The 21st was a cold November day in Vancouver, but the sun was shining. That gave me hope things might be turning for the better.
I arrived at the Native Community Centre on East Hastings a half hour early for the Coop Radio AGM. That was so I would have time to take out a membership, allowing me to participate in the meeting and to vote. I had been assured by several people that this had always been allowed in the past. In fact, new members had also been encouraged to join and participate.
I was happy to get inside the centre – it was warm and the staff at the tables were friendly. I filled out an application and paid my money while we chatted about the station and the importance of being a member and participating.
Then someone recognized my name and everything changed. Someone had obviously decided I was an adversary, because I was emphatically told that I would not be allowed into the meeting. When I asked why not I was told it was not station policy. When I protested it had always been station policy in the past, I was told it was not in the bylaws. When I asked to see those bylaws I was told I could not.
So much for encouraging community participation. A half dozen other people were also turned away.
That little incident at the door was, in microcosm, what happened throughout the meeting. And it reflects what several frustrated Coop Radio volunteers have had to tell me about their degenerating relationship with the station's staff and Board of Directors. They were eager to have their stories heard but equally fearful of reprisals if their names were printed. Only one was willing to go on the record – and he has just taken a one year leave of absence from the station.
Inside the AGM, a climate of authoritarianism was quickly established. It was made clear that members would not be allowed to question board members, something which is a traditional role of AGMs in non-profit societies. A budget was presented and people were told they were allowed to look but not to comment.
Coop Radio purports to be a community station, the voice of the voiceless, embodying democratic values. Yet the tone of everything within the meeting was know your place, defer to authority, and do not question. We need to ask if the station has not lost its way.
Several volunteers – these are the people whose voices you hear on the radio -- were recently forced to sign a paper severely restricting what they can say on air. At first glance the document seems somewhat innocuous, a rather zealous – if somewhat dated – affirmation of the extreme political correctness which reared its head in the nineties. In a healthy institution it would be just a set of reminders to respect differences over gender, race, etc., respect people's need to feel safe, don't engage in patronizing, condescending or intimidating behaviour.
But in the wrong hands, such a document becomes a weapon. Past complaints by volunteers that they have been intimidated and made to feel unsafe have gone unanswered by staff. Yet staff members have been using the same document to bully volunteers, going so far as to tell them their normal on-air personas now violate station policy and their programs must be edited before re-airing. Ask yourself, Coop listener, if you have been hearing a lot of offensive material on the air in recent months. If you haven't felt these volunteers needed their behaviour policed, why is the staff now policing them?
The document also states that volunteers – few of whom are wealthy – are responsible for any damages due to libel. Given the tone of guilty until proven innocent, this establishes a climate of chill at the station – which means the staff and board members no longer support hard-hitting investigative reporting.
A volunteer who does support such reporting is Alfred Webre of the Monday Brown Bagger show. He was recently reprimanded for airing internal correspondence. This is another favourite topic of the gag-order document which goes to great length to assert that it is never appropriate to reveal such information to the public.
But what if said documents are the heart of a news story, something of great interest to Coop's listeners? Would it not then be the duty of the volunteer to air such material?
This is precisely the position which Webre takes. But beyond his duty as a journalist, he is also a lawyer. That makes him an officer of the court and means he is duty bound to reveal criminality, if he witnesses any at the station.
Webre made it clear to me in an interview exactly why he feels so much undemocratic, anti-activist behaviour has been occurring at Coop Radio -- “The integrity of the station has been seriously compromised by the apparent participation of its staff and its Board of Directors in an apparent criminal conspiracy to cover up evidence of a COINTELPRO-type attack on a specific programmer, on behalf of the national security state.”
By a specific programmer Webre means, of course, Kevin Annett.
THE AGORA, December 2010-January 2011