An e-mail from KABF board member Jay Jansen to station volunteers pretty much sums it up. "As some of you know, KABF is being audited, funding is on hold, and the station may be broke in a matter of weeks. KABF could cease to exist as we know it."
The local public radio station, offering widely varying programming, knows what it's like to be in the red. Keeping the station up and running with limited staff and even more limited funding has been a struggle since the station started broadcasting in 1984. But this time, under a federal audit because of the station's past relationship with ACORN (now known locally as Arkansas Community Organizations or ACO), the threat of having to close up shop seems very real. KABF was started as an affiliate of ACORN and the community organization has always had a strong presence on the station's board of directors.
"What started the audit was a complaint by someone having to do with the management of the station's website and that just snowballed," Jansen says. "It was a simple little complaint and then it just caught on fire. The people that were doing the accounting for the station were affiliated with ACORN. It's been a challenge to get answers about accounting and records and so forth because all that stuff was down in New Orleans and that stuff just disappeared."
KABF's payroll was handled by Citizens Consulting Inc., a now-defunct non-profit based in New Orleans. A former national ACORN board member from Georgia once described CCI's relationship to ACORN this way:
"To understand what is happening to ACORN today, try to imagine what it would be like if Tony Soprano took over Catholic Charities. All of the money that goes into ACORN goes into CCI first and there is no way to know how much is squandered or misappropriated."
"The money was mismanaged and misused in New Orleans," says KABF board president Lucho Reyes. "We didn't know anything about it until the audit came about."
The audit is being performed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Office of the Inspector General. Jansen expects the office to complete its findings soon, but Reyes says it could be January or February before KABF has a clear picture of what was going on. The details at this point are sketchy but Jansen says it "goes pretty deep."
In the meantime, an emergency board meeting was called earlier this week to, among other things, create a community advisory board for the station, a group of listeners that will monitor daily operations and serve as an extra set of checks and balances. (When asked about the meeting, program director John Cain said he had no idea one was even taking place.)
The station's manager, Willie Cosme, could not be reached for comment.
Reyes, who has been with the station since 1984 and has served as board president for the last five years, says KABF is an important part of the community.
"It's very important because we are reaching low-income people." he says. "It's a non-commercial radio station. We play music the other radio stations don't play. We have programs like our union program, 'Working the Line.' We have a Latino program. We have a Native American program, and no other station has that. It's good for the young people. We play local music. We have so many new people coming in all the time and we play the news no other radio stations play."
Jansen agrees and says they'll do whatever it takes to keep the station on the air.
"It's a resource for Arkansas that's not going to be easily replaced," Jansen says. "My intent is to keep the signal on the air even if we have to operate with no staff and broadcast from a port-a-potty on top of Chenal Mountain."
Elections for a new board president will be held soon and the current makeup of the board is likely to change.
"ACORN no longer exists but there's an organization now that's called ACO that is the same people, with the same phone number, doing the same thing, and nothing's really changed as far as I can tell," Jansen says. "The people that were on the [KABF] board before are still on the board now. We're seeking clarification from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to see if that's an issue and I've got a feeling that it will be."
No matter how grim things may seem, Jansen says the trouble could ultimately be a good thing for KABF and its listeners.
"Hopefully the public can help us put the station back together like it should have been in the first place. If the cards fall right, this could be the best thing to ever happen to this station."