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The Night of the Long Knives (July 29, 1998)

“Well,” I heard a male voice behind me say, “looks like the passive-aggressives are out in force tonight,” as we arrived at the Philo headquarters of KZYX, Mendocino County’s more or less public radio station to lobby for reinstatement of Sister Yasmin, the station’s long-time reggae DJ. KZYX has always inspired more than its share of cynicism and mirth. It takes itself very, very seriously for very, very little reason.

We assumed the meeting was going to be a pleading session for Yaz, a person whose unique mix of intensity and ribald good humor Mendocino County’s stuffy airwaves need more of. Yasmin’s eclectic troops were present as were the flat-affect corporados, miscellaneous Clintonoids and LA retirees who have dominated KZYX since its mercenary beginnings some nine years ago. KZYX was never really new, but the hill gentry that funded it was. These weren’t hippies; these were people whose notion of alternative public radio was music and the bland daily assurances of NPR. Passion about local issues was fine so long as it wasn’t piped into their hilltop hideaways and so long as they weren’t paying for it.

Opposed to the new money bags to whom public radio is simply one more suburban amenity, we find a rear guard of odd people with real roots here, the people who have made their homes on the Northcoast, raised their children here, who tossed convention and the suburbs over the side to live in a new way. The two sides have fought over KZYX since its founding by a hustler who later billed the community mightily for his time in establishing public radio in Mendocino County. Sean Donovan packed his founding board of directors with the intellectually halt and lame who have dominated KZYX ever since.

And here we are nearly a decade later arguing over another chapter in the same public radio book. It could be a very interesting book in the right hands. For all their outward desire for appropriateness, the cramped little tract house off highway 128 near Philo has seen a whole lot of unique encounters, ranging from joyless sexual to viperous interpersonal. It’s not great radio but KZYX is the mother lode of gossip.

Tonight’s meeting begins with station manager Bruce Longstreet posed in the lotus position just above his board of directors like some kind of yuppie Buddha. The nine-person board is short two — at the end of the evening Karen Ottoboni is appointed to the vacancy created by Anne Kessler of Point Arena. Longstreet himself will be fired. Sister Yasmin, at one a.m., five hours after the meeting begins, is tabled and almost forgotten as the heads of her tormenters roll out onto highway 128. No one outside the clique running KZYX is aware a replacement is being considered for the departed Kessler. No one outside the station is aware that even inside the clique the blood has begun to flow. It’s very Kremlin, or gremlin, since it isn’t about much of anything beyond tiny bits of meaningless turf.

Twenty or so people speak up for or against Yasmin, most in favor of her reinstatement. Trustee Doug Moody looks like he’s being jabbed with pins as Yaz people lobby for her. Old Hippie Mendo seems to appall him. Moody’s the new Mendo wave, a magic money character from deep Outtahere who doesn’t get it, which is why he was easily elected to the board by the station’s self-selecting membership. Moody donates a lot of time and money to the station in return for which he gets to play muzak-like jazz.

Sister Yasmin, the famous Jewish rastafarian, was suddenly fired right in the middle of what she thought was a grievance procedure. Her execution was carried out in typical KZYX style — an impersonal note in her mail box, a terse long distance call not to bother coming in to do her show. She’d been with the station since its inception, defended it, fought for it, raised lots of money for it, was entirely devoted to it. But she was outspoken, and she never did fit in too well at those wine sip fundraisers and, to the young and old wheezes who call the tune at the station, Yaz represented everything wild and unpredictable they’d hunkered down in the ‘burbs all their money making years to avoid so they could spend their golden years looking out over the redwoods and the sea, Chopin and Terri Gross on the radio.

Longstreet opens the meeting by asking that Jimmy Humble resign from the board of trustees. What’s this? Most of us thought we were here to argue Yaz. Something else is going on. Longstreet goes on about how Humble has been disloyal to the station by signing off on a Green Party letter in support of Yasmin. Humble, seemingly caught unaware, humbly declines to die, er, resign. The next morning, we learn that Longstreet has been fired. The board won’t renew his contract when it’s up at the end of August. Steve Rubin, the station’s music director, says he’ll take lots of time off at the end of this broadcasting quarter. The person many believe is responsible for much of the turmoil at the station, Theresa Simon, isn’t present, but the rumor floating out of the management bunker says she will soon go too. Lots of people say she’s the brains behind Longstreet and Rubin. Like many “liberal” institutions, the males on the premises tend to be small, stupid and docile; the women big, strong and smart.

