Whenever the KXCI FM 91.3 board of directors finally settles on a new general manager, that individual will be faced with attempting to bridge the rift between station management and an upset group of members who believe that Tucson's community radio station has moved too far away from its roots.
The Democracy Initiative believes KXCI's updated corporate-management style has ostracized a good portion of the membership base, and in the process created what amounts to regular commercial radio--under the guise of community radio--as opposed to the more free-form style of local programming that used to occupy the airwaves at 91.3 on the FM dial.
"There's just not a community connection here," said Jim Swope, a member who had a show that aired on the station from 2000-2003. "They want their money, and after that, have fun listening."
The issues that have created the discontent run much deeper than a philosophy over membership money and the right of membership involvement. To understand the path KXCI has taken, it is important to highlight the contribution of Tony Ford. A decade ago, KXCI was all but dead in the water. It fouled up critical paperwork, lost major grant funding and basically dropped the ball to the point that it was in serious danger of going off the air.
"As I understand it, there were years the state income-tax filing wasn't completed, said interim GM Randy Peterson, the station's membership and outreach director. "They weren't doing audits. There was a risk they were going to be put on probation or suspended by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is our single largest granting agency. It was a mess.
"They were using a system called lateral management. Everyone was equal; no one was in charge, and therefore nobody was responsible for anybody, and it was a system that was failing the station and its listeners."
Ford was hired as GM. He raised money, handled the grants and got KXCI back on track. In the eyes of some, he's a savior. In the eyes of others, he's a pariah.
He got KXCI on solid ground, but did so at the expense of membership involvement. In short, say his critics, his way was the only way, and the bylaws were changed so that the management and board received more power.
"My biggest issue was they shut the membership out and never asked anybody," said DI member Kali Holtschlag. "They never told the membership about any of these problems. Since my involvement, the only thing they've ever cared about in terms of their membership is the money during pledge time. They don't try to be active in the community to try to solve these problems."
"I'd say they're wrong," Peterson said. "We have meetings open to the public with our board of directors, which are elected and appointed from our membership. We have town halls. I'm not saying they don't deserve some of the credit for the openness, and that maybe it was a closed situation in years past, but I would think even they would agree things have gotten better."
The divide created by a period of mistrust came to a head in 2002, when DJs and numerous members penned a lengthy letter addressing their concerns about involvement in the decision-making process.
"I believe it had to do with a volunteer agreement the DJs had been asked to sign, that gave away what they felt were their rights and entitlements to volunteer here," Peterson said. "I believe it specifically addressed a DJ who was also a staff member who had lost her show for reasons that were unclear to the individual who wrote the letter. It talked in general about the lack of communication between the staff and board and the DJs. I felt, from the beginning, there was validity to all those arguments. Unfortunately, the process of addressing those was then hijacked by some individuals who wanted to put themselves front and center in the discussion.
"I think if you went back to the vast majority of people who wrote that letter, they would say things now are much better, and they're very happy, and they're even embarrassed by what's been done in their name over the last four years."
Peterson concedes lateral management is effective with other community radio stations--although many community radio stations also adopt a hierarchy structure--but because of the issues KXCI faced, it has taken time to move away from a closed-management approach, and it's going to take more time to complete the journey.
"I think there is a tendency to swing too far in one direction, and I think we have come back, and I think the DJs will tell you we've incorporated them more in the discussion than we have in the past, and our other volunteers as well," Peterson said.
But the roots of discontent are firmly entrenched, and skepticism runs deep.
"We've forced them to make some changes," said Holtschlag. "They're superficial, but we're trying to take advantage of whatever crack in the door we can get. They have suddenly decided I might be able to be allowed on the community advisory board, and I think they thought this might be a way to make me shut up, because they asked for my commitment not to be openly hostile to anyone at the station, at the board or staff, because I occasionally react when someone behaves the way Randy Peterson behaves."
Meanwhile, Peterson says the station's numbers speak volumes, and its direction is positive.
"Underwriting from our local business supporters has grown every year since I've been here. Membership has grown every year since I've been here," Peterson said. "We currently have in the neighborhood of 2,700 member families. I believe it was about 1,300 when I started. I think we've been good stewards of the money. I want people to understand that if they write that check, whether it's $20 or $200 or $1,000 or any amount, that they can trust we're going to do something good with the money, and I think we have."