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.
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.
LaBonia just doesn't seem to get that the station belongs to the public. Regarding the communication smackdown memo, LaBonia huffs to The Bitch: "I don't see what the big deal is. We're just like any other corporation where there's a clearinghouse for expressing official opinions and policies."
Meanwhile, this past Saturday, more than 400 people showed for a memorial service for O'Neil. Betty Wright sang and the Consul General of Jamaica read a moving tribute to "The Godfather of Reggae." Not a bad show of community support for a show that airs in the middle of the night while WLRN management sleeps on its future.
Who's Fighting Now? Round Two
Ever hear of the Seventh Avenue Corridor Initiative Board? It is apparently a group made up of representatives from Miami-Dade Transit, the nonprofit Martin Luther King Development Corporation, the Belafonte-Tacolcy Center, and others tasked with figuring out how to spend about several million dollars that Carrie Meek brought down as she retired from Congress (now up to about $7 million). The money is earmarked to improve said corridor.
Obscure quasi-governmental organization or not, its meetings sound thrilling. During the last week in September, community activist Max Rameau told the board he hoped the project didn't become another agent for neighborhood gentrification. Rameau and supporters wanted guarantees in writing that the money would go to support existing black businesses, low-income housing, and such.
Billy Hardemon, chairman of the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corporation, countered with an impassioned speech that this was simply growth, not gentrification, so there was nothing to worry about. Rameau continued to press for written guarantees. Hardemon didn't like this, walked over to Rameau, and poked a finger in his chest. Hardemon turned and walked away, and then turned around, and either punched or slapped Rameau in the face (depending on whose account you hear). "I touched him, I didn't slap or hit him," Hardemon asserts. "I felt disrespected when he continued interrupting me."
Chaos ensued. Board members called for police to eject Rameau. Witnesses in the audience shouted that it was Hardemon who should be arrested. Hardemon got nervous. Activist Leroy Jones stepped in and brokered a peace: Hardemon would publicly apologize and no one would go to jail. Hardemon gave a mea culpa, which Rameau acknowledged but didn't accept, and peace was restored.
"It could have gotten ugly in there," Jones recounts. "I give Max credit for not getting physical. I'm disappointed in Billy, though. We respect him because of his experience. I would never have expected this from him."
Even though she can see the wondrous stained-glass confection that is the Bacardi Museum from her window, and notwithstanding her occasional enthusiastic support of the product, it is hard for The Bitch to get respect, let alone a straight answer, from the people at Bacardi. The liquor conglomerate that seems to sponsor everything around here from art openings to hubcap-tossing contests recently launched a billboard advertising campaign declaring that a cocktail made with diet cola and Bacardi rum had "0 carbs. 0 sugar."
"But," thought The Bitch, "isn't rum made from sugar -- sugar-cane molasses? Isn't alcohol full of sugars, calories, and toxins?" After being bounced around the Bacardi PR pinball machine, the straightforward inquiry: "What are the ingredients of Bacardi rum?" got a response from Laura Baddish of New York City's Baddish Group, the agency that reps the rum throughout the U.S.: "I need to know the context of your story before I can answer that question."
What with the recent death of Jacques Derrida, Baddish picked the wrong week to deconstruct The Bitch.
Dissembling aside, rum is made from sugar cane, yeast, and distilled water.
Claws Come Out in Panther Pursuit
Collier County State Attorney Stephen Russell charged two Everglades denizens with a crime for tethering a goat that was later attacked by a Florida panther. Jack Shealy, co-owner of Trail Lakes Campground in the Everglades community of Ochopee, and his employee Richard Scholle confined the goat to a well-lit space in the campground in hopes of attracting a Florida panther that had been killing livestock and approaching campers, as documented by New Times ("Wild and Crazy," October 7). Shealy and Everglades scientist Jan Jacobson believed that state and federal wildlife authorities should have contained it.
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Jacobson, Shealy, and Scholle will not comment since the State Attorney's Office issued the animal cruelty charges, but in the past they have said that their intention was merely to lure the panther into the light so that Jacobson could get videotape evidence that the cat wore a radio collar and could easily be tracked by the authorities. The predator, however, attacked the goat, mauling the animal until Jacobson scared it off. The cat was packed off to a rehabilitation center. The goat survived. Scholle and Shealy face misdemeanor charges that could result in as long as a year in prison and fines of $1000 each. Jacobson hasn't been charged, though Chere Avery, spokeswoman for the State Attorney's Office, says charges against him are still pending.
Banyan Chainsaw Massacre
The disappearance of the giant banyan tree, symbol of Flamingo Park in Miami Beach, has been lamented by many. Couldn't the shade-yielding, parrot-sheltering mini habitat toppled by a hurricane, have been uprighted instead of uprooted?
No, according to Kevin Smith of the parks department. Smith brought in three experts and one outside consultant, and "after a thorough evaluation all came to the same conclusion: The tree's survival potential wasn't that great. There was a lot of root damage, and chances of saving it were at best 50-50."