In the world of reporting, one soon realizes that much can be learned from questions not asked — much like its visual counterpart in which the eye perceives a different picture depending on how it assimilates foreground with background, light with shadow or positive with negative spatial relationships.
Upon reflection of the December 18th community meeting held by KZYX in which myself and facilitator, Michael Kisslinger were the only two participants not associated with either management or Board of Directors, it occurred to me why, at one point, the meeting took an unusual twist with threatening undertones. In veering off the beaten path of responding to questions formulated by the Board to ask a few questions of my own, I had turned a spotlight into an unexpected and unwelcomed corner — that of examining the structure of authority within KZYX.
In the largest sense, the question not asked would have been: How do you feel about the balance of power between the Board, management, staff, programmers and the community?
As a public corporation (as opposed to a private one), the radio station has a system of checks and balances designed into its Bylaws. De facto authority lies with the Board of Directors; eight out of nine of whom represent the members. However, the Bylaws also include a democratic option for members to hold their own meetings with a minimum of 5% of membership in attendance. (Currently, with a total of 2426 members, a minimum of 122 members in good standing would be required to conduct business.)
Members also have the right to vote on agenda items at their meetings — a quorum for voting being 20% of members present. Statistically, this is more difficult to achieve than at first glance considering that almost one out of five KZYX members are out of county or state. This option has never been exercized in the station's 22 year history.
The General Manager is hired by the Board of Directors and is therefore responsible to and under the direction of the Board.
Staff is hired by the GM and under his/her direction. Complaint forms are available to file a grievance.
As financial investors in KZYX, members have several rights. Those acquired under the California Nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation Law; the right to a copy of written policies and procedures of the Board upon request as well as rights specifically outlined in the Bylaws such as Membership Inspection Rights of all MCPB records other than those that would violate the privacy of an individual or are otherwise protected by state or federal law. Also, the aforementioned right to hold meetings and enact valid regulations.
Programmers have one Board representative of equal stature to the rest of the Board — a hard fought addition to the original representational formula.
I am convinced that posing a question regarding members' perception of the equality of the distribution of power at KZYX (whether by survey or in an on air program) would generate a wealth of needed information.
From my own observation in over a decade of involvement both as a member and past volunteer, I have gotten a pervasive sense that at all levels, with the exception of staff to G.M., the power structure and flow is dysfunctional and imbalanced.
On the community level, most importantly, the avenues for communication both with station management and the Board, are limited and under utilized.
Board policies and procedures, while available to Board members, are not in the public file or available for public review in any format.
The last survey distributed by KZYX was after program changes had already been made rather than using the information gathered to influence staff and management decisions.
Currently, there is no adequate vehicle to assess community input on programming or Board policies. The Community Advisory Board (CAB), required for grant funding, has disbanded. At the September Board meeting, President Bob Page remarked that the CAB was an informational source and no recommendations had been made to the Board. In fact, the CAB made 15 recommendations to the Board involving news and current events programming, Board policies, transparency and community relations. The only recommendation to be partially fulfilled was the expansion of the station's website to be more informative and interactive. It is not surprising that the CAB dissolved considering the poor follow through of the Board on the groups' recommendations.
So to many, the whole concept of a station whose organizational philosophy and programming choice is through its community base (Mission Statement) is a charade of the actual reality of how the station truly functions. The facade of talking the talk without doing anything of consequence to move it towards this noble vision is clearly wearing thin.
Many community members, especially those on the coast, have tried to make their views heard through attending meetings, through phone calls or Emails and were disheartened by the attempt, feeling that their comments fell on deaf ears. At Board meetings, I have heard members request that the specifics of survey results or the pledge totals for individual shows be available online. Reasonable requests for more information have gone unfulfilled.
To add insult to injury, I have heard more than one complaint about the disrespectful manner comments were responded to by the General Manager who went so far as to Email one long time member, “Thank you for not attending the Board meeting” — unacceptable behavior for someone representing the station's interests.
On the programming level GM John Coate appears to be micro-managing rather than spending time on general day to day station affairs. Coate admitted at a Board meeting that programmers were resistant to his suggestions regarding the content of their shows — basically calling Coate on his excessive overreach. The dismissal of former morning news reporter, Christina Aanestad, was not about finances as claimed by Coate but stemmed from the fact that Aanestad would not agree to allow Coate to censor her stories.
The Program Director, Mary Aigner, seems to be fine with sitting on the fence watching this tug of war between influence and independence. In fact, Aigner and Coate worked hand in glove to enact a flurry of “austerity driven” programming changes in the past year — the emphasis curiously focused on independent news media programming.
The problem of opening up the tight control exerted by the Program Director in programming decisions has been a source of unresolved contention for many years. Due to a loud outcry among programmers and members alike, the Board created a Programming Policy Committee in 2003. The Committee was charged to make recommendations on how programming decisions should be made. That eventually evolved into the Program Advisory Council whose mission was to seek public input on programming and provide written recommendations to the Program Director. A severe blow was dealt the Council in 2008 when Coate fired Aanestad without notice to or discussion by the Programming Council causing several members to resign. The Programming Advisory Council is now inactive.
The idea of an on-air call in show with Board members is being promoted once again by both Board members and the community. First bounced around and eventually given the green light in 2003 by then GM Diane Hering, the idea was felled by Aigner's veto who declared at that time, “Our listeners would not be interested in that.” Ten years later no flexibility can be detected in Aigner's attitude having once told a former close associate that “You can't let the patients take over the hospital.” A revealing metaphor — by extension, does that make Aigner the station's Nurse Ratchet?
At the Board level, more effective ways for the Board to engage with the public and the members they are elected to represent must be explored and implemented if the lofty goals of a public radio station are to be achieved. As clarified by a letter I gave the Board, specifically addressed to them but handled by the GM Coate (who has taken to elevating himself from the position of GM to that of MCPB Executive Director) I was dismayed to see how effortlessly the GM usurped the obligation of the Board to respond to a communication by a member to its representatives. The GM is not a member representative and should not have presumed authority to respond. If I had written a letter to John, I would not expect a response from Mary or Peter or Paul.
This blurring of roles and responsibilities is troublesome — a problem that hopefully can be resolved should the Board update and consolidate its Policies and Procedures Manual as was recommended at the community meeting by strategic business consultant, Michael Kisslinger.
The fact that problems involving the balance of power have plagued KZYX without resolution since its inception is a red flag waving in the wind. Without meaningful communication and conflict resolution at all levels coupled with the ability of the station to pull together as a team, it seems likely that efforts to restore the vibrancy of a dedicated following will be consistently undermined to the detriment of the remaining faithful. ¥¥