KAZI's True Colors

The Reverend Frank Garrett Pushes KAZI to the Edge

by Louisa C. Brinsmade

KAZI 88.7 FM has a PR problem -- he is the Reverend Frank Garrett, Jr., host of the morning talk show Wake Up Call. The Reverend has been accused of misusing KAZI's airwaves by making racist and homophobic remarks, and preaching divisiveness to one of the city's most disadvantaged communities.

As a non-profit, non-commercial public radio station, KAZI's stated mission is to serve up black music, commentary, news, history, and culture. The controversy over Garrett's comments, however, has not only thrown the station off that mission, but it has driven KAZI's Board of Directors into a battle over control of the station. It's the kind of scandal that not only symbolizes, but defines the station's ongoing challenge: to foster a sense of professionalism at all levels, ranging from the enforcement of station policy curbing racist and sexist remarks, to keeping the programmers' log straight.

As a member of KAZI's Board of Directors, Garrett has also been in the odd position of influencing station policy on matters that affect the content of his show; and the strain on the board is showing. Over the past two weeks, the 13-member board has been threatened by Garrett with a lawsuit should they take action to remove him, and has become divided over support for and against the Reverend. And, to add insult to injury, the board was summarily disbanded two weeks ago by its own president. At the bottom of this mess is the question of what to do with Garrett and others at the station who flaunt station rules. What for most radio stations would be a simple matter of enforcing station policy at KAZI has become a political issue tinged with race, conspiracy theories, and backbiting.

Some peace may be at hand, however. Despite being dismissed by their president, Pat Richards, eight of the directors refused to comply and met on Tuesday, November14 for their regular monthly meeting. Having a quorum, they voted to remove Richards, Garrett, and another Garrett supporter, Michelle Bocknite, from the board, citing those directors' obvious distaste for participating on the current body. None of the three were present. (Neither were two other directors, Carl Serles and Kyle Turner, but the board noted for the record that the two are welcome to stay on.) The board then took up regular station business for the remainder of the meeting. Will this house-cleaning do the job? It might send a message to Garrett, who continues to host the Wake Up Call every morning at 6:50am, that he's not the one in charge.

Board director and attorney Bobby Taylor says he and other members "laughed" when they got Richards' letter on November 3 disbanding the board. "We were shocked... She cannot do it. We have bylaws and proper process," he says. "I don't know what advice she's taken to make her think she can do this." And he's right. The board's bylaws specifically restrict the board to proper procedure and a majority vote to remove directors. Richards had also planned to handpick new members, stating in her letter that she would "announce shortly the results of this restructuring effort as well as a new board of KAZI." The idea being, according to many directors, to form a board that would support Richards and Garrett. Although she did speak with this reporter several weeks ago, Richards did not return repeated phone calls from the Chronicle regarding her attempt to disband the board.

Despite the current situation, however, Taylor contends that the board "is not divided." He says his main concern is "not to let the station fall by any foolishness I see going on here. I think we've got problems, but we have one goal as a board, and that's to do what is best for KAZI."

Taylor also expressed his main concern -- echoed by other directors -- that the community thinks that Garrett -- who has until now been both a programmer and a board member -- represents the views of the entire board. That potential for a conflict of interest didn't faze Garrett, who, while he was still on the board, wrote in a letter to the directors last month for the October meeting, that "Anyone on this board that is a part of the WPPL (White Pervert Protection League)... will be exposed as well as sued if there is any attempt to remove me from this board or off the air." The board will notify Garrett of his removal in writing this week -- it remains to be seen if he will follow through on his threat.

Garrett supports Richards, who is apparantly not part of the "WPPL," in her attempt to disband the board; he wrote a letter, dated November 13, to Travis County Court Judge Richard Scott, complaining about the "dissident members of the board" who will do "irreparable damage to the station" by rejecting Richards' attempt to reorganize the board. Garrett asked the judge for a restraining order to prevent board directors from meeting without having been called together by Richards. In response, Judge Scott's clerk wrote a letter to the directors suggesting mediation; a meeting was set up for November 18 at the Omni Hotel. None of the eight directors at Tuesday's meeting plan to attend.

In the currency of today's talk radio, the Reverend Garrett may fit right in -- Sammy Allred and Bob Cole on KVET, and Rush Limbaugh and Paul Pryor on KLBJ, are not exactly champions of racial and sexual equality; many of their on-air jokes are considered rude and offensive, and they rarely apologize for them. He may have a different ideology from the familiar voices heard on talk radio, but Garrett can be no less rude and offensive.

