The circus comes to MCATInterlocking rings of conspiracy, violence and censorship dominate TV station's personnel discussions
The Missoula Community Access Television's board meeting last April could have been an extended homemade production modeled after the Theater of the Absurd. With the cramped, sallow studios filled to standing room only, rambling, disassociative people followed one another to deliver diatribes on the First Amendment against a backdrop of chaos and frenzy.
A few praised God, another wearing a mohawk with unicorn-like spikes periodically offered attendees water, while still another compared the situation at MCAT to what happened when Michael Eisner took over Disney. One audience member repeatedly interrupted proceedings to bark out suggested conduct from Robert's Rules of Order.
When the meeting, which the board thought would be a discussion of personnel issues, ended more than an hour later, it appeared that Randy Ammon, executive director of MCAT, was going to keep his job. A month later, Ammon was forced to clean out his desk and vacate the office.
Since then, MCAT has been at the center of a maelstrom of rumors and allegations. The board has been accused of holding meetings full of cuss words and anti-religious sentiment. Some feel the studio is a seething toxic cesspool full of chemicals left over from the days when the building housed the Missoulian's printing press. There is talk of a shadowy "West Coast car trip," a scenario cited by a few Ammon supporters that has the director stuck in a car while board members try to convince him to cut religious programming.
Ammon has retained a lawyer, and at least one man has filed a lawsuit claiming the board's bizarre machinations violate Robert's Rules of Order. Amidst it all, MCAT's board and staff struggle to stay on the air while everything around them seems to be in turmoil.
The circumstances leading up to the current situation-which has some staffers refusing to go on the record for fear of harassment-are hazy. But what is clear is this: April's vote to keep Ammon on the job was invalidated a month later. The problem, according to board president Bob Gilman, was twofold. An absentee ballot to fire Ammon was not counted, and it should have been. Another vote cast to keep Ammon was illegal, Gilman says, because it passed through multiple hands before reaching him. So on May 13 a new vote was called, and Ammon lost.
Now, Ammon and his supporters declare that he is the victim of a witch hunt based on some board members' alleged dislike of religious programming.
"I honestly believe in the Executive Committee's minds, they wanted to get rid of religious programming," Ammon says. "I never claimed this was solely a First Amendment issue. It's not limited to religious programming. There are personalities, politics and programming involved."
MCAT staffers, in turn, accuse Ammon of invoking the First Amendment as a red herring, an inflammatory, last-ditch effort to save his job. And MCAT board members-volunteers from the community serving three year terms-wish the whole thing would go away.
Surfing MCAT, one is likely to come across everything from city council meetings to gay Pride Week highlights to environmental profiles to doomsday Ba'hai phone-in talk shows.
Twenty years ago, according to a cable access web site out of Berkeley, Calif., various city governments made an agreement with cable TV conglomerates.
In exchange for the right to sell cable, companies like TCI would pay for citizens of the community to have access to a TV studio, training and equipment.
Inherent in this arrangement is an emphasis on free speech. In other words, within the broad restrictions of copyright and obscenity laws, stations like MCAT are open forums for communities like Missoula. Anybody can use cable access to say practically anything, from KKK Grand Wizards to Satanic Bible-beaters. In Missoula, 2,350 people have been trained as producers since the station went on the air in 1990, with an average of 60 hours per week of programming broadcast, 70 percent of which is locally made.
McCarthy Coyle, a local writer who helped get MCAT off the ground, says access television has "essentially evolved as a First Amendment forum, but not without bumps in the road over the years." He elaborates that various stations along the way have wrestled with city governments and cable companies over content and funding. But in Missoula, the airwaves remain open.
Ammon came to Missoula in 1989 after serving as a manager for a public access television station in Pocatello, Idaho. "I believe public access television is the most democratic and worthwhile use of this medium," he says. "I accepted a cut in pay and benefits to work here."
Bob Cushman, the former treasurer and one-time president of the board, says that in the beginning, Ammon put in a lot of time and trouble training people to use the facilities. But as the demand for training lessened, Ammon's energy began to dissipate, and Cushman feels the grueling 1993 MCAT contract negotiations with the Missoula City Council took a large toll on Ammon.
"Randy didn't understand the way normal Missoula politics work. He internalized a lot of negative comments that weren't directed at him," Cushman says.
Even his critics describe him as basically a nice guy and a staunch First Amendment crusader. But among other problems, Cushman says that the station outgrew Ammon's technical knowledge. The board urged him to attend conferences where he could learn more, Cushman says, but he didn't, and the rift between the executive director and the board began to grow.
Ammon, for his part, disagrees with his critics' assessment, and chalks up problems to "poor health."
