It’s a given that the cover-up is often worse than the crime, and if you believe lawyers for the Federal Communications Commission, public-radio station KALW should lose its license not because it violated FCC guidelines, but because station execs lied and claimed it hadn’t. An administrative law judge is set to decide the case later this month; a ruling in the FCC’s favor would be an insane conclusion to a Kafkaesque investigation that began eight long years ago.
For Feeders unfamiliar with KALW, the station airs lots of local programs as well as National Public Radio shows like Fresh Air, Car Talk, and The Tavis Smiley Show. KALW (91.7 FM) began broadcasting way back in 1941, well before its larger public-radio cousin KQED (88.5 FM).
The current troubles began when a group of disaffected KALW employees, calling themselves Golden Gate Public Radio, filed an FCC challenge to the station’s license in 1997. The bureaucratic process has taken so long that the group no longer exists, but its central complaint alleged — accurately — that the station’s “public inspection file” was incomplete. Every broadcast station is supposed to keep such a file documenting all the touchy-feely public-affairs programs it airs, and identifying the station’s owners.
You can see how this might be necessary for, say, a 100,000-watt Clear Channel station that exiles its lone public-affairs show to the 4 a.m. Sunday slot. But public affairs are KALW’s bread and butter, and its ownership is hardly secret: KALW is owned by the San Francisco Unified School District, which is run by a publicly elected board of directors. Last year, two Democratic commissioners questioned why the FCC was going after a tiny public radio station while letting corporate radio giants guilty of the same offenses off the hook.
Even the FCC witch-hunters had to concede in their October legal brief, which urged that KALW’s license be revoked, that the station has provided “meritorious service” to the community. But the FCC’s case ultimately comes down to whether station execs lied. The commish seizes on the fact that former general manager Jeff Ramirez falsely claimed way back when that the public inspection file was complete when it really wasn’t. The station’s lawyers insists Ramirez made an innocent mistake, one which he quickly admitted.
The October brief accuses Ramirez’s successor, Nicole Sawaya, of continuing the cover-up, and of falsely downplaying her role in crafting an inaccurate response to the FCC in 2001 during her first weeks on the job. As evidence, the commission has produced a March 2001 memo Sawaya wrote to former KALW lawyer Ernest Sanchez. Here’s the hitch: Sawaya’s memo accurately reflected the shortcomings of the public file at the time. But for whatever reason, that info didn’t make into the letter Sanchez sent to the FCC.
The school district and Sanchez have since parted ways, and the station’s new lawyers blame him for botching things up. In an interview, Sawaya said that during her deposition she simply had forgotten about the memo, which after all had been written years earlier. She suggested that KALW listeners not take too much stock in the latest FCC allegations: “I think it’s the prosecutor’s role to throw the book at whoever they go after,” she said. “I think they’re throwing everything to see what sticks.”
Judging from Sawaya’s anxiety level, though, FCC prosecutors have already managed to get something stuck in her craw. Following a cordial-enough interview, Feeder e-mailed Sawaya asking for a photo to help illustrate the story, but this benign request freaked her out about how she would be portrayed. Radiophiles may recall that before coming to KALW, Sawaya endured a stormy tenure at KPFA and, well, she feared that more ink would make her look like a “lightning rod” for controversy. “I do not want my photo in the East Bay Express, and this goddamn story is not about me,” she seethed in a voicemail, adding, “Are you gonna balance the story, or is it all about me and how wherever I go, some shit happens?”
Balance? I’m on your side on this thing, lady! Sheesh.
Feeder got an unexpected call last week from Peralta Community College’s Chancellor Elihu Harris, who had a few things to get off his chest. Harris couldn’t understand why the local press has been giving so much play to Trustee Marcie Hodge‘s attacks on the travel habits of the district’s international education chief, not to mention her swipes at Harris himself. With some justification, Harris groused that Hodge is ranting about issues that were resolved before she got on the board this year. “She ain’t blowin’ no whistle,” he fumed.
Feeder has given plenty of ink to Hodge’s gripes, although Harris, Oakland’s mayor pre-Jerry, insisted he wasn’t ticked at the Express. His real beef was with the Oakland Tribune, which has editorialized in Hodge’s favor. Here are few of his more choice observations about the Trib: “That is not even a newspaper,” “I see the Tribune as incompetent,” and “They’re worse than USA Today.”
Harris speculated that Hodge’s attacks are the brainchild of political consultant Larry Tramutola, who helped craft a recent Hodge mailer condemning “lavish travel and wasteful spending in our community college district,” according to the SF Chronicle. Harris said Tram was using the travel issue to win Hodge media attention as she prepares to run for Oakland City Council. Interestingly, Peralta hired Tramutola in 2000 to run its last bond measure campaign. As Harris was in such a candid mood, Feeder asked him if Tram had a chance to run the district’s next bond campaign, which could end up on the 2006 ballot. “I have no comment,” Harris replied, chuckling. He then corrected himself: “I got a comment, but I’m not making it.”
Targeting Jury Flakes
Court officials in Alameda County are warning residents not to fall for the newest identity-theft scam. A month ago, someone alerted court execs to a strange phone call he’d received from someone claiming to be from the court who warned him about missing jury duty. The caller, natch, wanted the man’s Social Security number, says court spokesman Jim Brighton. But the tipster, who hadn’t missed any jury duty, realized it was a scam.
The clever thing about the scheme — at least this version of it — is that it preys on the great American tradition of flaking on jury duty, something that plagues court administrators across the nation. So it’s not hard for scammers to find someone who has indeed shirked their civic responsibility. “If you’ve got a 50 percent no-show rate,” Brighton says, “the odds are fifty-fifty that you’ll find someone randomly.”