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In 22 days, WPFW-FM has to move to a new home. But as of now, as it became clear at a contentious meeting on Saturday, the music and progressive talk station may not have a new home to move to.
Officially, WPFW and its parent, the Berkeley, Calif.-based Pacifica Foundation, have agreed to a sublease from Total Traffic Network at 8403 Colesville Road in Silver Spring. But according to WPFW General Manager John Hughes, the agreement is currently sitting in limbo while the station waits for the building’s landlord, named on the sublease as TrizecHahn Silver Spring Metro Plaza LLC, to sign off. The deal has been delayed because the troubled Pacifica Foundation saw its California corporate charter suspended earlier this year, although a member of the Pacifica National Board, Tony Norman, says the charter was recently restored.
Even if the agreement falls through, by April 30 WPFW has to be out of its current office building in Adams Morgan, which is slated to be demolished this year. (Washington City Paper is located in the same building.) And if the deal does work out, WPFW still faces internal discord: Many programmers and 13 members of the listener-elected Local Station Board oppose the move to Silver Spring.
On March 29, Hughes wrote to Yves Point du Jour, the chair of the Local Station Board, informing him of the station’s impending need to relocate. Hughes had been directed by Pacifica Interim Executive Director Summer Reese, he wrote, to “seek a contingency and/or temporary location to house WPFW.” The email, which was forwarded to Washington City Paper by a station source, went on:
Given the April 30th deadline I am fast-tracking a course of action to address if necessary the following requirements…1.storage and/or transfer of WPFW broadcast and production equipment, 2.storage and/or transfer of WPFW back-office furnishings, equipment and materials 3.provisions for relocating staff, maintaining staff work processes and office communications 4.provisions for conducting meetings, distribution of official notices and announcements 5.provisions for meeting FCC requirements. There are a number of additional requirements that must be met that I will detail in subsequent communications.
This was the backdrop of Saturday’s meeting between Hughes and several dozen of the station’s volunteer programmers, with whom he has been at odds for several years. (The tensions came to an apex late last year, when Hughes attempted to dramatically change parts of WPFW’s programming grid.) With the possibility of the move to Silver Spring being scuttled, Hughes discussed what a contingency plan could look like. “This is obviously an onerous requirement we have to meet,” he said.
Even if an alternative location is found soon, Hughes said, WPFW will probably have to temporarily suspend live broadcasting and switch to an automated feed while it moves. As for identifying a “Plan B” location, he said he is reviewing several options and would consider suggestions from others.
That wasn’t good enough for many of the several dozen people present, who criticized Hughes for the last-minute scrambling for a contingency plan and for the Silver Spring deal, which would place a station whose identity has long reflected black Washington just outside the District line. Perhaps more controversially, Total Traffic Network is a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications, the largest radio company in the country, whose right-leaning talk stations (featuring hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity) might be seen as especially toxic to the progressive-minded hosts of WPFW.
Several weeks ago, a group called Concerned Members and Supporters of WPFW organized a small protest outside 8403 Colesville Road, while several programmers have discussed the move on their shows. Some—-including several people at Saturday’s meeting—-have warned of a takeover by Clear Channel; on March 27, Pete Tucker, a member of the Local Station Board who supports the move, wrote an article on his website titled “WPFW needs a home, not scare tactics about a corporate takeover.”
Jane Gatewood, another member of the Local Station Board, told me that while some people who are against the move have used extreme rhetoric, there are sensible reasons to oppose the deal: a desire to keep the station in the District; an aversion to paying rent to a company to which many in the station’s community morally object; and objection to a process, she says, that by and large kept the station’s staff and the Local Station Board in the dark until after the Pacifica National Board signed off on the sublease. Norman, who is also a member of the Local Station Board and who supports the move, also said that the wider Local Station Board didn’t see the contract until after it had been approved by Pacifica and signed by Reese. But Norman added that the Silver Spring location wasn’t on the table until December, and that the Local Station Board was made aware of it that month.
While Hughes said on Saturday he understood the symbolic importance of keeping WPFW in the District, he had to balance that with a responsibility to the station’s listeners. “To do that, we need a facility that will give us the equivalent of what we have here,” he said. At minimum, he said, that meant four studios. There are several benefits to the Silver Spring location, he said: It is a functional radio studio that won’t require any build-out, and its rent is less than what the station currently pays. According to a copy of the sublease forwarded to Washington City Paper by a station source, WPFW will pay $11,565 each month in addition to $750 for Internet and phones and 22.03 percent of the space’s real estate taxes. Hughes also defended the lease’s eight-year agreement as suitable for the time required for the station to repair its dire financial state.
“Clear Channel is not the landlord,” said Hughes. “It’s a sublease from a Clear Channel subsidiary.” (In the last several weeks, Hughes has declined several requests from Washington City Paper for an interview.)
At the meeting, Hughes also faced questions about a proposed move to the University of the District of Columbia that fell apart, as well as some supporters’ discussions with the District government. Mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro writes that the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development is in talks with WPFW supporters “and we’re hopeful we can help WPFW stay in the District.”
Saturday’s exchange between sides frequently became heated. At one point, in an impassioned speech, du Jour said that he regretted voting for Hughes’ appointment several years ago. “Do us a favor,” du Jour said. “Leave!”—-a word that a handful of attendees then began chanting.
Hughes, for his part, left.
He returned to the room several minutes later, and the meeting eventually ended without the presentation of a list of proposed alternative locations some attendees had mentioned at the beginning of gathering. (The list will be discussed at a Local Station Board meeting this Wednesday.) As Hughes and others exited the station’s meeting area, programmer Esther Iverem called for a moment of unity, with everyone holding hands. “The almighty sees everything that happens,” said one person.
“We are powerful,” said another. “And we will win.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery