UnKOOPerative factions mire Austin station in conflict
It's volunteer programmers vs. trustees at KOOP, Austin, in an alarmingly public, all-out war for control of the young station.
The typical fight at a volunteer-run station is over different visions of its mission, as reflected in programming and/or governance. But the Austin conflict is about nothing so tangible as a program cancellation or even democratic decision-making. Rather, identity politics are at play.
Virtually everyone at KOOP (pronounced "co-op") is a leftie. But, contrary to the usual battle lines, KOOP's powers-that-be--the board of trustees--are the ones who allege racism and homophobia. And it's the volunteers--the recently organized "Friends of KOOP"--who object to hyper-political-correctness on the board.
The exchanges of hyperbolic accusations have gotten so out-of-hand that in August the weekly Austin Chronicle's media reporter blatantly took sides, supporting the volunteers' effort to recall the board. "The board and its allies ... if allowed to continue their reign, will bring the station to ruin," wrote Lee Nichols. The media reporter for the daily Austin American-Statesman has also severely criticized the board.
Where things stand now
KOOP went on the air in 1994, about the time station founder Jim Ellinger turned over the FCC license to the trustees. (Actually, Ellinger delivered about half of a station, after a long and costly competition for an unused FM frequency with the University of Texas at Austin. The FCC in 1992 played Solomon, telling both applicants to share the frequency. KOOP broadcasts in the daytime and UT's student-run station at night.)
As Ellinger and colleagues arranged it, listeners have more control over KOOP than is typical--anyone who contributes money or volunteers at KOOP is a member, and members elect the Community Board, which then appoints the trustees.
A two-thirds majority of the Community Board has the power to recall trustees, according to Friends spokesperson Ricardo Guerrero. The Friends group is hoping to gain the required super-majority in an election that at press time was set to close Nov. 6.
But Board chair Teresa Taylor says there could be "legal ramifications that extend outside our bylaws" if the board is removed.
Standing by is a membership-elected oversight committee, which could replace the trustees if the dispute ends up in court. "The membership will have spoken and said, 'These are the people who we have confidence in,' says Guerrero.
Taylor says that seeds of the current conflict have always existed at KOOP, an outgrowth of Austin's segregated society. At bottom, the conflict is about class, she says. On the one hand are poor Latinos and a gay community that tends to be working class, she says. On the other, more mainstream "upper class" folks, "a white community that is liberal in many respects, has some connections with money and major institutions, but has trouble understanding how to share leadership with communities of color and working class communities."
Friends of KOOP argue that the problem is this specific board. Here's some of what they complain about:
Revising KOOP's mission statement. Trustees rewrote it to specifically name ethnic and other groups that KOOP should serve: 13 groups plus "other communities." The only excluded group, by deduction, appears to be 30-to-65-year-old, able-bodied, financially comfortable, heterosexual, U.S.-born white males--a group that is well represented among KOOP volunteers. "It caused a huge rift because white men weren't included as members of the community," says one-time KOOP programmer Jose Orta.
Causing Pacifica to pull its network news. In response to reports of Pacifica's labor troubles, KOOP had instituted a disclaimer before every Pacifica report. The newscasts are now heard elsewhere.
Firing longtime g.m. Jenny Wong. Sources say the board gave her a negative performance review, criticizing her money management skills. Only a short time later, it voted not to renew Wong's contract. "It was an inexcusable, cruel and ultimately stupid act to fire the woman who built the radio station and had worked under often difficult times for half a decade," says KOOP founder Ellinger. The Friends group also claim the board undermined Wong by not allowing her to hire an assistant g.m. for five months. Taylor wouldn't discuss the situation.
Returning a $5,000 foundation grant for Jose Orta's HIV news show. Friends of KOOP say the decision was an astounding move, given how cash-poor the station is. Orta says he quit KOOP because it was a homophobic environment, and took the grant money with him to an organization that also has an HIV radio program. KOOP's budget is so tight he feared the money would be used to pay off debt, he says. Trustee Mac McKaskle says the Friends group wanted the board to use the money to pay off back taxes. "They wanted to make sure the money didn't go to a gay group," he says.
