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5 Years On The Board

By Jim Tarbell

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Jim Tarbell said:

"As I read your excerpts (of the Minority Report) it appears that you are mainly talking about changing the board arrangements which is purely a board matter, but no doubt of interest to a wider audience. As you can tell from the attached history, my experience over the years is that station decisions are made within the station culture and are rarely
made unilaterally."

The following letter to the editor was publiched in the Mendonesian:

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From Jim Tarbel
April 14, 1996

 Dear Editor,

            Having just completed five years as a member of the KZYX Board of Directors, I read the recent Mendonesian article on public radio with much interest.  Some of the article I agreed with, some I didn't.  There were a few factual corrections that should be made, but more than anything I can spread some light on the questions raised in the article.

            The primary concerns of the article are who runs the station and whether a conservative agenda is being pushed.  My experience is that many people have many agendas for KZYX ands that it's always important to be vigilant of what agenda someone is promoting. 

            This has been such a pervasive issue at KZYX that it has dominated much of the decision making and ongoing workings of the station.  The primary intent over the years has been two-fold: 1) to keep the station on the air and 2) to follow the KZYX's mission which states that it "will reflect the rich diversity of the county while promoting a sense of community . . .The finest in national public radio programs will be made available as well as local programs.” 

            Nicole Sawaya often spoke of a "culture” forming around the station that kept it on the air, and I think that best describes how the station is run. Those that put the most energy into the station and who are able to socially function within that culture are the people who have the most influence.  Although the various staff positions have areas of responsibility  and ultimately make the final decisions, no one is making decisions in a vacuum. 

            The paid staff, active Board members and a broad collection of dedicated volunteers and programmers are at the heart of the station culture, but so are many others who put endless hours into the station to make it the vital community entity it is.  The station is set up to be run by the members through the Board of Directors.  Initially the by-laws limited programmer representation on the Board,  but a by-law change several years ago altered that and now over half of the Board is made up of programmers.

            The driving force behind the culture is to keep the station on the air and the mission statement fulfilled.  Any person or agenda that threatens that basic premise ends up as persona non grata by the sustaining culture.  

            Since this is an institution with over a hundred people flowing through and around it on a regular basis, creating a list of all the major players over the last five years  is impossible.  Certainly the paid staff that has been around for years — Jack Tyselling, Ron O'Brien, Mary Aigner, and Shiela Leighton —  make key decisions in their area of work.  Jill Hannum, the acting station manager, who stated at the February Board meeting that it was her decision to hire Teresa Simon as the new Program Director, has also played a critical role at various times of the station's existence.  Teresa Simon and Steve Rubin have both put in voluminous hours at a variety of tasks over the years to keep the station functioning.  Other people who have had major influences within the culture include past, twice-Board President and super-volunteer Carroll Pratt, past board member, programmer, and pledge drive coordinator Diane Hering, her father Bruce Hering who is past President and the longest serving member of the present Board and all of the  Board members including present Board President Ann Rodgers. From this core the culture spreads out to the programmers, the volunteers, the members, the underwriters, the listeners, the guests and everyone who has had anything to do with the station.

            That said, let me move on to the specific issues raised in the article:

Is the programming becoming more heavily weighted toward national programming?  This ratio has varied over the years. Right now 27.7 %  of the hours that KZYX is on the air is national and  72.3% is local.  In the Fall of 1993  this ratio was exactly the same and in the spring of 1992 25.5% of the programming was national and 74.5% was local.  These are amazingly similar statistics which indicates to me that the Program Directors are keeping a pretty close eye on this figure.

Is strip programming taking over KZYX.  Strip programming (homogeneity within the schedule) has been a reality at KZYX since Sean Donovan set up the first schedule six and a half years ago.  The degree of strip programming existent in the schedule has varied over the years but Nicole Sawaya definitely moved it in the direction of more strip programming in her last year at the station.  Sighting national surveys that indicated that the prime radio listening hours were between early morning and late afternoon with the heaviest listenership between 6 AM and 9 AM, she moved the morning news to those hours and interspersed local news within it.  Also in an attempt to broaden the listener base, she put all the news at the same hours, all the talk shows at the same hours, and all the music within the same hours, particularly during the heavy listening times during the weekdays.  This approach favors the listener who only wants to listen to particular programming, under the logic that the station is therefore reaching the broadest and most diverse audience in Mendocino County and beyond.

Is Federal funding threatened?   Federal funding is definitely threatened.  It was only through a massive concerted effort last year that current federal funding was saved.  The current Speaker of the House is hostile toward the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio and listener-sponsored radio stations.  The solution is either to change the majority in the House of Representatives or keep lobbying like crazy.  Present Congressional plans predict a steady decrease in funding over the next five years

            KZYX's spends about $220,000 a year. It has been receiving between $60,000 and $70,000 a year from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for the past several years which makes up about a third of the station's  annual budget.  About half of the budget ($110,000) comes from local memberships and pledge drives and the rest comes from underwriting and fund-raisers.

