Recently canned KZYX&Z reporter Christina Aanestad has the undying love of the station’s membership, as represented by the dozens of ticked off supporters who corralled themselves into Monday night’s excruciating bi-monthly meeting of the station’s board of trustees. “Christina is a plum that has fallen to us,” said well-known pro-ganja activist Pebbles Trippet. “Christina was the best thing that ever happened to the station,” agreed Mendocino Café owner Meredith Smith, who showed her affection for Aanestad by interrupting the more than three-hour meeting at every opportunity. “If we have to choose between NPR — National Pentagon Radio, National Propaganda Radio — and local programming,” said one man whose name was lost in the hubbub. “I think local people would choose local news.” And so went the night.
As they’re wont to do, a handful of tantrum-throwers, community radio fundamentalists and lovers of their own voice dominated the evening. But they were joined by many seemingly sane KZYX&Z supporters, who took to the microphone to denounce general manager John Coate’s decision to layoff the station’s lone local news reporter. Aanestad, who had been at the station for two years, was praised for her obvious strengths — intelligence and journalistic talent — along with less obvious ones (her youth, her gender, her progressive credentials). While some speakers empathized with the challenges of running a nonprofit in tough economic times, most were decidedly less understanding.
In comment after comment, station members complained that Coate failed to call on the membership’s support to save Aanestad’s position. They lamented the lack of transparency surrounding the budget process (the General Manager’s report was posted on the station’s website on the day of the board meeting) and the station’s decision to buy expensive syndicated programs — especially NPR news — rather than investing in local reporting.
Comments railed against the $232,500 in wages plus $33,500 in benefits paid to the station’s five full-time staff members (one news director and four administrators) and two part-time employees as an unseemly administrator-to-staff ratio. There were calls for disclosure of each employee’s individual salary — a demand Coate refused, saying, “[KZYX&Z is] a member organization, but it’s also a place of employment, and there are certain things about a place of employment that are not a completely open book to be dissected at a public meeting.”
But Coate has the support of his board, which flanked him in awkward smiles as the assembled crowd lambasted what resident KZYX&Z astrologer Antonia Lamb called an “incredible, revelatory failure of imagination.” Board Vice President Ann Cole read a statement that seemed crafted to take the heat off of their struggling station head. The board took responsibility for the financial health of the station, while comparing KZYX&Z’s budget troubles to those facing the state (except, she said, “unlike the state we can’t offer IOUs or raise taxes”). Cole pointed to the mess left by the previous station head and stack of bills that greeted Coate on his first day in Philo. She also said that, while Aanestad’s layoff was within Coate’s discretion and the board didn’t vote on the decision, “No board member raised any objection to John’s course of action.”
Coate, for his part, remained calm in the face of withering criticism. He took his sweet time walking his way through each line item in his proposed budget — emphasizing the high costs of day-to-day expenses (from the $600 they spend on envelopes to the $21,000 that goes to telephone lines and Internet access). But Coate made only veiled references to Aanestad’s layoff. “There’s very little about personnel matters that I can discuss, so I’m not going to here, except to say that we know people here value local news,” said Coate.
Coate insists that local news isn’t disappearing at his station. But, in doing so, he speaks out of both sides of his mouth. On one hand, he says the news director, Paul Hansen, will fill the void left in Aanestad’s absence. On the other, he implies that local news is a luxury. “It’s very, very expensive to produce local news and we couldn’t find any other station in our class or in our size that has a local news person.” (Annie Esposito, the reporter who last held Aanestad’s position, shot back in her public comment that while most community radio stations don’t carry local news, “the ones we admire certainly do.”)
Emotions were high through the night. When Board President David Hopmann tried to end the public comment period and bring the budget to a vote, Meredith Smith, announced — again and again — “I don’t think you’re finished with public involvement.” Hopmann told Smith she was out of order, only to have her shoot back, “I don’t care, who cares?” Beth Bosk took a similar tack, rising from her chair, pointing her finger and demanding — over and over — to know what mechanism would be used to reinstate Aanestad. (The answer: none)
One bearded radio lover, distraught over the two-minute limit for comments, timed Hopmann during his earnest closing remarks. As he read his statement (“we ask for your trust, your community spirit, your flexibility and your good humor”), Hopmann was interrupted with “two minutes, two minutes” as the bearded man’s watch erupted in beeps. When the board voted unanimously — “all in favor” — to approve the budget, the same bearded man, launched from his seat: “Wait, I’m opposed. What part of all am I not? Can you explain what all means?”
Aanestad — who missed most of the meeting because she was on the air as an unpaid co-host of the KZYX&Z show Women’s Voices — returned in the last hour to give a rambling, emotional statement to the board. “I always wanted to make a difference,” she said, choking up with tears, “and I’ve come to a town where I could do that.” For a reporter with so much moxie, it was sappy note to go out on. But, in the face of such an outpouring of community support, who could blame her for being moved to tears.