A rough few months for San Francisco’s KALW

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Small San Francisco station KALW-FM is in crisis. Station manager Jeffrey Ramirez resigned at the end of January, citing his school board licensee’s failure to cede day-to-day control of the station to an separate nonprofit. And last November, a group of part-time KALW announcers filed a petition to deny KALW’s application for renewal of its FCC license. The petition is still pending.

The KALW situation is marked by problems and issues resonant in public radio. Most familiar: distress with institutional licensee. KALW’s critics complain bitterly that in all key areas —programming, development and management — the station is hampered by “benign neglect” on the part of its licensee, the San Francisco Unified School District.

Ramirez is the fourth manager in five years to leave KALW, a eclectically programmed station struggling against bigger competitor KQED. Explaining his departure, Ramirez says the school board wasn’t moving on its own task force recommendation to turn KALW management over to a nonprofit (while retaining the license). “When I accepted the job, I thought my big project would be to move the task force recommendation forward,” he told Current. “I can only be here so long and bang my head against the wall.”

Operations Manager Bill Helgeson takes over as interim manager.

Without granting the station manager inherent control of the station and its mission, KALW will never fulfill its potential, Ramirez says. One key problem is that KALW must train students as well as try to provide a high-quality audience service, but is limited to five full-time posts, he says. Everyone else must be hired on contract.

Ramirez says he learned in November that school Superintendent Bill Rojas has no intention of entering KALW into a local management agreement, despite what Ramirez was told when hired. An SFSUD spokesperson said Friday that the board hasn’t yet approved the concept of an LMA, though it could still happen. The task force recommendation is still “a work in process,” she said.

Golden Gate Public Radio, a nonprofit that filed the license petition, says it would like to see the station freed from board control in large part because it continually hires underqualified managers. Ramirez was a producer and department manager at KPBS, San Diego, and a graduate of a CPB mentoring project for upcoming leaders, but was never a station manager. Other managers rose to the post from hosting, sales, and clerk positions, according to Golden Gate.

The group, which has put itself forward as a candidate to run the station, also says that on the board’s watch KALW has been chronically underfunded. SFSUD no longer gives the station any direct subsidy, and KALW lacks a permanent development director.

‘We can hurt you …’

It is noteworthy that Golden Gate initially formed as a production cooperative, and wants access to the air. “We have people who have produced national programming who work at Peet’s Coffee,” says Golden Gate member Jason Lopez. “There’s little foot in the door to do local programming.”

But no matter how disgruntled they may be, it is remarkable that a group of staff members, even part-timers, would seek to block their station’s FCC license renewal. KALW’s late chief engineer, Dave Evans, was a founding member of the group as well, according to Golden Gate. (Evans died as result of injuries suffered in a car accident.)

The station, which makes heavy use of volunteers, is not new to internal conflict and trial, however. In the past few years there reportedly have been union-related disputes, sexual harassment charges, OSHA infractions, and movements to oust fellow employees. Ramirez says he received an anonymous threat from a critic, which he believes came from GGPR. It’s included in SFSUD’s response to the petition to deny, a little message typed on a blank looseleaf: “JEFFREY, WE CAN HURT YOU IN MANY WAYS. . . . . THINK ABOUT IT.” Lopez says Golden Gate did not send the note.

Golden Gate’s petition to the FCC charges KALW with failing to maintain its public inspection file as required, and with failing to follow EEO posting procedures. And, most significantly, it claims Ramirez lied to the FCC about both those regulatory matters.
Lying to the FCC may be the greatest sin in the eyes of the agency, or at least the one most often punished, according to many observers. KQED lost the license for its sister TV station KQEC when the commission decided it been misled about reasons the station was off the air for a period in 1980.

SFSUD’s response to the petition says Ramirez responded as honestly as he could to the FCC queries. The response, filed by Washington attorney Ernie Sanchez, seeks to have the petition thrown out on procedural grounds, and charges that Golden Gate is using the FCC petition process to further its agenda: taking over KALW.

FCC sources say it will take at least six months before a decision comes down.

Golden Gate also claims Ramirez tried to circumvent civil service hiring rules. “They have discriminated against the only African-American employee at the radio station, who has been passed over for a number of positions and possibilities,” says Lopez.

To bolster the hiring procedures argument, they included in the petition an email exchange between Ramirez and a job candidate, Michael Moon, in which Ramirez writes that he and his boss, Enrique Palacios, “are working the system to get you here.”

The offering of the eemail evidence seems to be damning, to some degree, for both parties. Sanchez says Golden Gate folks pilfered it and other documents submitted to the FCC, and asks that the commission regard the petitioners as having “unclean hands.”

But Lopez says the email was provided to him by someone else. Plus, he says, stealing private e-mail in this case serves a greater cause, as did the leak of private papers belonging to cigarette manufacturers in the ongoing nicotine scandal. “We have caught Jeff Ramirez red-handed” offering a job outside of required civil service procedures, he says.

There’s no way of knowing whether the FCC will regard Golden Gate’s petition as frivolous, as SFSUD’s attorneys claim it is, or a revelation of serious, punishable misstatements. The FCC’s Allen Meyers, speaking generally, said today’s commission “has a strong inertia with existing licensees.” Regarding misrepresentation, “the commission has methods of dealing with that, such as fines and other sanctions,” he said.

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