Last week, with 18 days left to go before their station would be homeless, the warring factions of WPFW-FM found themselves in D.C. Superior Court.
But as the hearing began, a wisecrack from Judge Geoffrey M. Alprin couldn’t quite break the tension. “You will find out that I’m a jazz lover also,” the judge said. “If I turn on Pandora in my pocket, you’d hear Miles Davis.”
Before Alprin was a motion for a temporary restraining order [PDF] filed by a listener, a programmer, two former staffers, and a board member of WPFW—a last-ditch effort to delay a nearly complete deal to move the community “jazz and justice” station, which airs on 89.3 FM, to Silver Spring. Opponents of the relocation say the move is a symbolic betrayal of the station’s 36-year history in the District; that it was negotiated behind closed doors; and, most controversially to WPFW’s progressive supporters, that it involves subleasing space from a subsidiary of Clear Channel, the country’s largest radio company and the home of right-wing hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
“It’s like suicide,” said listener Salih Latif, one of the plaintiffs, alluding to some conservative talk-show hosts’ antipathy toward public radio (WPFW receives some funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting).
On the left side of the room, four proponents of the move to Silver Spring—including the station’s general manager and three board members—defended the location as an affordable, viable location that had been duly approved. “This is our best option,” said Tony Norman, a member of WPFW’s listener-elected Local Station Board. He described a fruitless two-year search for a new home that had seen numerous landlords turn away WPFW because of the poor finances of the station and its parent, the Berkeley, Calif.-based Pacifica Foundation.
Alprin denied the temporary restraining order, suggesting that the lawsuit, which has another court date later this month, was unlikely to succeed on its merits. “I can tell there are strong emotions on both sides,” he said.
That’s an understatement. The hearing was the latest skirmish in the year-and-a-half-old conflict between WPFW’s general manager, John Hughes, and a group of programmers, staff, and listeners who accuse him of mismanaging the station and betraying its identity. When Hughes attempted to implement significant changes to parts of WPFW’s programming grid last fall, the turmoil spilled onto the airwaves and into the streets, with programmers discussing the controversy on the air and protesting outside the station’s Adams Morgan office building.
That building (which also houses Washington City Paper) is slated to be demolished this year, and WPFW has to be out by April 30. But with less than two weeks left in Adams Morgan, where the station will go is unclear: While Pacifica has signed a sublease to move in with the Clear Channel–owned Total Traffic Network in Silver Spring, the building’s landlord, named on the master lease as TrizecHahn Silver Spring Metro Plaza LLC, still hasn’t signed off. The hold-up, according to Hughes, involves the Pacifica Foundation’s California corporate charter, which was suspended and restored earlier this year.
Founded as a progressive alternative to mainstream radio with a particular focus on Washington’s black residents, WPFW has been functioning through a crisis for months. The station’s (and City Paper’s) current landlord has sued the Pacifica Foundation for eviction [PDF], and Summer Reese, the foundation’s interim executive director, says the station was late on rent earlier this year. At an acrimonious meeting with the station’s volunteer programmers on April 6, Hughes described the need to find a temporary home for the station if the Silver Spring lease doesn’t come through, establish an automated broadcast feed in case a new studio isn’t ready, and find a “Plan B” in case the Silver Spring move falls apart. On April 10, at a Local Station Board meeting, supporters presented a list of alternative locations.
Wherever WPFW is going, the transition probably won’t be frictionless. At the board hearing last week, Norman and Pete Tucker—board members who support the Silver Spring move—were served with court summons related to the restraining order. And as the station began airing notices of upcoming moving sales to unload CDs and promo materials, programmers have devoted airtime to the affair, with some of them criticizing Hughes for the move. Earlier this year, the Local Station Board voted 13-5 against moving to Silver Spring and asked Reese to fire Hughes. Add to the list of woes aging equipment, budget deficits, and many years of declining listenership.
Reese was also summoned to last Friday’s court hearing, but unlike the other four defendants (Hughes, Tucker, Norman, and board member Campbell Johnson), she was less stoked about Silver Spring. She said WPFW’s leadership and a real estate broker presented the sublease as the only viable option. Though she now says she had reservations that the space didn’t have enough meeting room, she signed off on the deal on Dec. 28 after Pacifica’s national board directed her to do so.
Alprin asked Reese if she regretted her support of the move. “I have concerns,” she said. A few minutes later, she changed her mind. Yes, she told the judge. She regretted signing the sublease.
Reese spent last Thursday and the rest of Friday looking at temporary spaces for WPFW to use before it moves to a longer-term home in Silver Spring or elsewhere. Among the seven sites is a television studio on the campus of the University of the District of Columbia (previous discussions between WPFW and UDC fell apart last year). Another option is Ventana Productions, a video production company located at 1819 L St. NW that has made a month-to-month offer to rent studio and office space to WPFW for $12,000 a month. The Silver Spring sublease is $11,565 a month and has an eight-year term, a commitment that has also been criticized by opponents of the move, but which Hughes says is a reasonable amount of time for the station to repair its financial state.
The L Street space was actually brought to the table by Hughes, but Reese says that’s where his responsibility for the move will end. She’s brought in a Pacifica consultant, Michelle Price, to manage the logistics of the move, and the foundation’s national technical director, Jon Almeleh, to assess WPFW’s broadcast needs. Reese also says she’s asked the Local Station Board to find a lawyer to examine the Silver Spring sublease and assess if the station can withdraw from it.
In an interview, Reese was critical of the level of local transparency regarding the move, as well as of Hughes’ largely unrealized attempt to revamp the programming grid. Reese says she suggested Hughes attempt to quell discontent among WPFW’s paid staff by showing them the Silver Spring location, which he has not. “When your staff itself has not seen the facility, I don’t know what to say. It’s very problematic,” Reese says. “It’s hard to see how this will be easy or suddenly become OK once they get [to Silver Spring].” Hughes says he hasn’t taken the staff to see the space because the negotiations are ongoing.
If WPFW’s Adams Morgan era is ending, it’s harder to say what the current turmoil will mean for the station’s eccentric broadcast. In many ways, the fight over WPFW’s relocation is a proxy battle in the larger war over its identity. It chimes with the demographic changes that have made D.C. a whiter, younger city. While Hughes says he aspires to find a permanent D.C. home for WPFW after the Silver Spring lease ends, he said at Friday’s hearing that the “vast majority” of listeners live in Maryland. (Appearing on the station several weeks ago, Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry was asked about WPFW leaving D.C. He replied, “It’s awful.”)
Reese now says she hopes the station stays in the city. A decision about a temporary space, she says, will be made this week. “People want to remain in D.C.,” she says. “I frankly would hope for a happier resolution that would satisfy a greater percentage of the community.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery