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Fire On The Mountain 

The Struggle for WNCW's Soul

Page 4 of 6

The wild card in the WNCW saga has always been Isothermal Community College, holder of the license and the purse strings. Even though the station generates the majority of its own budget, all the money is funneled through Isothermal. Additionally, all WNCW employees are ICC employees, subject to the vagaries of North Carolina community college employment practices.

Stephen Matheny, the college's director of administrative services, is Dr. Lewis' right-hand man. Following the departure of DeLane Davis, Matheny actually served as interim general manager for five months until public radio veteran David Gordon was hired. Evidence suggests that, despite his title, Gordon had little influence over major personnel decisions at WNCW, though he did move to reestablish a community advisory board shortly after joining the station.

Around the time of the Mountain Oasis controversy, Ted Bost became involved with WNCW. "I shared an office with my brother and started to see things that, as a taxpayer, caused me to ask some questions. And nobody would ever answer my questions," he says. "They acted like they didn't have to answer my questions."

Tensions continued to rise between the Bosts and many WNCW staff members, but Isothermal officials declined to intervene. In March 2002, Linda Osbon's contract was not renewed. In an unusual arrangement, all WNCW staffers work on 12-month contracts that run concurrent with the fiscal year. Although her contract ran through June 30, Osbon was told she wouldn't be allowed to work the final 90 days but would receive full pay.

During the WNCW pledge drive in April 2002, Bill and Ted Bost made 31 phone calls to station pledge lines. Although Bill ultimately donated $500, Ted says, "I told them I wanted to get my two cents worth in, so I offered to donate two cents." He says his intent was to inject a little humor into his struggle with WNCW, but station management was not amused.

Citing the repeated phone calls and allegations they told volunteers they were "dancing with the devil," WNCW Assistant Program Director Kim Clark swore out a warrant for telephone harassment. Bill and Ted Bost were arrested. When the case got to court, Clark requested court-appointed mediation. The result was a pledge by the Bosts not to engage in telephone harassment of WNCW. The Big Dog's BeatenThroughout the ongoing controversy, the radio station continued to present the same face to its listeners, so much so that most of them were generally unaware of the tension behind the scenes. In the fall of 2002, the decision was made to drop Morning Edition, the last major NPR news program the station aired. Citing concerns about the possibility some member of the Community Advisory Board (CAB) was leaking information to Osbon and the Bosts, Gordon did not inform the board of the decision.

"We were aware that there was a board member that was very closely associated with the outside group," says Gordon, parsing his words carefully. "We did not feel we could present our plan to the board with that person there and facilitate and manage the change the way it needed to be handled."

This decision blew up on Gordon when Osbon learned of it and informed the board members. Board Chairman Robert Seiler recalls the board members' anger at being left in the dark on the Morning Edition decision. "We made our unhappiness known," he says. "Actually, the board supported the decision but strongly deplored the way it was handled." Despite their unhappiness, no board members resigned over the flap.

"We've had our growing pains," Gordon says of the board. "I think that was an aberration, certainly not the way I intended things to work."

Some observers say that WNCW's efforts to include citizens in the process have been hampered by a lack of meaningful oversight by the board. They point out that even though ICC has the final say over all decisions involving the station, Dr. Lewis has never attended a CAB meeting.

Meanwhile, the so-called Hickory Taliban began to supplement their frequent appearances before the CAB with private visits to Dr. Lewis. In addition to being a former employee and graduate of ICC, Osbon continues to take classes there in pursuit of another degree. Far from being a typical student, Osbon reports that she videotapes her meetings with the college president and provides him with documents she has received in her multiple open records requests to WNCW.

In March 2002, Mark Keefe was called to a meeting with Dr. Lewis and administrator Stephen Matheny where he learned his contract with WNCW would not be renewed. In a recent interview, Keefe describes the end of his tenure at the station: "When I took over as program director, from a ratings perspective we were at 50,000 listeners a week. In the last Arbitron book, we were at 100,000 listeners. The budget went from $600,000 to $1.3 million," he says, with more wonder than rancor apparent in his voice. "WNCW was a cultural icon in that community. With that kind of acceptance, the logical thing is to get rid of the program director, right?

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