Friends of KOOP says Community Board member Eduardo Vera--Taylor's husband--suggested KOOP also return a pending $14,000 grant from the City of Austin, because KOOP was failing in its mission to serve the disenfranchised. That is an astounding suggestion, and Taylor chuckles at it, but she doesn't unequivocally deny it. "There's been some noise about it," but "that is not something the board is looking at doing."
Charges of racism and homophobia
"There are clear and irrefutable examples of race-baiting going on by some members of the board of trustees," says Ellinger. "To disagree with them sets you up to be called a racist or a homophobe, even if you're just covering the story."
It's true some of the board members aren't reluctant to make loaded charges, even against people outside of the station. McKaskle said on the air, for example, that Austin Chronicle Editor Louis Black editorialized against the board because he was feeling pressure to open up his publication to more voices. Later McKaskle would say on-air, according to the Chronicle, that Black's "friends" induced the IRS to hit KOOP with large fines, and that Black wanted to take over KOOP "to keep it out of the hands of the disenfranchised." McKaskle says he believes Black is a supporter or member of Friends of KOOP, and that is what he meant by "friends."
Orta says he left because gays were being attacked at KOOP. Someone posted on a bulletin board a flyer saying homosexuality is a sin, and another or perhaps the same volunteer handed McKaskle an anti-gay pamphlet. Guerrero says the conservative Christian programmer who had the pamphlet is not a Friend of KOOP.
Orta also complains that one Friend accused a board member of writing "flaming" e-mail; although the term is standard Internet lingo, he insists the remark was an anti-gay slur. And he complains that staffers made a joke of one young male recruit's "femininity," but also says the trainers "denied it right and left."
Board Chair Taylor, a soft-spoken woman who talks calmly about the conflict, says Friends of KOOP members have made harassing phone calls to people's homes and workplaces. Someone called a gay man's mother, for example, and told the woman her son was "sick," she says.
Her main accusation describes far more subtle behavior. "There is a perception [at KOOP] that when Latinos become involved in the station, they're being controlled by one person. I perceive that as racism, because it's not treating Latinos as individuals."
In response to all the charges, Friends of KOOP point to their long years as active political progressives. "We are firmly committed to diversity, and that's as much as we're going to say about it," the "Save KOOP Radio!" web site says. The Friends also point to their own demographics. The group has a good number of gays and lesbians as members, says Guerrero. He also says: "Some of the claims of racism are leveled against me. My name is Ricardo Guerrero. I'm from Colombia."
The risk of public mudslinging
If it seems imprudent or perhaps difficult to ascribe blame for the situation, it's not so hard to make one call: this amount of public mudslinging is really bad PR.
For one thing, the community will likely be less apt to support KOOP in the face of such ugly strife. Says Alternative Radio host and producer David Barsamian: "If you're reading articles in paper about division, name-calling and nastiness, you're not going to be very inclined to give money."
The public brawling could be especially costly because KOOP is barely hanging on--sources say the station is lucky to pay its bills. In fact, the board is hoping to hire a new g.m. soon, and says it must find someone willing to work, at least initially, without pay. Wong's salary was only $20,000, according to the Chronicle.
The relatively good news is that KOOP's October fund drive was its most successful ever--bringing in more than $26,000 over two weeks, according to Guerrero. But observers say the station could do better.
And it may be the KOOP folks are severing ties to bigger dollars. Says Carol Pierson, president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters: "There's evidence to suggest that controversy doesn't affect fund drives but major-donor fundraising could be negatively affected."
The big loss for KOOP, she says, is "all of this energy that could be going to improve the station is going instead to fighting."
Even Ellinger, who struggled for 11 years to gain the KOOP license, is alienated. "The present state of KOOP and the actions of its board are terribly embarrassing for me, so much so I'm beginning to distance from the station."
