Let's get one thing straight before we start: Everyone in this story loves WEVL.
Since 1976, Memphis' volunteer community radio station has been having a party on the left end of the FM dial, and volunteer programmers get to pick the music. Thanks mostly to the donations of its nearly 2,200 members, WEVL (89.9 FM) remains fiercely independent, and free from the concerns of advertisers who'd prefer the station play something, y'know, popular.
- Justin Fox Burks
- WEVL offices on South Main (center)
Former WEVL board president Tim Taylor says the station attracts a wide variety of listeners, and that there is also a wide variety of opinions on what WEVL should be and how it should get there. But everyone loves the station and wants it to succeed. It may be that definition of success and, perhaps, how to attain it that has brought about a very public split between WEVL's long-established management team and board and a group of members called Friends of WEVL who want to shake things up. At stake is the future direction of the station. It can either remain on its current path, as board members seem to prefer. Or it can expand with more — and more diverse — programmers (that's what WEVL calls DJs) and board members, possibly find more avenues for revenue, and a new location.
Beyond those challenges, many are calling for more openness from WEVL board and management. Members and programmers don't really know each other anymore, critics say, not like in decades past. And, as evidenced by a recent member meeting, the board isn't exactly welcoming fresh thoughts and ideas from its members.
According to those who've been around the station for a while, this tension between board and members has happened many times before. Labelled "coup attempts" in WEVL lore, such group uprisings have largely been stymied by a board and staff that station critics say is resistant to change, no matter the reason. So, the latest power struggle is a recurring one, but it seems to have a renewed force this time around.
- Photographs by Justin Fox Burks
- Friends of WEVL (from left to right) Les Edwards, Robby Grant, and Amanda Dent
The Friends of WEVL
In August, the Friends of WEVL created a website and began reaching out on social media. The original three "Friends" are Amanda Dent, a longtime WEVL programmer; Robby Grant, a local musician; and Les Edwards, a former WEVL board member. The three had been working on a WEVL board-sanctioned committee to help form a strategic plan for the station's future. For months, committee members say, the project was moving along nicely. Everyone was cooperative and friendly.
But at some point this summer, the WEVL board changed its mind. Taylor and Brian Craig, a WEVL board member and the station's programming director, say the committee started moving too fast, and that the committee began communicating its ideas with board members and programmers without approval from the station management. The strategic plan was one thing, Craig says, but committee members were also moving to re-shape the WEVL board and looking at a possible move to Crosstown Concourse.
The process quickly got "off track," says WEVL station manager Judy Dorsey.
A statement from Taylor in a board meeting hinted at what was to come — the curtain of cooperation was coming down. "Since the board makes the final decisions, the committee is not in a position to comment on what WEVL wants to do or will do, unless already approved by the board," Taylor said, according to the minutes of the meeting.
Craig says the WEVL board discussed the committee's work and "thought it just wasn't the right fit for WEVL." During that discussion, he says, the board dissolved the committee.
They did so without a word to Dent, Grant, or Edwards, who had been working on the project for months. Craig says that "perhaps we probably should have called them and talked." But the three, he says, never called him to see "if we could work this out."
About three weeks after the abrupt dissolution of the committee, Dent, Grant, and Edwards took their story to the public. The Friends of WEVL website was created and Grant outlined the situation in a late-August Flyer Viewpoint piece.
"I'm writing because WEVL is at a crossroads," Grant wrote. "And as listener attention is pulled in so many directions, WEVL needs to turn back to its community and re-engage to survive."
Expansion and Diversity
So, what do the Friends of WEVL want to change? They want more programmers, to start with.
According to Friends of WEVL, the station had 82 volunteer programmers in 1993. As of August, 2018, it had 42. The station had no open time-slots in 1993. It now has 32, according to the Friends website. The group wants WEVL staff to be more aggressive in recruiting programmers and to make the process of getting a show more uniform and less complicated.
"The process to get approved for a show can take a year or longer after submitting the application," reads the Friends website. "Some applicants never receive a reply to their request."
Shows used to be picked by a programming committee. Now, Craig, as the program director, has the say on shows — who gets one and who doesn't. One source, who wishes to remain anonymous, recounts the saga of a New Orleans transplant who had a show on WWOZ (that city's WEVL equivalent) and waited two years to get a show on WEVL before he finally gave up.
"If someone from New Orleans who had a show on WWOZ moves into this town and wants a show on this station, we can find a spot for them," says the source. "Having one person in charge of programming? Crazy!"
