Ex-LR sta­tion man­ager files com­plaint with FCC

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - ARKANSAS - ERIC BESSON

The for­mer man­ager of a low-pow­ered Lit­tle Rock ra­dio sta­tion has filed an in­for­mal federal com­plaint against a neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tion, city em­ploy­ees and an elected of­fi­cial, ac­cus­ing them of vi­o­lat­ing federal reg­u­la­tions in his ab­sence.

Kwami Ab­dul-Bey’s con­tentious exit Aug. 1 from KWCP 98.9 fol­lowed dis­putes over who would set the sta­tion’s pro­gram­ming sched­ule, ac­cord­ing to emails and text mes­sages ob­tained un­der the state Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act.

The records, along with in­ter­views, of­fer in­sight into how a City Hall-backed com­mu­nity ra­dio sta­tion — one of just four dozen low-pow­ered sta­tions in Arkansas — went dark less than a year after its first broad­cast.

The West Central Com­mu­nity Cen­ter-based sta­tion has barely been on the air since Ab­dul-Bey left — and has not broad­cast at all in more than a month — sub­ject­ing op­er­a­tors to po­ten­tial sanc­tions for unau­tho­rized op­er­a­tion, leav­ing the sta­tion unat­tended and fail­ing to iden­tify the sta­tion, ac­cord­ing to the com­plaint.

City At­tor­ney Tom Car­pen­ter, who said he will file a re­sponse to the federal com­plaint, called it “a great deal of non­sense” that amounts to an “em­ploy­ment dispute.”

“There’s a great sim­i­lar­ity to his com­plaint and nail­ing Jell-O to a wall,” Car­pen­ter said.

The com­plaint, signed by

22 other cur­rent and for­mer vol­un­teers, asks the Federal Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion to is­sue a let­ter of ad­mon­ish­ment rather than fines, which Ab­dul-Bey said could tally in the thou­sands of dol­lars. It also asks the com­mis­sion to re­in­state man­age­ment, re­voke the sta­tion’s li­cense or trans­fer the li­cense to Ab­dul-Bey.

The John Bar­row Neigh­bor­hood As­so­ci­a­tion, which holds the sta­tion’s li­cense, re­ceived per­mis­sion to go “silent” for up to six months with­out fac­ing fines to fix “tech­ni­cal” is­sues, ac­cord­ing to federal doc­u­ments.

Its li­cense will be re­voked if the sta­tion re­mains off the air for a full year, ac­cord­ing to an FCC let­ter ad­dressed to City Di­rec­tor Doris Wright, who re­quested the down­time.

Wright, who helped se­cure the sta­tion li­cense and is listed on the orig­i­nal ap­pli­ca­tion as the point of con­tact, de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle.

The sta­tion went off the air in part be­cause Ab­dul-Bey left it in dis­ar­ray, but also be­cause of ex­ist­ing tech­ni­cal is­sues and an on­go­ing over­haul of the pro­gram­ming, said Carolyn Heit­man, pres­i­dent of the neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tion.

“We com­plied with ev­ery FCC stan­dard,” Heit­man said, adding that she hopes to re­sume broad­casts this year. “The FCC doesn’t have a prob­lem with us. They’ve ap­proved ev­ery­thing we’ve asked for.”

Lit­tle Rock paid Ab­dul-Bey’s wages — all other sta­tion work­ers are vol­un­teers — and bought ra­dio equip­ment as part of con­struc­tion of the com­mu­nity cen­ter, said Dana Dos­sett, who helms the De­part­ment of Com­mu­nity Pro­grams and was Ab­dul-Bey’s su­per­vi­sor.

KWCP is among 47 sta­tions statewide and about 2,500 na­tion­wide au­tho­rized for a low-power FM li­cense, which the FCC cre­ated in 2000 to al­low di­verse voices an op­por­tu­nity to broad­cast. The sta­tions, which have a small ra­dius, must be non­com­mer­cial and ed­u­ca­tional, ac­cord­ing to the com­mis­sion.

Of the Arkansas sta­tions, only KWCP has ap­proval to be “silent.” Seven of the other 46 are in the process of launch­ing and are not yet on the air, ac­cord­ing to a federal data­base.

