Heads Roll at Free Speech Radio

by Bruce Anderson, April 16, 2008

Mendocino County's marijuana controversy got its best airing yet when free speech made a rare, hour-long appearance at the county's public radio station last Thursday evening. But by Friday morning free speech was in full, limping retreat at the Philo headquarters of Mendocino County Public Radio, and two KZYX staffers had been suspended for having committed the unspeakable act on the air.

What happened?

Thursday's debate had been advertised as "KZYX, Thursday night, April 10, 2007. Media Panel Debate on Measure B. Moderator: K.C. Meadows. Guests: Keith Faulder, Ross Liberty."

The only media person in the broadcast booth was moderator K.C. Meadows of the Ukiah Daily Journal. Mary Aigner, a station staffer for many years, was also in the booth operating the call-in equipment for Meadows.

Mr. Faulder is an attorney and former candidate for Mendocino County District Attorney. Among other clients of his thriving law practice Faulder, who had prosecuted dope cases, now defends persons accused of marijuana-related offenses.

Ross Liberty is a Ukiah businessman who, along with Ukiah City councilman and supervisor's candidate John McCowen, and Mike Sweeney, manager of Mendocino Solid Waste Management Authority, devised Measure B, probably as a strategy to help elect McCowen to the Ukiah area's supervisor's seat. Sweeney, a former Maoist, and the only viable suspect in the car bombing of his late wife, Judi Bari, does the heavy intellectual lifting for his long-time friend, candidate McCowen.

Measure B would roll back Mendocino County's Measure G, an advisory which made personal use and possession of marijuana in amounts not to exceed 25 plants and 2 pounds of processed bud Mendocino County's lowest police priority.

In 2000, Measure G passed as an in-County advisory by 58% to 42%. Marijuana duly became a non-priority for local law enforcement although state and federally funded raids continued to be carried out against large-scale grows.

Proponents of Measure B, who include Ms. Meadows, who has editorialized for its passage in her newspaper, argue that marijuana production in the County is "out of control," thanks to Measure G, with armed criminals presiding over large-scale grows in the County's vast outback. Measure B's proponents add that pot growing is now common even in the County's incorporated jurisdictions of Willits and Ukiah.

Opponents of Measure B maintain that an hysteria over pot has arisen fueled almost entirely by unfounded anecdotes about the drug's prevalence, the crime it is said to inspire, the numbers of undesirables it is rumored to have recently attracted to Mendocino County.

Measure B received a thorough airing on Thursday night's program. The discussion was smart, civil and lively. It was adult give and take and interesting radio, public radio as it should be.

Enter the enemies of free speech at, of all places, a radio station that constantly advertises itself as "free speech radio."

In an odd series of events, peculiar even by the turbulent standards of local public radio, the passionate but otherwise unremarkable on-air debate about the pending marijuana ballot measure prompted station management to suspend the show's host, Ukiah Daily Journal editor K.C. Meadows, and to also place program manager Mary Aigner, a long-time employee of Mendocino County Public Broadcasting, on open-ended suspended status.

Both suspensions have stunned the larger Mendocino County community. Aigner's removal has especially shocked station listeners. She has been a loyal KZYX employee for some fifteen years and, it is no exaggeration to say, synonymous with the enterprise.

Meadows and Aigner apparently incurred the hasty wrath of station management when they inserted their views into Thursday's on-air debate between Faulder and an overmatched Ross Liberty.

The station, which was concluding a week of on-air fundraising heavy on promos touting its commitment to unfettered talk, also canceled a marijuana debate scheduled for the following Friday morning during which, Mr. Liberty, fresh off his audio-flagellation by the quick-witted Faulder, was to have debated Laura Hamburg, a long-time pot advocate. That discussion was to have been moderated by station old timer Karen Ottoboni. No reason was given for its cancellation.

Faulder said later that he's puzzled at the fallout from Thursday night's debate. He said he never felt embattled, never felt "ganged up on" by his on-air opponents. Faulder said that rumors, and they're flying from Gualala to Covelo, that he intended to sue unspecified persons or entities were "ridiculous."

