NUVO has a fascinating story this week about WITT-FM, Indy’s newest public radio station. Read the NUVO story first, then if you’re still tuned in, come back and read this post.
Re: The tragicomic ballad of WITT-FM
Thanks to Marc Allan and NUVO for an unvarnished look at community radio station WITT-FM. As a former volunteer at WITT-FM, I believe Allan’s imaginary ballad, “Reality Hits Home” is missing a verse. We could call this verse “The Rest of the Story”.
First, the statement “not many people volunteered except to offer to do a show” is simply false. I hope that is not what the station owners actually believe, because history shows otherwise.
My volunteer involvement with WITT-FM spanned fourteen years, beginning in 1994, a year after the project began, and long before a frequency was on the horizon. Back then, we called it “City Radio”. Several other volunteers made major contributions and then departed before it was clear that there would actually be a radio station. It was hard to stay involved without tangible hope, and there were many hurdles to clear during those years before we could begin believing that there might be a station after all.
By 2007, WITT-FM had received FCC approval, and naturally, this propelled the organization forward. A group of six core volunteers, including myself, emerged to help launch the station. By summer of 2008, we had helped recruit more than 100 new volunteers who were waiting to for instructions on how to get involved. Our plan was for the 100+ to generate 500 more, many of whom would become donors and underwriters. We were fortunate to have one of the best volunteer network managers in the city as one of our core volunteers. We were well on our way to helping plant deep, healthy community roots for this station.
Between the six of us, we offered a wide range of expertise—graphic design, printing, marketing and advertising, blogging, web development, concert promotion, event planning, music and audio production, on-air radio experience, music knowledge, volunteer recruitment and management, non-profit management, fundraising and extensive recorded music knowledge. We could help with just about anything except for accounting, legal and engineering, and we did. Yes, some of us wanted to be on-air, but that was not the only reason we were there. Our focus then was completely on getting the station in a position to launch. Our efforts also partially freed up owner Jim Walsh to focus on obtaining broadcast equipment, a tower lease, and other essential engineering miracles.
We set up and managed benefit concerts, a silent auction and other events for the station, leaning on club owners, businesses, friends and bands to donate services and help staff the events. We staffed tables at art fairs and music festivals. We convinced a well-regarded local web developer to donate a professional website, but station ownership rejected this donation for reasons that never were clear.
We created and managed a simple website and started a Ning community to manage the volunteers. We sent press releases and did interviews with local media. We made and distributed T-shirts, flyers, buttons and other promotional pieces. We opened our rolodexes. We raised money and even contributed our own money at times. We offered our extensive music libraries, including one of the largest collections of Indiana music recordings in existence, to be available once the station launched. We attended countless meetings, working to build the fledgling organization brick by brick.
Typically, non-profits have boards with nine or more people rather than the legal minimum of three, in order to distribute both workload and authority among a number of interested community members. Experts generally agree that a diverse and active board is a key ingredient to obtaining community and foundation grants, something WITT-FM has chased without success. When we were involved, WITT-FM resisted this type of board completely. Instead, they held private, two-person board meetings and kept the volunteers away from much of the decision-making process. A third board seat, vacated by a founder who bowed out due to time commitments, remained open, inexplicably, for about a year.
Following several months of intense fundraising and volunteer recruitment, and as the organizational needs were becoming more complex, we decided we needed board representation as a condition of our continued involvement. We asked for one seat—the vacant one–and the owners could select any one of the six of us. We also wanted the board expanded to five or more. We believed WITT-FM would benefit from being a true community-based non-profit with a larger board, and we did not think one seat representing the increasingly valuable volunteers was too much to ask.
In addition, we needed this to recruit more volunteers. People asked us how we knew the station was going to be what we hoped it would be. Our personal credibility was on the line. We needed to be able to tell recruits that we had a vote because otherwise, we could offer only hope, and our hope was beginning to fade.
When the owners received a wonderful retail space donation on Mass Ave., we helped clean it up and began holding benefit events there for the station. There is no mention of this space in the article or on the WITT-FM website, so I assume that it is no longer in the picture, even though there are still WITT-FM signs in the windows of the empty space. This is such a shame, because it would be hard to find a better public spot for a community radio station.
As the station edged closer to launch, we began to realize that there were two different visions of what WITT-FM would be.
Our vision included a large group of interested and talented people who would help raise money and sell underwriting, raise funds, market the station, manage the volunteers, and contribute on-air, among many other things. We thought that WITT-FM needed people like us—the core volunteers–to make things happen on a day-to-day basis. We wanted to see an eclectic, vibrant board that would challenge and push the station to the greatest heights possible via at least a semblance of democracy. Our station’s organization (we liked to think it was ours, and Jim would often say that it belonged to all of us) would have been much like that of WFHB, the community station in Bloomington mentioned in the article.
The other vision of WITT-FM was the paternalistic, sometimes secretive style of the owners that prevailed in 2007-2008, and may still be guiding the station in 2010. Although Jim Walsh is a delightful, friendly person, he and his partner controlled decision-making and information flow to what seemed an unhealthy degree given the monumental task of launching and maintaining a radio station. Today, if there are few volunteers, scant underwriting, little publicity, minimal community involvement and a lack of fundraising, this could be attributable at least in part to this management style.
The new, crisply designed website now lists an eight-person board of directors, which, at first blush, is a positive step. However, four of the directors are Jim and his family members. Two other board members have the same last name. It may be an expanded board, but it does not look to be diverse or community-based.
In summer 2008, when WITT-FM management declined our request for a board seat, we saw this as a sign of bigger troubles ahead. If our combined efforts, commitment and talents were not worth a single vote—a seat that had sat vacant for a year, would we ever truly be a part of things? Could community radio succeed without including and empowering the community it purported to serve? We did not think so, and the six of us reluctantly left the project, frustrated, angry and depressed.
Individually, we quietly faded away, because—as unhappy as we were—none of us wanted to undermine the station’s efforts to get on the air. When asked, we told recruits that we had left the project and put them in touch with Jim, who also received the volunteer database. I have no idea what happened after that.
WFHB’s Brian Kearney is correct—WITT-FM needs to get more people involved, a lot more people. The station may be trying to make that happen, and I hope they succeed.
However, I hope they now understand that in order to effectively seek and accept people’s donated time, talents and treasure, the organization needs to be willing to give volunteers some stake—however small–in the outcome.
– Rick Wilkerson