Austin's "community-owned" radio station is once again fractured into factions.

Illustration By Doug Potter

Though it's a stretch to compare the war at KOOP 91.7 FM to the U.S. government's ongoing conflict with Saddam Hussein, there are some similarities. Both have simmered for years under the radar screen while casualties have piled up. In neither case is there much accountability to the public whose money is being spent. And after a series of minor flare-ups over the years, tensions have now reached the boiling point -- leaving progressive activists shaking their heads and shrugging as disaster looms on the horizon.

At KOOP, Austin's "community-owned" radio station, the latest chain of conflicts stems from what station regulars call "the May 21 incident." On that date, KOOP board member Gilka Cespedes invited several newly elected colleagues to the station's East Fifth Street office to discuss perceived irregularities in the station's financial management. Also in attendance were a licensed accountant (and KOOP member) and a computer professional. Hoping to obtain a "snapshot" of the station's financial records -- partly an effort to avoid liability for any past activity -- the group agreed to let the computer professional compress the financial records, stored on an office computer, and send the info to all board members via e-mail. Had the attempt been successful (it wasn't), members would have received back-up copies of the data inaccessible to others without the "key" or password to unlock the file. Cespedes would not discuss the situation with the Chronicle. But KOOP programmer Pam Thompson, one of the newly inducted board members who took part in the incident (and was shortly thereafter removed from the board), said the group was hoping to use the data for an audit.

KOOP board president Taylor Cage says he hadn't been informed of the May 21 exploratory mission until a fellow board member e-mailed him that morning about a "raid" planned on the office. He was not happy: The May 21 action was not officially sanctioned by the board, he complains, and the financial files in question included private information about donors. Moreover, compressing the files caused a glitch in the computer that required the station to replace it and restore lost records, costing $1,000 and one or two months of work, he said. "People who participated in the May 21 action were no doubt acting under different motives, some even noble," he wrote to station programmers and members in a recent e-mail. "However, their actions endangered KOOP's financial records and confidential membership information."

As often happens at KOOP, several of the board's seven members tried to oust Cespedes at its Sept. 29 meeting. After an hour or so of debate about process, the board finally agreed to meet in executive session and eventually split on whether to jettison Cespedes, who then left the meeting. But the trouble didn't end there: In her absence the board, still in executive session, voted 3-2 to suspend as programmers Thompson and her partner Stefan Wray, who have co-hosted KOOP's Friday evening news show for the past five years, presumably for attending the May 21 meeting. Their station membership was not revoked, nor was the news program suspended -- it remains unfilled, with other programmers temporarily running the show.

In the past, Cage says, programmers have been suspended for neglecting their volunteer requirements, stealing CDs, refusing to follow FCC/broadcast procedures, even threatening other KOOP members (at the annual station meeting, no less), usually by a simple majority vote of the board. But since current KOOP bylaws don't include any provisions giving the board power to suspend programmers, and their suspension wasn't even listed on the board's agenda, Wray and Thompson believe the vote was illegal and is subject to appeal.

"One person on the board said we were suspended because we brought the press [to the Sept. 29 meeting]," Thompson said during a programmers meeting held Monday night at the AFL-CIO headquarters. "We weren't suspended technically according to the rules, even if there's good reason. It just didn't happen." About 50 KOOP board members, programmers, and members took a symbolic vote on whether yanking Wray and Thompson off the air was fair. The two exiled programmers received more support than opposition, but in a telling display of the station's discombobulation, more attendees abstained than voted yes or no.

"If it happened to us, it could happen to you as well," Thompson warned the as-yet unsuspended. She and Wray say they haven't been told which KOOP rules they violated, informed of their rights, or given a chance to defend themselves, among other things. Some attendees apparently took heed. "We should have a right to know what's going down," said one programmer, addressing his complaint to board members present. "It's like you're trying to hide something." Though the station follows a standard set of bylaws, no written policies exist to smoothly rectify complicated situations like the May 21 incident, giving the board much leeway in making decisions that often seem arbitrary. "The board can do pretty much what it wants," another programmer told the Chronicle Monday. "And it does."

According to KOOP Treasurer Bob White, who supported Cespedes' ouster and the suspension of the two programmers, specific policy matters are addressed in meeting minutes. "We need to go through all those things," he said Monday. Nevertheless, he believes the May 21 incident could have been avoided had the new board members asked him for the financial data they sought. Any KOOP member is entitled to see non-confidential information, he said.

Meanwhile, Thompson and Wray will continue fighting their suspension; they say the members who seemed most eager to take them off the dial haven't officially said whether the suspension is permanent. Both programmers support a list of recommendations made by the Nonprofit Center, an organization that several years ago began monitoring KOOP's election process upon the request of a district judge and has since advised the board in matters regarding finance, membership, and programming. The pair sought the center's help in meeting with Cage and others in an attempt to keep their Friday evening slot, or at least to help determine their replacement. Earlier this week, Wray sent a letter to the Austin Arts Commission asking members to intervene at KOOP, which receives funding through the city's cultural contracts program.

The Nonprofit Center's recommendations include revising the KOOP bylaws, spelling out policies, and declaring a general "amnesty" to avoid "inappropriate or arbitrary actions" involving members. Cage says the board and the station's community council (an advisory body that elects the board) will discuss the proposals at the council's Oct. 22 meeting. "I hope that, as people learn more about this situation, they'll see it as something more than one side trying to 'get it over' on another side," said Cage. "Something very bad happened on May 21, something that put our members at jeopardy, and KOOP needs to take care of that."

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KOOP, 91.7 FM, Gilka Cespedes, Pam Thompson, Taylor Cage, Nonprofit Center, community radio, Stefan Wray, Bob White

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