Radio daze

KXCI is ensuring its survival, critics say, by gutting itself.

Ordinarily, meetings of the board of directors of The Foundation for Creative Broadcasting, the entity that oversees Tucson community radio station KXCI-FM 91.3, are non-affairs as far as the general public is concerned. But the board's gathering on July 27 wasn't an ordinary meeting.

Nearly every chair in the main room at the UA Water Resources building was occupied by a citizen concerned about recent developments at the station. From former board members to current programmers, from disgruntled station supporters looking out for the station's best interests to those ready to turn in their membership cards, everyone in the room seemed to have an opinion. And, gracefully, the board offered an open floor to hear folks' concerns. That portion of the meeting alone lasted nearly two hours, and when it was all over, more questions had been raised than answered.

The initial controversy stemmed from a spate of recent program cancellations at KXCI, which allows non-professional volunteer programmers (DJs) to produce specialized radio shows that have no other outlet.

Shortly after program director Mike Landwehr recently decided to leave the station due to a medical condition and a desire to pursue a career in acting, the station's general manager, Tony Ford, initiated what he refers to as a "tweaking" of the station's programming, changes he says were made in tandem with Landwehr. In all, 13 shows were canceled and several others were rescheduled or expanded, affecting a significant percentage of the station's schedule; canceled shows comprise approximately 10 percent of the station's total airtime.

While Ford maintains that the changes were necessary for a number of reasons, many programmers and station members (those who have contributed money to the station within the last year) are upset at not only the cancellations of beloved programs, but also at the way longtime volunteers were treated during the transition. In addition, the upheaval provided a catalyst for a number of other complaints about the station's operations, including concern over the recent sale of the rights to a new transmitter intended to extend KXCI's reach to the northwest side of town and why the station no longer streams its broadcasts over the Internet.

The individual in the eye of the proverbial hurricane is Tony Ford.

After KXCI conducted a national search for a new station manager three years ago, a time when the station was in severe financial straits, Ford, working at a university NPR station in central Michigan, was recruited to helm KXCI. "They interviewed a lot of people," he says. "I was the only one who was willing to try to do this. Everyone else they interviewed said, 'There's no way it can be done. You can't save the station financially without just going to satellite broadcasting and firing everybody.' I said, 'I think we can.'"

According to Ford, during his tenure the station has consistently upped its ratings, as measured by Arbitron, and its financial status, as evidenced by increases of both members' contributions and program underwriter support. And while nearly all involved with the station concede that Ford has largely been responsible for the increase in listeners and cash flow, many maintain that the casualties from Ford's reign are of greater concern than can be represented by numbers.

CRUCIAL TO THE NUMBERS GAME are Arbitron ratings. These are tallied by a sampling of radio listeners who are asked to keep a diary of which stations they're listening to and for how long they remain tuned in. Not unlike political polls, or television's Nielson ratings, the numbers are then regarded, by ratio, as representative of the total radio-listener populace. But because radio listeners generally change stations far more often than television viewers do, radio diaries are widely acknowledged to be far from representative of those who fill out the forms, let alone representative of a market's total listenership.

Add to that the fact that the statistics become even less accurate when they are applied to smaller numbers of listeners (according to the just-released Arbitron numbers for spring 2001, KXCI attracts only 1.8 percent of all Tucson residents listening to the radio at any given time), and the Arbitrons become all but arbitrary.

Still, as Paul Sturm, the newly elected president of the station's board of directors, puts it, "It's the best thing we got, and the entire industry acknowledges those criteria as valid tools for evaluation. ... It's the standard we're all held to."

Yet many have asked why a community radio station, intended to be an alternative to the staid corporate programming of commercial stations, and one that is funded mostly by the very community it serves, bothers with the Arbitrons at all. The answer to that question is a complicated one.

In a 1995 document titled Common Sense for the Future, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which provides KXCI with tax-funded cash grants annually--last year the station received $53,022 from the CPB, just under 10 percent of its total revenue) presented Congress with a set of proposals intended to reduce the amount of federal funding to the major national public broadcasters. The National Federation of Community Broadcasters, of which KXCI is a member, fell under these proposals.

