Roots Town Radio goes silent after internal struggles
This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Oct. 28, 2014.
A little more than six weeks after it went on the air, Charleston’s first community radio station is nothing but static.
The community radio station collapsed in a heap of dysfunction.
Burr Beard, 95.7 FM WXDB’s vice-president and station manager, moved to West Virginia earlier this year to set up the volunteer-run, low power FM station.
He spent months raising money for the project, collecting thousands of dollars from local donors.
The station’s parent organization, Roots Town Radio, received a $9,000 grant from the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation, a $1,000 grant from the Tamarack Artisan Foundation, and $1,000 from a crowd funding campaign on the website Indiegogo. The station also held several fundraising concerts to help pay the bills.
Beard organized and trained a cadre of dedicated volunteer disc jockeys, who began broadcasting on local airwaves on Sept. 7, playing a wide variety of music from classic country, bluegrass, classic rock, Americana, gospel and more.
The music stopped last Monday.
That day, Beard contacted the Federal Communications Commission and surrendered the station’s construction permit, shutting down the station for good.
The reasons behind the demise of WXDB differ depending on who you ask.
Volunteers blame Roots Town president Dawn Warner, Beard’s on-and-off girlfriend. They say she created a toxic environment at the fledgling station, alienating staff members with a heavy-handed management style while remaining largely absent from WXDB’s day-to-day operations.
Warner, meanwhile, alleges the volunteers attempted to wrest control of the station from her and Beard.
Emails obtained by the Daily Mail provide a glimpse into the drama.
Volunteers say around the second week of September, Warner and Beard ended their romantic relationship. (They have since reconciled.)
WXDB engineer Larry Hoskins said Warner notified volunteers Beard was fired from the station. Someone also posted an announcement on the station’s Facebook page that Beard would no longer have any affiliation with WXDB.
But things had changed by Monday, Sept. 15.
In an email, Warner confirmed that she and Beard would remain owners of WXDB.
Her attempt to fire Beard apparently worried WXDB volunteers, however.
Emmett Pepper, co-host of the WXDB world music show “Beats Without Borders,” suggested the station’s parent organization add two additional board members to serve as secretary and treasurer.
He expressed concerns that Warner’s son, Nemo, was serving on Roots Town Radio’s governing board despite having no involvement with the station. Pepper said one of the new board members could serve Nemo’s replacement.
“I speak only for myself, but given what has happened over the past month, I am very uneasy being involved with this organization under the previous/current structure, which has proven to be highly volatile,” Pepper wrote in a group email on Sept. 25.
Volunteers also were becoming concerned that, despite repeated promises to move from Pennsylvania, Warner never made it to West Virginia.
“Beats Without Borders” co-host Alasha Al-Qudwah expressed this sentiment in a Sept. 26 email to Beard, Warner and others involved with the station.
“Dawn doesn’t live in (West Virginia),” she wrote. “Why is she president? I don’t have anything against her or any of you, just against the actions that caused a lot of drama and negativity.”
Warner responded later that day in a tersely worded email.
“The fact is I am (president) and that is not going to change. That is not me being bossy or pushy that is simply a fact that both Burr and I felt needed to be explained,” she wrote. “Burr and I need to regain control of an unfortunate situation. We either move forward together and let the past be the past or I am concerned about WXDB’s future.”
A few hours later, Warner sent another email with a much different tone.
She apologized for any her previous email, expressed her appreciation for the volunteers’ hard work and promised to replace Nemo and add a secretary/treasurer to the governing board.
“Let’s leave the past where it belongs and move forward,” she wrote.
But on Sept. 29, Beard sent out an email announcing Warner’s departure.
“Dawn decided to stay in (Pennsylvania) with her family and friends and will not be part of WXDB. She was happy to hand over the reins of the station to me. We are breaking up our previous business and personal relationship and are keeping up a friendly level of communication,” he wrote.
This alone probably would have been the death blow for the station. FCC regulations forbid stations with pending licenses, like WXDB, from replacing more than 50 percent of their governing board members. The departure of Warner and her son meant two-thirds of the original board was gone.
But Beard and the volunteers held onto hope. He assured them he was “here to stay and be your leader” and urged the team to move forward.
On Oct. 6 volunteers received another email from Beard, announcing he was taking the week off. He said he lost his job with Friends of Old Time Music and Dance, where he was arts administrator, and needed to find new work.
Steve Ballman, a FOOTMAD board member, said both Beard and the organization agreed he would quit.
“The stress and difficulties of the radio station kind of overwhelmed him,” Ballman said.
In his email, Beard made it clear he would not leave Charleston, however.
“I am not going back to (Pennsylvania) or leaving the station. Roots Town will prevail,” he wrote.
On Monday, Oct. 13 — one week before the station would go dark — Beard sent an email to volunteers announcing he would step down as station manager but remain a board member.
Five days later, on Saturday, Oct. 18, Beard sent the volunteers an email announcing his complete departure from WXDB.
“I think I got myself in too deep. My time for starting up a new station came, happened and went, some 25 years ago,” he said.
On Monday, Beard forwarded staffers an email from James Bradshaw, deputy division chief of the FCC media bureau’s audio division.
“Please treat this email as the official notification of the cancellation of the construction permit, per the request of Roots Town Radio,” Bradshaw wrote.
The email also included a note from Warner and Beard, saying the WXDB call letters were deleted from the FCC database.
“There is no legal authority whatsoever to continue operating the station,” they wrote.
Beard, in a short phone interview last Wednesday, said he was moving back to Pennsylvania. When asked about the closure of the station, he said he didn’t feel like talking about it right then.
He has not responded to multiple requests for a follow-up interview.