"My performance over the years hasn't been such that firing me is an option," he says. "The board members are acting with animosity, creating and spreading myths about me."
But ultimately, Cushman says, the staff's increasing unhappiness and Ammon's inability to account for his time were the deciding factors in the decision to dismiss him from his job.
Ammon's got a reputation for having a nasty temper. It's a situation that exploded last November, when an MCAT staff member, who has since quit, filed a grievance with the board. In it, she alleges Ammon threw a chair on one occasion, verbally abused and humiliated her on another.
"Randy overheard me talking to a friend on the phone about installing new equipment in (an editing room). I said, 'They haven't installed it yet.' Randy screamed at me close to my face, 'Don't you ever use the word "they" when referring to MCAT!' I felt bad afterwards. I wondered if it was my fault," says the staffer, who wishes to remain anonymous. As she describes what had happened to her, she is clearly still very upset.
Ammon denies the incident took place in Missoula, saying "to my knowledge, the chair throwing incident, that's referring to something that happened in the '70s in Redding, Pennsylvania.
"The temper tantrums have been blown way out of proportion," he adds. "Once or twice a year I've lost my temper with a piece of equipment, never with another person."
But Gilman disagrees, saying Ammon's temper was key.
"We were aware of Randy's anger long ago. He'd been asked to do something about it," Gilman says. "I'm really concerned about him as a person. The workplace is no place for violence. People finally came forward. The welfare of the staff is the most upsetting thing."
The board decided in March that Ammon had not achieved the goals outlined for him at the end of 1997. The Personnel Committee recommended dismissing him and set a vote for April.
But even as MCAT board members searched their souls in anticipation of a vote over Ammon's job, a flurry of rumors were set in motion that turned a personnel matter into a passionate fight over the First Amendment.
No one knows for sure where the rumor started, but word spread that the MCAT board was out to cut its religious programming.
It was a charge that attracted Missoula's most notorious gadflies-some of whom had little to do with the station until they got wind of the controversy. Thus when the 10-member board met in the crowded meeting room this spring, they were in for a shock.
As people voiced their First Amendment concerns, mostly pertaining to religious freedom and environmental activism, it was not uncommon to hear them admit they barely knew Ammon and were unfamiliar with the job performance issues the board says are at the heart of his dismissal. One man sputtered, "If it is determined Randy does have an anger problem, let's at least give him a warning (before he's fired.)"
In the audience was Ross Best, described by some as a vehement "pedestrian activist" and general rabble rouser. Best, who frequently takes advantage of Missoula City Council's open mic session to air his many grievances, is also currently involved in a legal dispute with the city over zoning matters. Now, he has petitioned for a declaratory judgment voiding Ammon's dismissal, charging that the board violated Robert's Rules of Order and the open meetings law.
Best concedes that prior to the Ammon controversy he hadn't "been around MCAT much" in the last few years. What he wants is for the board to prove to the public that Ammon performed his duties poorly; that he wasn't just arbitrarily fired.
"MCAT was negligent or even malignant. I'm not satisfied. The problems were not all on Randy's side," he says.
Will Snodgrass, another outspoken critic of local government, has also rallied to Ammon's cause. Snodgrass says he believes Ammon was dismissed because the board planned to reduce religious programming and he stood in their way. In a rambling conversation with the Independent, Snodgrass talks of a mysterious car trip to the West Coast last year, where board members told Ammon of their plan to carve shows out of the schedule.
"I called Randy, and he told me about this conversation in the car where he was asked to cut religious programming. The gravity of the situation began to sink in. I suddenly realized what the potentials were. They couldn't fire him because of religious programming, so they crafted a document. It's just like the propaganda of the Soviet or American press; you say something a few times and people believe it's true," Snodgrass says.
Ammon recalls that in April 1997, on the way back from a conference in Oregon, four members of the Executive Committee told him there was too much religious programming on MCAT.
"I told them that was unacceptable," Ammon says.
But Gilman scoffs at Ammon's allegation of a secretive car ride, saying "I didn't hear about any of this. I don't believe it, actually. Policy being set in a car? Randy never came to me about it."
Regardless of Ammon's stress level, some staffers say it is Will Snodgrass who has made the current situation unbearable. Several staff and board members insisted on speaking anonymously, saying Snodgrass has been harassing them with phone calls and in person.
One staffer says that one night after everyone else vacated the MCAT studio, Snodgrass was waiting for her when she stepped outside.
"I felt intimidated. I don't want to deal with it anymore," she says, explaining her request for anonymity. The former staffer who filed a grievance against Ammon makes the same charge.
Snodgrass denies harassing anyone.
"I can't comment on it since I don't know who you're talking about. I'm certainly allowed to sit in my car after a meeting, but it's a lie I waited for anybody," he says.