Garrett has been with the station off and on since they first went on the air in August of 1982; the long-running Wake Up Call show is one of the only forums on KAZI for news and commentary, and as such, the program is highly valued among its devoted listeners. But critics worry that too often, Garrett abuses his power -- berating his opponents, other races, and homosexuals.

In September, during the debate at City Hall over four city-owned lots of greenspace in Swede Hill, a predominantly white neighborhood in Central East Austin, the issue for Garrett was race. Former congressional candidate Jo Baylor, an African-American, wanted to develop the lots, and found support for her project in Councilmember Eric Mitchell. The majority of Swede Hill residents objected to the development of the greenspace, which they had used and maintained for 17 years as a neighborhood park. They were also critical of Mitchell and city housing department staff for failing to notify the neighborhood of the impending development, and include them in discussions.

In response, during the second week of September, Garrett attacked Swede Hill Neighborhood Association President Mike Tolleson and the other residents on the air:

"Just to serve notice, that we ain't going nowhere. If anybody's going anyplace, it will be you. So, kind of a message to the Mike Tollesons and the rest of the blue-eyed demagogues who are trying to rule East Austin. It ain't gonna happen, so find you somebody else to play with, and find you someplace else to make non-progressive. And rightly so, because we have to assert ourselves now. We have been sitting around, waiting for America to be fair, waiting for this system to do us some justice. And if you don't know by now that it ain't coming from benevolence, it's only going to come from a unified front, and a unified action, you are indeed asleep at the wheel."

Swede Hill resident Casey Monahan heard the show and sent a letter to the KAZI board complaining that Garrett's comments were advocating racial divisiveness by suggesting that white people don't belong in East Austin, and that Garrett was just plain wrong.

A week later, on September 21, Garrett told a joke on the air about Olympic diver Greg Louganis, who is homosexual and HIV-positive, that incensed KAZI engineer Jerry Chamkis. At the time, Chamkis was also on KAZI's board. Chamkis never made a tape of the show, but in interviews, Garrett doesn't deny that he told the joke. Chamkis says Garrett related a story out of USA Today about a gay and lesbian group at Notre Dame that was restricted from meeting on campus. Garrett, he says, suggested that since the UT football team was going up there to play the following weekend, they should "put Greg Louganis out on the field, and if he comes out of one end, that's fine, if not, that's even better." Chamkis, who is gay, says he called Garrett and "lit into him," then sent him a private letter attacking him for his gay-bashing remarks. "Do you listen to what you say in front of the microphone? This morning you advocated the severe beating, preferably murder, of a gay man," read the letter.

Garrett responded with four-page letter that was passed out at the next board meeting on October 9. Chamkis' letter was attached, and copies had been sent to the City Manager, Councilmember Eric Mitchell, 16 other city and county officials and East Austin community leaders, and three East Austin newspapers with the parenthetical comment, "for publication if you desire." The letter contains various disparaging remarks about homosexuals and allegations of conspiracy. Suffice it to say that Garrett began with the remark that he read Chamkis' letter "while wearing rubber gloves," and went on to say that male homosexuals in general are "boys who want to be girls," and that they "should have stayed in the closet." The letter also described those directors who disagree with him as the "White Pervert Protection League," or "WPPL."

For several days following, Garrett continually referred on the air to a "sissy" who was conspiring against him -- though he never mentioned Chamkis by name.

When two African-American female directors expressed their objections to Garrett about his Louganis comments, Garrett published an editorial in NOKOA the Observer on September 22, calling the women "two colored girls," and Chamkis an "atheist racist poor boy." All three, he wrote, were plotting against him. "The success and popularity of the Wake Up Call doesn't register with them because it is about black empowerment, strong black men, and united black couples, families, and organizations. If it was about feminist foolishness and political correctness that condones deviant sexual behavior, they would be happy. Because the station has long suffered due to directors with no concern about the station's progress, this ongoing conspiracy to put a muzzle on me is offensive, but par for the course," he wrote.

In another editorial printed in NOKOA on September 29, Garrett again wrote in vague terms about the confrontation with Chamkis, but unsuccessfully attempted a more benevolent tone: "I tolerate the racists and perverts because they really need an advocate." He went on to say, however, that he "will not be disrespected by the boy bitches..."

