Because two previous KZYX Board meetings scheduled for the coast in November and December had been cancelled, I trekked over the hill to Ukiah on December 18th for a long awaited community meeting.
Looking forward to an occasion where the public could comment outside the limitations of the board of directors’ three-minute time frame, I was mildly surprised to find no members of the Community Advisory Board present.
With a dozen chairs arranged in a circle in the meeting room of a local insurance agent, the only other member of the public in attendance was Michael Kisslinger, recruited to serve as facilitator for the evening and agreeing to do so without pay. Kisslinger is a professional consultant specializing in strategic business planning and conflict management among other services.
Others present included the three most recent members elected to the Board — Holly Madrigal, Eliane Herring and Ed Keller, as well as General Manager, John Coate and Program Director, Mary Aigner.
In explaining the absence of Community Advisory Board members Wally Stahl and Anne Caviglia who, along with former chair Frank Green, in February 2011 put out a six page report titled “More Fact-Less Opinion” (available on the stations’ website), Coate informed the group that both members had declined to serve further. To solve the dilemma of meeting Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant requirements to maintain avenues for community input, Coate questioned unspecified community station(s) as to how they filled their obligations in this regard.
The outcome was the current meeting designed to get information from community members on several questions from the Board. The second half of the agenda allowed time for the public to ask questions.
The first question addressed the size and makeup of the Board and the current policy on term limits as defined in the Bylaws.
The KZYX Board is currently made up of nine Director seats, five of which are defined by the boundaries of the county supervisorial districts in which the representatives live, three at-large members who must maintain residence in Mendocino County or contiguous counties, and one Director elected solely by the station’s programmers.
The number and distribution of seats was adequate and fair only if they were actually filled and had active participation of the elected Director. I pointed out that the 4th District seat representing most of the coast had been vacant for two terms (six years) with negative consequences. Six out of eight of the current Board members live in either Willits or Ukiah and have had a reluctance to travel to the coast during the fall months. No reason was given for the cancellation of the November meeting while the December meeting was cancelled due to inclement weather. I recently learned the January meeting has also been postponed, some representatives preferring to wait for fairer skies. Moreover, the only Director who actually lives on the coast, Laviva Dakers has missed six out of nine meetings since April 2011.
Kisslinger commented that the Board had no power to force attendance. True, but they also have taken no initiative to use the power they do have under the Resignation and Removal section of the Bylaws which states: The Board may declare vacant the position of any Director …who has not attended three or more regular meetings of the Bd. in the 12 months preceding the vacancy.”
I also asserted a belief that staff and Board members have too much influence on who runs for the Board as several current Board members have openly stated that they were ‘heavily lobbied’ to be candidates. In contrast, the coast seat appears to be ‘unlobbied’ as no similar effort to find a viable candidate has been expended. Asked by Kisslinger for recruitment suggestions, I replied that greater use of air time to clarify the responsibilities of Board members at various times of the day and evening would help reach a broader spectrum of potential applicants.
As the other member of the public, I thought nine was a good number for a policy decision Board but felt a larger Board might be better for fundraising purposes. He added he liked the idea of a mix of Directors elected by the members and appointed by the Board members. Current bylaws require a simple majority which if all members were seated would be five.
In regard to the hot button topic of term limits both Kisslinger and I were in agreement that the current format of a maximum of two consecutive terms of three years was a structurally sound and efficient arrangement. He elaborated that staggering the Board so that 1/3 of the Board is elected every year for a three year term allowed for continuity, adding that for people who wished to serve longer, a year off is refreshing.
Question 2: Membership Requirements — Is $50 membership dues appropriate or should they be lowered? Should we assume that everyone who contributes wants a ballot given that only 20% of members vote?
To be more inclusive, a Simple Living rate of $25 should be promoted as an option so that youth and those with minimal income can participate in elections. To the latter question, I answered yes.
Kisslinger said, I think that anyone who contributes should be allowed to vote. He cited the statistic that only 10% of listeners are members and only 20% of members vote resulting in a very small number who participate. He concluded, the more it is opened up, the better off the station would be.
I suggested that the station try to be creative in encouraging members to vote. Incentives were ruled out as illegal by Aigner unless available to the whole community. Use of airtime to remind members of the election process and deadlines could foster increased participation.
Question 3: MCPB’s Role in the Community — Should MCPB increase its community engagement by sponsoring or broadcasting forums, lectures or conferences that are not intended to be fundraisers?
Visibility in the community is important, especially since the news programming is not currently performing that function. Covering events that various groups produce in the community is a good way to keep the community connected and informed and is essentially community news.
Holly Madrigal said she thought "we have lost that objective reporter eye and we should try to get it back. She also thought that the free public service announcements the station provides is a valuable community service."