One of the so-called highlights of the report reads, "Other cost savings include: ... limiting grants to ... (radio) stations that meet strict requirements for audience size and program service." While they were mere proposal in 1995, these changes have since been implemented by the CPB. And just as the population of Tucson continues to grow, so does KXCI's minimum amount of listeners and local funding required by the CPB if the station intends to keep its Community Service Grant.

"I can tell you that the criteria of trying to build audience and build revenue are seen as very valid by the board," says Sturm. "We do recognize that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in particular, and even the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] in some of their more recent rulings, do now expect--and the CPB has clearly specified--minimum performance standards of non-commercial stations."

In other words, if the station does not continue its current expansion, it would stand to lose about 10 percent of its yearly funds.

"[The percentage we receive] is lower than it used to be," says GM Tony Ford. "The goal is to do two things: one, to maintain our CPB funding as it is, meeting these new criteria, and eventually, to get to the point financially where we don't need it. I don't want to have to rely on 'em anymore. If they decide to yank it--which they will eventually do for a station like us--I want us to say, 'OK. This community supports us enough, we're strong enough, we don't need that anymore. It's frosting on the cake, goodbye, thank you very much.'"

But Steve Hahn, who was one of the founders of KXCI and had a nationally acclaimed free-jazz show called The Ragged Edge on the station for 18 years, disputes Ford's short-term reliance on CPB dollars. Hahn, who also serves as music director for the two UA stations, KUAT-FM and KUAZ, says, "That's just one part of the funding picture. I can't tell you what it amounts to for KXCI, but for us it amounts to about 15 percent. So yeah, you'd like to have that money, but it's not make or break."

In addition, Hahn believes that Ford has skewed the numbers to support his claims. "The guy's justifying his moves based on Arbitron figures, and he had misrepresented those all along," he says. "In fact, when I wrote [a] letter to the board, I supplied them with the last eight quarters of top-line figures, which is the overall listening figures. ... Tony has been claiming for some time now that KXCI has 30,000 listeners, and they have 30,000 listeners because of the changes he's made, and the fact is that KXCI has never had that many listeners."

Still, Ford contends, "KXCI is serving more people than we ever have."

A number of programmers also said that they had either not been supplied with their Arbitron numbers or that it was never made clear to them that ratings were even a concern to begin with. Bill Sassenberger, whose punk rock show Gimme Indie Rock became a programming casualty after eight years on the station, is one of them. "I just do stuff that I think is important," he says. "I don't play stuff that's on major labels. It's a small fringe audience, I know that. That's why I'm at midnight on Mondays. It's not morning drive time, not a high-ratings time slot. I didn't think I had any effect on his ratings in the obscure time slot I was at. ... It was a real shock and a disappointment coming from the kind of station they claim to be."

But Ford contends, "I believe the DJs at this station have known that I use Arbitron, and that I consider Arbitron to be a valid strategic tool since I was hired because I talked about it since the beginning. We've gone over it with many of them in different situations, and we've talked to them, and we've provided the data to them."

Hahn is even more strident in discussing the circumstances of his dismissal: "Basically, facts weren't going to stand in [Ford's] way. And the facts were that my program, in its time slot, 10 to midnight, was the second-most listened to programming in that time slot. Only Friday nights had more listeners than my show did. But he said it wasn't enough. When you're in the business as long as I am you know that you don't really waste your time going after big listening games late at night because they're not to be had. You're not going to draw a large general audience late at night because not that many people are listening to the radio."

In 18 years of doing his show, Hahn says that the only time Arbitron ratings were provided to him by KXCI was in the fall of 2000, and that he was never made aware that ratings numbers were even a concern. "That was probably my biggest point made to the board, that if there are going to be standards, then let's announce what they are and allow people a chance to meet them instead of just arbitrarily deciding and then bringing the hammer down. ... [The numbers game] is a justification for his scheme to impose his vision on the station, his vision exclusive of all other visions."

