Zack Harold

freelance journalist

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 operat​ing​ 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.

Rookie mistakes

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.”

Silver lining

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.”

Friends keep jazz musician’s memory alive with nonprofit group

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on June 19, 2014.

Bryan Boyd remembers everything about the last gig he played with Derick Kirk.

Boyd had booked a gig at Soho’s at the Capitol Market and asked Kirk to come along and play keyboards.

He showed up looking white as a sheet, a cap pulled over his hairless head, an oxygen tube in his nose. His left arm was in a sling.

“He was so sick he could barely sit up,” Boyd said.

But then Kirk started playing. And he kept playing for three hours.

Boyd said cancer and chemotherapy had robbed Kirk of his strength, and he had use of one hand, but he still outperformed every musician in the house that night.

“It was just beautiful,” Boyd said. “It was marvelous. It was absolutely marvelous.

“I was thinking to myself, what if this is the last opportunity Derick gets to play? Then I shut it out of my mind. But of course, that was it.”

Kirk played that gig with Boyd on June 15, 2007. His health took a turn for the worse a few days later.

In a little more than a month, Kirk was gone. He was 28 years old.

But the music didn’t stop.

A few months after his death, Kirk’s friends and family formed the Derick Kirk Foundation, a nonprofit organization that gives out college scholarships to young musicians and donates money to public school music programs around the Kanawha Valley.

The foundation will have its annual fundraising concert this Sunday at Black Sheep Burritos on Summers Street. The concert will feature local groups Blues du Jour, Ignition Jazz Quartet, Hybrid Soul Project, the Bob Thompson Unit and VooDoo Katz.

Derick’s mother Lois, who sits on the foundation’s board, said the bands all play for free so every dollar can go toward music education.

“They do it because they knew Derick,” she said.

x x x

It wasn’t a surprise that Derick Kirk became a musician.

His mother, Lois, played in the high school band. His dad, Danny, played guitar and banjo. His older brother Darren, seven years Derick’s senior, played saxophone, keyboard and guitar.

There were musicians all through the extended family, too.

But no one expected Derick’s talents would show so early.

Lois remembers riding in the car when her son was an infant, listening to music on the radio.

Mothers didn’t worry much then about putting children in car seats, so she had him wrapped in a blanket on her lap.

She noticed his arm bobbing back and forth.

“He was going right in time with the music,” Lois said.

She figured it was just a coincidence but decided to try a little experiment. She stopped Derick’s arm, held it for a moment and then released it.

Before long, his arm was again ticking like a metronome.

When he was about three years old, Danny and Lois gave Derick a toy keyboard.

The toy had a button that would automatically play songs, and Derick was constantly mashing that button to hear the music.

One day, Lois noticed the keyboard sounded like its batteries were going dead. It was playing wrong notes.

She walked into Derick’s room and found her toddler banging out Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on his miniature keyboard.

“He was just a born musician. Once in a while they come along, and Derick was one of them,” Danny said. “It was a gift.”

He joined the band program at his elementary school when he was in fourth grade, playing alto saxophone just like his mom and older brother. By junior high, he was playing with Sherman High School’s marching band.

He soon proved to be one of the band’s most versatile musicians.

“It got to the point, when I went to watch him, I never know what he was going to play,” Lois said.

Once, at a parade in Whitesville, she got a little worried when she didn’t see Derick with the saxophone section. But then she spotted him marching with the brass section, trombone in hand.

He graduated high school in 1997 with scholarships to both Marshall University and West Virginia State University. He chose State so he could stay at home and drive to school.

In his first year there, he helped form the jazz group Moment’s Notice with local guitarist Ryan Kennedy.

Kennedy left for Berklee College of Music in California shortly after that, but met up with Kirk anytime he returned to West Virginia.

“Every gig that I got a call for, I made sure to see if Derick was available,” he said.

Even when they weren’t playing publicly, Kirk and Kennedy spent hours practicing together.

“In some ways they were our formative years as professional musicians,” he said. “I felt like, at the time, we did a lot of our best work.”

They composed songs together, helping each other hone their arrangements.

“He had amazing musical ears. His ear for music was one of the best I’ve ever seen. He could hear harmony so well,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy found he could communicate with Kirk in a way he couldn’t with many other people.

One time Kirk played Kennedy a song he wrote, a melancholy jazz piano ballad. After listening to it, Kennedy suggested he call it “Afterthought.”

“I told him it reminded me of a sad old washed up boxer from the 1920s,” he said. “These abstract explanations of things seemed to make perfect sense to Derick. He just got it.”

x x x

But then came cancer.

When he was 26, Kirk began complaining about pain in his shoulder. His mom tried to get him to see a doctor, but he thought he just pulled a muscle lugging heavy music equipment.

Then, one night, he was at a party and saw a woman nearly trip.