Kisslinger: This meeting is a perfect example that community meetings are overrated. As a facilitator for community meetings with local agencies, I found that the only people that show up at meetings are those who are at the extremes of the issue. KZYX does a better job of getting community input through its call-in shows and through E-mails.
Meetings on cold, dark pre-holiday nights are not the most ideal circumstances for community involvement. A survey or on air program could better assess what topics generate the greatest community interest. Both could also shed light on people’s preferred mode of communication. Also, the manner in which people are treated when they do show up at meetings could have bearing on future involvement.
Madrigal: It is important to explore ways for the Board to engage with the public. Board members could respond to peoples comments through an on air open lines program.
Kisslinger: There are a lot of new technical ways to enhance communication. Some City Councils now have Twitter boards at meetings where people’s comments are posted for others to read. I work for a national group developing the concept of ‘community engagement governing’ where the Board meets on days when community work projects are scheduled. During a break, they address a single agenda item as a way of promoting community engagement.
Question 4: Programming — How do you feel about the balance between national and local programming; between music and talk shows?
I would like to see lots more local programming and some more evening talk/call in shows. Specifically, we need a program to talk with the community about the station’s programming and policies. The strength of a community station is in people talking together. I would like to have a return of the edgy investigative journalism news programs and less of the tepid info-entertainment style of large national media productions.
Kisslinger: There are wonderful national shows out there, especially comedy that I wish the station would carry. In his naming of favorite shows, Aigner would interrupt to comment on why his choices couldn’t be aired which prompted Kisslinger to ask her to stop nitpicking.
Madrigal commented that she wasn’t enamored of Al Jazeera programming, saying that it felt like it was produced more for TV. She added that people do have strong opinions on programming and that it would be awesome to have a program once a month where some future members of the Community Advisory Board could receive community feedback on programming.
Aigner on call-in shows: There’s an ‘adage’ in radio that less than 1% of people who listen will ever call in so while there’s a certain amount of value in gauging public input from requiring people to call in, most will never do so.
Kisslinger asked if there was specific local subject matter that should be carried or subjects that are covered too much. I think the issue of mental health is critical right now.
Madrigal: I’ve been getting feedback for more children’s programming.
M.K: How do you feel about local election coverage?
The radio isn’t where I currently get a lot of information on election issues, but I do think it’s important to give airtime to candidates in local elections. I like political forums where a spectrum of viewpoints are presented especially on the state ballot initiatives.
Kisslinger: I would like to see more local politics — like the views of candidates for various City Councils represented. I would also like to see shows like de Vall’s former Access show on in the evening when more people are listening, especially around election time.
Herring: Are more people listening?
Both Aigner and Coate, along with Herring, were of the opinion that listening dropped off after 7pm. According to Herring, people watch videos or TV in the evenings. I pointed out that without a survey to ask questions related to when people tune in or out, the station had no data to corroborate what, to me, seemed like assumptions based on personal experience. Aigner authoritatively continued to assert that general listening patterns were the same from Mendocino to New York City. Kisslinger intervened in the debate stating, “It is possible that Mendocino County differs from the national norm.” Dependably, Coate remarked that surveys cost money.
Kisslinger: I do a lot of work with organizations around planning issues. Gathering information like that is incredibly difficult. There are lots of different ways to approach it including a blend of surveys and focus groups. Although it can become expensive, it gives invaluable information so that as often as it can be afforded, it is worth doing.
#5: The Website: The Board is interested in hearing opinions of the website.
MK — I have to admit that I almost never go to the KZYX website.
As a reporter doing research, I have visited the website. It’s much improved from the previous site but I would like to see more visibility in regard to listener’s comments and responses to comments. In using computers as the main communication tool, there is a certain lack of transparency in keeping listener’s comments isolated from each other. The station used to have a suggestion box and also had the practice of posting letters it received for public viewing. I would like to see more avenues for transparency explored.
I also brought up the fact that the previous Secretary of the Board took the initiative to put Board members contact information on the website which was no longer included on the new website.
Kisslinger: You can’t put someone’s personal information on the website unless they are comfortable with that and give their permission to do that.
Coate said the website had a place to leave messages for each Board member
Kisslinger: How do people who don’t use computers contact their representatives?
Coate: Through letters and he mentioned he has taken messages for Board members in the past.
Since letters to the Board were mentioned, I thought it appropriate to cite my experience with trying to get some clarification from the Board on Bylaw regulation dealing with Membership Inspection Rights as to what type of information was included or disallowed. When no response was received, I asked at the next Board meeting for a written response and was promised one by Board President, Page. In November, I received a written response, not from the Board President or any Board Member, but from Coate outlining the proprietary protections of contracts under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (State Law) and the unwritten Board policy on public comment.
I asked whether the Board had actually reviewed the Bylaw in question, discussed it and come to a decision as a Board or did the Board President delegate that responsibility to the General Manager. While it may seem like splitting hairs to some, I felt that it was important to clearly define the chain of command. Was the Board giving direction to or taking direction from the General Manager?
