Current Online

University fires manager after opera dispute

Originally published in Current, March 20, 2000

By Mike Janssen

After facing criticism from opera fans who protested his decision to take the Metropolitan Opera off the air, Steve Mills doesn't have to worry any more about taking that kind of heat. Virginia Tech, licensee of WVTF in Roanoke, fired him as its general manager, ending his 25-year career with the station.

When asked if the order to clean out his desk took him by surprise, Mills said, "I guess that's an understatement. After being there almost 25 years, you almost certainly don't expect this." He's secured the services of a Roanoke lawyer who has handled previous lawsuits against Virginia Tech.

The flare-up between WVTF and Virginia Tech started in December. Mills said the opera broadcast's ratings had been flagging for years, and faced with cutbacks in CPB funding and rising NPR dues, the station decided to take a pass on the Met's 60th season, which started Dec. 4. Outraged opera lovers bypassed WVTF and complained directly to the university, which ordered Mills to put the Met back on the air. He consented, but not without writing a letter of protest to his immediate supervisor, Associate Vice President for University Relations Larry Hincker. "I think it is necessary to note that this directive is made despite the often proclaimed policy of the university administration to remain out of the program decision making process at WVTF," he wrote.

After writing the letter and reinstating the Met, Mills said, he and Hincker dropped the issue for the most part. Hincker never replied to the letter. According to Mills, Hincker had said they would meet to discuss the matter in January, but then postponed the meeting until after the adjournment of the state's General Assembly. Mills was fired before the meeting was to take place. "The station is scared," Mills said. "They don't know what the hell to think."

Though Mills believes his dismissal is closely related to the opera scuffle, Hincker downplays the recent dispute. "It was a factor, a very, very minor factor, and there's no way in the world that I would relieve somebody, particularly that I've worked with for 12 years, for something like that," he said. "Everybody's allowed to make a mistake." Hincker declined to comment on the other factors, citing confidentiality restrictions on personnel issues. But he said the decision involved "longstanding performance issues." Hincker did say that Mills had "done good things for WVTF and for public radio in general."

Mills joined WVTF as operations manager in 1975, and was promoted to general manager three years later. Leaving public radio after his long tenure at WVTF is difficult, he said, and he doesn't want to dwell upon recent events. But he has drawn one conclusion: "Obviously, if I had it to do over again, I just wouldn't mess with the opera."

Earlier story
Virginia station reeling after blitzkrieg by opera lovers

Originally published in Current, Jan. 24, 2000

A Roanoke, Va., public radio station is struggling to recover from a run-in with its licensee, Virginia Tech, prompted by the station's decision to drop the Texaco Metropolitan Opera. The move set off a chain reaction of events in December that shook up the WVTF staff, burned community bridges, and put the station at odds with its supervisors at Tech.

Station staffers were shocked when Virginia Tech administrators asked them to reverse their decision to drop the Met, the first such direct intervention in station history. Though they complied, "the station does not know how to operate," says General Manager Steve Mills.

"This is a tale that has occurred before," Mills says, referring to show-downs at other stations where Met fans have demanded that licensees save the live Saturday afternoon broadcasts. "What really surprised me was the manner in which it was done."

The trouble began when Mills and his staff decided not to pick up the 60th season of the Met, which the station has carried since 1973. Audience research suggested the Met drove away core listeners. In Charlottesville, Va., WVTF's listenership typically plunged from 2,500 to 400, and in Roanoke, the program drove away 45 percent of the audience by Mills' estimate.

WVTF looked at moving it to a slot where there would be less audience to lose, such as Sunday afternoons, but Mills doubted the Metropolitan Opera would allow the move. The Opera steadfastly requires the opera to be aired live—a provision that has irked other public radio stations in the past and prompted some to drop it. Regardless, Mills asked the Opera in writing, but didn't get a reply before the season opener. (The Met eventually denied the request.) Without a reply in hand, WVTF skipped the Dec. 4 premiere and quietly dropped the opera.

Mills calls what came next a "brutally negative response." Roanoke opera lovers barraged Virginia Tech vice presidents with angry letters, e-mails and phone calls protesting the opera's removal.

"I used to think 'opera Nazis' was harsh," Mills says. "Not anymore. If anything, it's a little tame."

"We've never seen anything quite like it before," says Larry Hincker, Mills' immediate supervisor and an associate v.p. for university relations at Virginia Tech. By Hincker's count, foundation officials received around 40 complaints, enough to stuff "an inch-and-a-half-thick file folder." It was a "public relations nightmare," he says.

Administrators told Hincker to get the Met back on the air to quell the firestorm, "basically to get it off the table," he says. On Dec. 16, Hincker asked Mills to restore the Met to the air. In a letter, Hincker wrote, "I trust that this will afford us the breathing space that is necessary to make the case for a programming change without obfuscation from the heat, emotion, and mudslinging of the current letter-writing campaign."

Later that day, Mills shot back a four-page rejoinder. He quoted a letter Hincker had written several years ago to two Roanoke residents about another programming decision, which read, "First, let me note that the university administration does not get involved in programming decisions. ... [O]ur operating policy ensures that programming decisions remain with the people most capable of making such decisions—the station staff."

"[I]t is clear this is not the policy followed by Virginia Tech," Mills wrote. "I believe what needs to be resolved is how WVTF is going to function in the future. Whatever the real university policy is toward programming on WVTF needs to be explained to the staff and put in writing." Mills called the incident a "dark day in the history of WVTF," and said Virginia Tech "severely compromised" the station's ability to serve its audience by making the request.

Hincker confirms that he wrote the 1996 letter Mills quoted, and acknowledges that dropping the opera made sense "from a radio standpoint," but defends the order to bring back the opera. "I still don't want to be involved with programming decisions," he says, "but when a programming decision makes an absolute public relations mess for the institution, then we're going to have to deal with it." Hincker believes that Mills should have consulted his higher-ups before dropping the Met.

"Normally I would have," Mills says, "but I knew ahead of time what would happen. ... They'd say, 'Well, we've got to have a meeting of the vice presidents, ... and nothing would ever happen." He says it took three months to schedule an earlier meeting about dropping another show.

One observer says better communication could have improved the situation. "Ultimately, I think the scheduling of programming needs to be up to the manager," says John Keiser, an NPR Board member and university president who has started an initiative devoted to improving licensee-station relations. But Keiser also thinks station managers should cultivate good relations with parent schools by involving administrators in programming decisions.

The future of the Met on WVTF is still in question. Mills believes dropping the opera was the right thing to do, especially considering that WVTF's NPR dues are rising and that CPB no longer lets stations count the free Met programming among the contributions that determines the size of their grants from CPB. Under these circumstances, a station looks for weak programming links, and opera leaps out as one, he says.

His rationale shares little support among opera listeners, including Tyler Pugh, a former president of Opera Roanoke's board and now an honorary trustee. "He gets his vote every fall and spring fund drive," Pugh says. "It makes no difference how many people are listening as long as he's broadcasting something that fulfills a much higher need."

Hincker has left the door open to dropping the Met again, but Mills says that's unlikely now that administrators have buckled to public pressure. "It just is a very dangerous precedent to set in my opinion, and what does it say to the public? It says, 'Hey, the way you get what you want on WVTF is make a lot of noise.'"

—Mike Janssen


. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: The Met insists on live broadcasts or none, and its fans won't accept the latter, 1993.
. Outside link: During the Met season, opera occupies a four-hour block of WVTF's Saturday broadcast schedule.
. Outside link: Radio broadcast schedule on the Metropolitan Opera web site.

Web page posted March 22, 2000
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2000