Ross Murray, 80, a show biz guy from LA who hosts a monthly talk show on “senior” issues as seen from the Clintonoid perspective, gets up several times to bellow for management’s “right” to do whatever it likes. “Who does the hiring and who does the firing?” Murray yells to the forty or so people gathered around the trustees in the semi-enclosed, storage space where meetings are held. “Is it Bruce? Is it me? Is it the Green Party? If you can’t fire someone people will be insulted on the air and there will be no recourse.”

Board chair Jackson, always Mr. Cool, responds in the artificially calm tones of a Prozac case, and with a literalness Murray’s over-heated, rhetorical blast doesn’t deserve. “The board hires and fires the station manager, the station manager hires and fires everyone else.”

“Then what are we doing here?” Murray demands.

Els Cooperrider, a programmer at the station and a local environmental activist, begins her defense of Yaz by suggesting a Volunteer Programmers Bill of Rights. Cooperrider complains that Longstreet had barged in on an off-site programmers’ meeting she’d just come from at Lauren’s Restaurant in downtown Boonville even though he’s management. “He did not like that volunteers were meeting to discuss a bill of rights,” she says, adding that the diminutive Longstreet had also been “confrontational.”

Longstreet, apparently aware that he was about to be offed, has become noticeably more frantic in his interpersonal relationships, but the noose isn’t quite secure around his neck. “Was I confrontational?” he asks in the voice of a man denying one of the New Age’s major sins. “Was I demanding? I thought as a programmer I should be at the meeting,” Longstreet concludes his denial of what seems to have struck Cooperrider and the other programmers huddled at Lauren’s as the equivalent of an armed frontal assault.

Cooperrider, brushing Longstreet back into his tense lotus posture, continued with her defense of Yasmin, reading her combined defence and indictment. “She received no fair hearing prior to firing. There’s no formal system of complaints about programmers at KZYX Programmer meetings should be run by programmers, not staff or management. The programmer rep on the board should act as an advocate for programmers. There should be fair and equal treatment of all programmers, and programmers should be free to choose content within agreed-to boundaries. Sister Yasmin was not treated fairly. She was not consulted prior to her re-scheduling and then her firing. All she received was a termination notice in her box. There was no full grievance hearing. The board’s programmers rep, Colleen Bassett, stood in judgment of Yaz, not as her representative. Music Director Steve Rubin insulted me several times during Yaz’s grievance hearing. And no one present objected to Mr. Rubin’s behavior. Staff and management condone this kind of hostile and contentious environment.”

The board looked on like a small herd of mildly quizzical ruminants.

The meeting went on. Jim Jackson, a Mendocino lawyer and KZYX’s lead hatchet man, gestured at one speaker after another to get up and speak, as if he were genuinely interested in sorting out this Yaz thing.

Marco McClean tells the story of his run through KZYX’s gauntlet of little hatchets nine years ago. “I was the first programmer fired by management back in the late 80s. It had nothing to do with my on-air work. The grievance procedure then just as bad as now. Sean Donovan fired me on the phone, ‘Marco, I thought I’d call you and save you a long drive.’ I was refused entrance to the next programmers meeting, ‘You’ll make trouble, you’re not a programmer anymore.’ Donovan called the police to take me away. Beth Bosk told him he couldn’t do that. Nothing was resolved. There was supposed to be a grievance procedure in place after that. But then Mr. Longstreet opens this meeting by accusing Humble of disseminating bad information about the station and demands his resignation from the board? Listen to Els. A grievance procedure is no good if the person in power doesn’t like someone, no matter what kind of procedure you have. Nothing has changed, McClean summed up.

“I drove here from Covelo,” Ann Benson said. “I used to live on the Coast. People are confused and this is unnecessary. People are getting disgusted with the way things are going at the station. Get an arbitrator with no prior relationship to any of the parties, then publicize what happened. Otherwise KZYX will slip in the public’s view. There are very bad feelings about the station out there.” There are indeed.

