April 3, 2013 —
Let’s talk about WJFF.
People who have been following the local news know that something is up at WJFF. They know that a big meeting—standing-room-only at the village meeting room in Jeffersonville—took place on March 20. They know that frustrated volunteers and listeners spoke passionately, eloquently and sometimes forcefully to the board and to the station manager about the substantial degradation of our once vibrant, responsive and community-centered radio station.
More than 25 years ago, radio station founders Anne Larsen and Malcolm Brown had a vision. They planned to start a hydro-powered community radio station in rural Sullivan County, which would be staffed mainly by volunteers. With the help of friends and neighbors who literally built WJFF with their own hands, Malcolm and Anne’s dream came to fruition. WJFF went on the air in 1990 and became a model of community radio that sought to involve all aspects of community openly and proactively.
Fast forward to our March 20, 2013 meeting. The packed house meeting is contentious for a reason.
Over the past three years, many WJFF volunteers and listeners have attempted repeatedly to express themselves. Letters and emails have been sent. Meetings—some of them enough to pack the Hortonvile church—have been held. Where once community was at the heart of this radio station, now it is an afterthought at best. The station has the legal requirement to have a community advisory board that meets at regular intervals, yet there hasn’t been a “properly convened” advisory board meeting for at least two years. Radio station discussions are held in private. Decisions to change entire schedules and cancel shows such as “As It Happens” or to move shows such as “Spanglish con Ella” are made behind closed doors. Shows like “Out Loud and Queer,” “Panorama” and “Maris’s Calendar” are gone. Local content, once the hallmark of WJFF, is shrinking while network canned shows are marching in.
The present station manager, Winston Clark, and some board members, act as if they are unaware that federal rules about community radio require that they consult with their community and that they conduct station business in the public eye. They seem to be unaware that they are jeopardizing government funding when they exclude people. The federal Communications Act says, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) “may not distribute any of its funds to... any public broadcast station that does not hold open meetings in compliance with this provision... [and] funds may not be distributed to any public broadcast station unless such station establishes a community advisory board [which] meets at regular intervals.”
The recent sudden removal of a long-running local public affairs show, “Making Waves,” appeared to be the final straw. And so, on March 20, people came out, and they kept coming, until it seemed the meeting room could hold no more.
When Anne Larsen, one of the founders of WJFF, called for the resignation of Clark and some board members, only one of the 62 audience members objected. Instead, Larsen’s impassioned plea was accompanied by a round of applause that still echoes.
In the face of this community outcry, WJFF has postponed its pledge drive, which was slated to begin April 4. The board has set an executive session for April 10 to “discuss personnel issues.”
It is the hope of many that the board makes the changes that will restore community to our community radio station, that it realizes at last that it must act in the interests of the station and not of an individual, and that WJFF can once again proudly call itself “the best little station by a dam site.”
[Maureen Neville is the former host of WJFF music programs, “Riverside Café” and “Band Box.” She extends her thanks to those who contributed thoughts for this essay.]