Steve Shannon, one of four rotating DJs who manned Tough Tulip Audio Revival, a '70s-oriented show, before it was cut, agrees with Hahn's sentiment. "[Ford] is good at talking to people one-on-one, saying what he thinks they want to hear, and then letting it go 'til the next session," he opines. "He'll always have an answer. And a quick one. Often they will involve numbers, specific, kind of odd numbers, so you'll think, 'Well, clearly the guy has thought about it and done a lot of research. You just can't pull a number like that out of your ass.' But I don't know what else to think at this point because actions are the only thing I can go by."

FORD SAYS THAT IN ADDITION TO the new CPB mandates, he considered other criteria before the current crop of programming changes. "One, you have to change sometimes," he states. "If we didn't change, the same people who were on in 1983 would still be on. Two, there are many, many issues involved in the decision-making of programming. There are many different departments--outreach, public relations, membership, underwriting, programming, management--we all review and look and discuss and talk about these kind of issues.

"For instance, some of the programs, there have been recent changes in the interpretations of FCC regulations which made it impossible for them to do their show anymore. So there's regulatory issues for some of them. ... Some of it has to do with audience, service. Because there are really two parts to service: There's what you provide, and who receives it. This is kind of a religious example, but if you preach a great sermon and no one's in the church, are you being successful? And those are tough questions to ask. 'What's the minimum? What do I have to do?' If it was math, a computer could do it. If it was just intuition, you wouldn't need the math. It's a combination of lots of different things.

"Community support financially is part of it. You know, we don't ever make a decision to keep or move a show because of financial support alone. But it's a function of listenership, and a function of loyalty. So that's part of it. Program flow is part of it. ... So out of the shows that were canceled this time around, there were many, many different issues involved. Extremely complex.

"Nobody is ever canceled because I or the staff don't like the type of show they do or because we don't recognize their work or the quality of the product they're producing. If you weren't producing a quality product, you wouldn't be there in the first place, right?

"Will this work? I hope so, but I don't know. If the audience responds to it, good, and if they don't we'll try something else. We can afford to be experimental because we're not locked into a format by a commercial owner. That's part of the beauty of what we do."

But that same concept of what community radio should be is what has so many listeners and programmers irked to begin with.

"He's getting rid of shows that really don't have a place in legitimate radio," explains Sassenberger. "I'm not counting [pirate station] Radio Limbo in this case--but there is no other forum for free jazz like Steve was doing or independent punk rock stuff like I was doing. ... It just seems like it's a contradiction to have a community station that's trying to service the community and all the different aspects that are a part of it, and to make it more streamlined towards what's more commercially acceptable."

"Community radio is about serving the community," counters Ford. "Does that mean providing members of the community with airtime, or providing quality educational entertainment to listeners? Those two things get mixed up a lot, and I think that's important to recognize." Ford is referring to a number of programmers who have been vocal over their disappointment in losing their shows, but those DJs say that they're even more rankled over how they were treated once the cuts had been made.

Steve Shannon points to a memo written by Ford in which he announced the programming changes. "When we received that memo, we read it and knew things were being canceled. One of the things it said was that, 'I have been talking to all volunteers affected by these changes.' At the time of receiving this memo--it was dated [June] 30; I think I got it on the sixth of July because that was the next time I was in the studio--I had heard nothing. None of (the Tough Tulip DJs) had heard anything from him, so we were sort of cautiously saying, 'Well, if he's been talking to all volunteers affected, and we haven't been talked to, then maybe we aren't going to be canceled. Because everybody was thinking, 'Gee, who's going to be canceled? Are we going to be canceled?' No idea. Then that following Monday, the ninth, I had a message on my machine from Tony Ford saying, 'Hey, give me a call. I need to talk to you.' I called him later that afternoon and that was the first I heard of, 'Well, we're gonna try something different in the Tough Tulip slot.'"

Hahn says he's spoken to several of the other DJs whose shows were axed, and says he received the most advance notice of those to whom he spoke. He was notified the Thursday before his last show, which aired four days later.

But Ford contends that all of those let go were notified well in advance. "The initial contact is made as soon as the second-to-the-last show is completed, as soon thereafter as possible."