Writing to K.C. Meadows from Italy where he and his wife are vacationing, Faulder went on to say, "I am truly sorry if you decide that was your last show, KC. Not for you, you'll do fine, but for the people of Mendocino county. I believe your participation and comments in the discussion on Thursday made for a more spirited and engaging debate. While I didn't know you were in favor of Measure B until you told me on the air, it didn't matter to me. It didn't change my position, and I certainly didn't expect you to be a potted plant in the room. I knew that wasn't your style. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and the debate.

"I have always preferred content over form and substance over process. It doesn't matter to me if a debate or discussion is in my living room or on KZYX, I want intelligent people to participate and share their ideas and experiences. I believe that is what you did. I am sure that a lot of people were talking about Measure B the next day. That is why I agreed to go on your show — to get people talking and thinking about an important local issue. If nothing else, I think we all, Ross Liberty, you and I, succeeded at that. I hope you will go back on the air, and soon."

K.C. Meadows is a veteran journalist with an extensive background in both print and audio media. She has reported for and edited the Ukiah Daily Journal since the middle 1990s. Her paper's letters page, unlike KZYX's airways, is genuinely open to opinions on all subjects and from all perspectives. The articulate Meadows has hosted an interview program at KZYX that began some ten years ago as a one-hour per month media roundtable show with veteran local journalist Jim Shields of Laytonville's Mendocino County Observer. Until Shields ceased participating, Meadows and Shields offered the only consistently informed local news discussion the station has managed to produce in its twenty-year history. When Shields bowed out, Meadows commenced interviews with local politicians and other figures prominent in the Mendocino County news. She has been with the station as a programmer for about ten years.

Clearly surprised and angry at KZYX's handling of what objectively was nothing more than a robust but civil discussion of a controversial local matter, a discussion that would be viewed as tame and even tedious by commercial radio standards, Meadows described the gloomy events in a blog posting early Friday morning.

"This morning I talked with Belinda at KZYX after calling the station to talk to program manager Mary Aigner to congratulate her on her participation in my program last night on Measure B with Ross Liberty (Yes on B) and Keith Faulder (No on B). Mary, I was told wasn't there but, boy, Belinda (Station Manager) wanted to talk to me. She said the folks at KZYX were very upset that I got involved in expressing my own opinions during the hour and that Mary had been suspended for speaking out on problems with commercial pot growing. As soon as Mary (who was running the board for me and there to do pledge drive breaks) started saying her own Anderson Valley neighborhood had been overtaken by pot growers the staff at KZYX went nuts, signaling to her over and over to shut up. She didn't.

"Mary never said, 'Vote for Measure B.' She simply stated that problems with commercial pot growing were real and she'd seen them first hand. Suspending her for that, it seems to me, borders on a serious First Amendment violation. (I wonder, if Mary had said something like, 'It's been my experience that medical marijuana patients really have a problem finding supplies' she would be under suspension right now.)

"For some reason there was a real crowd at the station last night, I assume because they're in the middle of pledge drive. The crowd, I am told from someone standing among them, was also going crazy trying to get me to shut up, too. One woman (later identified as Lynda McClure, an opponent of Measure B) actually put a note to that effect up to the broadcast booth window, but I didn't have my glasses on and couldn't see it.

"Anyway I wouldn't have shut up. I said at the beginning of the broadcast that I was a fervent B supporter and that would be clear during the show. For some reason the folks at KZYX assumed I was simply hosting some kind of non-partisan debate on Measure B. I would never have agreed to that. First, I am not unbiased about it. That is why I stepped aside from my usual role as moderator for the forum the Daily Journal is hosting May 8 with the American Association of University Women and the National Women's Political Caucus. Plus, I express my opinions on my monthly show all the time. Why would last night be any different?

"Belinda (I am sorry but I don't know her last name and the staff isn't listed on the station Web site) told me that all programmers are forbidden from expressing opinions on anything on any up-coming ballot as they are officially representatives of the station when on the air. She said that's an IRS rule and an FCC rule.

"I have to say I find this odd given the dedicated bias of KZYX, NPR and other public radio sources on any number of left of center issues. They defend it saying they are basically the voice of the non-mainstream and that's their mission.

"Belinda said she would send me a copy of the rules.

