The annual general meeting of the beleaguered not-for-profit Toronto radio station JAZZ.FM91 erupted on Friday morning with donor-members calling for the board to resign en masse over its handling of workplace allegations and a resulting fiscal hole that prompted layoffs. At the same time, the chair of the board defended the station’s decision to keep its former president and CEO Ross Porter, who resigned after a workplace investigation, on the air as a host because his show is popular with listeners and advertisers.
Attendance at the meeting was standing-room-only, approximately 90 member-donors who crammed into a boardroom at the downtown law offices of WeirFoulds LLP, despite being called together on the Friday before Labour Day weekend with only 10 business days’ notice. Some members said the scheduling was a board attempt to decrease turnout and beat back any potential proxy fight for control of the station. David McGown, chair of the board, disputed the suggestion, saying the meeting was scheduled to ensure it happened before the end of the fiscal year on Friday. He noted turnout was robust.
He also praised the passion of those who attended. “It tells me the donors and listeners of JAZZ.FM are deeply committed to the success of this station,” said Mr. McGown during an interview with The Globe and Mail. “This is a force that can be tapped.”
Conflict had been brewing as the station lurched from one crisis to another over the spring and summer, after a group of then-current and former employees and contractors complained in a March letter to the board of alleged bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment at the hands of Mr. Porter. After a third-party workplace investigation, Mr. Porter resigned from his position, telling The Globe that the move was unrelated to the investigation and that he wanted to spend more time with his family. Citing privacy concerns for those who participated, the station refused to release the findings.
Weeks later, the station laid off seven employees and contractors, including five on-air hosts, citing the cost of the investigation and the poor advertising sales environment. As membership cancellations began to mount and other revenue dried up, some worried members began to discuss challenging current directors for their seats.
Those efforts were cut short when the board gave members only 10 business days’ notice of the meeting: Applications for directorships were due the same day the notice of the AGM went out.
As the meeting opened, members quickly began hammering the board for poor communication with donors. “We feel betrayed,” said Susan Wright, who said she and her husband had been “perpetual donors” for 10 years. “My source of information [about the goings-on at the station] is the newspapers, rather than the board or the station – and I find that appalling.” She added: “My opinion is that the entire board, while well-intentioned, should give their resignation.”
Others echoed her concerns, and criticized both Mr. McGown and the interim president and CEO, Charles Cutts, for what they said were insufficient answers to their questions. After all five of the board’s selections for directors received overwhelming approval, through proxies that had been gathered by the board, a long-time donor-member Wayne Araka appealed to Mr. Cutts. “There’s no transparency here, Charlie!” he called out. “There’s no faith in anything you folks are doing anymore!”
Mr. Cutts moved on to the next order of business.
Brian Hemming, an investment relations consultant and donor who started the independent website SaveJAZZFM.com last week to bring together those disenchanted with the station’s current leadership, noted that he had been denied access to basic documents to which members are entitled, such as the by-laws, until very recently.
One of the most heated exchanges at the meeting came as someone asked Mr. McGown to describe Mr. Porter’s current role with the station. Mr. McGown noted that the former CEO and president still hosts a two-hour show on Saturday mornings, which he records at his home outside of Toronto.
“Why? Why?!” a number of people called out.
“Because it’s a great show, that’s why!” one man in the audience yelled at them.
“Roman Polanski was a great film director, too!” one woman shouted, referring to the disgraced filmmaker who fled the United States in 1978 while awaiting sentencing for statutory rape.
“He still is!” the man yelled back.
“Order! Order!” called lawyer John McKellar, who oversaw the meeting.
Mr. McGown continued on, saying Mr. Porter’s show “is an award-winning show, listenership is up, and – I’ll also say that it’s also been our experience that, on balance – and this is on balance, not everybody – Ross, his show, Music to Listen to Jazz By, continues to attract advertisers, continues to attract donors. We have donors who are in fact stepping up. And this is – it’s still part of the station. Specifically, again, Ross stepped down from his former role, does not have day-to-day management responsibilities, but continues to play a role with the station.”