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Ex-programmer wins $800K suit against California’s KKJZ

Originally published in Current, Jan. 17, 2006
By Mike Janssen

A California judge has ordered KKJZ-FM in Long Beach to pay almost $800,000 to a former programmer and found the station and its g.m. had committed fraud, misrepresentation and breach of contract. The station will appeal.

General Manager Judy Jankowski retired from KKJZ Dec. 8 [2005], a month after the ruling. Jankowski could not be reached for comment, but station staffers say she retired to travel, not because of the judgment. “We weren’t feeling the type of pressure that would cause her to resign over something like that,” says Sean Heitkemper, interim g.m.

Rene Engel, the program manager from spring 2001 to fall 2002, sued the station in 2003, asserting that Jankowski promised him long-term job security and a six-figure salary to lure him from his previous job as g.m. of KCSN-FM in Northridge, Calif.

Engel’s attorneys argued that Jankowski was irresponsible to promise Engel such a high salary because KKJZ, then using its longtime call letters KLON, was losing money in 2001. By the time of Engel’s departure, the station’s money problems had improved. Yet Jankowski told him she was firing him for financial reasons, they said.

Attorneys for Pacific Public Radio, which operates KKJZ under an agreement with California State University, Long Beach, responded that the financial concerns were legitimate and that forecasting revenue at a public radio station is “very difficult.” Stations often grapple with dramatic swings in cash flow between fund drives, they argued.

Siding with Engel, Superior Court Judge Judith C. Chirlin found Jankowski showed a “reckless disregard for truth” when she made her promises. The station’s budgeting practices “were so haphazard and unreliable as to make any commitment of long-term employment reckless and irresponsible,” the judge said. She awarded Engel $779,881 in damages.

KKJZ’s attorneys will challenge the decision in state appeals court. If they lose the case, a $1 million insurance plan will cover Engel’s damages.

Station leaders defend Jankowski and dispute the judge’s verdict. KKJZ Board Chairman Jeffrey Adler argues that Engel’s firing was permissible because, as an at-will employee, he had no guarantee of long-term employment.

As for the attacks on KKJZ’s financial planning, “I don’t think the judge truly understands the nature of public radio,” Adler says. “I’d say we’re an average, healthy public radio station, which means that we always will have cash-flow problems and always will be looking to increase our donor base.”

KKJZ has operated in the red since fiscal year 2000. In fiscal year 2004, its expenses of more than $3.3 million exceeded income by about $277,000. CPB withheld $69,633 from the station's later grants because it overstated non-federal financial support earned from its annual blues festival. Adler blames the ongoing shortfalls on equipment upgrades and a shrinking audience for KKJZ’s jazz and blues format. He expects the station to finish this fiscal year in the black.

“We’re pleased with the direction the station is headed in and credit a lot of that to Judy’s hand on the tiller for the many years she was there,” he says.

Correction: As printed and originally posted on the Web, this article misstated the results of an audit of the station’s CPB grants in fiscal years 1998 through 2000. KKJZ’s overstatements of nonfederal financial support resulted in CPB grant overpayments of $69,633, not “more than $500,000,” as the article stated. Also, the station did not repay the money, as the article stated. The money was withheld from Community Service Grants that were later awarded to KKJZ.

Web page posted Jan. 17, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee

Engel in 2002
(Photo courtesy
of Dr. Jazz.)

EARLIER ARTICLE

CPB and its inspector general are often dealing with several cases of alleged grant overpayment such as the dispute involving KKJZ.

LINKS

Website of the station known to listeners as KJAZZ 88.1.

The station has completed part of its fundraising campaign to improve its signal and facilities.

In photo on KKJZ's website, Jankowski speaks at the station's annual Jazz and Blues Festival last Labor Day weekend.

Los Angeles County Board proclaims Sam Fields Day, Jan. 8, 2006, honoring a KKJZ host who died in 2005.

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