‘Miles’ To Go And Promises To Keep

As if we didn’t need more excitement in Connecticut’s Northwest Corner, Tuesday morning came word that an administrator in our local school district has filed a complaint with the FCC against Sharon’s WHDD, the self-proclaimed smallest NPR affiliate in the nation.

There’s an interesting story to that effect in yesterday’s Waterbury Republican by my friend and former colleague Ruth Epstein. But alas, all except the first three paragraphs are behind a paywall.

In her complaint, Diane Goncalves, assistant superintendent for the Region 1 School District, alleges that Marshall Miles, president of WHDD’s parent organization, offered selective endorsements for local candidates for office and that he “targeted only that area that he has been perpetuating a personal agenda against. He, in my opinion, has not only violated FCC rules and regulations but has used his position to unfairly and unethically sway an election.”

Goncalves and Miles have a longstanding feud dating back to a few years ago when Goncalves arrived from the Orange school district, where she had been embroiled in some controversy. In his radio commentaries, Miles went after Goncalves almost from the outset of her tenure at Region 1. So take her complaint for what it’s worth. That having been said, I think she’s on to something.

[Disclosure: Truth be told, I have had my own disagreements with Miles over control of the local cable access channel as well.]

Why Goncalves specifies in her complaint that Miles only endorsed candidates for some offices and not others escapes me. Section 399 of the Communications Act of 1934 says public broadcasting stations may not “support or oppose any [emphasis added] candidate for political office.” It doesn’t say they must endorse a candidate for each office or none at all. Click here to see Miles’ endorsement commentary on WHDD’s Facebook page. Miles read it on-the-air on Nov. 4, 2011.

Now I suppose Miles will try to weasel out of this by claiming that he was speaking only for himself and not for the station or its parent organization, Tri-State Public Communications. But that’s just a bunch of baloney. How can the president of an organization — and one of only three members of its board — claim with any credibility that he is speaking as a private citizen over the public airwaves of the organization’s radio station?

Look, I know there are some loud-mouthed public radio heads out there. To wit, Alan Chartock, CEO of Northeast Public Radio and WAMC in Albany. But I’ve been listening to WAMC for almost 30 years and I can tell you that, for all his bluster and bias, Chartock is very careful not to endorse specific candidates for any office. He knows the law.

Asked about the subject of public radio candidate endorsements, John Dankosky, news director of WNPR in Connecticut, told me in an email: “It’s my understanding that the FCC expressly prohibits us from doing so. I’m not an expert, but that’s the rules we live under.”

And don’t forget that this is not the first time Miles has run afoul of FCC regulations. In December 2010, Tri-State had to fork over $15,000 (PDF) to the federal government for violating regulations governing underwriting announcements, which at WHDD more often resemble full-scale commercials than donor acknowledgments.

Frankly, I’m not sure how much longer Tri-State can function anyway. As its IRS 990 form (PDF) shows, Tri-State lost more than $67,000 in 2010, more than twice what it lost the year before. A person who worked for Tri-State told me it’s not unusual for the payroll to be late. Maybe the little radio engine-that-could is climbing a hill too steep. If so, the rough justice of WHDD’s demise should suit Goncalves better than another slap on the wrist from the FCC.

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