Coate responded that since the questions I asked dealt with administrative matters, he never asked the Board for direction.
My questions seemed to make some Board members uncomfortable so Kisslinger asserted himself as facilitator that this was not the time and place for this conversation but rather a conversation for a Board meeting.
At this point, with 20 minutes left in the meeting, it was time for the public to speak. Board member Herring attempted to limit my time to five minutes which prompted Kisslinger to make a rather intimidating speech, his voice booming across the three feet that separated us. He stated that I had a ‘bully pulpit’, being defined by him as being able to talk as much as I wanted. He continued, speaking for himself, that he didn’t want to hear about my problems with the Board. He didn’t want to hear about my problems with John. In fact, he didn’t want to hear about my problems at all and if I persisted, he would leave. What he would like to hear was any comments that would improve the way the station operates.
It was no wonder to me why no other members of the community choose not to leave the comfort of their homes to tread the tightrope between acceptable and unacceptable comments. I made an effort to serve up my comments in a more palatable form, stating, "I feel the Board isn’t very transparent in the way they reach their decisions.”
I then tackled the problem of the inconsistency in the unwritten Board policy on public comment which currently is at the discretion of the Board Chair. I stated that at some meetings, myself and others were allowed to freely ask questions of the Board while at other times, a comment only policy was enforced. I stated I felt the Board needed to have a written policy that was consistent from meeting to meeting. Kisslinger was in complete agreement saying that having those kinds of things laid out in advance and sticking to it was a much better way to do it.
I then addressed the problem of the station’s lack of a Strategic Plan since 2006 and no viable process in place for creating one. I reviewed for the benefit of new Board members and Kisslinger, the process in which the former Secretary of the Board, Katharine Cole, along with several Board members and staff had devoted a considerable amount of energy towards creating an outline for a Strategic Plan in September 2011. The plan involved both Board and community members with a target date for completion set for November 2012.
In the minutes of the January 2012 meeting, with no apparent vote by the Board, Coate wrote, "It became clear upon further research that the Community Advisory Board needed to take the lead on much of the process as their function in advising the Board directly relates to future station planning.”
I asked how the Strategic Plan was to move forward with no functioning CAB in place. Additionally, the Bylaws specifically state that updating a plan for the direction of MCPB is the duty of the Board.
Kisslinger: I think the Board needs training on how to be a Board stating that he had previously worked in that capacity with other KZYX Boards. He added that he had heard from people who felt that Board members were not clear about their role on the Board. He then made a disclaimer that, in his opinion, he was the best person in the community to do that job.
I felt that an important role of the Board was to uphold the Bylaws and to do that a clear understanding of them was needed. I thought it would be helpful if new members of the Board were asked if they had any questions of the Bylaws at the Annual meeting induction ceremony.
Herring commented, I am a corporate lawyer. Bylaws are typically very loose. Our Bylaws are strict on election law but other than that, they’re fairly loose so we’re not really that worried about following our Bylaws.
Kisslinger: What the Board needs to do is to set or consolidate policies about how to do business, stick to them and have a Policy and Procedures Manual that is published.
Coate: It’s entirely possible. They do exist. Every Board member gets them but there is a problem with consistency.
Kisslinger: The Board should reexamine them to clean them up and suggested that the process be a more transparent one with an invitation for the public to comment on what policies to keep and what to throw away.
My final comment was to relay a suggestion from a station member whose concern was in how the News Dept. could be developed. The idea was to hire consultants, either from former station news people familiar with the community or from other local news media to determine how to put together a community news program. The 2011 CAB report noted that a very large majority of survey respondents listed news and current events as the most important programming. I read several recommendations from the report regarding news programming including advice to find more qualified reporters to supplement material generated by its limited one person news staff.
I added, from my experience in the news department that the former long time editor had an extensive system of community names from which news stories could be generated. I felt that frame of reference was lacking in the person currently holding that position. I recommended a community effort to pull together a community news program and felt an on air forum on the subject could generate a lot of community interest if it was timed appropriately.
Kisslinger: I agree that the staff and Board should look at that.
In the short term it would be a starting place for the news line to have the ability to record stories that are called in from the community. This seems like a solution that could be done without much expense
The meeting came to close with Kisslinger saying he appreciated my effort to keep my comments focused on broad issues.
For my part, I found the task of being a community and member representative a rather grueling experience. I am sure other comments from listeners would be greatly appreciated by management and the Board either through the website — kzyx.org, the listener comment line — 895-9619, or through the mail: PO Box 1 Philo, 95466.
It is time for the community to flex its collective muscle, including its vocal chords, to help its community radio station achieve the goals of relevant programming and integrity and transparency of its management and Board of Directors. The alternative — that of turning the dial to listen to some other community’s public radio is much easier.