Staffers at XRAY.FM Allege Unprofessional Behavior by the Station’s Executive Director, Jefferson Smith

Lillian Karabaic says the station engaged in bookkeeping so shoddy that some of the station’s six hourly employees didn’t receive minimum wage.

Lillian Karabaic (Alex Wittwer)

For the past six months, the nonprofit radio station XRAY.FM has experienced an exodus from its board. Three directors have resigned, and two more say they are in the process of leaving.

On Nov. 2, seven remaining members of the XRAY board called a station meeting. The topic? Concerns about co-founder and executive director Jefferson Smith.

Smith, a former state representative, Portland mayoral candidate and founder of the voting nonprofit Oregon Bus Project, didn't attend. But the meeting concerned accusations he had overseen illegal labor practices and behaved unprofessionally at XRAY.

After the meeting, Smith remains the station's executive director. But the uproar has placed his future in question.

On Nov. 17, Smith told WW he is "working with the board on a plan to restructure the organization in a way that contemplates eventual elimination of my current position."

Lillian Karabaic, the station's former finance manager, quit in June. Jenny Logan, XRAY's co-founder and board president, quit in September. Both left, they told WW, because of concerns about Smith's financial management of the station and his conduct.

"It's heartbreaking," says Logan, a longtime DJ and musician. "XRAY is very close to my heart. It hit really hard for me."

In addition to Karabaic and Logan, WW spoke to four other current and former staff members. Three of the six spoke on the record.

All six described Smith bullying and intimidating station employees, especially women. They said he barraged them with after-hours calls and emails when he didn't agree with their decisions. Each one claimed their job description was vague or functionally nonexistent. All of them felt they were expected to respond to Smith at all hours, including holidays and weekends.

Karabaic says the station engaged in bookkeeping so shoddy that some of the station's six hourly employees didn't receive minimum wage. She blames Smith for that.

Smith declined WW's interview requests. But in a statement he issued to WW, he said XRAY has never been fined or cited by any oversight agency, and denied that any employee made less than minimum wage.

"I'm passionate about the work that I do," Smith said. "At my best I can simultaneously inspire, motivate, frustrate and burn people out. I never want to cause harm."

XRAY board president Holly Hinson, a neuroscience clinician at Oregon Health & Science University, says the board took the allegations against Smith seriously.

"[Karabaic] raised numerous points related to the executive director and labor practices within the station, and the board found these points very concerning," Hinson said in a statement.

An outside audit requested by the board found Oct. 2 that XRAY's payroll was in disarray. "It is not clear that everyone currently classified as contractors meets the legal requirements," reads the audit obtained by WW. "Currently, nonexempt employees are not tracking their hours worked, resulting in significant legal risk of minimum wage and overtime violations."

XRAY's challenges are not unusual for small nonprofits, which often struggle financially and are driven by demanding leaders. (XRAY's revenues were $483,237 last year. Smith's salary was $45,500.)

But the upheaval at XRAY is significant because both the station and Smith have high profiles in Portland. XRAY's innovative, locally focused music program- ming and heavy emphasis on local politics have made it a critical darling. It's also significant and because five of the six women that WW spoke to were so alarmed by Smith's response to being questioned that they quit.

When Lillian Karabaic went to work at XRAY as the financial manager at the end of 2019, it seemed an ideal match.

Creative and independent, XRAY, 107.1 and 91.1 on the FM dial, captured much of what people love about Portland. The station's black-and-white bumper stickers adorn cars all over the city. On air, some of Portland's most revered DJs volunteer to spin eclectic sets at all hours.

Karbaic, who also produces a podcast called Oh My Dollar, offering financial advice to artists and nonprofit employees, says she believed in the station's mission.

"It's important to put a microphone to diverse, progressive voices in Portland," she says. "XRAY is trying to be the alternative to conservative talk radio."

But Karabaic says she soon found a workplace in financial and organizational disarray.