FOR­MAT DISPUTE

Pub­lic records show that Wright and Ab­dul-Bey sparred over ra­dio pro­gram­ming.

Lit­tle Rock hired Ab­dul-Bey to the part-time job in late 2016, and the sta­tion went on air in Novem­ber. Dos­sett said she per­son­ally sought Ab­dul-Bey, who in the 1990s teamed with Lit­tle Rock stu­dents to pro­duce a weekly show that be­came in­ter­na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

Ab­dul-Bey was ini­tially paid $19 per hour for 25 hours per week. City Man­ager Bruce Moore in early June au­tho­rized Dos­sett to give him 36 hours per week at the same rate, plus ben­e­fits, back­dated to May 20, ac­cord­ing to emails be­tween Moore and Dos­sett. That would equate to $35,568 on a yearly ba­sis, ex­clud­ing ben­e­fits.

KWCP fea­tured a morn­ing drive-time show hosted by teenagers from Parkview and J.A. Fair high schools. A ju­nior at eStem Char­ter High School hosted a live, weekly “rant” show. Other teen and adult vol­un­teers worked as disc jock­eys, play­ing the mu­sic of their choice.

The lo­cal shows were com­ple­mented with syn­di­cated shows, such as a show by Lit­tle Rock na­tive and CBS talk show co-host Sh­eryl Un­der­wood and a na­tional news pro­gram. But Ab­dul-Bey’s main fo­cus was the live con­tent cre­ated by the stu­dents, which he hoped could be­come in­ter­na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

The neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tion grew un­happy with the sta­tion’s di­rec­tion, Heit­man said, so she and Wright ex­pressed that dis­plea­sure.

“It was de­vel­oped and de­signed to reach people in the west central Lit­tle Rock com­mu­nity,” Heit­man said. “It was never in­tended at this time to do any live stream­ing or in­ter­na­tional ‘let ev­ery­body hear what we’re do­ing.’ Those types of things, it wasn’t work­ing.”

On May 17, Wright emailed Ab­dul-Bey and Dos­sett “the for­mat I want to see,” de­tail­ing her wishes for each time block.

The sched­ule would have pushed most stu­dent-cre­ated pro­gram­ming on week­days be­tween 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Wright wanted to boost lis­ten­ers with more mu­sic and short com­mu­nity an­nounce­ments — such as the dates of meet­ings or ac­tiv­i­ties — through­out the day, the email says.

“When I went after this once in a life­time op­por­tu­nity, the vi­sion was to give this com­mu­nity a voice and to high­light the pos­i­tive things go­ing on here,” Wright wrote. “This sta­tion must make a dif­fer­ence in this com­mu­nity and it can­not do this if people are not lis­ten­ing.”

Ab­dul-Bey re­sponded that the mu­sic-heavy for­mat — in­clud­ing 10 hours be­tween 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. — equated to a “generic com­mer­cial ra­dio sta­tion.”

Wright then called for a meet­ing.

“You and I need to meet to dis­cuss your re­sponse to my re­quest,” she wrote, specif­i­cally ask­ing that they meet “ASAP,” and that his su­per­vi­sor be present: “Dana [Dos­sett] I would like you to be there as well.”

Dos­sett reports to the city man­ager, who reports to the city’s Board of Direc­tors.

Wright at the meet­ing threat­ened to take the sta­tion off the air if Ab­dul-Bey did not com­ply with her pro­gram­ming wishes, ac­cord­ing to his ac­count. Dos­sett said she did not re­mem­ber Wright say­ing that, and that the city di­rec­tor said she would be OK wait­ing to fully ad­dress the pro­gram­ming sched­ule after the sum­mer.

SCHOOL-YEAR SHOW

Ab­dul-Bey said the sta­tion gen­er­ally adopted most of Wright’s sug­ges­tions, but he re­jected those that ran counter to his goal of high­light­ing live, lo­cal con­tent, par­tic­u­larly be­tween 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The sta­tion com­mit­ted to eight hours of lo­cal con­tent in its ap­pli­ca­tion for the FCC li­cense, but the li­cense does not stip­u­late when such shows must be played. Ab­dul-Bey pushed for that con­tent dur­ing the day.

