Story last updated at 3:56 p.m. Thursday, November 21, 2002

KBBI controversy replays in election
by Carey James
Staff Writer

As the December date nears for the KBBI Board of Directors election, last winter's controversy over the radio's programming changes has resurfaced.

Four seats on the board are up for grabs, with only one incumbent, Ginger VanWagoner, running. Outgoing board members Ken Landfield and Hal Smith will be replaced, as will Dave Lyon, who stepped down from his seat a month ago.

As ballots and bios on the seven candidates hit the mailboxes of KBBI members, four candidates -- Cris Somers, Anne Wieland, Don Pitcher and Stephen Howell -- announced they are running as a block. Pitching a platform of change, the four are running in reaction to last winter's clash between volunteers, members and station management.

Dubbed "the winter's annual controversy," tempers flared when the station announced it would make several programming changes, including the elimination of the midmorning volunteer program, the "Breakfast Special." It, as well as other volunteer slots, was replaced with nationally syndicated programs.

While management said the changes still left plenty of volunteer time slots, many in the community didn't agree, and after much discussion, some of the volunteer programs were reinstated. Still, many say the hubbub left bad feelings between volunteers and management.

At this year's annual KBBI fund drive, the station raised $56,207 -- $18,167 less than last year. Donations in 2000 were $64,042. In addition, memberships, which climbed from 760 in 2000 to 817 in 2001, fell to 650 this year. Several local businesses also pulled their program underwriting dollars.

"We did pull our underwriting because of the flap with the volunteers," said Lee Post of the Homer Bookstore. "I was here when KBBI first got started, and it was 100 percent volunteers. To go from that to acting like volunteers are not what we want seems ludicrous. If I wanted to listen to canned radio, I can go to other places."

Post said the Homer Bookstore's support of KBBI was the largest nonprofit donation the business made. "We supported public radio because it was something we felt strongly about," he said.

In addition to business underwriting, individuals pulled their memberships this year as well. Among them is Glen Caldwell, one of the volunteer DJs on the "Breakfast Special."

"I, as (do) many members of the community, feel completely disenfranchised by management's treatment of the community and its volunteers," he said. "Am I a disgruntled, displaced volunteer? It's hard to say no to that. But the truth is, I did love listening to morning radio. It was just an extra thing to be able to participate in that time slot."

Candidate Somers and others in the four-person block cite the declining membership and donation dollars as an indication of discontent within the community.

"Our block platform is basically to bring the community back together with the radio station," Somers said. "People are still thinking this is all about the Breakfast Special, and it's not. It's all about ... how to get and maintain support from the community and bring back the disenfranchised members and volunteers."

KBBI General Manager Susan Kernes said the decline in membership and donation dollars is consistent with the current trends nationwide, and that a record number of new donors called in to KBBI this year and last. As well, she said, nine out of 10 listeners to KBBI are not members.

"We are not driven by how many memberships we get," she said. "Member-ships are not a good indicator of listener satisfaction. Audience surveys are."

Kernes said the station plans to conduct just such a survey in the spring.

"Frankly, if there are people who aren't supporting us now, oh well. It's human nature for people to resist change," she said.

One of the greater issues in the KBBI board elections is how much impact the board can actually have on the station programming. While Somers and the rest of the block advocating change say they want to send out a membership survey and have the station respond accordingly, Kernes said she would resist being micromanaged.

"There's a professional staff here who kind of knows their business. Boards of directors don't necessarily know (the business of running a radio station)," she said. "They do have a sense of community, and need to work with the executive director to gain a consensus and agreement about what needs to happen in that agency."

Somers said if elected, she doesn't plan to go in and tell the station what programs to put on. But she said the board intends to be as responsive as possible to the community and the membership. If the community truly embraces the new programming, then it should continue, she said.

But, she said, most of the people she's talked to during her campaign do not support the changes.

"People still have this very much in the forefront of their minds," she said. "They are not satisfied that the station is listening to the community."

Somers said she appreciates much of the work Kernes does, especially in fund raising, and said replacing Kernes would be a "very burdensome process."

"It would be much better to figure out how we can all work together toward the same goal," she said.

Kernes said, however, that Somers and others make up a vocal minority with "an ax to grind."

"I believe that if a few people hadn't made all this fuss, the community would be fine (with the programming changes)," Kernes said. "My fear is that if they ascend to the board, it will seriously disrupt all the things we have going if they divert our focus to satisfy their personal requests."

Also on the ballot, advocating support for KBBI's current direction, are David Raskin, Mark Talley and incumbent VanWagoner.

Raskin said in his candidate statement that he has been involved in public radio for 20 years, and believes his past involvement with fund raising will prove helpful during these "critical times."

Talley is a volunteer DJ at KBBI who has voiced his support for the station. He said he believes that claims the station is anti-volunteers are unfounded.

VanWagoner has served on the board since 1999 and volunteers weekly. She also has helped organize many of KBBI's musical events, and participates twice yearly in the membership drive.

To vote in the Dec. 2 election, members had to sign up by Nov. 2. Ballots must be mailed or hand-delivered to the station by Dec. 2. For more information, call 235-7721.

Carey James can be reached at cjames@homernews.com.

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