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KDNK radio is considering limits on DJs’ free speech

Aspen Times Staff Report

Carbondale public access radio station KDNK is nearing a programming crossroads.

At issue is whether KDNK should apply high journalistic standards to all programing, or continue a more freewheeling approach which gives volunteer disc jockeys the latitude to say pretty much whatever they want, when they want to say it, within FCC regulations.

“This is a pretty big deal,” said former KDNK board member Jeff Dickinson at Tuesday night’s board meeting. “It’s almost a membership [decision].”

The question of whether DJs should be allowed to spin their music shows into commentary came up after at least one instance of DJs attempting to explain the controversial Crystal River Marketplace shopping center last December, and another DJ who made a marketplace statement that station manager Mary Suma said was flat-out wrong.

After hearing some of the KDNK comments, an attorney for Crystal River Marketplace sent KDNK a letter expressing concerns and calling the statements inappropriate for a nonprofit, publicly supported radio station.

At the end of Tuesday’s two-hour discussion with the public, the KDNK board directed staff and the programming committee to review the DJ handbook. They are expected to come back in early April with policy recommendations concerning liability issues and related concerns.

What volunteer DJs say and when they say it, and journalistic standards, have been under review for several months, Suma told the board.

She said the issue of DJ commentary became more serious during the fall’s political campaign. “We were getting complaints of unbalanced or biased information,” Suma said.

Suma added that she has been talking to other nonprofit public radio stations about their policies on DJ commentary. “Not one other station supports spontaneous discussion.”

Currently, KDNK has daily news shows under the direction of news director Marilyn Gleason, plus noontime commentary that ranges from computers to gardening.

Other shows, such as the Tuesday morning “Camelion and Merle Show” with Jeff Dickinson and Bob Schultz, mixes music with commentary about local issues, plus off-the-cuff news.

Early in the meeting, board member Ben Gagnon briefed the board on a conversation he’d had with an FCC attorney in Washington, D.C. The kind of commentary that is and isn’t allowed varies widely, he said.

For example, Gagnon said that nonprofit radio stations can’t support or oppose candidates during elections. “He suggested the station needs a policy,” Gagnon said. “A lot of DJs don’t know what they can and can’t do.”

Courts struck down the Fairness Doctrine in the 1990s, Gagnon said. “Libel and slander are our biggest exposure.”

Gagnon explained that libel and slander are difficult to prove, but if a lawsuit were brought, KDNK would have to defend itself in court. “And we don’t have a budget item for that,” he said.

KDNK gets its funding from memberships, underwriting, grants and fund-raisers, such as the Mountain Fair beer garden and the annual KDNK auction.

The FCC lawyer also suggested that DJs be educated about libel laws because without the briefings, a plaintiff could claim the station is “reckless.”

Finally, there’s something called the “grassroots lobby rule.” Gagnon said it’s an IRS rule for nonprofits, which says that they can’t lobby for or against legislation. The legislation goes all the way down to town ordinances. Gagnon said it’s a long shot that someone would blow the whistle on KDNK and that it probably wouldn’t stand up, “but KDNK would have to spend money to defend itself.”


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