The Friends also want more diversity. Joyce Cobb, they note, is the station's single African-American programmer (out of about 40 programmers in a city that's 63 percent African American). For a long time, Cobb was the only person of color on the board of directors. African-American attorney Bryson Whitney was elected by the members last week.
The Friends also want to push the station to 24/7 programming. In 1993, the station was off the air 20 hours per week. Currently, it's off the air 42 hours each week, mainly between midnight and 6 a.m. They also want to find new sources of funding for the station, and want the station to partner with more local nonprofits. And they want to see the station's South Main headquarters renovated or find a new space.
But at the top of the Friends' list is a mission to redevelop the WEVL board. How to do that was the main thread of conversation when the Friends of WEVL met in person for the first time at High Cotton Brewing, two weeks ago. It began with casual chatter over beers. Twenty minutes later it had become a full-on, battle-plan session for the WEVL members meeting set for the following week.
WEVL staff had apparently set the member meeting and then moved it to a later date with no explanation, leading Grant to call it "shrouded in secrecy." Later, the staff sent an email to members telling them the board had approved a slate of candidates for them to vote upon during the meeting. But they did not include the names of any of the candidates or even how many there were.
All of it had the Friends scratching their heads. They turned to the station's bylaws, hoping to determine just what they could and could not do during the meeting and what rights they had as dues-paying WEVL members.
"The bylaws, in several ways, are vague," says attorney Casey Shannon, a Friend of WEVL. "It's the first set of bylaws I've read all the way through that I would call 'paranoid' on their face."
Shannon explains: "[By paranoid], I mean it is controlled in an insane degree by the current set of directors, which can and does include an employee of WEVL, [Brian Craig]."
Edwards, one of the original Friends, thinks the whole thing should be simpler. "This is a members meeting; we are members and they are the board," Edwards says. "It seems to me that we should be able to do whatever we want in our meeting."
The Friends wanted to ditch the board-approved slate of candidates and nominate their own board member, Amy Schaftlein.
Just a few days later, though, those optimistic, high-energy intentions and plans broke like a wave on the rocky shores of the WEVL board of directors.
"They Couldn't Find Anybody"
A nonprofit consultant, Barbara Prescott, told that now-defunct WEVL committee this summer that the station could not even begin to work on a strategic plan until it developed its board. That piece of criticism doesn't just come from the Friends group. Four members of the board have exceeded their term limits. Taylor, Joyce Cobb, Hal Mabry, and Steffen Schreiner have served together for about 13 years, according to sources. Taylor has been on the WEVL board for 15 years.
The WEVL board is supposed to have 12 members. Currently there are six. It's unclear why the current board can't or won't fill out its ranks. Board members themselves are responsible for filling 10 of the 12 board seats, thanks to changes made in 2001. The other two board slots are voted on by members, but even those candidates are selected from a slate vetted by the board.
"They told Les [Edwards] they just couldn't find anybody," says Nancy Morrow, former WEVL board president and a Friend of WEVL.
Taylor said during last week's member meeting: "The board is always looking for members, and we're always soliciting applications. We've gotten some recently, but they weren't submitted in the period in time to [be voted on at the meeting]."
One thing was clear from that member meeting, the board does not seem much interested in engaging with its members — or explaining why they do the things they do. Most of the four board members didn't speak. When Taylor did speak, often it was to evade or shut down questions from the members.
For example, Edwards asked if there would be an opportunity for members — from which WEVL gets most of its money — to ask questions. Taylor said, simply and flatly, "no."
As planned, Edwards then attempted to nominate Schaftlein, the Friends of WEVL candidate, from the floor. Taylor shut it down quickly, saying only "our bylaws do not provide for nominations from the floor."
The nomination strategy died, but questions came anyway. When asked about term limits for board members, Taylor said that state law and WEVL bylaws allow them to serve past their terms. "Isn't that just so business can continue?" Morrow asked. "It's not meant to keep people in perpetuity, right?"
Taylor evaded the question.
"One again, the board follows the bylaws and chose this slate of candidates," he said. "Vote for them or don't vote for them. These are the candidates for election tonight."
Edwards objected to Cobb's inclusion on the slate of candidates, because she had already served well past her term limits. Someone spoke up and said her inclusion was against the bylaws.
"Les, we've done our research on this," Taylor said. Edwards objected again and Taylor told him "You can make your statement, but these are the candidates for the membership to choose from."
Cobb lost the election. Attorney Bryson Whitney was approved. Cobb was re-installed to the board later that night by her fellow board members.
After the vote, WEVL members weren't satisfied. The room thrummed with tension. Ward Archer, owner of Archer Records, asked the board when the rules governing board elections were changed. Here's how that exchange went down:
TAYLOR: I don't know, sir! I wasn't around.
