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Fire On The Mountain

The Struggle for WNCW's Soul

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Pick any 10 serious music hounds in Charlotte and ask them to name their favorite radio stations; it's a sure bet at least half of them will say "WNCW." Charlotteans unaccustomed to much more than Clear Channel stations' limited commercial playlists may say, "Who?" but WNCW -- a publicly funded station operating on the campus of Isothermal Community College (ICC) in Spindale, NC -- has a wide array of fans in this area. In its nearly 14 years of operation, it has enriched the cultural life of a geographical area encompassing parts of both Carolinas and Tennessee while gaining national attention as a model for other non-commercial stations.So when it was revealed that ICC, the parent institution holding the station's FCC license, had embarked on a review process that raised serious questions about the future of WNCW, listeners were troubled. And why not? Those listeners had become accustomed to feasting on a diverse musical menu likely to feature Ziggy Marley and his dad Bob alongside Gillian Welch and Little Milton, with regular selections from Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead and their musical legatees, with Ella Fitzgerald and Rhonda Vincent waiting in the wings, with David Wilcox, Ricky Skaggs and enough slices of country, folk, roots and bluegrass to make up a whole loaf of Americana.

The on-air broadcasts continue to maintain high musical standards, but behind the scenes, WNCW is a station under siege. A laundry list of charges and counter-charges have triggered staff upheavals, coupled with arrests and allegations of threats and myriad misdeeds. A complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission resulted in an admonishment in 2001 that should be old news by now, although WNCW has been unable to put the controversy behind it.

These concerns have prompted the ICC Board of Trustees to direct Dr. Willard Lewis, the school president, to prepare a report evaluating the relationship between the college and its radio station. Everything is on the table, including the possibility that ICC could sell the radio station or shut it down. In Asheville, an independent group has established a website called PreserveWNCW.org that favors retaining the programming status quo at the station and is exploring the option of putting together an offer to buy the license from Isothermal.

Trash Bags, Awards, and the FCCSince signing on the air in October 1989, WNCW has carved out its own unique niche. The station's signal reaches a vast listenership in five states, thanks to its transmitter at Clingman's Peak on Mt. Mitchell. Additional translators have extended the signal to all of western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina and Eastern Tennessee, serving more than 50 rural counties as well as major population centers in Charlotte, Asheville, Knoxville and Greenville, SC.

Word spread quickly about WNCW, and the station experienced very rapid growth in listeners and support. As a public station, they receive some money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and certain in-kind contributions from the college. WNCW is one of only three public radio stations that receives money from the NC General Assembly to ensure that at least one public radio signal is available to every resident of the state. The lion's share of the station's operating funds comes from listeners, with much of it collected during two annual fund drives.

Those listeners continued to give as the station grew in reputation and influence. In a widely reprinted quote, Emmylou Harris said, "If Heaven had a radio station, it would be called WNCW."

These efforts did not go unnoticed on the national stage. WNCW Program Director Mark Keefe was twice named Programmer of the Year by Gavin magazine, the radio industry bible. But these days, battles between current or past volunteers and members of the WNCW staff and their various adherents have become an all-consuming fire that threatens the very existence of the station.

As crazy at it sounds, the first flash point in this controversy involves some trash bags left in the hall at the WNCW studios. At some point in 1999, then-General Manager DeLane Davis identified several bags of what were described as "aging premiums" and decided they should be disposed of. Two WNCW employees, Operations Director Linda Osbon and highly popular on-air host Marshall Ballew discovered the items, recognizing them as premiums given to listeners who donate money during fund drives. The items included CDs and autographed drumheads from bands including Widespread Panic.

Both Ballew and Osbon have subsequently said they thought throwing away items donated to the station was wrong. Osbon, who would later be dismissed when her contract wasn't renewed, says she traces her troubles with her then-boss Mark Keefe to her insistence he do something about the discarded premiums.

"It was my job to call people up to get them to donate those premiums," says Osbon. "If WNCW doesn't want them anymore, I felt they should at least return the items."

Davis, who did not return repeated phone calls, left WNCW in late 2000. That same year, she told Mountain Xpress reporter Tracy Rose, "It was my mistake... we all make mistakes." The tenure of Davis, a college employee with no prior radio experience, suggests the difficulties Isothermal faces in dealing with an entity like WNCW that is so different from a community college.

