The battle with Michigan Radio, the powerful NPR affiliate in southern Michigan, the most listened to public radio service in Michigan, continues. After months of official stone-walling, public pressure finally forced Michigan Radio and University of Michigan officials (the U of M holds Michigan Radio's licenses) to participate in a conference call with me and four Ann Arbor residents.
The entire situation with Michigan Radio has been bizarre. Normally, NPR stations plead for money. Yet, it has taken three public campaigns to get Michigan Radio, under the direction of Steve Schram, to even talk to us about giving them money.
Months after Schram promised he would respond “soon” to our request to be an underwriter, during which neither he nor anyone else under his control would reply to my phone calls or emails, I was again in Ann Arbor on a lecture tour.
This time I went to visit him in person, accompanied by approximately 20 concerned Ann Arbor residents, including at least one UM professor. There was no chanting or disruption; these individuals were simply there in support and to provide passersby with information on the situation. Also along was an independent filmmaker, who had learned about our planned visit and asked if he could film it. I, of course, said yes.
The station also knew about this visit ahead of time, since I had announced it at two of my lectures, and the receptionist knew who I was even before I introduced myself. Of course, my voice should have been enormously familiar, since I had spoken to her a multitude of times as she transferred me to voicemail after voicemail.
Mr. Schram would not deign to come out of his office to speak with us. He was, we were told, “in a meeting.” Another person told us he was “out of town.” When I asked which it was, the receptionist settled on “in a meeting.” I said I would wait. I also asked to speak with other individuals. Everyone I requested (eventually, every member of their staff) was, I was told, unavailable.
However, three individuals did come out, one by one, and briefly engaged with us.
The first was news staffer Tamar Charney. Sadly, she wasn’t there to cover citizens opposing censorship by their local powerful public radio station, an important breaking news story; she was there to defend the station from the public – a well-behaved group consisting largely of senior citizens, Quakers, etc.
The next to come out was Media Financial Officer Betsy Noren, who was quite angry, would not give her name even though we were very willing to give ours, and demanded that we all leave the entire building (Michigan Radio has one suite).
Even though the station has a large reception area and our group was not disruptive, all except about 3-4 of us left the room. Ms. Noren said that was still too many to remain. We remained. I’ll tell more about our conversation with her later.
The third to come out was Steve Chrypinsky, marketing director. Mr. Chrypinsky served as Mr. Schram’s go-between, ludicrously taking messages from us to Schram and from Schram back to us. Chrypinsky maintained a pleasant demeanor and civil behavior despite a difficult situation, one of the few at Michigan Radio to do so.
Finally, after this silly back-and-forth method of communicating, Mr. Schram agreed to participate in a conference call on Friday at 1pm, April 2, 2010.
Conference Call – Officials make promises! (again)
On the line with me were four Ann Arbor residents (a businesswoman; a UM professor; a previous director of Michigan Media who had begun his long career with WUOM in 1949; and his wife, a Quaker with special concern and expertise on international issues).
At the Michigan Radio end participating by speaker phone were director Steve Schram, UM Vice-President for Communication David Lampe, Development Director Larry Jonas, and perhaps others listening in.
At the beginning of the call I announced that the conversation was being taped so that we would all be clear later about what had been discussed and agreed to. This is typical for conference calls. FreeConferenceCall.org, the organization we use for such calls, specifically includes this option.
Moreover, I believe deeply in openness and honesty and oppose back-room deals that exclude the public. The bedrock principle of journalism is the public right to know.
(By the way, I studied journalism at the University of Michigan; one of our required courses was on journalistic ethics. I wonder if this subject matter is still taught at the University of Michigan.)
The UM officials, signaling their (lack of) commitment to openness and transparency, said that they would prefer that the phone call not be taped; I reiterated that I would prefer that it be taped. While I understand the closed-door position of Mr. Lampe, as the PR person for the University of Michigan, I find it disappointing (but by now not surprising) that Steve Schram, director of broadcasting, took a position that is the antithesis of core journalistic principles. (Of course, If you have something you wish to hide, later deny or misconstrue, it makes sense not to tape the conversation.)
Rather than go into every detail of the phone call, for now I will concentrate on two agreements that resulted:
1. These UM officials asked me to (again) submit a specific request for underwriting, giving wording, dollar amount of support, etc. and promised that they would then respond within one week.
2. Far less enthusiastically (not that the above was enthusiastic) they finally agreed to consider whether they would correct erroneous emails about the situation sent by Michigan Radio to the public. We agreed that I would send them what I propose, and they would give a response within one week.
(This is, perhaps, the most significant aspect of our discussion. It is clear that something went deeply wrong in Michigan Radio's handling of our request to be an underwriter. It is critical that the station address this problem so that it is not replicated with others in the future and so that listeners and the Regents of the University of Michigan, who hold the license for the stations of Michigan Radio, can be assured that the organization is performing its duties correctly and without bias.)