"She said I am suspended from KZYX too.

"I said, let's just consider it my last show."

Which is the station's loss because Ms. Meadows is very good at radio. She is also much in demand at County political events as debate moderator at election time because she is able to graciously keep the talk moving along. Her radio shows were always lively, even if her guests weren't; her talent for expediting talk was demonstrated in her last show Thursday night when the inevitable non-verbal listeners called in to stumble through addled statements that might have rambled endlessly on if Meadows hadn't diplomatically ended them.

I wrote to Ms. Meadows expressing these sentiments, adding that in my experience with KZYX that if it's free speech you're looking for from them, start your search in Canada.

She replied:

"Thanks. It was an absolutely surreal experience watching the meltdown in the crowd outside the booth as the program progressed. I guess they were there for pledge night, but I'd never seen so many people at the station. At one point a woman [Lynda McClure] was holding a hand written sign up to the booth glass trying to get me to keep quiet. When Mary Aigner started talking about how her Anderson Valley neighborhood was full of commercial pot growers claiming to be medical marijuana growers I thought the KZYX team was going to rip the microphone out of the wall. Their free speech cop came bounding into the booth with us making faces and signaling wildly to Mary to SHUT UP!!!! I've had my disagreements with Mary, but I have to give her credit for speaking up.

"The only people having a problem throughout all this were outside the booth. As heartily as Faulder and I disagree on this issue, even he pointed out during a break after one caller claimed I was part of the right wing takeover that people forget the UDJ endorsed him for DA.

"Anyway, I hope Mary doesn't get thrown under the bus for this. I just found out when I got to work this morning that they canceled today's planned Measure B 'forum' with Karen Ottoboni, Ross Liberty and Dan Hamburg. And that they won't be airing anything on the subject for two weeks. Belinda said this morning to me that they were consulting their attorneys about how serious this flaunting of their rules turns out to be. I also understand that they are not allowing anyone to have a copy of the tape of the show either. Well, good luck to them."

But Mary Aigner has been thrown under the bus. Whether or not she'll be rescued or run over until she's flattened right out of a job remains to be seen.

This is what Aigner, a single mother who has raised two daughters by herself, said on the public airwaves Thursday night, this is her crime, verbatim:

Aigner: "I just want to jump in here and say, because I happen to live in a rural subdivision with wonderful southern exposure, so I've seen what's happened in my neighborhood over the last five years. I must say that I don't think that anyone in Mendocino County will ever say they are not growing medical marijuana. According to people who grow it, it's all medical marijuana. And so I think that that is interesting to me and that's one of the things that both the Yes and No need to address is this huge loophole in Measure G because it's obviously not all medical marijuana. I don't think there are that many cancer and AIDS and chronic pain patients."

Faulder responded, "Why do you think that, first of all? That there aren't that many?"

Aigner: "Pardon me?"

Faulder: "Why do you think that? I know…"

Aigner: "Personally, I do know people who do use medical marijuana because they're HIV positive and it's very important for them, mostly as an appetite stimulant and to counterattack the drugs that they take. And they tell me, where they live, if they go into a dispensary, they see very few of people, they say very few of the patients they see in the dispensary, they're, you know, young, healthy kids."

Faulder: "What does diabetes look like?"

Aigner: "I'm just… I'm…"

Faulder: "What does Krohn's Disease look like? You know, I'm no doctor, but you can't see a lot of these…"

Aigner: "My perspective is that everyone who has, you know, is definitely, it's all medical marijuana and I think that that is an important distinction in this situation. Is that some of it's medical marijuana, some of it's personal use and some of it is just economic. And I think that that distinction should perhaps be made in this conversation."

Which is simply a statement of the obvious.

Faulder's suggestion that because a person is young and looks healthy he may be suffering from a terminal or debilitating disease, is true; but it's also untrue in the undisputed larger context, which Aigner, without advocating either side of that night's dispute over Measure B, is that the preponderance of people walking around with medically sanctioned pot cards simply like to smoke pot and medicinal marijuana is a sanctioned method of keeping the cops off their backs.

To suspend Mary Aigner, let alone fire her, as seems to be shaping up here, for simply stating a known fact is not only flagrantly unjust but, given her many years of service to the clearly ungrateful radio station, cruel.