ARCHER: Well, I was around! This is not in the spirt of the WEVL that I grew to know.
TAYLOR: We've been operating under these bylaws for 17 years. They were in place before I ever had any contact with the station.
ARCHER: Well, that's no excuse. They need to be revisited. I'd like to have a motion from the board to revisit the bylaws.
TAYLOR: I think the board is probably going to look at the bylaws.
ARCHER: Well, give me something more than that.
TAYLOR: No. Why?
No resolution was made, partly because the board was not formally in session. Taylor also would not commit to make a good-faith effort to appoint new board members by the end of the year, per Morrow's suggestion.
Edwards called the board's actions that night, "the wall."
"They said, 'We're the board and we're telling you what we're going to allow you to do. We don't want to hear from you. We don't want you to ask questions.' There's no connection to the community. It's a perfect example of everything about the the station. It's those people behind that table versus everybody else."
But Edwards and Grant say the Friends of WEVL is playing "the long game," already preparing candidates for the member election next year.
Tension and Intimidation
The tension at the members meeting also exists inside the WEVL offices on South Main.
Nearly 300 people now have signed on as "Friends of WEVL" on the group's website. Look at the bottom of that list and you'll find 17 people listed as "Anonymous WEVL Programmer." They're anonymous because some say they've been threatened by WEVL staff. If they show public support for the Friends of WEVL, the station will cancel their show.
When asked, Taylor said he was not aware of the situation. Dorsey and Craig denied it. "We never told anyone we were going to throw them off the air if they signed [the Friends of WEVL website]," Dorsey says.
Craig says he has discussed the matter with WEVL programmers at the station. "I've told some people I was surprised that they would sign that," he says. "I've told several people that I wished they would un-sign it."
The Beale Street Caravan show was cancelled on WEVL last month. Its co-host, Kevin Cubbins, joined the Friends group, which did not go unnoticed by Craig. But Craig says he'd long considered canceling the show as it was never a top performer for WEVL, and it is already carried on three other Memphis radio stations.
"It is on those other stations, but I hadn't really thought about that too much," Craig says. "But, perhaps, [seeing Cubbins' name on] the Friends of WEVL website maybe, y'know, reminded me of that."
Caravan co-host Pat Mitchell Worley wrote on Facebook after the show was cancelled, "Next to Joyce Cobb, I'm only the second African-American female on this non-commercial, community station in Memphis, Tennessee. Well, I used to be."
Dorsey says the tension around these issues has made at least one new programmer want to quit.
"When this starts becoming not fun, when people start getting emails and seeing weird stuff on Facebook and reading the editorial in the Flyer, they'll tell you, 'I get enough of this in the real world, my job, and my life,'" Craig says. "I don't need all this extra stress."
Just Another "Coup" Attempt?
"That stuff that Robby [Grant] wrote about in the Flyer, everything on his list has been presented 10 years prior, and nothing was ever done," says one former WEVL board member. "So, when [the board] said they were going too fast. ... Kiss my ass. You're lying again."
Craig and Dorsey can tick off the "coup" attempts of WEVL's past. One involved closing a station at Rhodes College, they said. Another was about having talk shows. Another was a coup attempt from board members.
That last one was in 2011. Some board members thought they'd found some new funding sources. And they had a plan to hire an executive director to help Dorsey and Craig run the station, according to the former board member.
After a meeting detailing those plans, the member left feeling that progress was being made. But the other board members voted the person off the board at its very next meeting. That source says it's the prevailing attitude at WEVL, and it keeps the station in a state of stunted growth.
"Every new idea that we came up with, they'd say, 'Oh, we've already tried that. We can't do that,'" the former board member says. "You'd get constant pushback. Several people quit the board because of it. There were some legitimate things, but every little thing that came up was 'Well, we can't do that.' That's too much of the old Memphis attitude. This is a new generation now, and we do what we want to do and we can do anything."
Zac Ives, a Friend of WEVL and co-owner of Goner Records, says very little of the Memphis community is reflected in WEVL now. For example, he said station officials claim Federal Communication Commission (FCC) rules won't let them promote local music and live shows. But he said they could do "plenty" to "help foster a [music] scene rather than pull away from it." The station needs help, he said, and believes the Friends of WEVL can provide it.
"If WEVL — the staff and board — can't accept help from a group so clearly coming from a place of love for what WEVL stands for and has been in the past, who will they accept it from?" Ives says. "Their inability to listen to anyone but themselves is troubling."
When asked if she could imagine WEVL officials ever working with the Friends of WEVL on future solutions, Dorsey says, "Well, I can imagine anything."