Morgan Baynham introduced himself as “just a listener and went on to say that “KZYX is better than KMUD and KHSU. The station is going along fine. The board should not be involved if a programmer is wronged. Why doesn’t Sister Yasmin think about what she did wrong? This sells newspapers for Bruce because he loves the controversy. Let’s not get caught up in that. Do your job. Raise the money.”

Sell papers for Bruce. KZYX’s radio personalities can make me millions! Pure charisma, these people! Green! Vogel! Muchowski! Tyssling! Moody! O’Brien!

Steve Derwinski, appearing with black mop-dreads dangling from beneath his South Seas hat in what some people might interpret as a rather dramatically un-PC imitation of a black rasta dude, advised the board to “give Yaz her job back. But,” Derwinski counseled the impassive trustees, “all programmers, including Yaz, should take mandatory vacations after two or two and a half years (ten radio quarters). Marco’s right, nothing’s changed in nine years. But the attitude which most programmers have, and which Yasmin exemplifies, is: ‘This is my show, my time slot, I’m the God of this slot.’ Most programmers have the same show year after year. Put mandatory vacations in the by-laws. You can come back after six months. You can always find good new programmers in this community.”

“The board,” began Tom Neece in what turned out to be a very amusing presentation heavy on the satire, “should distance themselves from divisiveness. They should bland everything down to please the station’s donors and management. And get rid of people who are uppity and female.”

Ross Murray rose to belt out a few more high-decibel, disjointed remarks. “I took a vacation. Bruce Longstreet and Theresa have done a helluva job at the station. They’re not the heavies. Yes, Yaz is a pain in the ass. We went head to head when I was on my Monday slot. I offered to mediate, but pulled out after the item in the paper making a fucking mountain out of what should have been a goddammed mole hill.”

“The board should eat some shit,” Rob Anderson suggested, snapping the board to attention. First Murray’s fucking molehills, now a big poop pie in the face. God, the insults Nice People endure.

“Put Yaz back in her regular time slot and carry on from where we were before this whole thing started,” Anderson continued. “Not all programmers are equal. Yaz is one of your stars. You need her. Put her back on in the slot she wants.” The board sat back. Eat shit to you too, buddy.

Carroll Pratt, a Republican retiree who brought America the laugh track and who has invested thousands of dollars in KZYX, achieving the deference only money can buy from people who worship it, tottered in to stick another knife in Sister Yasmin. “I have a problem with Els’ bill of rights. It sounds like a Green Party meeting thing,” Pratt declared, the Greens being one of many contemporary terrors Pratt wants to keep out of his Reaganite dream station, KZYX. “Yaz is a great talent but she would have been fired six years ago for the things she has done. Yaz took more staff time than any other programmer. She called me names.” You, Mr. Laugh Track? What impertinence! “Yaz has been a problem. I applaud Bruce Longstreet for having the guts to fire her.”

Bring up the visual of Yaz as VC sapper. Longstreet, bayonet clenched between his teeth, crawls through the perimeter wire to take her on, mano y bureaucrat-o.

In the most surprising presentation on the evening, Bruce Haldane, pretty good with the little hatchets himself behind the scenes where local libs like to do their blood work, made it clearer than clear that all was not well at KZYX. The prob is a lot bigger than Yaz and her reggae show. Haldane and his wife/lady friend/ land partner/ Annie Esposito, or “Ma and Pa Kettle,” as some people refer to the couple’s Smithsonian-quality hippie-gnome look, came to KZYX from (surprise!) KPFA.

“The public,” Haldane said, “has been taken out of public radio with the new proposed committees including a ‘programming committee’ The Staff Access show was timed to minimize input on Yaz’s dismissal. There was no mention of Yaz’s departure in Radio Waves’ “Comings and Goings.” That’s wrong. There was a comment that we shouldn’t be airing our dirty linen in public. Well, we shouldn’t have dirty linen. If we do, it’s the responsibility of management to deal with it. But “not in public”? This is public radio. The membership has just as much right to know as anybody else. They keep us going by supporting underwriters, or paying taxes or by subscribing. This is their business. We’re a community institution. If something is bad it should be dealt with in the open too. I’m sorry. “

Haldane read from KZYX’s Programmer’s Handbook: “A programmer should receive reasonable warning before termination.” That didn’t happen. Termination happened after Yasmin’s grievance was filed. That looks bad. Also the handbook contradictorily says that programmers can be terminated at will by staff. But programmers have to give notice to staff. I have a problem with programmers being offed without notice, except in egregious conditions, drunk on the air, or something.”