During MCAT's open mic forum this week, Snodgrass took the opportunity once again to vilify board members, saying they planned to cut religious programming starting in late 1997. He laid out a network of conspiracy to censor the station, implicating the Independent's reporting as part of a one-sided media campaign.
"Mr. Snodgrass, as usual, has it all wrong," Cushman says.
Despite Snodgrass's fervent defense, Ammon asserts that "Will Snodgrass does not represent me, but he is empowered by MCAT."
MCAT board members dismiss categorically the charge that there's any campaign to censor religious programming. Gilman says that religious shows make up about 31 percent of MCAT's schedule, up from last year's 26 percent. Former board member Gene Bernovsky-a central figure in Snodgrass' theory, for an offhand comment he made once that programming ought to be more balanced-also says that what Snodgrass and the First Amendment defenders are saying is "absolutely false. Anybody has a right to express opinions."
Bernovsky, who left the board between the April and May votes, goes on to explain that at cable access stations across the country, time slots are shared and rotated. MCAT, he adds, could do a better job of this.
"It's unheard of for a show to own a particular time slot forever," he says, adding that the First Amendment warriors are mistaken, that the issue at stake is job performance-the details of which the board had hoped to keep private out of respect for Ammon.
"What these guys are doing is blowing smoke over some very real personnel issues and attacking board members. (The board) spent several months working with Randy, showing him various ways to improve," he says. "He didn't do any of the things we suggested and he denied he had any problems.
"He's had explosive temper tantrums for years. We wanted Randy to do outreach for years. We didn't fire him outright because we didn't want to hurt him or have it turn ugly. We wanted to rehabilitate him."
Cushman explains further that the board has been fielding concerns from the community that MCAT has turned into a religious station, with blocks of biblical programming going out over the airwaves for hours at a time.
"Nobody said anything about cutting programming. A comment was made that if the programs were spread out, that perception may not exist," he says. "Randy said we couldn't do that because MCAT works on a first come, first serve basis. That was the end of the discussion."
The board has talked about reaching out to more Missoulians, Cushman says, so the station better reflects the community's diversity. In a staff-written MCAT memo put out this winter detailing the station's goals, the first item listed is, "Reach out to underserved populations and organizations, such as the Laotian Hmong, League of Women Voters, Literacy Volunteers of America, Missoula Indian Center" and others.
"Nobody has ever passed policy concerning cutting religious programs," Gilman states flatly. "The First Amendment is a device to inflame the public."
Now, Ammon is thinking of suing. His lawyer, Cindy Smith, filed a grievance against the station at the end of May for wrongful termination. It states, in part, that a December 1997 evaluation critical of Ammon's performance was done as a set-up to remove him from employment at MCAT.
"I'm the first to admit my performance could improve. I have honestly tried to work with the board. The deceit and malice from some of the board members, I don't deserve it and the community doesn't deserve it," Ammon says.
Ammon's wrongful termination grievance asserts that the board violated an assortment of rules, including MCAT's bylaws, personnel policies and Montana law by botching the vote and not performing yearly job evaluations. In particular, Ammon's lawyer says the board violated Robert's Rules of Order by counting the absentee ballot that was originally discarded.
MCAT co-director Mary Canty says that down at the station it's business as usual these days. She thought more people coming in would want to discuss what had happened with Ammon.
"It's been surprising. It doesn't phase people using the facilities. They just want the service to continue," she says.
Canty, who says she is no longer in contact with Ammon, is reluctant to talk about him, preferring to "respect people working it out." But nearly all staffers have been critical of Ammon's job performance, telling the Independent that his health negatively affected his moods and made him hostile to everybody around him.
Canty says she feels relief over the current atmosphere at MCAT.
"While this was going on you didn't recognize anybody anymore. The staff felt like they were in the eye of the hurricane. We're working as hard as ever. Nothing has changed in regard to the First Amendment."
Ammon, however, is not giving up yet.
"This is not a black and white issue," he says. "The board hasn't lived up to its commitment to me. They don't have the right to be deceitful and malicious. I honestly don't know how this will turn out."
Daniel Roberts contributed to the reporting of this story.
Photo by Lise Thompson
Neither Randy Ammon nor Bob Gilman will consent to having their photos taken. This picture, taken from a video of the April 23 board meeting, shows Ammon addressing the board of directors, with president Gilman facing him from the center table.
Photo by Lise Thompson
Cody McFadden and Justin Merth practice with a camera at a training session in the MCAT studio Tuesday night. Board members say Ammon needed to do more outreach, bring in a diversity of people for such training sessions.
Photo by Lise Thompson
MCAT co-director Mary Canty says she and the rest of the staff are hoping to put the controversy behind them.