Thursday, July 21, 2011

Plowshare Peace Center, WVTF Public Radio Go At It

Larry Hincker (left) listens to Plowshare argument after meeting.
It was difficult to sit there at the Hotel Roanoke and watch people from two organizations I have a great deal of respect for going after each other over a difference of opinion a couple of hours ago, but it was inevitable.

The good people from the Plowshare Peace Center have been trying to get WVTF Public Radio in Roanoke to run an excellent, left-leaning show called "Democracy Now" (stream the radio or TV show here) for some time with no success. WVTF's reasoning revolves around the fact that the show is highly charged from a political standpoint (which is why the lovely people from Plowshare want it) and that they would feel obligated to balance it with another view if it ran; that and the fact that it would alienate a lot of conservative listeners at a time when revenues are threatened.

(My friend Betsy Gehman of Lynchburg writes that "Democracy Now" has its own channel on DirectTV in the Hill City.)

The notion that WVTF still tries to adhere to the Fairness Doctrine, which the Regan Administration and its judges killed, giving full power to right-wing talk radio, is fascinating in itself and I laud the station for that stance.

Glenn Gleixner (left) and Larry Hincker (right)
That "Democracy Now" is readily available via computer and can even be streamed as a television show, doesn't seem to satisfy these advocates for a place in the WVTF lineup. They want it available to all WVTF listeners on a regular schedule, same as "Antiques Road Show" is. WVTF executives insist that this is about Plowshare pushing a point of view and I can't disagree with that. The honest people in Plowshare would also agree, even though they say the argument is not about the show, but about who should run WVTF, a public station that is supported by donations from listeners, among other avenues. They want a strong say in programming. Virginia Tech, which owns the station, say the programming is done by professionals and that's not likely to change.

I don't want to plop my fat ass down between these warring sides, but I'd really like for them to settle this dispute. The Plowshare people say they want to be heard and haven't been. WVTF insists they have been heard, and heard, and heard and Larry Hincker of Virginia Tech--who has ultimate responsibility for the station--says they'll be heard again because he will offer to set up yet another meeting. Hincker was not happy that the man chairing today's meeting cut off comment abruptly and angered several of these generally peaceful people (hell, about half of them are Quakers, for heaven's sake).

I've known Larry and Glen Gleixner, the station's general manager, for years and I know they are willing to listen. I also know that when they make a decision--and this one has been made--you have to make a hell of an argument (and a new one) to get the first decision overturned. I don't see that happening here.

Plowshare members packed the small room for the WVTF budget meeting today at Hotel Roanoke.
The Plowshare are on the side of the angels in most of their crusades (including standing against war--quite literally), but I think this one's a bridge too far for them. If there were no alternatives, I probably wouldn't say that, but they can do everything from streaming the radio and TV versions of "Democracy Now" to using public access TV to run it. Just ask.

Elsewhere today's meeting had little new information. The budget for the coming fiscal year was passed unanimously and there were only a few mildly interesting aspects to that:
  • The new budget calls for $2.994 million, up from $2.927 million and still under the magic $3 million level. 
  • The station recently raised $1.58 million from listeners, its highest ever. Next year' it's shooting at $1.7 million (and that is certainly a reasonable expectation, given that they've set records the last three years).
  • The station has a $500,000 reserve, which makes sense for one that has 7 transmitters, 13 translators and covers more than half of Virginia with its signal. Things could break at any time and the slush fund is welcome.
  • WVTF's Friends Council, which it has in lieu of a citizens board--required of commercial stations--has been quite active in the past two years, according to Gleixner. It is making suggestions in all areas of the operation.
  • Broadcasting expenses are down 40 percent from last year ($78,806 from $131,906), partly because of the elimination of some equipment needs.
  • State and federal funding continue to shrink and it is almost inevitable they will be eliminated completely in the near future. In fact, Virginia's Republican governor has promised that will happen on his watch.


  1. Considering the flak and insults that Public Radio gets when the subject comes up, I fail to see why they maintain there is some level of "fairness" or "equality" in their programming. In a highly divisive time (like the last 30 years) it is very much a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. Even if acceding to the wishes of these listeners required an equal time opposing view due to some internal belief, why is that a bad thing? Sorry, I am with Plowshares.

  2. Dear Sir:
    Thank you for commenting on the WVTF-Virginia Tech Foundation conflict with Plowshare Peace Center at the meeting yesterday. I appreciate that you mentioned Plowshare Peace Center's representation at the event and its 3-year campaign to provide a free one year trial run of the award-winning newscast, Democracy Now! However, you didn't mention the larger issue of concern, the fact that the station lacks a (real) community advisory board. The newly formed "Friends Council" is a CAB in name only, limited to narrow concerns like fund raising and certainly not representative of the listening public in SW VA. This is an issue of major concern to Plowshare Peace Center. Is it not misleading for WVTF to advertise itself as "our" public radio station when the only public connection is through its collecting our money in increasingly frequent fund drives? This larger issue has been sadly neglected by the Roanoke Times and I was disappointed that your coverage of the annual VTF Board meeting did not mention it. Because WVTF is owned by a private organization and not by the university itself, it should be required to have a CAB in accordance with Corporation for Public Broadcasting guidelines. The latter recommends that ALL NPR-affiliates have a CAB. Virginia voices are being shut out of "our" public radio station.
    Michael L. Bentley, EdD

  3. Michael:
    I simply can't get excited about this. Even if everything you say is wrong and distorted is just that, don't we have more to consider than a radio station's programming. Plowshare, for example, has stopping war as a high priority. That is noble and courageous ... and probably impossible. But it's something wonderful to stand for. Changing one program on one radio station (which is very, very low rated) in a small market doesn't seem to me to be worth much effort, especially when the program you want is broadly available.
    The fact that WVTF is not playing by rules it is not required to adopt is also not surprising. I will note that you have been heard on a number of occasions and I understand you will be invited to present again. That seems more than fair.
    I was part of the friends council when it began (didn't have enough time to stay with it) and I found it to be open and receptive to ideas. VTF wants to raise money and that is an overriding concern in everything it does, but I don't find the resistance you find. Programming, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. VTF has among the best household penetration of any public station in the U.S. and there is a reason for that.

  4. Dear Dan,
    I appreciate your response and I guess we will have to agree to disagree. Yes, from when they began, Plowshare admirably has stood against the current wars and against the use of violence among nations and among conflicted parties, but that is not the only concern of the organization. Plowshare stands for full public participation in institutions that are funded by federal and state taxes. We don’t believe that "the professionals" should have the only say about programming decisions at "our public radio station." This is why we have lobbied for years for the creation of a WVTF community advisory board. Why would you support an ersatz Friends Council that doesn't follow CPB guidelines? Why shouldn't WVTF welcome more public engagement? Unlike yourself we have not experienced transparency, but 3 years of stonewalling and lies. As to your comments about Democracy Now!: yes, I listen to it on my laptop every day but this fine newscast should be available to the public who can afford a radio but not a computer. Radio IQ repeats programs over and over again - there is plenty of airtime available for a free run of DN! Why not give it a chance?

  5. Michael:

    I sympathize, but it still looks like an effort to enforce a political point of view (one I agree with) the way the right does. I don't much like that. VTF, I suspect, re-runs programs because of the cost effectiveness of doing so. I hate to sound like I'm defending arbitrariness, but the station is not bound by the guidelines you site and can do whatever it wants in this area without fear of being illegal or unethical. I hope you'll continue to enthusiastically state your opinion, though. I admire that trait greatly.

    And I still think this is a tempest in a teapot. There are so many more worthy causes ...