That editorial was criticized in the next week's NOKOA by fellow columnist Dr. Jeremiah Jarvis, who asked that the Rev. Garrett practice more "Christian" tolerance. Dismissing it as "crap," Garrett also wielded the race card in his column a week later in his response, calling Jarvis an "Aryan."

Garrett says he has since calmed down -- perhaps even taken on a little of that Christian tolerance -- or it might be a play for the cameras. In interviews, he talks about his rejection of the extreme right in the form of the Christian Coalition. That crowd, he says, "is extremely both bigoted, homophobic, almost the anti-Christ of what the Lord, in my estimation, really stands for in the world."

At the same time, Garrett admits that his comments are "prejudiced." Does he call himself a bigot? Garrett answers, "To a certain extent, yes." And how does he relate that with having preached against intolerance towards his own race? "Easy. I am what I am," is his answer. In fact, throughout the interview, Garrett makes no apologies for his inflammatory comments on the air, and defends his right to do so under the First Amendment.

Then there's this statement, more explanation than repentance: "People say, `What's your greatest task', and I say that's to make sure that Frank doesn't get Reverend Garrett into some serious trouble because Reverend Garrett is a good person, and he is truly a person who cares for everybody. But Frank is limited and he has some serious character flaws. I accept that about myself."

In the mid-Eighties, Garrett was embroiled in a situation similar to this one, in which he denigrated a fellow programmer for carrying on a wild lifestyle. Garrett identified the man by name, and got himself kicked off the air by the board. Then-board chair Linda Lewis says, "the board was outraged. You can't get on the air and say slanderous things about people. We were $20,000 in debt at the time, directors were calling each other saying he just got us a lawsuit. But the hardest part was explaining to Frank what was wrong with that. I really don't think he got it."

Critics call him a small-
town huckster preacher, but Garrett, who serves as pastor at the Bethel St. Paul United Baptist Church in Giddings, defends his message, which can be aggressively inspirational, albeit divisive. "I come out of the Civil Rights era, so I used to tell folk, much to their chagrin, that I was a recovering racist, because for a long time, I actually wondered what white folk were for... There was a closer, more cohesive community of black people when it was segregated. There are people who say I have a segregationist attitude anyway." And Garrett doesn't hang his hat on the idea that, as a minister, his job is to preach peace and love. "People say, `Well, you're a minister, you're supposed to be forgiving.' But I serve a God that killed millions of people out of his wrath. And I truly believe in that God... If divisiveness works, then let's be divided. We will not compromise. I won't compromise on the principles that I have just to let somebody sit at the table and say we have a diverse culture."

Station Manager Michael Coleman -- who has only been with the station since June, and gets high praise from programmers and directors alike -- explains that Garrett, 53, appeals to older African-American listeners from a generation that defines its right to lead by its experiences in the Civil Rights era. "Many young people don't have those same experiences," says Coleman, "and eventually, they will define their leaders differently... He speaks -- or hopes to -- for those who feel oppressed."

Coleman praises Garrett for giving the station "backbone, by bringing a voice to the community. He lets folks know you don't have to stand around and get kicked -- you don't have to let the man do it for you." And Garrett's show does offer that to the black community, with inspirational speeches about black pride, the need for education, and the racism and disparities in today's society.

And for all the recent swirl around what Garrett has done "wrong," he wins praise from his supporters for his dedication to the station in terms of fundraising and acquiring resources for KAZI. Garrett negotiated the station's $10,000 contract with the city to broadcast city council meetings on Thursdays, and got the city to donate a house that was available for relocation from Bergstrom Air Force Base, as well as the lot on East 12th Street which will become the station's future home. Garrett is also considered a powerful community leader in East Austin for his fundraising efforts on teen causes and for dedicating time at East Austin schools. A common phrase Garrett repeats is that "The strong must bear the infirmities of the weak," and Coleman stresses that the man lives it. "Look at what he does for the community. He's really coming from a positive attitude."

Garrett has broken no FCC regulations with his comments, but, even in the opinion of supporters like Richards and Coleman, Garrett has breached station policy and ethics by carrying out personal vendettas. Coleman acknowledges that it is not the direction the station wants to take. "Absolutely not," was Richards' reply on October 26 when asked if Garrett's on-air remarks about "blue-eyed demagogues" is in line with station policy. At the time, Richards defended Garrett's right to say whatever he wishes, within FCC rules, as long as he plays a disclaimer before and after his show. Richards herself, however, has not heard Garrett's on-air comments, saying she "chose not to listen to the tapes." Asked why, she said that if she had to listen, she "would be taking up one of his shows at every board meeting. If Frank has made statements on the air that are inflammatory, there is a whole procedure that will be followed." Asked if anyone had followed that procedure, Richards said she didn't know.