Ford also maintains that he did a service to the outgoing programmers by allowing each one to air one last show. "Most radio stations, both commercial and public, do not tell a host that their program is canceled until after they've finished their last show for legal reasons--it's safer," he says. "I don't think that policy is fair to the hundreds of hours that our volunteers put in. My feeling has been we somehow need to balance that: Protect the station legally and still allow for some closure, and allow for some recognition of a volunteer's work.

"So we've gone to a 'last show' policy, which is, we tell you beforehand and we let you have a last show to close out, to talk to your listeners, to tell them they can 'Call the station if you're concerned, but here's what I've always loved doing and I'm going to do it one more time for you.' And that's really hard. There's no feasible way that I can think of that I can tell a show host that his show is canceled, or her show is canceled, and her jump up and down for joy. Many of the hosts I talked to in this last round of changes didn't feel that they were mistreated. There were a few who did. And I'm truly sorry for that."

BOTH HAHN AND SASSENBERGER fall into the latter category. Hahn describes the day of his last show: "One of the things that apparently bugged [Ford] was that I quoted an actual hourly audience figure in an interview that I gave to Jim Purdy at the Star [in an article published the day before his last show]. And he started making wild accusations that somehow I had obtained that figure from KUAT, when actually he had provided that number to me himself. So things got off to a pretty rocky start that day, and there was some back and forth on that.

"Because of some of the rancor that was developing, he suddenly, around mid-afternoon, left me a phone message saying that he wasn't going to let me do my final show because he was concerned that bad feelings would spill over into the actual on-air program. And I called him back and told him basically that he was being awfully dramatic, and he laid down this whole list of rules about what I could and couldn't say in the final show. He said that I could say that it was my last show, that I could invite anyone concerned about it being my last show to provide their comments to the station via him, but that I was not to rant or talk the station down or anything like that, which I had no plans of doing. And when I showed up on that Monday night, he took me aside--of course, he was there--and kind of reiterated the same things, that he was concerned about what might happen on the air."

Nothing in that realm happened on Hahn's last show, though Sassenberger tells a different story. He says that when Ford opened the door to the station for him just before his last show, it was the first time that he had ever met Ford. "He introduced himself, said 'Hi, I'm Tony Ford.' He was hanging around and I thought that was kind of odd. I could understand that maybe he was worried that I might do something weird or something on my last show. So I'm doing my show and I'm kinda bummed out, so when I do the back-announcing and public service announcements and whatever, I started sorta telling the listeners out there that this is my last show ever, and it looks like they're no longer wanting my services here so this would be the last edition of the Gimme Indie Rock show, and thanks for tuning in the last eight years. And Tony comes in the actual broadcasting booth and says, 'Y'know Bill, I'd really prefer you wouldn't get on a soapbox here,' and I said, 'Well, I'm sure you would," and went about my business.

"I made some other comments later on, and then I was playing a song by Turbonegro and Tony, all of a sudden, mid-song, he just shut off the music I was broadcasting and put on some Muzak. Then he comes back in the broadcasting booth and says, 'Well, it looks like we're gonna have a problem here tonight, huh?' I go, 'Tony look, I've got 40 minutes to go, I've done this show for eight years, do me the courtesy of letting me do my show, please.'

"It was kind of a tense situation, as you can imagine. He thought he had heard some bad words that the FCC doesn't like, which is debatable. I honestly don't think there were obscenities in the music, but that's his interpretation. So he says, 'Well look, if you promise me you won't be playing any of the bad FCC words, I'll let you finish your program.' I go, 'Oh, thanks a lot.' That's about it. It was just kind of a weird, uneasy kind of thing the way that he hovered around and censored me from even voicing my opinion about having the show canceled in the first place."

Ford explains that he had the best interest of the station in mind. "Internal politics don't make for good programming," he says. "All of the volunteers, you can't predict who will go out and engage in such behavior--I don't think any of them would. It's not that I'm sure that this person would say something wrong or bad or do something illegal, it's just that there's a risk of that."

