In our increasingly corporatized world, independent media voices are becoming more rare every day and should be cherished. Sometimes, though, the most immediate threat to those voices isn’t a faceless company in another state but comes from within.
Longtime volunteers at WAIF (88.3 FM), a nonprofit community radio station, have warned for the past few years that a small band of board members has changed or ignored its bylaws to get rid of people the group dislikes so it can wield absolute control and operate the station as a private fiefdom.
The situation is tragic because, for most of the 35 years that WAIF has been on the air, the station has provided a valuable outlet for news, opinions and musical genres that couldn’t be heard anywhere else on the radio dial. Whether it was from groups advocating for decriminalization of marijuana, aficionados of old-school Garage Rock from the 1960s and ’70s or gay and lesbian activists speaking out in a notoriously intolerant city, curious listeners would be exposed to a wide diversity of views.
That began changing in the early 2000s, when board chairman Donald A. Shabazz started stacking WAIF’s board of trustees with his supporters and systematically started purging the station of volunteers who questioned his management style or asked about details of WAIF’s finances.
Shabazz has tried to keep a tight lid on dissent at the station, but CityBeat reported in 2006 (See “Naughty Stepchild,” issue of May 3, 2006) about allegations involving the station not keeping current with required Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations, violations that potentially could’ve resulted in WAIF losing its broadcasting license.
Verifying those allegations and other complaints about WAIF’s operations is hampered because supposedly public records at WAIF — mandated by the FCC — are notoriously difficult to access.
During the same period, WAIF’s property taxes were declared delinquent, questions arose about whether its FCC license was current and there was an unsuccessful effort to unseat the board of trustees amid allegations of unfair voting practices.
Also, Shabazz had cameras installed throughout the station, allegedly to prevent the studio and offices from being damaged by WAIF programmers. Critics countered the action was taken to intimidate Shabazz’s critics.
Shabazz is a mortgage broker who hosts Final Call News Hour, a Nation of Islam talk show on the station. He heads a seven-member majority on WAIF’s board.
WAIF’s latest turmoil centers on a boycott planned by ousted volunteers. They want listeners to ignore the station’s spring membership drive, an event crucial for WAIF’s fundraising.
The boycott and the “Alert WAIF” electronic newsletter distributed by the station’s critics prompted a bizarre, rambling e-mail by Shabazz on Feb. 1 to all members.
“As I am sure you know, within every large organization, group, company or corporation, you have a fringe group of individuals, who are driven by ‘Hatred, Jealousy, Envy, and Racism.’ The type of people who seem to take pride in being ‘Dumb,’ ” Shabazz wrote. “These individuals, mostly a handful of disgruntled and disillusioned ex-programmers, malcontents, political operatives, white racists, and their black imps, who in reality, are actually against the very organization(s) they claim they are for. Sad to say, but WAIF has just such a group.”
Stating that WAIF’s critics “hide in their dark holes like snakes and vipers,” the bombastic Shabazz wrote, “WAIF is unquestionably the most successful, best equipped, best administered, best managed, financially solvent, debt free, racially diverse, longest running community radio station in the Mid-West.”
Referring to himself in the third person, Shabazz continued, “I double dare you to produce any credible evidence that proves that Dr. Shabazz has intentionally been unjust or unfair to any member of WAIF.”
Moreover, he challenged anyone to prove if anything written in his long, long e-mail was false.
OK, we will.
In Shabazz’s letter, he refers to WAIF’s “approximately 43-year long history.” In fact, WAIF’s charter was filed with the Ohio Secretary of State in March 1972, and its first broadcast occurred in December 1975, according to state documents. It’s odd that the good doctor doesn’t know that.
Additionally, Shabazz writes that he has served as board chairman “for the last 15 years.” In reality, Shabazz wasn’t even elected to the board until 1998 and only became chair in 2005, according to WAIF’s annual reports.
Also in Shabazz’ e-mail, he wrote how WAIF has “remain(ed) current in all of our monthly bills” to illustrate how well run the station is operated.
But a letter sent to Shabazz last summer by an attorney for Tower Leasing stated, “As you can see, although we received a payment of $450 in June, we have not received any payment in July or August. Nor have we received the fully executed Lease Agreement back from you. … Unless my client receives the rent payments for July and August totaling $900 by next Friday Aug. 21, 2009, we will have no choice but to begin the process of removing your equipment from the tower.”
When CityBeat began covering WAIF’s problems four years ago, Shabazz sent WAIF members a letter describing our coverage as “the wicked scheme being hatched by a certain group of racist, right-wing political operatives who are trying to hijack our station and destroy WAIF as we know it.”
Since then, WAIF board member Victoria Straughn — one of Cincinnati’s most well-respected African-American activists, who works to reduce and treat HIV/AIDS among blacks and to help improve police-community relations, among other issues — has filed a complaint with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office alleging that the station’s board violates state law for nonprofit groups.
In Straughn’s complaint, she states that WAIF “had been operating without a treasurer for nearly 3 years, and both the general membership body and (the board) had not received proper or adequate financial reports. Further, the (board) has not discussed or approved an operating budget since I was elected (in 2007).”
The letter also describes numerous other circumstances of what Straughn calls inappropriate behavior or actions.
Clearly, it’s well past time for an official investigation of WAIF’s finances and operations.