Are NPR and Pacifica News too heavily influenced by their corporate contributors?  News programming has long been a subject of debate around the station.  In an environment as diverse as Mendocino County it is impossible to keep everyone happy about what and how the news is presented.  Several options have been used over the years including BBC and Monitor Radio, but NPR and Pacifica seem to be the most popular.  There have been rumblings in recent years of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters putting together their own news service and Joseph Leon once had a dream of networking all of the listener-sponsored radio stations in Northern California into a local news system.  These plans all take time and money, though, neither of which have been dedicated in sufficient amounts to make them a reality.

What is the future of the programming at KZYX?  Programming decisions are made by the Program Director based on the station mission, listener response, program availability and the overall needs of the community that are not otherwise being fulfilled by commercial radio.  There have been instances in the past when the station manager has overruled the Program Director, but there has been a concerted effort on the part of the Board to establish an arrangement where the Program Director has control of the schedule.  This doesn't mean that the Program Director is making decisions on his or her own. Nothing is more disastrous within the station culture than a renegade decision-maker.  The station manager will usually have input into any major scheduling change as will other trusted people within the station culture.  And, of course, after the change is made the entire station culture passes judgment on the wisdom of the changes.  The Board never formally discusses or approves programming changes and Board members are rarely asked to give input into programming decisions.  Programming decisions are presented to the Board as fait accompli.

            Change is bound to happen to the KZYX schedule.  Teresa Simon, the present Program Director has been involved with the station since its inception and can probably be counted on to remain dedicated to the two main themes of the station culture — maintaining the station mission and keeping the station on the air.

What is the management history at KZYX?  KZYX was put on the air largely due to the tireless efforts of Sean Donovan and a group of volunteers in the late 1980's.  Donovan managed to get the original Board to agree to compensate him for all the hours he put into setting up the station with a note that was to be paid out over a number of years and was finally paid off last year.  With Donovan's departure in the latter part of 1990, the Program Director, Johnny Bazzano,  took over as interim station manager until Susan Newstead was hired as the new Station Manager in the Spring of 1991. 

            During her tenure Susan put the station on a track of receiving more federal funding and extending the signal  to cover more of Mendocino County. After two years, however, the Board did not renew Newstead's contract and Johnny Bazzano once again served as an interim-Station Manager until the Board hired Phil Tymon in mid-1993. 

            Tymon had a rocky tenure that included his decision not to renew Beth Bosk's contract for her weekly talk show.  He had already announced his retirement to the Board by the time he showed up at the station, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the Fall 1993 pledge drive and mockingly announced that he was “taking over.”

            During his tenure Tymon hired Nicole Sawaya to fill the Program Director's slot which had been vacated when Brian Wood resigned at the end of Susan Newstead's term.  With Tymon now gone, Jill Hannum was hired as an interim station manager and, along with Nicole Sawaya and Operations director Jack Tyselling, presented the Board with a “flat top” management proposal, which created a management team made up of the Business Manager, the Programmer Director and the Operations Director.  In the spring of 1994 Claudia Vierra was hired to fill the Business Manager slot that Jill Hanum had been filling temporarily. 

            The Board now had oversight function over three management positions, a task which it never carried out very well. The Board had a hard enough time evaluating one Director and never formally evaluated the job performances of the three “flat top” managers.  With the lack of evaluations, the staff essentially stepped in and did their own defacto evaluation, and the management team began to over rule her on key decisions that were proprietary to the Business Manager.  She resigned in early 1995 and essentially Nicole ran the station, giving it a long needed tenure of stability and energy that was crucial to its survival.

            As a result of the fallout from the chaos around the handling of Beth Bosk's termination and Phil Tymon's resignation a group of  Ukiah programmers, ex-KZYX Board members and other interested parties formed a non-profit corporation known as Northern California Public Broadcasting with the intent of  forming a competing public radio station in Ukiah where the KZYX signal never had been clearly and consistently received. This group was led by long-time KZYX programmer Barry Vogel, included Phil Tymon and hired Sean Donovan to put their proposal together .  Ill will quickly developed between the station culture and the Ukiah group as the station viewed NCPB as a definite threat to KZYX's survival.

            How to approach this threat became an issue of long debate.  Despite a general feeling of  animosity, distrust and loathing amongst most of the station culture toward NCPB,  KZYX Board President Carrol Pratt undertook an approach that Nicole Sawaya termed “the high road,” working not to alienate the Ukiah group and keep them convinced that Mendocino County Public Broadcasting (MCPB, KZYX's parent corporation) was interested in all input from throughout the county and that we were concerned about their needs and wishes.  The Ukiah group was never very responsive until they did not receive a federal grant to build their station.  Meanwhile MCPB finally received federal funding that Susan Newsted had originally applied for two years earlier to build a transmitter on Laughlin Peak above Willits.  With the awarding of that grant KZYX  moved ahead with fund-raising efforts to put that transmitter on the air. 

            As a part of  Carrol Pratt's “high road” approach, the station had received a “Healthy Station Grant” from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, which involved the participation of their consultant David LePage in a long term analysis of the functioning of KZYX.  He held public and private meetings with a broad variety of people at the station, helped define goals, helped “flat top” iron out their differences and met with the Ukiah group. 