Therefore, at Mr. Lampe's request, I am sending Michigan Radio the following:
Action Required by Michigan Radio:
Send out a correction on the erroneous email from the director of development to members of the public.
This correction should contain the following information:
Last fall a Michigan Radio director sent an erroneous email to members of the public who had written to the station objecting to Michigan Radio’s refusal to allow If Americans Knew to be a sponsor. This email asserted that the situation had been “miscast by Alison Weir” and claimed that it was confusion over the sponsoring organization that had caused Michigan Radio to refuse a request by If Americans Knew to be a sponsor.
In reality, the rationale given to If Americans Knew was the decision by some members of Michigan Radio management that If Americans Knew was “too political.” Given the nature of other Michigan Radio sponsors, Michigan Radio has now determined that this decision was incorrect and is now willing to consider a sponsorship by If Americans Knew.
Michigan Radio apologizes to the public for this misleading communication and to If Americans Knew and Alison Weir for its inaccurate statement and for its months-long refusal to discuss the possibility of a sponsorship with If Americans Knew.
Michigan Radio will now undertake an internal investigation to determine why a different standard was applied to If Americans Knew than to other nonprofit organizations, why management directed staff members not to communicate with If Americans Knew concerning a sponsorship, why only public pressure was able to force Michigan Radio to speak with If Americans Knew, whether the fact that If Americans Knew provides information to the public about Israel-Palestine played a role in Michigan Radio’s mishandling of this situation, and whether personal connections to or biases regarding Israel among individuals concerned with Michigan Radio interfered with Michigan Radio's normal relations with the public and the fulfillment of its journalistic duties as a public trust. (The preceding is my suggested wording.)
In September 2009, a new If Americans Knew chapter in Flint, Michigan contacted Michigan Radio to pursue being a sponsor, also known as an underwriter. An email exchange followed and on Oct. 1, 2009 a representative of this chapter sent the following email to the Michigan Radio representative who had been working with him in this effort:
Can you please review the following? How is this as a first draft? Our intent is to underwrite for the minimum $ amount of $1000 for 10 spots, 15 secs each.
Support for Michigan Radio comes from… "
If Americans knew dot org". A non-profit organization focused on media coverage of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Executive Director Ms. Alison Weir will visit south east Michigan the week of Oct 12th. Details on the web at "if americans knew dot org".
The underwriting representative then phoned him, telling him that Michigan Radio would not run the spot.
My associate then emailed this person:
“Thank you for the call earlier today. I communicated the Michigan Radio decision back to our group. We are disappointed that the station declined to approve our announcement.
“In order to be completly clear, please send me an e-mail stating the specific reason or reasons for the non-approval of the underwriting. As you stated, if our request did not meet an FCC guideline or rule, or the station rules or policy, please indicate which specific guideline or policy we did not meet.
“Again, this is so we can clearly understand the reason, and not have a mis-read or mis-interpretation based on our verbal conversation over the phone.
The Michigan Radio representative then emailed him the following response (also on Oct. 1):
"I’ll be glad to share with you what management discussed with me. In the underwriting packet (the first email attachment that I sent to you), on the page titled “MAKING YOUR CREDIT WORK FOR YOU MICHIGAN RADIO UNDERWRITING COPY GUIDELINES” (bottom paragraph):
“Michigan Radio reserves the right to refuse any request for underwriting that would violate an FCC rule or policy, violate station policies or adversely affect the reputation or financial condition of the station. No announcements will be aired on behalf of political organizations, political candidates or their committees, or that express a view on issues of public importance or interest or religious belief. No more than one (1) event may be listed in any underwriting announcement. No more than 6 underwriting announcements may air in one day (and may be less depending on inventory).”
The Flint chapter then, finding it difficult to communicate with me during this time since I was on an extended speaking tour in Alaska, and with my Michigan tour rapidly approaching, decided not to try to fight the station over this determination. Instead, a different organization sponsored an announcement.
On Oct. 13th I arrived in Michigan and learned about the above situation. Disturbed that our organization had not been allowed to be a sponsor and still wishing to run an announcement by If Americans Knew, I phoned Michigan radio several times over the following week to try to discuss the situation.
I never received a reply, though on Oct. 15th the Michigan Radio representative emailed my Flint associate,
“I did share Allison Wier's message with my manager, Kathy Agosta. I am not able to respond, and I'm asking that you contact Kathy. Her email is email@example.com.”
I then tried to contact Kathy Agosta, the first of a multitude of failed efforts to reach Ms. Agosta. I never received a reply.
I then phoned and emailed numerous other staff members at Michigan Radio and again was astonished to find that no one would talk with me or respond to my simple request that they phone or email me in return.
