New Power Structure Could Mean Curtains for KOOP The End is Near

Photo of Eduardo Vera

Eduardo Vera, KOOP Comunity Board member and much-villified memeber of the "Cadre"

photograph by Jana Birchum

KOOP Radio is doomed. That is the only conclusion I can reach after viewing the events of the past two weeks. The great experiment to combine democracy with public media is on the brink of collapse under the combined weight of holier-than-thou political correctness, irresponsible fiscal and management decisions, arrogant policy decisions, employee resignations, and the crushed morale of volunteers and programmers. This is not something which has to happen, but it surely will, because the people who have caused these problems have shown no sign of letting up or admitting the possibility that they might be wrong.

It surely isn't necessary by now to recount every detail of this sordid saga's history, but to refresh our memories: Over a year ago, programmers at the cooperatively run community station began complaining about KOOP's seven-member board of trustees. They complained that the board itself had come to power through questionable elections, and once in power, began making heavy-handed decisions with little input from membership, alienating employees, programmers, and volunteers with an imperious, insulting management style. The board and its supporters were given the derogatory nickname of "the Cadre."

In response, a large group of programmers and other members formed a group named Friends of KOOP, and began a move to recall the trustees, then eventually decided to try to remove the board through normal election processes, despite misgivings about the board's ability to conduct a fair election. When the board invalidated the election for the station's community board (the body which in turn elects the trustees) in November amid allegations of ballot-stealing, two members decided that was the final straw and filed a lawsuit to remove the board. Instead, a Travis County judge ordered that the elections be re-held under the direction of a neutral third party.

On Feb. 18, that election was completed, and surprisingly, the Cadre scored a decisive victory. Despite some very close races -- some decided by a little as one vote -- candidates endorsed by Communities for Community Media, a pro-Cadre group, took 15 of the community board's 20 seats. And thus begins the end.

Of course, the obvious question is, if these trustees were so unpopular, how did their supporters win so handily? This is hard to decipher. One possibility, of course, is that the board wasn't as hated as it appeared, and this election actually represents the will of the membership. But that doesn't explain the membership meeting held by Friends last summer in which hundreds of members overwhelmingly passed a resolution of no confidence in the board. Nor does it explain programmers meetings and other station meetings which have become two-hour expressions of virulent anger toward the board.

There is also the possibility that the election wasn't properly carried out by the neutral third party, the Non-Profit Center, an Austin-based organization which provides resources to struggling nonprofits. The original plaintiffs in the lawsuit have already filed a contempt-of-court motion to strike down the election, claiming irregularities in the mailing of the ballots to members, and violations in properly following station bylaws. The Non-Profit Center maintains that it ran a very secure election and that it followed station bylaws as closely as possible, although it admits that it did vary from strict adherence to the bylaws in certain areas.

We'll save exploration of those charges for a later column, when they come before a court -- right now, even bigger bombshells are dropping. The newly elected community board immediately began moving to fill vacancies among the trustees. Too immediately, the Friends claim. On Sunday, the community board interviewed trustee applicants, and then installed Hannah Riddering, Glen Riley, and former AISD board member Diana Castañeda into the seats the next night, in a meeting held at the same time as a required programmers meeting -- thus preventing the programmers from attending.

The Friends labeled this as "fast-tracking" the decision, to move before opposition had time to organize. Former station manager Bala Wong (formerly known as Jenny Wong, and controversially fired by the outgoing board of trustees last summer) attempted to slow the process down by warning the community board that if they continued fast-tracking, she would demand that the approximately $12,000 in back wages owed to her be paid in full immediately, claiming, "I can no longer financially support this process." Despite the station's precarious financial situation -- including near-empty bank accounts and debts already owed to lawyers from the lawsuit and an earlier legal battle with the University of Texas -- the board proceeded anyway, and indignantly passed a resolution saying it felt "threatened" and that her demand was an attempt "to influence the electoral process."