Station manager Belinda Rawlins was unavailable for comment. She said in an e-mail that she will return to work today (Wednesday).

Vance Crow, KZYX's "communications director," said Friday he couldn't confirm or deny the current station status of either Aigner or Meadows.

"Out of respect to them I can't comment on station staffing, even if they're volunteers," Crowe said, emphasizing that station policy, particularly its political broadcasting policy, must be absolutely impartial. "In any moderated forum we have to be sure we're not presenting one side or the other. We can't have direct or indirect endorsements of any ballot measure," Crowe said.

Writing from her home on the Navarro, Pebbles Trippett, the Northcoast's most committed, and certainly its most relentless pot advocate, weighed in on the KZYX controversy.

"My primary political commitment is to freedom of speech. Everything else in this country flows from that right. Dialog, disagreement, dissent in furtherance of knowledge and justice are more important than affiliation, family loyalty or any other law. If freedom of speech goes, it'll all go.

I sincerely thank the AVA for initiating a rough-&-tumble Dialogue on Dope (4.9.08). This is especially important in Mendocino County due to the Measure B vote in June on marijuana for personal use. The existence of a spirited debate, dedicated to opening the floodgates of opinion, is more important than the topic at hand or what position anyone takes. We have umpteen disagreements to air and no other place to air them. Newspapers are increasingly moving toward long soundbites instead of depth journalism. The AVA is our vital artery to uncivil discourse, if need be.

For instance a recent 1st Amendment flap on "dope" occurred on KZYX without any on-air discussion post-flap to inform listeners why a long-time programmer, KC Meadows, and KZYX staffmember, Mary Aigner, were suspended and the second No on B debate canceled. It was the station's first Measure B debate on the marijuana for personal use issue between Atty Keith Faulder representing the No on B side and Ross Liberty representing the Yes side, with Ukiah Daily Journal editor, KC Meadows, moderating.

KC introduced her show stating her Yes on B bias up-front and the debate proceeded. Keith Faulder's well-reasoned No on B arguments took up most of the time. Eventually Mary Aigner, long-time KZYX employee who was on hand for the pledge drive, joined in the debate posing Yes on B comments such as possessing an MD approval is a ticket to grow pot, etc. Mary was not originally part of the debate and became a third voice for Yes on B, in addition to Liberty and KC. From what I hear, it was at that point that people who were in the station for other reasons motioned and made signs from the other side of the broadcast window for Mary to stop talking and officially remove herself from the dialogue. The official No on B representative, Keith Faulder, was not bothered in the least by the lopsidedness. His primary loyalty is to unfettered speech. His comment--"I relished it."--is the official No on Measure B campaign position.

KC remarked later in assessing the situation after being suspended for allowing lopsidedness in a debate, "Mary wouldn't stop talking...and neither would I." She, like Faulder, was defending the importance of true debate, letting people you vehemently disagree with have their full say without negative consequences for unpopular opinions.

More debate, not less, is the message. The No on Measure B Campaign, the Director and Steering Committee, were totally unaware of and in no way supported cutting back on debate or punishing debaters, such as by suspending KZYX programmers for expressing their views on Measure B.

Taking the high road would lead to withdrawing the two suspensions because they were the wrong thing to do. Such suspensions are effectively punishment for 1st Amendment protected opinions. Mary Aigner's 25 year service to the station should count for something, and the No on Measure B Campaign position on this subject should count for something and neither did.

At this point the previously canceled Measure B debate with Laura Hamburg, moderated by Karen Ottoboni, is being rescheduled. The station should introduce a lot of dialogue and interaction with listeners on this subject, especially during the pre-election debate period. Perhaps a liaison committee could help increase the number of debates sponsored by KZYX on Measure B, in part to undo the recent legacy of curtailing dissent without good cause or adequate explanation and in part, to reflect the voices and views of their constituency on the vital issues of medical choice and personal freedom. I volunteer to help in the interests of an informed public.

Dialog is the real deal. It's what makes life dynamic or static, vital or dead. Dialog offers us all a chance to get off the fence, give our input and shape our world."

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