Changes at KDNA prove a rocky road

by Melissa Sánchez, Yakima Herald

GRANGER, Wash. -- Change is not coming easily to this small town's beloved radio station.

When the man who led Radio KDNA for close to three decades retired last summer, he said it was time for the next generation to empower and educate the Latino community.

Clearly it was no longer the same farm worker community the station sought to reach 29 years ago, when Ricardo Garcia helped found it.

His successor envisioned reaching out to second- and third-generation Latinos like herself, creating new partnerships in the Yakima Valley and pushing the station into the digital age.

"I wouldn't be trying to fill Ricardo's shoes, but I would bring my own pair of shoes," said Maria Fernandez, the new executive director of the station's operator, Northwest Communities Education Center (NCEC). "We're two different people."

To say it's been a rocky transition is an understatement.

In the months since her hire, employees of this station rooted in promoting workers' rights joined a union.

Fernandez and board members say the staff simply can't accept change, such as being required to consistently come to work on time or be managed more closely.

And now some listeners say they feel shut out of a station that was created to serve them.

At a regular NCEC board meeting Wednesday, many station supporters mobilized to stand behind the employees they view as their advocates.

"This is your station," said production manager Jesus Sosa, when audience members decided to hold their own meeting after the official one was terminated because of disorder. "There has been censorship of the community and the press, limits on our free expression. This cannot be permitted."

Nobody argues that KDNA can improve to meet the changing needs of the Latino community. But employees and their supporters question policy decisions and whether management is limiting press freedoms.

After reporting the events of the previous day's board meeting on the air, KDNA news director Francisco Rios was disciplined. Rios said he was fired, while Fernandez said she suspended him until there is a meeting with a union representative.

"This is a public radio station," Rios said. "People have a right to know what's going on."

Fernandez -- who says she cannot comment on personnel issues -- said in an interview before Wednesday's meeting that she wants to make the organization more efficient, increase worker productivity and account for hours worked. She is also providing staff development training and other opportunities to raise the level of professionalism.

"I support unions," Fernandez said. "But there is no legitimate reason for a lot of the staff's grievances. What staff would like to see is for things to stay the same."

Staff criticize what they call unfair disciplinary actions, lack of respect and poor communication skills.

"There's now an attitude of arrogance and no respect," said Tomas Villanueva, long a union organizer for farm workers in the Valley. "It's not about differences between the old guard and the new guard."

Radio KDNA is the first public Spanish-language radio station in the country. It helps provides identity to countless Latinos here because of its humble beginnings in the 1970s farm-workers movement.

Yakima resident Linda Ramirez remembers when her father -- a farm worker turned KDNA volunteer then full-time radio announcer -- would leave home early in the morning to drive from town to town, asking about agricultural work opportunities. He would then head to the station and announce those jobs on the air.

"People were just grateful to have that service provided. We didn't have anything back then," said Ramirez, who credits KDNA with lifting her family from the world of migrant farm work.

Today the station's $3.2 million home -- opened last summer -- is a source of pride in Granger. Even those who aren't regular listeners call or visit the center with questions about immigration, health, education or classes there.

Jose Ochoa, for example, prefers commercial Spanish-language stations to KDNA's educational programming, which he thinks is for "old people." But the 17-year-old expects to participate in the center's English classes.

Staff employees encourage listeners to feel a sense of ownership over the station and empowerment, Rios said. The station promoted recent immigration marches and asked listeners to become "citizen reporters," calling in to give updates on the air.

NCEC -- which has 12 employees and about as many regular volunteers -- operates on an $850,000 annual budget, funding which comes from government and private grants, as well as individual listener contributions.

Many people involved say Garcia has orchestrated the controversy.

In a way his place as a leader in the Latino community was cemented through his work at KDNA. Garcia also helped establish medical services to farm workers and the uninsured, and called Cesar Chavez a friend.

He says he doesn't want his old job back -- Garcia is 70 and says he wants to travel and write. But while he says he didn't organize the conflict, he can't help but want to help his former employees.

"What I'm worried about more than anything else is the future of the radio station," Garcia said. "I know how precarious it is to get the necessary funding to keep the radio on the air."

Fernandez, who grew up in the Lower Valley, says she knew it wouldn't be easy to succeed a local legend. But the job seemed like the "perfect marriage" between two things she loved -- running a business and advocating for Latinos.

Fernandez, who has a bachelor's degree from Heritage University and a master's in business administration from Seattle's City University, had previously done grant writing and diversity training as a local business consultant.

With the NCEC board's support, Fernandez wanted to try to bridge generational and cultural gaps within the Latino community.

That doesn't mean the station will begin broadcasting in English or a mixture of English and Spanish, said board president Jorge Lobos. Still, he said, the community needs to consider that bilingual programming might be necessary in the future.

"Who we've targeted historically is farm worker immigrants, and of course we will never leave that," Fernandez said. "We also need to work with our families. They're no longer as migrant as they used to be. ... We want to reach their kids and their kids' kids."

One way to do that, she says, is to begin streaming KDNA online. That will happen in two months.

Lobos terminated Wednesday's official board meeting when shouted demands and criticisms took over the portion allowed for public commentary. The audience -- about 80 employees, volunteers, their families, community leaders and listeners -- then held their own meeting.

Later, from the hallway outside the board's meeting room, Lobos asked, "What century are we in that we can't have a civilized discussion?"

Many expressed the need for mediated dialogue.

"We need to find a solution," said Luz Balderas, a Sunnyside homemaker on an NCEC advisory board who was nominated to the other board Wednesday. "We're trying to be positive and not break rules and not force anything.

"The only thing we want is that the station continues."

article originally published at Yakima Herald.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey