KZYX Inside Out

by Sheila Dawn-Tracy, July 15, 2009

 With the recent rash of programming changes and layoffs at KZYX&Z as an attempt, according to Station Manager John Coate, to balance the books, it appears that the listening audience and general public know little of the behind the scenes drama playing out at the station.

Having been mentored under the patient support of former news director Annie Esposito (who, incidentally, was replaced by Paul Hanson not Christina Aanestad, as reported last week) with whom I had the pleasure of working for seven years, I have seen the station evolve under the direction of four general managers, three of them women.

Until last month I was also contracted by the station to do maintenance work.

On Friday, June 29th, on Norman DeVall’s Access program, Coate stated the station was trying to bring a higher quality to local programming. My experience has been that the local quality of the station, specifically in the evening news department, has been sorely lacking.

Last June when the lightning first threatened many local communities, the situation reached such crisis proportions that other notable happenings in the community were all but eclipsed. I tried unsuccessfully to get a story about local vandalism through the firewall of emergency fire updates. Understandable, though far from desirable.

After the fires died down and things returned to a level of normalcy, the evening news began a regular practice of running Christopher Martinez’s Capitol News stores from Sacramento. John Sakowicz also became a regular commentator on the fiscal meltdown in that shady world of hedge funds and bank bailouts. From one crisis to another, the local goings on were no longer high priority. More downloads.

With the fiscal woes of the station allegedly in such dire straits, I am left to wonder how much downloading of other reporters’ pieces costs the station? In the same context of cost vs. free, why has the free coverage provided by volunteers like Louis Bigfoot and myself been marginalized, soon to become a discarded practice?

Over the past six months, Paul Hanson increasingly chose to do interviews with administration officials rather than public comments from other perspectives. I was alarmed to see Sheriff Tom Allman pitching the evening news during the fall pledge drive, feeling that the station’s increasingly close ties with law enforcement had the same quality as journalists embedded with the military in Iraq coverage.

Indeed, Hanson vetoed Aanestad’s planned interview with defense attorney David Nick who specializes in marijuana law on the morning of the interview. The reason given was that the station wasn’t going to give so much air time to marijuana issues. However, the very next evening’s news had a story taken from KMUD about the environmental damage being done by illegal marijuana grows.

About that same time Hanson had a police scanner added to his technological resources at the station.

Several months ago the heat in the news department ratcheted up a few degrees over an interview I did with a DMV public relations representative. What should have been a routine news story about the $10,000 price tag of the Fort Bragg DMV remodeling plan, took a bizarre twist early on.

The interview included questions about where public comments regarding the proposed changes could be directed and a seemingly benign question of where the money from the increased April fees were to be distributed. The DMV man called shortly after the interview ended stating he had given inaccurate information and would like to amend his statement. As Paul was acting as recording engineer, I handed over the phone. I will never know what transpired during that hook up. But what aired on the station a week later barely resembled the original. When I requested a recording of what aired since I unfortunately missed it, I was given a typed version of Paul’s take of my questions and a CD with two live questions and response out of eight original ones. Not once, but twice, Paul referred to me as “volunteer Sheila Dawn,” a seemingly overemphasis on the fact that I was unpaid, especially in the light that almost all the programming is done by volunteers. When I questioned Paul about paraphrasing my interview or “editing” it, depending on whose perspective you’re looking from, he reacted most unprofessionally by swearing, saying “I’ve been doing this for 20 f___ing years!” I restrained my impulse to ask, “How well?”

As if working a long time at something is an absolute guarantee of professional ethics. Both questions regarding public input and distribution of fees never made it to the airwaves.

In April at a social gathering, Aanestad and I shared mental notes about the station environment. I had prophetically proclaimed I did not think I’d be at the station for much longer given the problems I was encountering with Hanson. When it came to light that Paul’s swearing episode was not a singular event, Christina asked my permission to include my experience in a complaint she decided to file as she had had similar encounters not only with Paul but with other male staffers as well.

That is why I was not as unprepared as the rest of the community when both Christina and I were “laid off” within weeks of each other in June. It is also the reason I think community efforts to raise money to have Aanestad reinstated are futile. The outcry about the popularity of the morning news reporter overshadows the fact of Hanson’s growing unpopularity with listeners.

Aanestad was filling the void opened up by Paul’s non-local emphasis. Locals were calling Aanestad with information and stories and bypassing the main man and undermining his control as news director.

There are more beans to spill in another episode. I am convinced however that this fiscal crisis is all smoke and mirrors. Just a few months before the spring pledge drive I mentioned to Coate that I was exceeding my two hours a week maintenance arrangement with the station. He responded that, “I should do whatever it takes to keep the station on track” without a hint of the doom and gloom scenario he was painting even before the pledge drive began. Crisis — program changes — layoffs — a prescribed formula we are seeing on every level: federal, state, county and even more locally on public radio. A pervasive slide down the administrative axis of unaccountability.

Think what you will, but personally, I don’t buy it.

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