In October 2000, the WNCW Mountain Oasis Music Festival was held in Hendersonville. In the months leading up to the festival, the station's sponsorship of such an event was called into question by former station volunteer Bill Bost of Hickory. At the core of Bost's allegations was his belief that the resources of the non-profit WNCW were being improperly used for the benefit of the for-profit festival, which Bost says violates FCC regulations. The station assured Bost that his concerns were groundless, and WNCW proceeded with its sponsorship of the event, promoted by Ashley Capps of AC Entertainment in Knoxville, TN.

Two days after the Mountain Oasis festival, Bost delivered a 16-page letter to Isothermal President Dr. Lewis, detailing what he describes as concerns about "mismanagement by the Station Manager and Program Director," namely DeLane Davis and Mark Keefe. Bost says, "The concerns and allegations expressed here are on behalf of a large group of people who have invested and devoted many years of their lives to the enrichment and growth of WNCW."

In fact, the letter contained additional issues raised by former Program Director Greg Hils, Kay Crouch, Alan Tinney, Marshall Ballew, Linda Osbon, an anonymous WNCW staffer and Russ Jordan, who had recently resigned after more than 10 years as host of the Saturday bluegrass program. Hils had resigned as program director to accept a job in Colorado some years back; Kay Crouch was director of music at Caldwell Community College, and Tinney, Ballew and Osbon were either full- or part-time employees of WNCW.

By any reading, it was a remarkable document. The issues raised included suggestions the station had drifted from its original programming concept, an alleged cover up of a fuel spill at the station's transmitter, the aforementioned discarded premiums, Bost's concerns with the Mountain Oasis sponsorship, and a host of other matters pertaining to WNCW personnel and policy. The signatories decried the disbanding of the citizen advisory board, charging "there is no tolerance for public input," that "e-mails and letters are discarded as a regular practice," and that "volunteers, current staff members and WNCW members have been alienated and ignored on a regular basis."

There are indications that Dr. Lewis was shocked by this document, which some have attributed to a policy by DeLane Davis to insulate Isothermal from controversies within WNCW. If that was her intent, it failed miserably. She resigned from ICC in November 2000.

At the same time, WNCW was attaining new heights of public acceptance and industry accolades, including Keefe's first Programmer of the Year award.

In the end, however, Bost's complaints would be vindicated. When his protestations were ignored by WNCW and the ICC Board of Trustees, he filed a complaint with the FCC in December 2000. A year later, the FCC issued an admonishment that fell short of a reprimand and carried no financial penalty, but essentially validated many of Bost's contentions. The ruling, which sent shockwaves through public radio stations nationwide, said the way WNCW had promoted the festival amounted to illegal paid advertising. The festival tickets provided for station staff and those designated to be given away as fundraising premiums were deemed to be the actual payment.

WNCW chose not to appeal the ruling, but NPR and the National Federation of Community Broadcasters launched their own appeal, concerned by the implications for their member stations. The FCC upheld the ruling, making one modification that did not alter the admonishment to WNCW.

Despite his insistence that he was acting for the good of WNCW, Bost's actions were viewed with hostility and suspicion by station management. For his part, Bost felt he had reason to doubt whether anything he said would be looked upon with objectivity.

Some months before, Bost had withdrawn from the live music Almost Acoustic program after a dispute with Keefe over the terms of the production. After that, bad blood between the parties clouded any hope of a rapprochement. By the time the FCC decision was announced, hearts and minds had hardened on both sides.

Conflict, Arrests, and the Hickory TalibanLinda Osbon took a curious path to the WNCW controversy. She earned an associate's degree at ICC, where she found an outlet for her lifelong love of music at WNCW and became a station volunteer. Soon, Osbon was trained and began to do on-air shifts, eventually becoming a full-time staff member. On the day she discovered those premiums put out for the trash, she was assistant program director for operations. Later, she'd have something in common with Alan Tinney and Marshall Ballew, who also signed Bill Bost's October 10, 2000, letter of concern to Dr. Lewis -- none of them remain on the WNCW payroll today.