ANOTHER TOPIC BROUGHT TO THE FORE at the contentious July board meeting was the sale of a transmitter license that KXCI had bought with the intention of expanding its signal to the northwest side of town. Ford tells the story of what happened to the proposed plan, and why the transmitter never came to pass:

"When I was hired, they had acquired a construction permit. That permit would have allowed the station to build a transmitter on a certain tower owned by another company. They did not have the money to build it when I was hired; they needed like 25 grand or something like that and had no prospects to get it. They had a oral agreement with the tower company for a $1-a-year lease. My first job was to find a way to get the money, which we did. We refinanced our property at South Fourth Avenue, got a much lower interest rate, and pulled out a $25,000 equity loan. We then got ready to build--it was my top priority--and then the tower company was sold.

"The tower was sold to another company, and the rent went from $1 a year to $1,200 a month, which became not very feasible to us. However, I said, 'Let's look at it completely.' The board of directors created an ad hoc committee to review the translator, and in the research by the board and myself, we determined that not only would it be very dangerous for the station to try to put that up because we couldn't afford to pay the rent, but that the engineers were suggesting that the translator wouldn't reach all of the northwest, or even the foothills. It was only 10 watts, one-tenth of a hundred-watt light bulb. So by the time it got to the northwest it was so weak that only a very high-quality car radio could pick it up. So not only was it going to cost a lot of money to build and to run--more than we had--it wasn't going to do what we wanted it to do.

"And it was about to run out. We had three months left on the permit, and then it would have gone away; we would have lost it. And we had already invested $15,000 getting to that point. ... There was a buyer who came forward and offered us $5,000 for the construction permit. Instead of losing the $15,000 and the permit which we couldn't afford to build, we instead gained a significant amount of money for the station which was put into a restricted account for a rainy day fund. 'Cause the station had never had any savings at all to protect itself financially.

"There's no reason not to have a northwest translator. ... We're losing a couple hundred thousand dollars a year; we're not reaching part of our community. We've been desperately trying to find a way to get up there, and what we found was that this not only wasn't going to help us do it, it was going to cost us so much it would hurt us, and we were about to lose the money we had invested. And that's kind of what I walked into when I was hired, was that situation. And I think it was the right decision for the organization."

Ford continues, "I've got consultants working on it right now: How do we get there? We need to be there. It's a top priority. The reason we don't talk about it that much is because there's nothing we can do yet. The money to build the translator that I took out of the equity of the building, and some of that is money people donated specifically for a translator, is in a restricted account. It will not be touched except for to build a translator. It's in a money market gaining interest, just sitting there. It will stay there until I can build a translator in the northwest."

And the money from the sale of the building permit? "It's in another restricted account that's kind of a safety net. It just sits there, but it's not part of the operations." But has that money been earmarked for the purchase of a new transmitter? "Not necessarily, no. So the sale of that piece of paper--that's what we sold, a piece of paper that would have cost us 20,000 plus 1,200 a month to put it in place, and a piece of paper that represented something that wouldn't have done what we wanted it to do--that's what we sold, no tower, no equipment, nothing like that."

According to the station's financial audit for last year, prepared by local firm Frizzell, Senkerik & Company, P.C., that "piece of paper" was sold for $100,000, of which $10,000 was paid to Ford for a commission, a fact he never brought up during our conversation. In a follow-up interview Ford explained, "I think that's a misnomer. My understanding--and I was not in the board meeting for this part, that was about a year ago--and you'll need to call Paul Sturm to double-check this [Sturm referred all questions regarding the transmitter license's sale to Ford in an earlier interview], but that was a performance bonus. It was based on the work I had done for the previous two years. I don't believe it was tied directly to that sale at all. I think that's just a miscommunication with the auditor. My understanding from the board is that--and again, I wasn't there for that vote or that discussion; it would have been inappropriate for me to be there--so my understanding is that it was a unanimous vote, and it was not tied in any way to that particular sale. It was a performance bonus recognizing what I had done for the fiscal health of the station for the past two years."