“He reached to grab her. She landed on his arm and it popped up,” Lois said.

Lois heard him come home late that night and found him sitting on the couch with a big knot on his arm.

She took him to the emergency room, where doctors there determined his arm wasn’t broken. They referred him to an orthopedic doctor, who thought it was a hematoma and told him it would soon go away.

“It never got better,” Lois said.

He tried physical therapy but that didn’t help either. His doctor finally referred him to a specialist in Pittsburgh, who did a biopsy on the knot and found it was a tumor.

Worse, the cancer had already spread from his shoulder into his lungs.

Danny remembers when he learned his son had cancer. They were sitting on the front porch.

“He said ‘Dad, they said I had a tumor.’ I said ‘You can’t have a tumor. You’re too young.’”

He began heavy doses of chemotherapy, spending a week every month at West Virginia University’s Ruby Memorial Hospital.

The drugs zapped his strength, but after about a week he was usually well enough to get out and play a few gigs. He would play music around town until his next trip to Morgantown.

“Playing’s what kept him going,” Lois said.

“Right up until the end, that’s what he did,” Danny said.

Boyd met Kirk a few years before he died, when Boyd was looking for a keyboard player for his band.

“Somebody had told me about this kid Derick Kirk. They said you need to call this guy, he’s off the hook,” Boyd said.

Boyd invited Kirk to his house for practice.

The band ended up blowing through 25 songs in an hour and a half.

“I was born at night, but not last night. It didn’t take me long to say, this kid is special,” he said.

Boyd said Kirk’s passion for music began to drive his own playing.

“We’d play a conference at a hotel. We’re up there playing, and they’re cleaning up the place. And they’d say ‘You guys are going to have to leave,’” Boyd said.

When Kirk got sick, Boyd began wondering how long they might have left to play together. He started booking every gig he could find.

One night, Boyd scheduled the band for an out-of-town performance that was supposed to last three hours. They were headed into the third hour — and still going strong — when the drummer hollered at Boyd, asking how much longer they had to play.

“I said, ‘I don’t know where your head is, but I’m having the time of my life,’” Boyd said. “He realized then, at that moment, what I was talking about. We’re not going to have Derick very much longer.”

As his health declined, Kirk became determined to record his music.

He cut seven original compositions with Kennedy, bassist John Inghram, and drummers Sam Wiseman and Chris Hudson.

“In that last year that we had Derick, he just played. He played for real,” Kennedy said. “There was this academic approach to things when we were young. But when Derick knew he was sick, everything became more focused.”

The recordings would not be released until after his death, however.

The foundation compiled the tracks for an album called “Soar” and asked Kennedy to write the liner notes.

“All sentiment about Derick’s illness or the unfairness of his untimely passing its totally absent from the music presented here,” he wrote. “It is an acknowledgment of his genius and a testament to how he, through his music, learned to truly soar.”

x x x

When people talk about Derick Kirk, they usually begin by marveling at his musical talent. But by the end of the conversation, without fail, they start talking about his character.

“He was one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life,” Kennedy said. “Never had a harsh word to say about anybody. Mentally clear, kind, to the point. Quiet, but not shy.”

Lois recalls a time when, returning home from a late-night gig, her son stopped to pick up a girl walking home from a back-roads bar and drive her home. Lois scolded him, reminding her son of how dangerous the situation could have been.

“He said ‘Mom, I’m going to help somebody if I can.’ And that was that,” she said. “Every time we would go to hear Derick play, people would come up to me and just brag and brag about him. Not just as a musician, but as a person.”

Boyd remembers the enthusiasm he had for teaching music.

“He was a natural, because he never intimidated you,” he said. “People just loved him. He had that quality of peace about him. ”

That’s why, a few months after his death, Boyd and some of Kirk’s other band mates decided to start a nonprofit in his honor.

“We knew we had to do something, because it just couldn’t stop. We needed an outlet to say, you need to remember who this person was because he was so important,” Boyd said.

They approached Lois and Danny with the idea.

“I was humbled his friends wanted to do that but I wasn’t sure it was going to work,” Lois said.

But it has worked.

Since the foundation was formed in 2009, the group has given out thousands of dollars in college scholarships to students who are pursuing degrees in music performance or music education.

The awards aren’t huge — usually less than $1,000 apiece — but the foundation hopes to expand in coming years.

“It’s good for us to do this, to remember him, rather than just be sad that he’s gone,” Kennedy said. “I think he’d be smiling ear to ear if he knew what we were doing.”

Boyd, who now serves as president of the foundation, says he’s happy the foundation can inspire young musicians to achieve the kind of success Derick would have if cancer had not ended his life.

“It wasn’t that Derick didn’t make it. He just ran out of time,” Boyd said. “I’m convinced. He was just special.

“He ran out of time, that’s all.”