Some members of the current station staff have said they are afraid of Linda Osbon, claiming to have seen her foam at the mouth and forced to be physically restrained from attacking them at a public meeting. She laughs as she denies accusations she has clearly heard many times before, but there is hurt in her eyes for a fleeting moment before she resumes her rapid-fire indictment of certain WNCW staff members.

The role Osbon has played in the ongoing controversy at WNCW becomes obvious during a visit to her home. She moves easily among cartons of news clippings, documents, videotapes and audio recordings that cover every facet of WNCW history.

"People say I'm obsessed with that radio station," she says. "They're right. As a volunteer and employee at WNCW for so many years, I hate to see how it has been abused."

Over the past four years, the trio of Osbon, Bill Bost and his brother Ted have devoted much time to the WNCW affair, leading some remaining station insiders to brand them the Hickory Taliban. In fact, at first glance (and second and third glance, if truth be told), it sometimes appeared that Bost, Bost and Osbon stood alone as WNCW critics. Upon further investigation, others with ties to the radio station's past, like former station Community Advisory Board member Danielle Withrow, emerged to second much of what Osbon and the Bosts were saying.

Withrow laments the lost opportunity to end much of the conflict after the FCC ruling. "What [station management] could have done that they did not do was say, "We made a mistake and will correct it,'" she says. "They never apologized. They just circled the wagons."

Michelle Smith is a North Carolina native who attended college at UNC-Asheville. A literature major who spent a couple of years in Atlanta after graduation, she moved back to Asheville in part because of WNCW.

"I first heard the station shortly after they signed on the air," she says. "I started working there as a volunteer in "92. It's not just that I love WNCW, but I'm dedicated to WNCW as an important cultural institution for Western North Carolina."

Smith became the manager of member services in 1999 and a key member of the paid staff when Mark Keefe's efforts as program director were bringing the station national attention. She attributes much of the ongoing trouble at WNCW to the inability of Isothermal Community College to deal with a complex media organization.

"ICC is good at what they do -- running a college," she says. "But they are bad at running a radio station." Smith believes the PreserveWNCW group should take over the station's license. "My hope is ICC would give or sell the license to that group," she says. "Let a non-profit community organization be formed just for that purpose."

In one sense, Michelle Smith and Linda Osbon represent opposite sides of the same coin. Both are impassioned about WNCW, but Smith strongly believes the actions of Osbon and the Bosts have been detrimental to the station.

"No one at WNCW objects to scrutiny," she says, addressing the oft-heard complaint that station management preferred to operate in secret. "There were always and still are many ways to communicate with WNCW. Sometimes we didn't do what a particular constituent preferred, but that doesn't mean we weren't listening to our constituency. Everyone -- with the exception of some of those people who are no longer there, thank heavens -- at WNCW, including Mark Keefe, always acted in good faith toward our listeners and toward the radio station."

There is a natural tension between the duty of a public organization to be transparent in its operations, and its mandate to get things done in an expeditious manner while remaining accountable. Depending on your point of view, the operation of WNCW since that 16-page letter was delivered to the ICC president has either been a courageous effort to succeed under trying circumstances or an ongoing cover-up that continues to conceal basic details about the affairs of a public institution.

"The pity is that the current staff of the most talented and dedicated people with whom it's ever been my pleasure to work can't simply do their jobs," says Smith. "They have to work under constant threats." She describes Bost and Osbon showing up at WNCW with video cameras running, demanding to inspect public records. Other actions of the so-called Hickory Taliban included submitting requests for all of WNCW's internal e-mail traffic for a specified period of time.

The wild card in the WNCW saga has always been Isothermal Community College, holder of the license and the purse strings. Even though the station generates the majority of its own budget, all the money is funneled through Isothermal. Additionally, all WNCW employees are ICC employees, subject to the vagaries of North Carolina community college employment practices.

Stephen Matheny, the college's director of administrative services, is Dr. Lewis' right-hand man. Following the departure of DeLane Davis, Matheny actually served as interim general manager for five months until public radio veteran David Gordon was hired. Evidence suggests that, despite his title, Gordon had little influence over major personnel decisions at WNCW, though he did move to reestablish a community advisory board shortly after joining the station.

Around the time of the Mountain Oasis controversy, Ted Bost became involved with WNCW. "I shared an office with my brother and started to see things that, as a taxpayer, caused me to ask some questions. And nobody would ever answer my questions," he says. "They acted like they didn't have to answer my questions."

