News: Watching at WAIF

Cameras in radio studios set off controversy

Bill Bullock/TinctCreative

Some volunteer programmers at community radio station WAIF (88.3 FM) are angry about the installation of video cameras in the production booths — and some say they fear retaliation if they talk about it.

Board chair Donald Shabazz discussed the cameras in a Jan. 24 memo to all programmers, sent several weeks after the cameras were in place.

"Please be aware that the board of trustees only decided to install the 'security cameras' after (it) received several reports of activities that could have resulted in the loss of our FCC license," the memo says. "In addition to outright theft of WAIF property, some individuals have tampered with our computers and have used our computers to visit porno Web sites. Plus we have found cigarette butts in the station on numerous occasions, and we also found evidence of 'incense' being burned in the station. The burning of incense raises the possibility that marijuana, crack, or some other drug was being smoked in the station."

'Spying on us'
Founded in the early '70s as an experiment in creating an all-volunteer radio station as a way for the public to have access to the airwaves, WAIF has provided Cincinnati with 30-plus years of eclectic programming not found on any commercial radio station. Programs include music from the Indian subcontinent, African music, Native American news and views, "Hemp Rock" and talk, local music, alternative health, Gumbo music and Christian Rock followed by Heavy Metal.

With more than 100 volunteers and no full-time staff to keep an eye on the place, the honor system served as security until recently. The original installation of three cameras — two on the exterior of the building and one near the front entrance — was a way to give a programmer, frequently alone in the building, a way to safely view the area on a monitor.

Four more cameras were added inside. But the installation of cameras in the studios made some angry.

"I don't know who's monitoring it, I don't know where the tape is," says a longtime female programmer, who asked not to be named. "I wouldn't normally be afraid to use my name, but I don't want to get kicked off the air. ... They had installed cameras that looked out at the back of the building and the side of the building, and that was all fine. That was for the security of the people. But now they're spying on us."

Shabazz's memo cited several security issues, including an intoxicated person sleeping at the station and nearby car thefts. Shabazz says the volume of people entering and exiting the station every day makes it impossible to figure out who is tampering with equipment.

"We can have up to 40 people in an out of the building in a day," he says. "We're not going to sit and watch those videos 18 hours a day. When there's a problem, we'll go back and view the tape."

After speculating about who criticized the cameras, he dismisses the idea that anyone would be penalized for doing so.

"Nobody has ever been terminated," he says.

Lynne Wilson, also known as the Happy Hemptress, disagrees. She says a video camera in the studio would have proved she was innocent of the charges that led to the loss of her show.

"I was removed from the air on Dec. 30, 1999, when my former co-host and boyfriend tried to disrupt my show," she says. "He accused me of trying to hit him with a lead pipe. The rules of the station are that, when you're the programmer on the air, you're responsible for the station. They said I violated the sanctity of the station by calling the police."

Since then, Wilson proved she was the victim, and the board has twice reinstated her show. She is still waiting to get a regular time slot, filling in whenever she can. She says cameras would have saved her show but she wants to see different cameras used.

Shabazz says the cameras are streaming video without sound, operating 24 hours a day. But the description of the cameras at the February board meeting is different: Each camera supposedly takes a few seconds of footage that gets recorded on videotape in a locked box. Then the next camera in the system does the same. All seven cameras take these "still" images at approximately three-minute intervals.

"They can take these pictures and manipulate them," Wilson says. "If a picture's only being taken every few minutes, a person can stand there and wait two minutes, vandalize the equipment and there's a 50/50 chance they're not going to be on camera when they do it. The way they are now, they don't protect us or the station. That's why I say, if we're going to have cameras, they need to be full digital, with images stored in a database and viewed by an independent organization separate from the board."

'Control freaks'
Who views the videotapes is something of a mystery. Shabazz says board members, programmers accused of inappropriate behavior and Howard Riley, WAIF's station manager and security chief, can view the tapes. Mike Wood, WAIF treasurer, says the security team views the tapes unless there's an incident requiring a board review.

"It's a common-sense thing," Shabazz says. "You don't need a policy for that."

What is obvious to him is not so obvious to others. All of the programmers interviewed say they haven't been given any policies or procedures.

"What is it they have to hide?" Shabazz asks. "They don't have a right to a program. It's a privilege."

That attitude illustrates an environment of fear that has developed at the station, according to the programmers. Albert Ringshauser, a programmer who says he was kicked off the air because he spoke to WAIF's attorney about a matter related to the station, supports the cameras for that reason.

"I think it's a fantastic idea because it shows the board for what they are," he says. "They're selfish, they're ego-maniacs, they're control freaks and this just proves what they are. If (the video tapes) were being viewed by other than board members, I have no problem. I'm not about to do anything improper or illegal or vandalize equipment. I know better than that."

Another longtime male programmer sees both sides.

"I have very mixed emotions about the cameras," he says. "I'm not in favor of the Orwellian concept. I don't think they should watch everything we do. But over the years we've had problems. But this board is not to be trusted. When it comes to the security thing, it all goes back to our station manager, Howard Riley. He said this in a board meeting, which absolutely blew my mind: He doesn't trust us because any of us, when we get angry, we could walk out of the room, go get a gun and kill somebody."

Riley, who also works part-time as a guard with a security company, didn't respond to a request for an interview.

"The cameras are there, in my opinion, so the powers that be have the ability to create additional information that they want to use against people — not what's for the benefit of the station," the male programmer says. ©

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