Dick Gregory at Monday night's town-hall event hosted by WPFW programmers

There were plenty of things that made Monday night’s town-hall event hosted by the aggrieved volunteer programmers of WPFW surreal. Several minutes in, Jay Winter Nightwolf, the host of the “jazz and justice” station’s Friday 7 p.m. block, slipped on a Native American headdress and read a list of grievances and demands. Programmers related horror stories about the station’s management and the organization that owns it, the Berkeley, Calif.-based Pacifica Foundation. Listeners expressed support while relating a litany of complaints: that the station doesn’t accept underwriting, that its leadership is inaccessible, that its pledge drives are too frequent. The meeting was still getting more heated two hours and 15 minutes in when Dick Gregory, the legendary standup comedian and social critic, got his turn at the mic and, after relating his solidarity, started telling jokes.

But the most surreal thing about the gathering might be that it happened at all: It isn’t often that you see a media outlet’s dirty laundry aired so publicly. “It has become evident to us there is a cancer at WPFW,” said Nightwolf, and he seemed to be channeling the consensus in the room. WPFW is no stranger to vocal discontent among its volunteer programmers, but it was hard to walk out of the impassioned event at Busboys & Poets and not see relations between management and programmers as strained to the point of dysfunction. Last week, nearly 80 programmers declared “no confidence” in the station’s general manager John Hughes, accusing him of mismanagement and a lack of transparency.

The face-off between managers and programmers could come to a head today. The programmers association—-which formed last year—-has asked for mediated talks between programmers, management, and the listener-elected Local Station Board to take place by the end of business this afternoon. If mediation doesn’t happen, the programmers’ next move is unclear, although in a press release earlier this week they said they are “on the threshold of an ‘Occupy’ type revolt…”

The programmers, who were joined by several of the station’s paid staffers at Monday’s event, are asking for several things: a revamped fundraising strategy that includes fewer on-air pledge drives; better access to Hughes, who they say hasn’t held an all-staff meeting in the 10 months he’s been general manager; a plan for the station’s move when its building is demolished next year; and the reinstatement of Bob Daughtry, WPFW’s former programming director whose axing a year ago spurred the station’s volunteers to form the programmers association. Daughtry, who got his job back last year following programmer outcry, was recently moved to another position, which was then eliminated, and his last day at WPFW is Nov. 29.

These days, programmers are kept almost entirely in the dark, said programmer Tom Cole. “We have the sense our input isn’t valued,” he said, describing programmers’ discomfort in asking listeners for money during pledge drives yet not knowing where that cash is going. Katea Stitt, the station’s paid music and cultural affairs director, described the station’s toxic work environment under Hughes’ leadership. “It is so upsetting I am willing to give up my job,” she said. (I left a message for Hughes yesterday, and stopped by WPFW’s studio, which is in the same building as Washington City Paper‘s office. I haven’t heard back.)

Arlene Engelhardt, the executive director of the Pacifica Foundation, wouldn’t go into specifics about the dispute with the programmers association, terming it a “personnel issue.” “To be perfectly honest, that is not an official organization and so they’re really operating outside the confines of WPFW,” she said. Engelhardt also wouldn’t discuss Daughtry’s termination.

But Engelhardt did briefly address some of the programmers’ concerns. She says she and Hughes have been working on finding a new location for the station: “We have some real possibilities but we can’t discuss them at this point.” Asked if she anticipated finding a new space before next July, when WPFW has to move, she said: “I anticipate that we won’t be hanging from the treetops.”

Engelhardt said WPFW scheduled the same number of pledge drives this year as last—-the only difference was an August drive was moved to December. On the topic of donor fatigue, she said, “That’s something that we’ve heard throughout the network  and something I’ve heard since I’ve been in community radio, which is about 20 years.” Although listener giving has dipped with the sour economy, she said, WPFW is on track to break even this year, when last year it had a deficit. In addition to funding drives and grants, she said, Pacifica is “exploring other forms of income.”

Although she wouldn’t discuss any moves toward reconciliation with the programmers association, Engelhardt said, “I think that WPFW has fantastic potential and we’re going to see them go up and up.” Asked to elaborate on how the station must change, she said: “More listeners. Some improvement in programming. And increased recognition in the community.”

Photo courtesy Tony Regusters