Karabaic claims that each of the station's six employees—and eight to 12 contractors, depending on the month—were paid a wage that was set verbally and randomly by Smith. Many were making slightly less than the rate Smith promised them. That included Karabaic, who says she got paid $1.50 an hour less than Smith promised.

Gregarious, charismatic and well over 6 feet tall, Smith, a Harvard law grad, made a name for himself in Portland when he founded the Bus Project (now called Next Up) in 2001. He later served in the Oregon House of Representatives for two terms representing District 47 (East Portland), leaving to run for Portland mayor in 2012. Smith lost in the general election to Charlie Hales. He moved to XRAY after that.

Smith's political climb was upended when it was revealed that, while attending the University of Oregon in 1993, he had struck a woman in the face, injuring her badly enough to require stitches, according to a police report. After WW broke the story during Smith's bid for mayor, Smith showed up at the victim's home unannounced.

In June of this year, Karabaic quit and submitted a letter to the board outlining her objections to Smith.

"Because of the lack of clarity in Jefferson's leadership," wrote Karabaic, "the documented labor and legal concerns, the opaqueness of finances and communication, and Jefferson's unprofessional behavior, I think that XRAY and the affiliated stations are being hurt by his role as executive director."

Nine other people working at XRAY—some full time, some contractors—submitted letters about Smith, copies of which WW obtained.

Reads one anonymous letter: "Jefferson Smith is a politician and he knows how to manipulate people for personal gain."

"Throughout the years, I have commiserated with other women at the organization who felt similarly railroaded," wrote Maria DeLorenzo, the station's former marketing manager.

In her letter, contract employee Jennifer Thelander claims that when she suggested Smith give two longtime female staffers more management authority, he responded that he couldn't because the two women were "babies."

"We have nobody to talk to about Jeff and his constant chaos," reads Thelander's letter. "He divides us by calling us individually to keep us on his side and won't deal with issues publicly, and that's shady."

In July, the XRAY board voted to place Smith on leave for a little over a month. The intent was to conduct an outside investigation of his conduct, but that investigation was never completed.

After he returned, the board hired Cascade Employers Association to conduct a station audit. That audit found legal risk to the station from its payroll practices.

"In order to comply with wage and hour laws, employees need to track their actual hours worked each week," the auditors concluded. "Because none of this is being tracked and there is no clear record of how wages are determined, there is significant risk."

Paying employees less than they have been promised is sometimes called wage theft. Wage theft is a federal crime, punishable by a $1,000 fine and another $10,000 fine for each employee harmed. (The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries has received no complaints against XRAY.)

Three of XRAY's remaining board members—Hinson, Maurice Rahming and Erik Noftle—declined to answer questions from WW but said in a statement the station is still working with auditors and "extensively revising the handbook and clarifying designations (e.g., employee vs. contractor, etc.). This will form the basis of lines of accountability and evaluation of wages."

After the Nov. 2 Zoom meeting, Smith sent a rambling all-staff email, alternately accepting responsibility and blaming his critics. "I got tired, and distracted, lonely, and took things for granted," he wrote.

The following week, the board held another Zoom meeting to outline specific reforms—implementing middle management and ensuring that all new hires were given offer letters. This time, Smith attended.

Meagan Ruyle, a DJ who was at the meeting, says Smith accused staff members of conspiring against him. "He would say things like, 'Some of you just want to see me as roadkill,' as if it were an attack on him," says Ruyle.

Lillian Karabaic believes Smith should go. "I think very strongly that Jefferson thinks that this organization serves to promote this image and his reputation, and that the people are just a means towards that," she says.

Logan, XRAY's co-founder and former board president, is still processing her decision to resign.

"Beyond the sadness and the grieving around it, it was also a huge relief," she says. "In the midst of everything that was going on in Portland and across the country, it just seemed all the more absurd that we were allowing this kind of behavior to go on."

Correction: This story incorrectly attributed an excerpt from a letter to the XRAY.FM board as written by Maria DeLorenzo, a former marketing manager for the station. In fact, the passage was from another letter to the board, submitted by an anonymous staffer. WW regrets the error.

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