Controversy seems to follow Ralph Nader everywhere he goes.
But last Thursday, controversy arrived early, more than a week before Nader’s scheduled visit to USF.
USF’s National Public Radio station, WUSF-89.7 FM, became the scene of this controversy after canceling an order for advertisement from the group Democracy Rising. The ad would have announced Nader’s Saturday visit.
Democracy Rising’s Bill Hamilton said after negotiating the advertising contract on Thursday, which called for 18 spots at $100 each, with a station underwriter, Interim Station Manager JoAnn Urofski decided the spot would not be aired. The reasoning, he said, was that the station deemed Democracy Rising a political organization.
“They said it would somehow be biased or would bias the radio station,” Hamilton said. “I finally spoke with the station manager on Friday. She refused to send me a copy of their policy and procedures and also refused to confirm in writing to me her refusal to run the spots.”
Hamilton said the ads are not political and would not create bias for WUSF. The proposed ad said, “Support for programming comes from WUSF members and Democracy Rising presenting Ralph Nader at the USF Sun Dome on Saturday night … “
Hamilton said after learning his ads would not run on the station, he contacted Vice President for Advancement Michael Rierson, who forwarded his complaint to USF President Judy Genshaft.
“I learned later that afternoon that Genshaft had seen the documents and decided to back JoAnn Urofski’s decision,” he said.
Hamilton said Nader and other guests, including political author Michael Moore, are coming to speak at their own expense. He said he believes students would be interested in hearing what they have to say and that the ads weren’t political at all.
“We were pretty incredulous that a non-profit organization like us would be discriminated against,” Hamilton said. “Why should we be treated differently?”
Hamilton said he is appalled by Genshaft’s decision to back Urofski. He said he feels the university is acting poorly in this case.”On the billboard on the USF Sun Dome it says, ‘Ralph Nader: Power to the People,'” Hamilton said. “How contradictory is it?”
Hamilton said he will now call for the radio station to produce a list of written policies that explain their position. He said he is doing so because he doesn’t believe the station has any written policies.
“I think it’s just a judgment call,” he said. “I think it’s all subjective.”
Urofski, whose decision came after viewing the underwriting forms, said WUSF has had a long-standing rule not to take advertisements that would bias the station’s news reporters. She said the rules are indeed in writing, but that she does not feel the need to give them to Hamilton.
“He asked, but he threatened me,” she said. “And when somebody threatens me, it certainly makes me inclined to not respond.”
Urofski said, as she told Hamilton, she was well within the bounds of FCC regulations on advertising. She said Democracy Rising’s non-profit status did not factor into the decision.
“You can be a political organization and not-for-profit,” she said.
Urofski said that the billboard on the Sun Dome that Hamilton sighted as contradictory cannot be compared to her station. She said the station is a news-gathering service, and political advertisements would represent bias.
“The university is not a news-gathering service,” she said. “So if it’s on the billboard on Fowler, that is (a different scenario).”
WUSF’s Michele D’Avico handled the underwriting procedure on the Democracy Rising advertisements. Hamilton said of her that he did not feel the problem was her fault.
“I don’t want to get Michele D’Avico in trouble. She’s a very nice woman,” he said. “She didn’t think there was any problem.”D’Avico said she received an e-mail from Urofski about the cancellation on Friday.
“The e-mail that I received stated that the station does not accept underwriting from PACs and organizations with a political agenda,” she said.
When asked, D’Avico wasn’t sure what exactly that meant.
“I don’t know what PACs stands for,” she said.
PACs are political action committees, which have come under fire in the political realm as being a harbor for soft money.
D’Avico said she accepted this particular advertisement because she did not at the time see it as a political statement.
“I saw it mostly as an event taking place at USF, and since I’m relatively new here, I took the underwriting,” she said. “(Urofski) has to approve everything anyway. Her word is final on any kind of underwriting that comes through.”
D’Avico said she initially took the order over the phone. The refusal from Urofski came that afternoon, and the deal was never signed and finalized.
As for Hamilton’s claim that the rules are not in writing, D’Avico said she feels the station was consistent with other such situations she’s heard of in the past, though she has not seen the rules written down.
“We’re told certain things, yes, but I didn’t actually see a list, a written list,” D’Avico said.
Urofski said a lot of the underwriters know the rules, and therefore don’t necessarily have a copy of them.
“It’s part of our underwriting kit, a pretty general form. They usually don’t get a copy,” she said. “They can have it if they wanted.”
Hamilton said his next move will be to send an open letter to the university community. He said he hopes to force WUSF to publicly express its corporate policies. He will ask advertisers to withhold financial support until the station responds.
“We’re asking that those of you who share our concerns contact Genshaft and Urofski and express your concerns,” Hamilton said.
“WUSF radio being a radio station on a large urban campus and there’s no student programmers. It’s not designed to serve the university but to serve the wealthy.”
Urofski said she is waiting for what Hamilton does before she makes her response.
“I guess we’ll have to wait and see what he asks for next,” she said. “I’d like to see (the letter) before I respond.”
Urofski said this situation, which is not very common, will not change policies of the radio station.
“We’re still not going to accept ads from organizations we think are going to bias our news,” she said.
Contact Rob Brannon at firstname.lastname@example.org