Searching for an answer

Members of the non-profit group Democracy Rising rallied Thursday, marching on the offices of USF President Judy Genshaft and WUSF radio.

Democracy Rising’s protest was in response to the decision by WUSF-89.7 FM Interim Station Manager JoAnn Urofsky to not allow the group to advertise Saturday’s visit by former presidential candidate Ralph Nader and political author Michael Moore.

Urofsky did not allow the advertising because she said the group was political in nature. USF President Judy Genshaft supported Urofsky’s decision.

About 10 Democracy Rising members participated in the rally, including one member carrying a video camera. Group volunteer Bill Hamilton, who led the protest, said the tape from the rally will be shown on a big screen during Saturday’s event.

Armed with the camera, the group first entered the Administration Building, asking several bystanders what would become their catchphrase question, “Have you seen the public in public radio?” The group marched to Genshaft’s office, where they first encountered Roy Weatherford, president of USF’s faculty union, in the reception area. Weatherford told Hamilton much of WUSF’s money comes from corporations.

“I always tend to give people the benefit of the doubt,” Weatherford told Hamilton. “I honestly think they believe the things they’ve said and that it’s contrary to the general policy of the station.”

Weatherford said after the encounter that he was unable to form an opinion on the subject because he didn’t know all of the facts. He said, however, he found the protesters interesting.

“I always like troublemakers,” Weatherford said.

After speaking to Weatherford, Hamilton was met by Information Director Jack Wheat. Wheat told Hamilton that he’d have to speak to a spokesman familiar with the subject. Hamilton asked Wheat to deliver a list of questions on the subject to Genshaft.

“I will happily give these to President Genshaft, and she’ll look over them and reflect on them,” Wheat said. “I do not speak for the president in this particular matter.”

Wheat said he did not know enough about the subject to respond. Mark McDougal, a volunteer for Democracy Rising, made one final comment as Wheat was leaving.

“Can you thank the president for taking the time not to meet with us?” McDougal asked.

Before the rally, McDougal said Democracy Rising was on campus in an effort to bring attention to what he called radio censorship.

“We’re trying to get public attention put on the fact the university president has censored ads on public radio,” McDougal said. “We think censorship by a university president is very dangerous.”

McDougal said a National Public Radio affiliate in Atlanta similar to WUSF ran closely related advertising for a Democracy Rising event. He said his group is unhappy because USF officials have refused to provide written guidelines for advertising.

McDougal suggested that the group should place a copy machine outside WUSF headquarters until a copy of the guidelines were made.

“We also think that petty politics and playing games, calling us political when they in fact they are the political ones, is unacceptable,” he said.

Hamilton echoed McDougal’s comments and responded to Urofsky’s claim that he threatened her in a phone conversation last week.

“This whole controversy makes her feel threatened,” Hamilton said.

After departing from Genshaft’s office, the group marched to WUSF’s headquarters. Along the way, Hamilton continued to ask people if they’d seen the “public in public radio.”

Once the group reached WUSF, an odd encounter ensued. Hamilton was not allowed into the building, and he engaged in a 10-minute conversation through a speaker with an employee who identified herself as Anna Bennett.

Bennett said Urofsky had left for the day and had already sent Democracy Rising copies of WUSF’s written policies. Hamilton said the group had not received the documents.

“I’m sorry, we’re talking to a speaker right now, is this the public in public radio?” he asked Bennett.

“I’m not going to tolerate this,” Bennett responded. “(Urofsky) is not here right now, and I’m not going to tolerate harassment or bullying.”

Hamilton then asked if he could leave his list of questions for Urofsky. Bennett said she would make sure Urofsky received them. As the protesters left WUSF, Hamilton posed his question to Bennett for the third time.

“I hope you have a nice day, but, do you know where the public in public radio is?” Hamilton asked.

Bennett said after the confrontation she felt the group was behaving poorly.

“I thought it was rather disruptive and unnecessary,” she said. “I’m not interested in trading (insults) with people on the intercom.”

Moments after the protesters left WUSF, they were met by two University Police officers. The officers said they were called by the president’s office and wanted to make sure the protesters were remaining peaceful. Hamilton thanked them for coming and then repeated his question again: “Have you seen the public in public radio?”

“That’s an issue you’re going to have to take up with the radio,” Lt. Chris Daniel responded, smiling.

Hamilton proceeded to talk to Daniel for several minutes.”As you’re walking around the campus today, would you ask the people if they’ve seen the public in public radio?” Hamilton asked Daniel.

Before leaving, Hamilton and Democracy Rising members walked toward the Library. They asked several students their question. Daniel Osbourn was one of those students. He told Hamilton he wasn’t interested in WUSF.

“I don’t listen to that; I listen to 97x,” Osbourn said, referring to another Tampa radio station.

After Hamilton had left, Osbourn said he was not impressed.

“I just think they’re trying to get a reaction,” he said.

Hamilton said after the rally that he felt things went well.

“We actually think it was quite effective,” he said. “I think by asking the kind of questions we’re asking and the way we’re asking them, we’re putting them in the position of having to make some sort of public comment, because up until then they’ve refused to talk to us.”

Hamilton said once he got back to Democracy Rising headquarters, he would fax his list of questions to Genshaft and Urofsky. As he got into his car, he said he didn’t expect to hear from Urofsky anytime soon, saying she’ll probably remain out of the office for the rest of the day.

“Even if she’s in, she’s not going to be back,” Hamilton said.

Contact Rob Brannonat