Tensions continued to rise between the Bosts and many WNCW staff members, but Isothermal officials declined to intervene. In March 2002, Linda Osbon's contract was not renewed. In an unusual arrangement, all WNCW staffers work on 12-month contracts that run concurrent with the fiscal year. Although her contract ran through June 30, Osbon was told she wouldn't be allowed to work the final 90 days but would receive full pay.

During the WNCW pledge drive in April 2002, Bill and Ted Bost made 31 phone calls to station pledge lines. Although Bill ultimately donated $500, Ted says, "I told them I wanted to get my two cents worth in, so I offered to donate two cents." He says his intent was to inject a little humor into his struggle with WNCW, but station management was not amused.

Citing the repeated phone calls and allegations they told volunteers they were "dancing with the devil," WNCW Assistant Program Director Kim Clark swore out a warrant for telephone harassment. Bill and Ted Bost were arrested. When the case got to court, Clark requested court-appointed mediation. The result was a pledge by the Bosts not to engage in telephone harassment of WNCW. The Big Dog's BeatenThroughout the ongoing controversy, the radio station continued to present the same face to its listeners, so much so that most of them were generally unaware of the tension behind the scenes. In the fall of 2002, the decision was made to drop Morning Edition, the last major NPR news program the station aired. Citing concerns about the possibility some member of the Community Advisory Board (CAB) was leaking information to Osbon and the Bosts, Gordon did not inform the board of the decision.

"We were aware that there was a board member that was very closely associated with the outside group," says Gordon, parsing his words carefully. "We did not feel we could present our plan to the board with that person there and facilitate and manage the change the way it needed to be handled."

This decision blew up on Gordon when Osbon learned of it and informed the board members. Board Chairman Robert Seiler recalls the board members' anger at being left in the dark on the Morning Edition decision. "We made our unhappiness known," he says. "Actually, the board supported the decision but strongly deplored the way it was handled." Despite their unhappiness, no board members resigned over the flap.

"We've had our growing pains," Gordon says of the board. "I think that was an aberration, certainly not the way I intended things to work."

Some observers say that WNCW's efforts to include citizens in the process have been hampered by a lack of meaningful oversight by the board. They point out that even though ICC has the final say over all decisions involving the station, Dr. Lewis has never attended a CAB meeting.

Meanwhile, the so-called Hickory Taliban began to supplement their frequent appearances before the CAB with private visits to Dr. Lewis. In addition to being a former employee and graduate of ICC, Osbon continues to take classes there in pursuit of another degree. Far from being a typical student, Osbon reports that she videotapes her meetings with the college president and provides him with documents she has received in her multiple open records requests to WNCW.

In March 2002, Mark Keefe was called to a meeting with Dr. Lewis and administrator Stephen Matheny where he learned his contract with WNCW would not be renewed. In a recent interview, Keefe describes the end of his tenure at the station: "When I took over as program director, from a ratings perspective we were at 50,000 listeners a week. In the last Arbitron book, we were at 100,000 listeners. The budget went from $600,000 to $1.3 million," he says, with more wonder than rancor apparent in his voice. "WNCW was a cultural icon in that community. With that kind of acceptance, the logical thing is to get rid of the program director, right?

"I'm glad they don't teach a course in how to run a business," he continues. "In a meeting that lasted maybe 10 minutes, Stephen Matheny told me they decided not to renew my contract. He said they didn't have to give me a reason. Lewis never said a word."

During Keefe's time as the principal architect of the WNCW sound, a number of longtime on-air staff members left the station, including Ballew, Bill Buchinski, Alan Tinney, Russ Jordan and Linda Osbon. Keefe denies any concerted attempt to remake the staff in his own image, and in fact, different reasons are given for each of those departures.

Like Michelle Smith, Keefe thinks structural changes are needed at WNCW. "The best possible scenario would be for the community that supports it to actually hold its license," says Keefe. "I don't see anything good coming out of ICC holding the license."

Keefe has landed on his feet. On August 1, he signed on a new AAA commercial radio station, WUIN-FM in Wilmington, NC. Still, he retains a certain pride in WNCW, the station where he worked for over seven years. "You listen to that radio station and it sounds great," he says. "You can't tell any of this stuff is going on."