ANOTHER CONTROVERSIAL SUBJECT IS that Ford recently pulled KXCI's streaming broadcast off the Internet. He explains, "Let's start at the beginning. One, I was the one who brought Internet streaming to the station. The other candidates for this position didn't even think it was important, and I feel it's vital. We need to be serving people online. I think that's the future of broadcasting. ... We got it done as fast as we could, for free through our service providers. Then the dot-com crash happens, and all of the business models changed. It went from free to expensive. ... I've got people working on another way to do that. That's the fiduciary element.

"The second part of it is regulation, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It requires some regulations that I don't know that we can do as the kind of station that we are. It's designed for stations that pre-program every piece of music, and we don't. It requires, among other things, playing no bootleg material; I mean, we have a Grateful Dead show, that gets kinda, you know ... . You cannot pre-announce a song--you can't say, 'Coming up in this next set I've got a great Bo Diddley tune.' You can't play more than three songs from the same album over a three-hour period, which, on some shows, that could be difficult.

"It also requires that you display in real time, on the Internet, the text of the song's title, album, artist, and record company. I have, that's over 100,000 albums, and that would have to be typed in by the DJ. There are people who are running it without it right now, but the fines have not yet been set, and they are retroactive to when you began streaming. I don't know what I'm risking. Are they gonna come after me? It's a small station, right? Maybe? As a station manager, should I risk it before I know what I'm risking? I mean, is that responsible?

"I don't want to risk the station needlessly. That's not a responsible decision for a manager to make. ... I think we'll be there in the next year. But again, lots of stations have yanked their streams. Almost all commercial radio stations have yanked their streams. Many public radio stations [too]."

But in a random search of five commercial radio stations nationwide on the Internet, we found that all five are, indeed, still streaming their broadcasts on their respective Web sites. When asked for his opinion on the matter, Hahn says, "I have a feeling that he misinterpreted some legal findings that came down. ... It's being sorted out, and I have a feeling he panicked about it and just took the station off the (Internet). At KUAT, we just went online with both of our stations in the last couple of months, and I know for sure that the legal implications were examined. I can't believe that he knows more about it than we do here."

IT REMAINS TO BE SEEN IF any drastic changes will be made in the station's policy or operations anytime soon. For Ford, it seems it's business as usual and he plans to keep doing the job to the best of his ability, just as he has for the last three years. He's got his vision for the station and he plans to stick to it no matter how vocal his detractors.

"It's hard," says Ford of dealing with the criticism. "It's not easy, but it's part of my job. It's what I'm willing to do. I've turned down other job offers that would be a lot easier and would pay more. I love this station that much."

Hahn, for his part, is already looking beyond Ford's reign as GM. "Unfortunately, with KXCI not being the best-funded station," he says, "they haven't been able to attract the best candidates. They've always been able to get either old guys with checkered pasts or else young guys with no experience, never anybody in between. So they end up firing someone for being an alcoholic or else they get involved with someone who isn't up to the task and doesn't care what anyone else thinks. ... [Ford is] very young, he's very ambitious, this is his first chance to run a station, and so much of what he's doing is on-the-job training, but it's his chance to make his mark. He's moving on. I know that he's been applying for other jobs."

To that end, Ford explains, "You know, in the radio business you always keep your ear to the ground, but am I actively seeking other employment? Not right now."

And as for the board of directors, they seem to be standing by their man. When asked what actions would be taken by the board following that July 27 meeting, Paul Sturm says, "We will not be reviewing the changes that have been made. Those changes will stand."

But while the board plans no retroactive moves, a proactive one has been taken. Sturm reads from a document he drafted at the meeting after the open-floor segment was wrapped up: "At my request, and at the suggestion of (board member) Jim Mazzocco, the board has created an ad hoc committee for programming protocol, and this committee will review KXCI programming processes and procedures as they relate to the mission, vision, and long-term strategic plan of KXCI as approved by the board, and to aid the board in our evaluation of the general manager's organizational role and job performance."

The committee comprises three current board members, and its role, according to Sturm is "to review how the communication process can be improved, and also to review how the initial decision making is done."

As Xavier Lopez, a former Tough Tulip Audio Revival programmer, puts it, "What do we know? Well, we know it's still in the board's hands, but what is in the board's hands? We don't know."

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