So much for hopes that a recent Community Board election would release KOOP-FM volunteer programmers and trustees from the web of antagonism that's held them for the past year while the Austin station loses ground financially.
Within a few days after the Nov. 6 election deadline, station trustees invalidated the membership vote, saying that ballots were missing. There's no agreement about what actually happened. Trustees Chair Teresa Taylor says 15 percent of ballots from community organizations, which elect half of the 20-seat Community Board, were missing. A leading critic, KOOP founder Jim Ellinger, claims the trustees purposely undermined the process.
Angela Miller, a volunteer programmer who says she's allied with neither side in the KOOP wars, says it's clear ballots were stolen. "I saw a guy come to KOOP with ballots in his hand and [later] they were missing," she says. "The election was run by volunteers like myself. They were not 100 percent professional, and there were opportunities for theft. When we counted the ballots, someone sneaky could have snuck one in their pocket."
Friends of KOOP, a group of volunteers who say the trustees practice excessive political correctness, had hoped to gain a majority of seats on the Community Board, which could then recall the trustees.
The trustees haven't decided what to do next, but may hire an outside party to handle a repeat election, said Taylor. KOOP may have to seek someone willing to manage the vote for no pay, she said.
The Community Board election had problems from the start. Last month, trustees extended the original ballot deadline because, according to Taylor, not all KOOP members had received ballots. Ellinger, who charges that the trustees corrupted the democratic process in the past by undertaking votes that weren't properly announced or documented with minutes, thought the trustees might try to steal the election. He had a friend fashion a "steel reinforced double-shackled lock box," bolted to a wall, to store the ballots. The box didn't prevent controversy.
New interim manager
KOOP trustees and volunteer programmers have had a number of quarrels over matters such as the trustees' firing of longtime General Manager Jenny Wong. The trustees says the Friends group is racist and homophobic, resistant to opening the station to diverse groups. The programmers counter that the trustees are shamelessly race-baiting and arrogant.
KOOP has been without a manager since the board failed to renew Wong's contract in July. On Nov. 16, however, the board hired Marcelo Tafoya as interim g.m. Tafoya, who has owned and managed commercial Spanish-language station KRGT in Hutto and KLFB in Lubbock, takes charge of a station with empty coffers. Taylor said last month that the new g.m. would have to work without pay for a time.
A power struggle at Austin's KOOP-FM is in abeyance since a district court ordered the station's trustees and a volunteer-programmers' group, Friends of KOOP, to compromise on governance until a Community Board election in February.
Friends of KOOP hopes to win a majority of Community Board seats and oust the trustees, whom they accuse of race-baiting, Orwellian levels of political correctness, and verbal abuse (Current, Nov. 9). Trustees for their part say the Friends are unwilling to open the cooperatively run station to new, diverse groups. They accuse the group of racism, homophobia and harassing phone calls.
The court-approved compromise:
- temporarily gives two trustee seats to Friends of KOOP;
- requires major trustee decisions to be unanimous until the succeeding board is in place.
The trustees' first decision under the deal was choosing the Austin-based Nonprofit Center to oversee the February election.
This will be KOOP's second attempt at what is now an overdue vote. Trustees nullified a Nov. 6 election, saying ballots had been stolen (Current, Nov. 23, story above).
After the nullification, two members of Friends of KOOP--Michael Zakes and Jerome Chamkis--filed suit, seeking to have the board of trustees replaced by an oversight committee. Their suit accused the trustees of ignoring their own bylaws and financial mismanagement, citing such actions as the turning over of a $5,000 grant to a community group or trustees' alleged use of dedicated equipment funds for operating expenses. It also says KOOP has heavy outstanding debt, including lease payments owed Chamkis for a microwave relay system. But KOOP's interim g.m., Marcelo Tafoya, says the station is current on all its debt.
According to the Austin American-Statesman, Judge Fred Moore didn't want to appoint a receiver because the Community Board election was close at hand. He also said the station had too few assets to bother with receivership.
Web page posted Nov. 30, 1998
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee