Members of the KLBP radio project gather for a grant application photo earlier this year. Now, a question over who will control the organization moving forward could be headed to court. Photo courtesy of KLBP.
The fate of the construction permit granted late last year to the Long Beach Community Television and Media Corporation (LBCTMC) by the Federal Communications Commission is now facing uncertainty, after a contested realignment of its internal board structure last month resulted in a lawsuit, filed against board members by one of their own.
The temporary restraining order filed last week by the board’s current vice president, John Trapper, alleges that the other members of the organization hosted a series of illegal meetings and executed votes that violated the LBCTMC bylaws, which sets stipulations for how persons should be vetted before becoming members of the board. One of those votes displaced LBCTMC Board President Ken Roth, who was integral in securing the FCC application permit late last year that stands to bring community FM radio to the city under the call sign KLBP.
Trapper, who previously served as advisor for the student-run station KBEACH on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, described the sequence of events that led to Roth’s ouster by first chronicling the pattern of dysfunction that he said has existed since the first meeting he attended. Trapper said he was so turned off by the vibe that he walked out of the meeting one of his students encouraged him to attend, only to find out later in the week he’d been selected to be part of the board.
"That should give you an indication of how dysfunctional of a board this is,” Trapper said. “They should not have elected me.”
The order, which still needs to be granted by court to make it effective, requests the illegal actions executed by the board’s members—calling the special meeting without proper notice, electing non-vetted members to the board and the naming of an interim president—to be corrected so to not endanger the station’s permit. It would also reinstate Roth as president.
Roth is the officially recognized officer on the permit application submitted to the FCC and carries a 50 percent voting power on the board. FCC rules stipulate that an organization cannot undergo more than a 50 percent change on the board during the construction window or risk losing the permit altogether. Roth’s removal, combined with one other original applicant’s previous departure, put KLBP over that threshold.
“If you remove me from that board, there is no radio station,” Roth said. “There is no radio station. It’s over.”
During the group’s July 15 meeting, one that both Trapper and Roth said violated the station’s bylaws that require 30 to 60 days' notice for a special meeting, Roth was set to inform the group of some good news. He said he had potentially acquired free studio space for the station and that a local bar had invited them back to co-host a night dedicated to the anniversary of last summer’s blackouts.
The meeting ended with Roth’s removal and the naming of an interim director and president of the station, Ashley Aguirre, as well as a new treasurer, Doug Wood. Wood was implicated in the filing as having paid the membership dues of the board members—dues are required in order to be eligible to vote—in an attempt to buy influence with those members who ultimately voted Wood onto the board.
Speaking on behalf of the station, Aguirre said that the unanimous decision to replace Roth as board president was not an easy decision, but that it was made with the station’s best interests in mind. She said the notion that these votes were some sort of a coup will be discredited and she’s confident that the court will find that the vote was ethical and moral.
“We have faith that the court will recognize our behaviors and procedures to be in the best interest of protecting our organization and defending it from abuses of power,” Aguirre said in an email. “We don’t want any of our membership to be intimidated or discouraged by threats of legal action that only aim to diminish or veer the project off course. We will continue our work to build something beautiful for the Long Beach community.”
When LBCTMC secured the license to build an antenna for the station in October last year, it was hailed as a huge accomplishment, after a years of negotiating and scrapping to secure a coveted slice of what was largely considered the last public grab at low-power FM.
Clay Leander, a broadcast consultant who helped the group during the mediation process prior to it being awarded the license, echoed Roth’s and Trapper’s concerns that this shakeup of leadership has placed the license in jeopardy. He said the FCC will not approve any contested change of ownership, and in the meantime, the window to complete construction on the antenna will continue to dwindle.
“The FCC initially allows 18 months for a construction permit to be built and right now there’s less than a year to follow through with the building of the facility,” Leander said. “While a case like this is pending, the FCC cannot accept an application that is actively in dispute. Meanwhile, the clock is just ticking away.”
Leander, who assists dozens of organizations nationwide, said that the very idea behind low-power FM makes its board’s decisions susceptible to these kinds of “stomach upsets.’ In an attempt to allow stations like LBCTMC to operate without the suffocating structure of a corporation, sometimes decisions are made that lack the professionalism provided by the structure those corporations possess.
If the court decides to grant the order filed by Trapper, it could lead to fines for violating State and Federal laws that were agreed to when the applications and bylaws were submitted. Leander said that while cases like this are really “small potatoes” when compared to major conglomerates like Fox or Clear Channel, violations of the agreed to contracts can lead to fines, but rarely result in jail time.
“When you file bylaws with the State of California, that becomes your law,” Leander said. “In addition to the California Corporations Code, you wrote these laws internally for your own organization that the state expects you to abide by and if you violate those laws, violation of those laws are said to be illegal.”
If the suit is held up, Roth said that all actions taken after the May 21 meeting would be nullified and the organization will be purged of the members who violated the bylaws resulting in Trapper filing suit, including Aguirre and Wood. If it isn’t, three years of hard work to secure the license could simply go to waste. He said that it had crossed his mind that for the sake of saving the license he could be duplicitous and say he was part of something in which he did not play a role. However, he said he'd invested too much time and effort to have his name attached to a project in which he wasn't involved.
The future of the station now rests in the hands of the court.
“One of two things will happen; It’s going to get resolved and the people [who] caused these problems are going to get removed from the organization, the organization is going to move forward, we’ll build a board and we’ll build a radio station,” Roth said. “Or, we’ll lose the license. That’s really the upshot here.”