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Fire On The Mountain

The Struggle for WNCW's Soul

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"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.


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