Warner’s story of WXDB’s demise is quite different than staff members’ accounts.
“The volunteers bullied me out of my moving down there and wanted to take control of the station,” she said. “You have a group of volunteers that never have done radio, never had experience with it, and it all goes to their head.”
Warner said DJs were not providing station identification at the beginning of each hour, which is required by the FCC, and said some DJs were allowing profanity to go out over the air.
She also alleged the station was violating FCC rules because WXDB’s antenna was not installed at the height specified by its construction permit.
(Radio stations receive construction permits before being granted full licenses, to allow the stations to test their equipment.)
Worried the FCC might fine her or Beard, Warner said she wrote a letter asking the agency to terminate WXDB’s construction permit.
“Burr decided he was leaving the station because he had lost control over it. To protect ourselves from any FCC violations, that was the only thing we could do,” she said. “The only way we could become not liable legally was to surrender the construction permit.”
Hoskins acknowledged radio hosts sometimes forgot to give station IDs at the required times and profanity sometimes crept onto the airwaves, but he said volunteer DJs were not intentionally skirting the FCC rules.
They just did not have much experience in radio.
“It wasn’t DJs cussing on the air. It was songs that had profanity in them, because they’d never (previewed them),” he said.
It’s standard practice for radio stations to preview every song they play on air, no matter what. Hoskins said WXDB’s amateur DJs weren’t aware how important this due diligence was, so some explicit language slipped through.
“I chalk that up to rookie mistakes. I don’t think any of that was intentional,” he said.
He said problems with the station’s antenna could have been fixed with a little paperwork.
Hoskins said the station had some trouble getting its antenna installed on West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s radio tower, since the state government’s new vendor hiring system did not include any approved tower climbers.
By the time WXDB finally got its antenna installed, it was only installed at about 50 feet instead of the 100 feet specified in the construction permit.
But Hoskins said the station only needed to modify its construction permit with the FCC to accommodate for the new antenna height.
“It wasn’t like it was set in stone,” he said.
Every WXDB staffer who spoke to the Daily Mail for this story denied Warner’s accusations that the volunteers tried to bully her or Beard out of the station.
And while none claimed to have a close relationship with Warner, many expressed feelings of sympathy for Beard.
“Burr Beard did a really great job of pulling together some of the best people, most knowledgeable and most connected musicians and music lovers in the area. We had a really great station going,” Pepper said. “It’s not a good idea to mix your business with your personal relationships. I think this is an example of that.”
Despite the demise of WXDB, community radio in Charleston might not be dead.
Chris Long, a local critical care nurse and chief operating officer of Pulmonary Associates in South Charleston, is working to set up his own low power FM station.
The FCC did not accept his initial low-power application because of a problem with his chosen frequency, but Long is in the process of reapplying.
He is working with the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based group that seeks to help communities start low power FM stations.
“They’re very optimistic that with the reapplication on the right channel I should be able to (be approved),” he said.
He said the Prometheus Project has warned him the process will take at least three months, however.
Long also said he is in “preliminary talks” to assume control of WXDB’s equipment.
“We’re thinking we can easily turn the keys over to my organization,” he said. “All of the volunteers are still interested. All is not lost. There’s a very big silver lining.”
Warner said Beard left everything associated with WXDB in Charleston.
“We walked away from everything. The assets — equipment, computers, antenna — that is all there in Charleston for this group of volunteers. We did not take any of that,” she said.
It is unclear, however, who owns the equipment WXDB purchased.
Because Roots Town Radio was not a registered nonprofit organization, it partnered with FOOTMAD, which served as the station’s fiscal agent.
FOOTMAD received donation money from the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation and other donors on behalf of Roots Town Radio, then made purchases for the station.
Ballman, who was FOOTMAD’s treasurer at the time of the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation grant, said there is no money left in the station’s accounts, but wonders if his organization now owns the equipment purchased for WXDB.
“That’s a murky question, we’re seeking legal advice to figure that out,” he said.
Ballman said FOOTMAD has no interest in using the equipment but would like to hand it over to another community radio group.
It might not be that simple.
Sheri Ryder, senior program officer with the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation, said no one had notified her group that WXDB has gone off the air. Ryder was not aware the radio station was defunct until a Daily Mail reporter called last week.
Even though FOOTMAD served as the station’s fiscal agent, Ryder said the organization does not own WXDB’s equipment.
“They would need to contact us and we would need to see if we could work something out,” she said.
Ryder said in the past, organizations have returned grant money to the foundation when projects failed.
Other times, the foundation’s board has required the money (or items purchased with the money) be given to another organization.
On some occasions, the foundation has not received anything back.
“The money was given, it was gone and the organization was gone,” Ryder said.
She said the fate of WXDB’s equipment ultimately rests in the hands of the foundation’s board of directors.
The fate of the station’s legacy — the volunteer DJs who, however briefly, filled the air with unique programs — also is unsettled.
Al-Qudwah said she initially wanted to help with WXDB because community radio stations allow DJs a large amount of freedom to choose music for their shows.
“That’s inspiring to me,” she said. “I’m obsessed with world music and instrumental music. I think it’s important people hear those kinds of sounds.”
She’s determined to continue her efforts even without WXDB, and said other DJs feel the same way.
Al-Qudwah and Pepper also are looking for ways to take “Beats without Borders” to online audiences.
They had a few dozen people listening online during their first few shows, which they consider a success for an unknown show on an unknown station.
The duo, like many former WXDB hosts, also has agreed to join Long’s station whenever he gets it running.
But Al-Qudwah said she’s disappointed WXDB didn’t work out.
“I feel very sorry for Burr, honestly. He had a big vision for this radio station,” she said. “When love gets involved everything gets messy.”