Clashes resurface at KBOO community radio
Time appears trapped in a playback loop at Portland's anti-capitalist nonprofit community-radio KBOO 90.7 FM, where efforts by the nonprofit's board members to manage paid staff has sparked a recall petition supported by staff members, volunteers and members.
The clash features some of the same personalities, issues and rhetoric involved an earlier struggle over KBOO management, which led to efforts to unseat board members as well as the successful installation of a union for paid employees in 2013.
"Deja vu all over again? You betcha," wrote one commenter on Portland Indymedia, the local website that, like KBOO, advocates for revolutionary and anti-capitalist change.
Portland's airwaves are home to four public radio stations, but KBOO is unique for its single-minded focus on grass-roots-driven activism and long history as a mainstay of the city's increasingly left-leaning culture. Last year the station celebrated its 50th year in operation, and according to its most recent IRS filing contributions from members, bequests and grants totaled nearly $1 million.
But in a workplace whose entire mission is to challenge authority, it turns out management can be dicey.
In 2013 a push by the KBOO board and its station manager to stabilize the station's finances led to a backlash, several board members resigning and the installation of Communication Workers of America, Local 7901, to represent employees. Cheering on the unionization movement at that time was savekboo.org, a website operated by longtime KBOO host Theresa Mitchell, which in turn sparked a satirical blog run by critics called "Save KBOO from Save KBOO."
Now, a decision to put a longtime station employee on leave pending a personnel investigation has sparked an outbreak of the same sort of factional warfare that divided the KBOO community six years ago — one in which people on both sides say the station's future is at stake.
On May 20, the station's longtime volunteer coordinator, Ani Haines, was placed on leave pending a personnel investigation. The investigation was reportedly sparked by an employee's complaint.
In most workplaces, such things are handled quietly. But Haines has forged strong relations among staff members and volunteers, and her longtime life partner is Mitchell, the outspoken host of KBOO's PressWatch show, home to scathing commentary decrying corporate media and capitalist hegemony.
On May 20, the same day Haines was placed on leave, the website SaveKBOO.org activated after a six-year dormancy, posting a copy of the KBOO bylaws. Soon after that an online petition began circulating that linked to SaveKBOO.org. The petition, titled "Keep KBOO true to its values," said Haines was not being treated fairly and also questioned other actions by the board since January, when KBOO's then station manager resigned.
The petition called for the recall of board president Ruban Lawrence and vice president Danielle Parks, who'd been serving as interim station manager while another one could be hired.
"KBOO is a vibrant volunteer organization," said Linda Olson-Osterlund, a longtime station volunteer and spokesperson for the group. She said Haines plays a key role at the station and said "micromanagement" and corporate-style HR practices have demoralized many of the roughly 15 paid staff at the station.
Haines, through an intermediary, declined to comment, referring a reporter to the union. The union and Mitchell did not respond to requests for a comment.
KBOO's board members, including Lawrence and Parks, declined to provide comment in response to questions from the Portland Tribune — including how many members the station currently has — saying they did not have enough time to agree on a statement.
Several KBOO veterans and former board members say the politics at the station boil down to personality-driven factions and an incestuous workplace — one where social connections and sexual relationships between paid staff, volunteers and board members can lead to strained relations and allegations of harassment.
Marc Brown, a former KBOO board president and longtime People's Food Co-op activist who resigned from KBOO in 2013, said things seem to be following a familiar pattern: The KBOO board tries to do its job and provide oversight, and staff rebels.
"They kind of clash and it leads to resignation of people, and then resetting to how it was beforehand — which is essentially the staff running the station and the board sort of rubber-stamping what the staff is doing," he said.
"But that's not how a nonprofit is supposed to run, because nonprofits are community-owned, and the board is supposed to be representing the community."
Still others say the KBOO board over time bears its share of the responsibility, thanks to a lack of management expertise.
Former station manager Dennise Kowalczyk said the recurring disputes may just be just baked into KBOO's genes.
"KBOO is a place where crazy, passionate ideas can come to life. But it still has its major problems."
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