On any given morning, those who still tune in to KBOO 90.7 FM might hear stories from the perspectives of prison inmates, homeless people and bicycle advocates.
But one of the topics the community radio station's hosts talk about often is the rights of workers in the face of oppressive employers.
"American labor law is broken law," a guest said on KBOO's Labor Radio show July 8. "Labor law is rigged for the bosses."
In its 45-year history, KBOO has been a forum for unpopular, controversial and neglected perspectives—often pitching individual freedom against the injustice of big business.
But now, KBOO's own management is being publicly cast as doing all the things a corporate bully might do. Workers at the station this year joined a union after KBOO moved to cut their benefits. The station responded by threatening to lay off the entire staff, and by hiring a Portland law firm that advertises its skills in keeping out unions.
The moves have divided the nonprofit station's board of directors and pitted its interim executive director against KBOO's small staff and legions of volunteers who keep the commercial-free station's programs on the air.
The fight has broken out as KBOO faces a decline in revenues and listeners. The station has also had to confront the slippery sense of what its role should be in a changing media world—and whether the station will even survive.
Says KBOO board member Hadrian Micciche, "They're fighting over who's going to have ownership of the corpse."
KBOO Community Radio went on the air in 1968, out of a basement room at Southwest Salmon Street and 3rd Avenue, and took its call letters from a marijuana strain called "Berkeley Boo." Its mission then was not that different from today's: KBOO is a source for community activism, progressive viewpoints and eclectic music.
The station runs on its volunteers—as many as 500, according to KBOO—and the programming reflects their tastes. Aside from talk shows focused on local politics, the station's lineup includes Presswatch ("News You're Not Supposed to Know"), Sounds Unsound (a music show whose genres include "avant-rock, free jazz/rock/folk, psychedelic, noise…") and Positively Revolting ("an eco-feminist, and anarcha-feminist perspective").
"Virtually everyone is welcome to come in off the street and run the station," says Lisa Loving, a KBOO board member.
The station also has 10 paid positions. Salaries are capped at $34,960 after five years of employment—and some employees have worked there for more than 20.
But the number of KBOO listeners—always a small but highly engaged group—has fallen sharply, from 70,000 in 2004, to below 50,000 in 2011. KBOO declined to release updated listener estimates. Arbitron numbers show KBOO's share has slipped further in the last year.
Micciche connects the decline in KBOO listenership to the election of President Obama. "The audience that found KBOO to be a good source of news about [President George] Bush's misdeeds has largely left us behind," Micciche says. "This target audience isn't listening at the levels they did in the past—or paying the bills."
The station's $700,000 in revenues are down nearly 20 percent since 2007. KBOO lost grants in 2008, including from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Since then, the station has been running in the red—more than $100,000 last year alone. (KBOO declined to release recent financial numbers.)
"About four years ago, we were like, 'We only have five years to continue deficit spending,'" says Paula Small, KBOO's board treasurer. "People aren't paying attention. In this current pattern, I don't give us two years."
In January, the KBOO Foundation's 12-member board voted to shake up the station by trying to make its operations more professional. The board put almost all power to run the station in the hands of an executive director who would also be station manager.
The changes were a surprise to station staff and volunteers who had run KBOO as a collective and without a real hierarchy.
"The staff managed themselves, but it was not a satisfactory arrangement," says Lynn Fitch, whom the board hired as interim director. "[The board] wanted a different structure."
Fitch—typically dressed in an embroidered linen frock, and followed everywhere by a vested Yorkie named Ryder—grew up in North Seattle and says she worked in public broadcasting in Alaska. KBOO hired her in May 2012 as its development director. "It was a part-time position," Fitch says. "I was looking for something to do that would give me time to work in my garden."
Fitch gave herself the title of "station navigator"—too many people with the title of station manager, she says, didn't last very long in the job.
KBOO had a complicated grievance process for employees. At the board's direction, Fitch rewrote the rules so that an employee could be fired at any time without cause. She also cut paid sabbaticals, the number of sick days that could be rolled over, and maternity leave.
"I thought there might be pushback," Fitch says. "I was really not prepared for the level of pushback and hostility."
Employees had already voluntarily cut their own bonuses, retirement fund, conferences and travel, and added a winter membership drive all in the name of reducing the budget deficit.
"We were given the [new employee] handbook without time to review it and told to sign it right away," says Jenka Soderberg, KBOO's evening news and public affairs director. "We were like, 'Wait, this slashes our benefits.'"
That was in March. The following month, KBOO employees informed Fitch they were seeking to join the Communications Workers of America Local 7901, and asked the station to voluntarily recognize the union.
Fitch responded by trying to lay off the entire staff, warning some board members on April 17 of her plans.
"How do you do a restructure that is fair to everybody and removes the legal responsibility?" Fitch says. "The best thing you can do is to lay everyone off, with severance packages, with the ability to collect unemployment, with continued benefits, with the caveat that I'm going to post these jobs and you're welcome to apply for them."
The next day, KBOO workers filed their petition with the National Labor Relations Board.
The station's law firm, Sussman Shank, recommended to Fitch that KBOO hire another firm experienced in dealing with unions, Bullard Law. Bullard's website boasts of the firm's expertise in "union avoidance" and its "strategies to maintain a union-free workplace [and] minimization of union activity."
Word leaked, and outrage among KBOO employees and listeners erupted at management's claims that the move was meant simply to make the station more professional.
"'Professional' in this country means anti-worker and anti-union, and KBOO needs to use a different method of achieving professional competence," Chris Lowe, a KBOO listener, said at a May 4 meeting. "There are 250 people here today. Use this energy to get people re-engaged."
Conser told WW he wasn't familiar with the blogs. "We have a bunch of 45th anniversary events coming," Conser says. "The official business of KBOO is enough to keep me busy."
But the dispute has deeply divided the KBOO board. Interviews with board members reveal that a majority is opposed to Fitch's actions.
"She called me at work on a Wednesday afternoon to tell me she planned to lay off staff," said one board member, who asked not to be identified because of current mediation. "That was when I started revisiting her whole interlude."
Several board members have quit in the past few months—including Marc Brown, who blames an entrenched staff that fights any meaningful change. "Honestly," Brown wrote in his May resignation letter, "I am not going to engage in this immature, short-sighted, and close-minded behavior any longer."
KBOO employees contacted by WW declined to discuss the current dispute. One new board member, Sue Bartlett, joined after supporting the Save KBOO movement. Bartlett says she discovered Fitch was largely carrying out directions from the KBOO board.
"We all blamed it on the new executive director," Bartlett says. "I discovered it's a lot more complex than it seemed at first."
Sources on the KBOO board say there may be enough votes to fire Fitch, but they fear being sued.
"I remember asking them, 'You're going to have my back, right?'" Fitch says. "They said yes. I don't think that any of them had any idea what they had asked me to do."
Fitch has asked for mediation with the board to decide her future. KBOO has withdrawn the policies that started the uproar, namely giving Fitch broad powers to run the station and fire employees.
Four positions on the KBOO board come up for a vote in September, and none of the members whose seats are up is seeking re-election.
Bartlett says KBOO is trying to move forward and focus on keeping the station afloat despite the tension and hard feelings.
âThereâs a lot of suspicion,â she says. âPeople have been attacked verbally a lot. Everybody is defensive.â
WW intern Sara Sneath was an intern at KBOO from January to May of this year.