            Out of all this came a design for a unique county-wide, listener-sponsored radio network, all under the auspices of  MCPB, it's Board of Directors and staff.  The idea is to have studios throughout the county that can 1) control the main KZYX transmitter on Cold Springs Mountain and 2) broadcast programming of interest to the particular area in which the studio is located through its own transmitter.  The initial phase is to establish studios on the Coast and in the Inland area that will work with the studio in Philo. Each studio will eventually have its own call letters and transmitter and be able to control the transmitters for the entire system so that county-wide programming can originate from either the Coast, Philo or the Inland area.

            This system is now in the process of being put together.  The MCPB transmitter on Laughlin Peak which has the call letters KZYZ will act as the inland link to the system. The search is on for a studio site in the Inland area.

            On the Coast a studio is available and funding has been received to begin the process of connecting it to the broader network. The Coast studio is located in the old ROP video lab at the  Community Center in Mendocino.  A $5000 grant has been received to begin the process of connecting the Coast studio to the rest of the network. The plan is to connect the Coast studio directly to the Philo studio via an ISDN phone line which can carry music quality audio.  Although the phone company initially indicated it would do this, it is now balking at providing an ISDN line in Philo.  Several options have been developed to get around this problem including connecting directly via ISDN to the future Inland studio.  The long-term goal will be to connect directly to the Cold Springs transmitter via a microwave link, but this may cost $30,000 to construct.

            As a formal recognition of this county-wide approach to public broadcasting the Board is in the process of changing it's by-laws to guarantee broad geographic representation on the Board. There will now be two Board members from the Coast, two from the Inland area, two from Anderson Valley, two at-large and one programmer's representative. This did not constitute any change in the membership of the KZYX Board of Directors.  Each existing member was simply put into one of the new slots.

            Once all of this was designed David LePage orchestrated a meeting between the Board of Directors of MCPB and the Ukiah group.  At this meeting both groups pledged to support this new county-wide design under the auspices of MCPB.  NCPB agreed to fold as a non-profit entity and to assist in the funding of the Inland studio.

            Through all of this, management of the station had settled on the shoulders of Nicole Sawaya and she had been functioning as the de facto station manager for a year. In recognition of this the Board began moving away from the flat top management and redefining the management structure with a single Station Manager in charge.  When Nicole left at the first of this year to take a job with NPR, the discussion over the management makeup came to a head when the Board had to write a job description for prospective station manager candidates.  The Board agreed at its February meeting that the new station manager would have authority over the operation of the station but would have to consult with the Board of Directors about the hiring and firing of the paid staff.

            The Board is now in the process of searching for a new station manager and at its last meeting agreed to hire a fund-raiser.

Rumors of secret meetings. During the process of “taking the high road” Carroll Pratt and several other board members attended meetings with representatives from Northern California Public Broadcasting.  Carrol always informed the rest of the Board when he was going to do this and reported back the results. He never made any promises at these meetings but “kept the lines of communications open.” In hindsight, his strategy worked perfectly. MCPB and the county in general have all gained from the outcome and lost nothing.  In the process, though, there was a lot of concern among the station culture about where it was all headed.

Rumors of  Board election manipulations. Board elections  are audited by the Ukiah accounting firm of Robertson, Campbell.  They supervise the sending of the ballots as well as the counting.  There is not much room for manipulation in this process.

Termination of Phaedra Savage from Open Lines.  Phaedra hosted open lines once every four weeks and her contract was not renewed when the  Program Director redesigned the format of Open Lines.  This has no doubt been internally divisive for the station. Phaedra has been a longtime, dedicated programmer, and spent endless hours on pledge drives which has been key to keeping the station afloat.  Although she is widely praised for her jazz programming, and still hosts her weekly jazz show, I do not see her as the “number one” public affairs programmer and when the Program Director, no doubt in consultation with other parts of the station culture decided to change the format of Open Lines she lost her spot on that show.

Is public access decreasing?  Returning to the comparison between the present schedule and the Fall of 1993 and the Spring of 1992 it again becomes apparent that programming has varied over the years. In the Spring of 1992 there were nine hours a week of public access time on the radio.  In the Fall of 1993 this figure was down to five and a half hours and now it is up to  eight and a half hours.   One of the big debates in radio land is between more music/less talk and more talk/less music — nobody agrees.  But it appears that phone access radio is again on the rise.  Certainly the daily public access show from 9 to 9:30 offers more access and debate on local issues than has ever been available on KZYX before.

            There was a time when the Board had quarterly programs to take people's questions over the air.  This could certainly be reinstated though a lot of people felt that it was not very exciting radio.      

Conclusion.  The way to influence the decision-making at KZYX is to get involved, from volunteering at the station to running for the Board.  Setting up Coastal and Inland studios will do a lot to move the station culture away from being centered in Philo.  Probably the most valuable contribution people can make is participating in the establishment of these studios which will guarantee both broader public access to the airwaves and more high-quality local broadcasting.

Jim Tarbell

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[Thanks for contributing this valuable article.]

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