Haldane was on a roll.

“Yaz was told her show wasn’t ‘eclectic” enough.’ Yet Mary Aigner is supposed to have an ‘eclectic’ show, but it’s not eclectic, it’s a Grateful Dead show. Some other things, yes, but not eclectic. Most of music shows are not ‘eclectic.’ Can you imagine Walter Green playing Beethoven, then Chuck Berry? That’s absurd. That’s the push toward sounding like KWNE. All different kinds of music to please everybody in an hour? That doesn’t make sense. Mendocino County Public Broadcasting’s policy is that we do not shrink from public controversy. Yet, we have heard that decisions were made because somebody didn’t want to see something in the AVA.”

Haldane has shrunk from public controversy so many times over the years that he’s a foot shorter than when he breezed in from Berkeley. If he shrinks any more he’ll be looking for work as a door stop.

A Ms. Martinelli, identifying herself as a resident of Point Arena and Bodega Bay, kicked off her remarks by emphasizing territoriality before she veered off into the solipsistic incoherence of the New Age. “KZYX is my station. Some things I wrote were blame and shame. Perhaps I shouldn’t have. But there were no bridges bombed, no babies killed. Yaz was fired for no real reason. Arbitration, mediation. Do it. This reminds me of a family that has fallen apart. I want to be proud of this alternative station. Alternative energy. You have lost the sense of what’s important. We’re a loose association of human beings. I didn’t read the AVA article. (A wonderfully candid and funny interview with Yaz that seems to have traumatized Yaz’s more sensitive supporters, Martinelli especially, who began her letter with, “I haven’t read it but blah blah blah.” But shut the fuck up, why not, until you have read it?) “I made an effort to write letters. It’s hard to handle things that are out in public. They become so huge, how do you get them back in the box? Please try to follow procedures in the future.”

Gotcha, kiddo. Om, and may all your paths be strewn with purple piss ants.

Mary Walsh recalled that she had “collaborated with Sister Yasmin on many programs. I’m a big fan of that kind of programming. Her program was summarily given over to someone else after nine years of service. No thank you. No nothing. Let’s talk about what we need to do to handle these kinds of situations. There is an issue here. It’s them vs. us, and none of us wants it like that. She’s had a show on a commercial station and hasn’t been fired. If we have to change five hours a week, let’s do it. It’s true that KZYX is in trouble. What about all those people who were booted out before? It’s terrible. We should negotiate this and work together. We want a common solution.”

It went on. And on.

The only trustee who spoke up for Yaz was Guy Rowe of Boonville. He said he thought it was “immoral and illegal” to have fired Yaz while her mediation was under way. It was that, and unfair and cruel too, but KZYX has never been known for its keen ethical sense.

Yaz herself was restrained. She spoke to the obvious violations of the station’s own procedures by the station’s furtive, frightened little managers in their panic to get rid of her.

As the smoke clears, it’s obvious that lots of people inside KZYX are unhappy. The issue isn’t Yaz, it’s bad management. What Longstreet has done or not done to contribute to the prevailing internal misery is not known, but he also seems to have become a victim of the twit-tumult. KZYX’s on-site critics complain constantly about Steve Rubin, another LA refugee hill muffin and the station’s music director, and they complain even more about Theresa Simon the Brit green card program director. Longstreet, the director-director, seems the least guilty.

But what’s it all about? Nothing really. Hours of music we’ve all heard many times before, NPR propaganda and a few local egomaniacs who get to talk on the air.

Trustee Guy Rowe said Monday that the board was looking for a new director, someone with “people skills.” Longstreet, who is said to have lamented to a friend that by taking the job long-distance from a radio sinecure he’d enjoyed back east he’d “stepped into a station run by pot heads and idiots,” will stay on the job until his contract runs out at the end of August. The board has made no statement on the Yaz affair and apparently doesn’t intend to make one. Yaz is twisting in the summer winds, contrite but determined as the radio house around her falls down.

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