For months, station volunteers have lobbied to have Wally Bowen, executive director of the Mountain Area Information Network, removed from direct control of the station after Bowen dismissed volunteer Gillian Coats, saying she'd continually questioned MAIN's right to manage the station.
MAIN, a nonprofit Internet service provider, holds the radio station's broadcast license. MAIN's board oversees WPVM, which broadcasts at 103.5 FM from offices in the Vanderbilt Apartments in downtown Asheville.
On Feb. 10, volunteers presented a management plan that would have reduced Bowen's role at the station, a proposal that MAIN's board rejected.
On Feb. 16, news that Kim Clark, the former program director at the popular public-radio station WNCW, had been hired as the new interim WPVM manager arrived with a notice from Bowen asking nine volunteers to stay away from the station for a six-week "cooling off period" to give the new manager room to operate. Bowen said the volunteers "simply don't seem to be able to accept" the MAIN board's decision regarding management of the station.
Barry Summers, one of the nine, said the move was a slap in the face.
"This is his way of cleaning house. He's purging this place of volunteers he doesn't like and doesn't trust," Summers said, adding that Bowen "is sweeping aside any notion of volunteer participation in the station."
Several of the nine volunteers asked to keep away from the station defied the request and appeared on a WPVM show the night of Feb. 16 to talk about the situation. The show, which included criticism of Bowen and the MAIN board, also included Mountain Xpress associate editor Nelda Holder.
The next day, Bowen posted a note on WPVM's Web site, apologizing to listeners for a show he said "contained multiple violations of core journalism standards of fairness, accuracy and balance. It was riddled with inaccuracies, half-truths, hearsay and innuendo, none of which were challenged due to the program's one-sidedness." Bowen said he was "especially troubled" by Holder's participation, which he said lent credibility to the show.
"This lapse in judgment among long-time WPVM volunteers is precisely why we called for a six-week cooling-off period for this group," Bowen's note said.
Holder said she she'd been invited to the show before the controversy erupted over the nine volunteers to talk about the proper functioning of nonprofit boards and open-meetings law.
"For some reason, Mr. Bowen perceived my presence on the show as one-sided, when I was invited there to be a neutral voice of board experience -- and with no anticipation of the eruption that was to take place with the station's volunteers that afternoon. I did my best to inject thoughtfulness and reflection. Rather than adding credibility to someone else's statement, I would think that presented some contrast worthy of deeper consideration."
On Feb. 18, Bowen introduced Clark to a meeting room on the second floor of the Public Service Building packed with about 75 station volunteers. Bowen said the meeting came at "a critical moment in our history, and we're going to need all the support we can muster to get through this."
Clark told the group that she saw the radio station as "mind-blowingly original" and that it was "poised to be one of the most relevant" media outlets in the area. Clark stressed that she was hired to work six to eight weeks.
"I want to help you rebuild and regain your momentum as an incredible radio station," Clark said, explaining her experience at WNCW, which, she said, went through about three years of "internal turmoil and conflict that that station has yet to recover from. I am here for this interim time because I think I can help that not happen to you."
Clark said she'd try to accomplish that by focusing on station operations and internal communications. She urged everyone to put aside their disagreements and move forward.
"Passion, when it gets turned in a less than positive direction, it can start to tear everything from the inside," she said.
During the question-and-answer period that followed, volunteers peppered Clark with questions about her role and directly asked Bowen to reinstate the nine volunteers, action Bowen declined to take. Volunteers also asked for a mediation process, which Bowen said he was amenable to.
Outside the meeting, volunteer Kindra Phillips summed up a sentiment a number of volunteers expressed.
"I love WPVM and I want it to succeed, and I want it to succeed in a way where there's community involvement."