Finally, as days passed and it became clear that no one from Michigan radio would respond to my phone calls or emails, and hoping to resolve the situation while I was still on my speaking tour in Michigan, I at last sent out a press release about the situation followed by a phone call to the news director at Michigan Radio about what appeared to be censorship by a public radio station (a subject that is normally considered newsworthy). This director said he would look into the matter.
After he had done so, the news director told me that he had been told that Michigan Radio had made the decision not to run spots from us because If Americans Knew was “political” and this violated their underwriting guidelines.
I pointed out that we are not a political organization, that we are a 501c3 educational organization, that Michigan Radio allows sponsorship by similarly structured nonprofit organizations, many of which advocate for causes, and that their refusal to accept our sponsorship constituted censorship.
Nevertheless, this news director told me he would not cover this story (though a reporter, I believe it was Tamar Charney, did later come to cover one of my talks; I don't know whether or not the station aired a report on this. Her interview with me at the time was somewhat hostile.).
Meanwhile, Michigan Radio business personnel and management refused to even discuss the situation with me.
Again, our only recourse was to tell the public what was going on and to ask that others contact the station about its unethical conduct and abuse of power.
In response to a great many communications from the public on this, on Oct. 16 Michigan Radio Director of Development Larry Jonas, who had failed to respond to any of my inquiries, finally began to reply to members of the public, sending them the following email (not sent to me):
“This issue has been miscast by Ms. Weir, when in fact the issue is about adherence to FCC underwriting regulations.
“Michigan Radio was initially contacted by a gentleman in the Flint area who indicated that he was interested in establishing an underwriting schedule of announcements that would include information about Ms. Weir’s talk.
“The gentleman initially asked that the sponsorship be attributed to an organization to which he appeared to have no apparent affiliation. Michigan Radio is required by FCC rules to identify the sponsoring entity in an underwriting announcement and not a third party.
“For that and other reasons, we were concerned that accepting the sponsorship may put us afoul of FCC regulations.
“He subsequently indicated that the Flint Islamic Center, the organization that would be hosting her talk, and of which he is a member, should be identified as the sponsoring organization. Those announcements identifying that organization and Ms. Weir’s talk have aired as ordered.”
The reality is that it was Mr. Jonas who was misrepresenting the facts. As described above, we had twice been informed that Michigan Radio was not willing to work with us because they had decided we were “political.”
Moreover, this "political" rationale was again given to us, also twice, on March 29th, when I and others visited Michigan Radio in person.
On this visit a woman who refused to give her name (her website photo shows she was Media Finance Officer Betsy Noren) volunteered that we were prohibited from being a sponsor because we were “political.”
We were also told by Marketing Director Steve Chrypinsky that we were prohibited from being a sponsor because we were “political” and this would violate a guideline that stated: “No announcements will be aired on behalf of political organizations, political candidates or their committees, or that express a view on issues of public importance or interest or religious belief.”
When we noted that we are not a political organization, he pointed out the final clause: “…or that express a view on issues of public importance or interest or religious belief.”
(Incidentally, these Michigan Radio guidelines differ from NPR guidelines, which make it clear the prohibition refers only to the content of the spot itself, not whether or not an organization expresses views.)
Again, we pointed out that there are a number of Michigan Radio sponsors who express views on issues of public interest; some even have entire segments of their websites that specifically focus on legislation.
In other words, Michigan Radio has applied to us a standard that it didn’t apply to such others as the Nature Conservancy, the ACLU of Michigan, the Michigan Education Association, and the Jewish Federation of Detroit, which advocates for Israel, to name just a few of the Michigan Radio sponsors who espouse views on issues and even, in some cases, specifically discuss legislation.
To make matters worse, Michigan Radio management then misled the public about this double standard and unethical behavior, giving members of the public an entirely different, and untrue, purported rationale for refusing to run our spots.
If Michigan Radio has any commitment to accuracy and ethical behavior, it will now correct this erroneous email, by
(1) informing all recipients of its inaccurate information that the communication from Mr. Jonas was erroneous,
(2) by admitting the true rationale on which station officials had decided not to run our spots, and
(3) by apologizing to the public and to If Americans Knew for its actions.(4) Finally, most important of all, Michigan Radio will now undertake an internal investigation to determine
- why a different standard was applied to If Americans Knew than to other nonprofit organizations,
- why management directed staff members over many months not to communicate with If Americans Knew concerning a sponsorship,
- why only public pressure was able to force Michigan Radio management to speak with If Americans Knew,
- whether the fact that If Americans Knew provides information to the public about Israel-Palestine played a role in Michigan Radio’s mishandling of this situation, and
- whether personal connections to or biases regarding Israel among individuals concerned with Michigan Radio interfered with Michigan Radio's normal relations with the public and the fulfillment of its journalistic duties as a public trust.
As a licensee of the public airwaves, as a publicly funded organization, and as a journalistic institution, Michigan Radio has legal, ethical, and constitutional responsibilities. It needs to fulfill them.