Meanwhile, down the hall in the programmers meeting, assistant station manager Ellen Stader was tearfully announcing her resignation and bitterly denouncing the outgoing trustees, saying, "Don't you ever treat another employee the way you have treated me, especially if you claim to be experts on labor." [See box, below.]

Some programmers were tossing about the possibility of striking to protest the process, which, if it happens, could come at a critical time -- right as the station prepares for its biannual fundraising drive. One programmer said, "I can't in good conscience ask people to give money to the station when I don't support what is going on." Realizing that such a move would be the death blow to the station, most programmers felt that would be "cutting off our nose to spite our face."

The Cadre's response was predictable: Rather than trying to find some sort of compromise to placate the people who create the station's excellent programming, community board member Paul Hernandez told the programmers to "quit whining," and to fight back through the electoral process -- never mind the previously stated questions about that process.

Be Very Afraid

But as we said, there is one frightening possibility that must be considered here: That the election results, even if improper, actually represent the true will of KOOP membership. If these really are the representatives that KOOP members want to run the station, then I congratulate them: They have successfully installed a bunch of demagogues and flat-out liars who have shown themselves completely willing to risk the station's financial viability to stand on overly P.C. and lefter-than-thou principle.

They have installed people who have been willing to hurl accusations of homophobia, sexism, and racism at those who dare disagree with them, even if there were flimsy or even non-existent bases for such charges, and who have never once acknowledged that many of their most ardent critics are gays and lesbians, women, and people of color.

They have installed people who alienated and eventually ran off Pacifica Radio, the venerable, pacifist-oriented radio network, acting as if a labor dispute between Pacifica and its workforce somehow made the network equivalent to a bunch of union-busting sweatshop operators.

They have installed people who gave away a $5,000 grant from the Elton John Foundation, claiming that KOOP had become a dangerous environment for homosexuals. They did so despite the fact that many gays and lesbians dispute this allegation, and did it at a time of extreme financial distress for the station. They also failed to hire adequate staff last year, and then blamed Wong for the station's financial problems and fired her.

They have installed people who will use the lowest, dirtiest of tactics to win their election, tactics worthy of the most unscrupulous politicians: Prior to the election, Communities for Community Media sent out an endorsement postcard which began, "Friends and members of KOOP..." The confusion which such a card could cause by appropriating the opposition's name is obvious.

They have installed people who have characterized this whole conflict as a "right-wing coup," an utterly ludicrous lie -- at worst, some of the Friends could be described as liberals, and most probably consider themselves on the extreme left. More honestly, this would be characterized as a disagreement between progressives, all claiming allegiance to the peace and justice movement.

Some people have complained that "Media Clips" has devoted an inordinate amount of time to this controversy. I disagree -- KOOP is the best, most interesting station in town, with a combination of fantastic music, cultural diversity, and badly needed public affairs programming. This amazing experiment, combining democracy with media, is of extreme importance in the increasingly corporate-dominated broadcasting world.

But sadly, I predict that those who want "Media Clips" to move on to other topics will get their wish soon. If events continue on this course, the Cadre is going to run the station to financial ruin -- bet on it. The only thing that will save them is if many angry, alienated station members continue giving money to save their favorite shows, despite misgivings about how responsibly that money will be spent.

I hope I'm wrong, and that the station's leadership embarrasses me by leading the station to a new era of cooperation and stability. But I've seen nothing to give me confidence, and much to give me fear.

For previous Chronicle coverage of the KOOP story, see the "Media Clips" columns of July 17 and Nov. 11, 1998.

Women's Voices

I would have preferred to devote this entire column to the fourth annual International Women's Day Community Media Festival, but the stupidity above has forced this into a single paragraph: On Monday, March 8, KAZI (88.7FM), KOOP (91.7FM), Austin Community Access Channel 10, and Monsterbit Media ( will present an entire day of female-produced and women-oriented programming. I encourage everyone to tune in. And I encourage you to tune out Watergate villian G. Gordon Liddy, who will be making a KJFK-sponsored appearance in Austin for a special broadcast of his right-wing radio show on Friday. (See the Chronicle's Community listings on p.84 for more details on that.)

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