The Board AwakesKeefe's dismissal wasn't the last personnel upheaval at WNCW. Despite the fact employee contracts are normally renewed for a year, the announcement of Keefe's non-renewal was accompanied by word that David Gordon's contract was being renewed for only six months. Gordon refused to comment on any personnel matters, including his own. This is consistent with ICC policy, which makes it nearly impossible to know the rationale for any employee decisions. There is widespread speculation that Gordon was retained because another FCC complaint is pending that alleges a station promotion constituted an illegal raffle. According to this theory, Gordon is being kept around in order to have a sacrificial lamb handy should the FCC rule against the college. In an interview, Stephen Matheny interrupted a steady stream of "no comments" to deny that particular speculation. Still, some people on both sides of the controversy refer to Gordon as "Dead Man Walking."

Michelle Smith was suspended without pay during the 2002 pledge drive controversy because of comments she made in a telephone conversation that was taped by the Bosts. In early May 2003, Linda Osbon received station e-mails in response to a public records request. Three days later, Michelle Smith was fired for "insubordination." Stephen Matheny of ICC refused to comment on the circumstances of her dismissal.

The combined impact of allegations by the so-called Hickory Taliban, staff turnover at the station and general foment surrounding WNCW finally attracted the attention of the ICC Board of Trustees. They requested a report from Dr. Lewis that addressed the relationship between the college and its radio station. This report, scheduled to be delivered on August 12, will consider the entire scope of WNCW's operation with all options currently open, including a potential sale of the license. The PreserveWNCW group in Asheville is waiting in the wings should an opportunity arise.

Osbon continues to closely monitor WNCW, while keeping her hand in radio by occasionally hosting a program called Eclectic Blend on public radio station WSGE-FM in Gastonia. During their long association in pursuit of the same goal, Osbon and Bill Bost became close. Both are divorced, and they currently share a house in Hickory. Bost says that despite misunderstandings over the years, his intentions remain the same. "We want a WNCW that welcomes criticism, advice and concerns," he says. "We want a WNCW that involves the community, and mines it members' and listeners' talents to make it a true community-involved public radio station."

Michelle Smith listens to WNCW on a daily basis, and defends the actions of the staff she served on for four years. "What we were doing moment to moment was trying to do the best we could in a hostile environment," she says. "There is nothing in this that was malicious, or from incompetence." She reiterates her hope the station's license will be obtained by a non-profit community group.

Kim Clark is currently serving as acting program director of WNCW. Like Keefe, she takes pride in the consistency of the on-air product in spite of the turmoil. In a conversation with Clark, it's possible to catch a glimpse of the seeds of future harmony for WNCW. True, it's only a glimpse, but at this point in the station's history, that may be significant. In response to suggestions from the Hickory Taliban that independent record promoters may attempt to exert undue influence over WNCW's playlist, she said, "The concerns raised by Linda Osbon and Bill Bost are also my concerns. I make my decisions about what we play based on how it sounds and how it fits our radio station. It's (a record promoter's job) the same role a pharmaceutical representative plays in a doctor's office. They come with their new drug and leave samples. What they have done is educated the doctor about the product and left the decision on whether to use it to the doctor. It's the same thing when a record promoter sends a new CD to WNCW."

On another front, Kim Clark acknowledges those listeners who lament the drop in news content. "Once I became assistant program director, I fought to increase local content and cultural content like book reviews and the Art Break," she says. "We now run that 20 times a week. My position is that I'm always open to more news and information. Yes, we are a very cool music station, no doubt about it, but as a public radio station, there is more to it than music."

Clark acknowledges the station may have strayed from its roots in recent years and promises to back initiatives to rechart the future course of WNCW, should she be hired as permanent program director.

"We need to pay more attention to our roots," says Clark. "There is passion about WNCW because it's so special. It is something I have treasured since I first found it on the radio dial."

Should Dr. Lewis and the Isothermal Community College Board of Trustees decide to retain WNCW, they could do worse than turn to Kim Clark in an attempt to bring the warring parties together. It's a long shot, but a grand experiment like WNCW deserves a chance to flourish.

James Shannon is a staff writer at MetroBEAT in Greenville, SC, where a longer version of this story originally appeared.

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