In fact, the only procedure that occured at the meeting in October, following Garrett's Louganis joke and on-air comments about blue-eyed demagogues, was a vote to remove Chamkis from the board for making the issue public. The embarrassment, rather than the issue, was dealt with. Although Garrett acknowledged having publicized this issue on the air and in East Austin newspapers, he argued that it was among "black people. That is about our business." (At Tuesday's meeting, the eight directors reinstated Chamkis as a formality; Chamkis officially resigned following his reinstatement, citing his desire to move on to other projects. He is now the engineer for another non-commercial station, KOOP 91.7 FM.)

In fairness to Garrett, he's not the only programmer who has ignored the station's policies regarding what you can say on the air. And Bobby Taylor reiterates that point. "I'm not going to name names, because there are several people this applies to. The station has a policy against racism and sexism. We, as a board, have not been as strict in enforcing the policies as we will [be] in the future. There have been words used or referenced that should not have been used or referenced. We have now taken it upon ourselves to be the watchdogs and monitor the shows. There will not be any racism in the future."

The newest board member, Richard Smith, who replaced Beverly Shaw as the designated programmers' representative, ran awry of station ethics on his own show, Talk Time, which airs at midnight weekdays. When a young gay, black male called in to his show in September and asked about support resources for someone of his sexual preference, Smith basically told him to go straight. He has since apologized.

"Any talk show that's done irresponsibly does more harm than good. If [Wake Up Call] falls into that catagory, so be it. That goes for mine, too," says Smith, adding that, "I've tried to tell the board things that would avoid this conversation.."

Truth is, while KAZI's record for professionalism has been spotty at best, the programming is better than ever. After spending the better part of the last 10 years mired in what music critics call "Quiet Storm" -- soft jazz and other kinds of commercial, but mediocre black music styles, KAZI seems to have successfully returned to black music's roots, with a hefty dose of reggae, traditional jazz, R&B classics, and spiritual programming. Combined with educational shows like Tuesday afternoon's Economic Perspectives and new programmer Gus Pena's weekly forum on gangs and adolescents, KAZI is fighting its way back to its original goals of community involvement and education.

In addition, Coleman gets raves from staff and directors on both sides of the fence for organizing programmers and building morale. Coleman, a former sports anchor for KXAN, joined KAZI this past June, and in six months "has done more to help this station than anyone before," according to former director Beverly Shaw. That kind of support for a station manager is rare on the board, which has done a fair amount of micromanaging, says Coleman. His primary concern, he insists, is to be allowed to do what he was hired to do -- run things and report to the directors. He's also done more than his fair share of bringing in money, a badly needed commodity at KAZI. Underwriting accounts have doubled since Coleman took the helm, says Shaw, who hosts a Saturday reggae show.

And what no one wants this reporter to forget is the dedication of the 60 or so volunteers who really represent KAZI. "They're the lifeblood of the station," stresses former director Shaw. "KAZI is the best secret in Austin."

"People are dedicated," says Coleman. "I asked each and every volunteer why they stay at KAZI, and they say because they want to see it work. I'm annoyed by all this crazy stuff going on -- there's a bigger issue than this, and that's the progress of KAZI. My goal is have more programs, to have a race forum, sort of a town meeting, with Frank Garrett, other races -- all kinds of folks in the city."

"KAZI is critical to the entire community, not just the black community. What it does can't be done anywhere else, by anyone else, in any form, shape, or fashion," says Smith. That's the message that sticks -- Coleman and Smith both talk about it most -- that KAZI, as the black community station, is important for the whole of Austin. That learning about the black community, and staying in touch with our diverse cultures, is what makes us whole.

In former board chair Lewis' words, "The real challenge [at KAZI] is to continually define the cooperative radio dream... Sometimes we got off on tangents counter to our mission." The same holds true now, but as Taylor explains, "We don't want this station to be caught up in politics and games. KAZI is not one person's station or soapbox... KAZI has survived for 13 years, and I'm sure it will go on for at least another 13. We are going to grow from this... We are going to have our regularly scheduled monthly meetings, and we're not going to let any problems like this get in the way."

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