb job ... no wonder he has been facilitating Board meetings 2) the Board members who spoke expressed clearly the reasons for the actions taken and the challenges KBOO is facing 3) Lynn didn’t duck any hard questions and 4) the decision to go along with a staff union was a wise one.
During the meeting I sat next to a person I didn’t know, who commented to me "there sure is a lot of grey here". I looked around, and had to agree. In fact I only saw during the entire meeting two persons who looked to be thirty years or younger, mostly 50-60 and older. I remarked to my neighbor that if this was KBOO, it was definitely in trouble and possibly irrelevant for any future and she agreed.
KBOO in it’s current form is drifting in a fast changing media landscape and becoming less relevant all the time. KBOO needs strong leadership, possible staff changes, and some other re-tooling to reach anyone beyond the politically narrow and rapidly aging demographic represented at the recent meeting. Can KBOO survive without changing? Possibly as an internet only media center, but the shrinking listenership cannot financially support the costs of operating a full power FM radio station. KBOO has some serious choices to make. It can change and become relevant to more communities, thereby fulfilling it’s mission to be "Community Radio" or it can openly decide to keep it’s narrow ideology and continue to shrink until it’s off the air, reaming "pure" in the minds of the grey haired members who want time to stand still and things remain as they were in the 1970’s and ‘80’s.
But for any future to be worth being part of, KBOO must start treating itself and it’s own community with respect. During the recent conflict over employee policies, long time KBOO members have once again let loose with a volley of personal attacks on the Board and the Station Manager. It’s reasonable to openly argue about policies, and to discuss if any particular KBOO employee from Manager on down is the best person for the job. But irrelevant personal attacks on the character of Lynn Fitch have been made in other media, and in particular on a website started by disgruntled KBOO personalities. To argue the facts of policy is one thing, but to post content that is not relevant to the job itself is character assassination. Having been personally attacked in this way myself as my introduction to KBOO, I have to call out the people who are posting and remind them this is not the way a loving, caring community behaves.
I met with the former Station Manager several years ago after he was let go, and he shared with me his view that part of the picture missing at KBOO was stable governance. He thought that if a portion of the Board was appointed rather than elected (like many other non-profit organizations), there would be less susceptibility to wild swings in direction from elections, elections that often turn on personalities rather than on policy. I agree with Arthur Davis and see issues at KBOO ultimately flowing from a failed governance model. During recent Board elections competing slates of ideologically driven insiders fought over control of KBOO. Who will serve on the Board in the current paradigm? Anyone who tries to establish any change or responsible policies gets dragged through the mud, sued, and harassed till they quit like the Board Secretary just did.
KBOO is at a crossroads. It’s good that the relationship between staff and the Board is being clarified. It’s good that a union will represent the staff now. It’s good that an effort is being made to hold all members of the community accountable, as represented by actual signed programmer’s contracts.
Now it’s time to decide if KBOO will continue as is, or transform to be relevant for the future. I vote to give the current Board and the Station Manager enough time and support to try something different. If KBOO expands the definition of the community that it serves, then I’ll be happy to continue to be part of that expanded community. But I’m no longer willing by my silence to give my tacit approval to those who make being at KBOO a toxic experience. It’s time for KBOO to gain the maturity that should come along with it’s grey hair.