“It’s not a rule per se,” Ab­dul-Bey said. “All of the [low-power FM sta­tions] that we align our­selves with, they all fol­low that for­mat, where they en­sure the eight hours [of lo­cal con­tent are broad­cast dur­ing the day].”

The for­mer sta­tion man­ager said he also had a pol­icy that live shows would be given pri­or­ity over pre­re­corded broad­casts, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing hours when the West Central Com­mu­nity Cen­ter was open.

This is­sue was the root of a sec­ond dispute, which ended when Wright and Dos­sett over­ruled Ab­dul-Bey’s at­tempt to scrap a pro­gram called The Wrigh­teous Hour.

The show was broad­cast when the ra­dio sta­tion was open, but it was pre­re­corded. Ab­dul-Bey said the sta­tion al­lowed that ar­range­ment dur­ing the school year, be­cause stu­dents were in­volved in cre­at­ing the show, but he wanted it to be live or at a dif­fer­ent time start­ing with the sum­mer break.

The sta­tion man­ager in midJune in­formed the pro­ducer that the show would be can­celed. The pro­ducer ap­pealed to Dos­sett, who in­formed Ab­dul-Bey by email July 26 that she and Wright de­ter­mined the sta­tion man­ager could not can­cel the show. She noted that the pro­duc­ers live in the com­mu­nity and had groomed lis­ten­ers for the spe­cific time slot.

“Dir. Wright and I have both read and dis­cussed your con­cerns,” she wrote to Ab­dul-Bey. “Our pre­vi­ous de­ci­sion is fi­nal.”

Dos­sett in an in­ter­view said she had planned to re­view the pro­gram­ming sched­ule in full with Ab­dul-Bey, the neigh­bor­hood as­so­ci­a­tion and Wright. She said she didn’t want Ab­dul-Bey to make changes to that one show be­fore that re­view.

“Our po­si­tion was that we would like to make all of those changes at once, so there’s only one dis­rup­tion to the po­ten­tial lis­ten­ers,” Dos­sett said.

Ab­dul-Bey, in re­sponse, submitted a let­ter of his “ten­ta­tive res­ig­na­tion” but later at­tempted to with­draw it. Dos­sett told him in a text mes­sage that she ac­cepted his res­ig­na­tion and not his with­drawal.

Ab­dul-Bey re­sponded that his exit “sounds like a pre­med­i­tated job” to “pro­tect the time slot of a pre­re­corded show.”

Dos­sett, in a lengthy text-mes­sage an­swer, said that wasn’t the case.

“You are my friend!” she wrote “I’ve known you for more than 25 years! I got you a job! I fought for you to get a real salary com­men­su­rate with your ex­per­tise as best I could! I even took it out of my own bud­get and re­duced the bud­get of other pro­grams to fit you in be­cause other­wise there would have been no money to pay you. If you want to say it was all about fa­voritism, the cards ac­tu­ally tilt in your fa­vor!”

Dos­sett, in an in­ter­view, said the money she moved around in her de­part­ment’s bud­get came from pro­grams that started later than an­tic­i­pated and other part­time po­si­tions. “Noth­ing suf­fered,” she said. When he left, Ab­dul-Bey took about 80 per­cent of the ra­dio sta­tion’s mu­sic be­cause he had pur­chased the tracks, he said. When he re­moved the data, the sta­tion’s computer sys­tem froze up, and KWCP went off­line. More mu­sic was loaded into the sys­tem, and the sta­tion tem­po­rar­ily re­sumed be­fore go­ing silent in mid-Au­gust.

“Since he’s re­signed and the con­tent is gone, we don’t have a ra­dio sta­tion,” Dos­sett said. “We de­cided to go ahead and take it off [air] un­til we can put some dif­fer­ent pa­ram­e­ters in place to move for­ward.”

She said she’s not sure how she will fill the va­cant po­si­tion but that it could be an in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tor.

“I doubt I hire an em­ployee,” Dos­sett said.

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