The Bitch

Dead Air

It was very bad luck for radio station WLRN that two of the three presidential debates fell during the week of its semiannual fundraising marathon; the station interrupted the collection-plate-passing to air Bush vs. Kerry.

A potential disruption more immediate, tragic, and profound for both the station's staff and thousands upon thousands of devoted listeners also befell the school board-owned FM in the wee hours of Sunday, October 10, during the first days of the membership drive. Clint O'Neil, whose Sounds of the Caribbean aired for more than two decades and who was widely recognized for bringing reggae to Miami's airwaves, died that day of cancer at age 60.

But most listeners wouldn't learn of O'Neil's death from WLRN, nor would readers of the station's news partner, the Miami Herald, see his obituary there the following day. (Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel did run a story about O'Neil in its Monday edition.) Sources at the station tell The Bitch that folk and acoustic show host Michael Stock learned of O'Neil's passing in time for his Sunday broadcast, but made no mention of it. Nor did any on-air talent before Joseph Cooper's comment at the end of his Topical Currents hour on Monday. By Tuesday Miami's Only Daily had also gotten around to running an obituary.

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Stock may have been too shocked by the news to react, but station staffers cite another possible cause for his reluctance to break radio silence: a gag order issued by John LaBonia, manager of WLRN radio and television. The memo, worded glibly but clearly, appeared for the fourth time on October 11. It forbids employees of WLRN, even on-air talent who are the media, to talk with the media.

"For the purpose of speaking with a voice consistent with the station's broad interest," reads the memo, "inquiries regarding WLRN will be directed through Jenny Azcuy, communications manager."

"We all have to speak with the same voice," confirms Azcuy.

LaBonia wouldn't talk to The Bitch in great detail about the memo, but Azcuy explained the timing of its reappearance: "It was just a reminder sent by John as a follow up (to the preceding three identical memos). Whenever something happens that we know the press will be interested in, as was the case with Clint's death, (LaBonia) issues the reminder, because there will be immediate responses from the press. It was not directed at any one staff member."

(Stock didn't return The Bitch's calls, though he did complain to Azcuy that The Bitch had phoned him. "Now he was really following standard procedure," Azcuy said admiringly.)

In the days since O'Neil's death, rumors have been flying about the imminent demise of Sounds of the Caribbean. Some station staff even had a sort of "dead pool" going, predicting the show would be canceled within 48 hours. Not so fast?

"We're keeping the Caribbean music segments as is," LaBonia tersely told The Bitch in a brief conversation. "We're not planning any changes at this time. The three hosts we have now will continue doing the show."

One of those hosts is David Reuter, called back after being laid off in summer 2003 following more than a decade at the Radio Reading Service division. Another is Jeanette Drew, who, according to sources, may soon lose her part-time job if anticipated cutbacks materialize.

The third host is Kevin "Ital-K" Smith, who also is the station's traffic director and was quoted in the Sun-Sentinel's O'Neil obit. Ital-K, an outspoken critic of WLRN's policies and programming decisions, says he nonetheless believes that "WLRN's management has a plan ... to eliminate all cultural programming and convert WLRN to 24/7 news/talk.

"The ball is in the court of WLRN's management to make the right decision regarding Sounds, especially since they completely disrespected Clint and his legacy during his recent passing," Ital-K notes. He says he expects fireworks, perhaps even a fiat from the station regarding the show's fate, at this week's meeting of the school board. (District spokesman John Schuster said WLRN was not on the agenda.)

Schools superintendent Rudy Crew is a big jazz fan, so those shows, once imperiled, may be safe for now. But WLRN does seem determined, eventually, to dump music altogether in favor of programming for those at whom the current numerous hours of A Prairie Home Companion, The Motley Fool, and Car Talk are aimed -- affluent listeners who support the station through impressive donations. They aren't necessarily the population public radio is supposed to serve: all citizens of the county whose taxes sustain the school system, and, under this unusual public broadcasting arrangement, WLRN television and radio.

There's more to take WLRN to task for. During the recent fund drive, announcers often cited how WLRN had been a beacon of support during hurricanes Jeanne and Frances. Actually, by the time the first palm frond fell, the station was running a nonstop feed from yet another of its "partners," WFOR-TV (Channel 4).

"When instances like hurricane coverage comes up, we go to the experts," defends Azcuy, adding that the station did solicit reports from the Herald staff as well.

Despite claims to the contrary (no, Peter Jay, WLRN is not anything like "a mom-and-pop video store put out of business by Blockbuster"), these partnerships, beyond being able to kick in more than a few bucks, wield tremendous clout -- for just that reason -- over the station's ability to cover a variety of critical local topics, including other media.

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