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Connie Burton vs. WMNF: Who's speaking for whom?

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click to enlarge SIGNS OF TROUBLE: Connie Burton answers - questions at a press conference on Fri., Jan. 28, in - front of WMNF's new building. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
SIGNS OF TROUBLE: Connie Burton answers questions at a press conference on Fri., Jan. 28, in front of WMNF's new building.

At 9 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 30, Connie Burton began her show the way she always had. "Uhuru and good morning," she said. "Welcome to Straight Talk."

The opening may have sounded familiar, but the setting looked a little different. Burton, who had hosted the Sunday morning talk show on WMNF-88.5 FM for almost nine years, wasn't in the studio. There was no microphone, no producer and her voice was not carrying over the airwaves. Instead, Connie Burton was mock-hosting her show for a few supporters on the sidewalk outside WMNF's old building on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Tampa, handing out signs to gathering supporters that read "Rob Lorei is a Racist" and protesting station management's Jan. 24 decision to take her off the air.

"They're full of shit," said Burton, a well-known public housing activist who, like the majority of other WMNF hosts, was a volunteer. She claims that the station's problems with her show began when she became a member of the St. Petersburg-based International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement in the late 1990s. "People tend not to mind if you're a whiner," Burton said, "But if you seek solutions to the problem - that's a problem."

Last week was supposed to be a chance for WMNF to celebrate its move into a much-touted, long-awaited new building. Instead, the station's decision-makers - including news and public affairs director Lorei and station manager Vicki Santa - have been forced to explain the policies that led to Burton's dismissal.

For Santa, the problem with Straight Talk was not that it offered solutions, but that, in the show's final years, it only offered one.

"Over time the perspective on the show narrowed to what we felt was a very singular perspective," Santa said. Programs, she went on to say, are meant to open up dialogue in the community, not to be a platform for one organization. She also said that WMNF is actively looking for a programmer to fill Straight Talk's time slot who will open the show up to a more diverse conversation on issues facing the African-American community.

Lorei pointed to that morning's substitute programming for comparison. Tampa Poet Laureate James Tokley and WMNF board member Bettye Stroud, both of whom are African Americans, spent the show discussing a variety of upcoming events for Black History Month. "In half an hour on the air," said Lorei as he looked into the booth, "they've announced more events in the black community than Connie did in the last month."

According to a copy of the programmer's agreement WMNF supplied to the Weekly Planet, a rule stating that shows are assigned to individuals and not to organizations was made policy in September of 2004. Burton was the first casualty of the new rule, which she and her supporters say was unfairly applied to her and not to other shows on the station with ties to political parties and organizations. Santa says that while shows with allegiances do exist, they make an effort to include other groups and events during their time on air.

"This is a designer law," said Chimurenga Waller, the international president of the Uhuru movement. "It was made specifically to get Connie off the air."

It is unclear whether or not Burton's show was in fact being used as a recruiting base for Uhuru. WMNF cites the Dec. 19 program, during which an Uhuru member implored listeners to "send in your $15 and join the Uhuru movement," as evidence that it was. Burton, meanwhile, says that she often brought on guests with different viewpoints, including developer Ed Turanchik, whom she had criticized on the air for projects she thought were designed to gentrify certain African-American neighborhoods.

What the two sides do agree on is that Burton used very strong language on Straight Talk.

The violation of the recently adopted rule is only part of the reason that station manager Santa gave for dropping the show. "Over time, it had become clear that at least some of what was going on on the air on that show did not speak to the mission of this station," she said.

On its website, WMNF's mission statement reads in part: "WMNF is a non-commercial community radio station that celebrates local cultural diversity and is committed to equality, peace and social and economic justice."

Lorei said he couldn't cite specific examples of comments Burton made that contradicted the station's mission (she has filed a grievance and management has said it will not discuss specifics before that grievance is handled).

But Lorei did say that her blanket comments about white people constituted a form of racism that the station could not tolerate. He also said that her attacks on prominent African-American officials, some of whom Burton referred to as "Uncle Toms," were not in line with the station's mission.

"We called people Uncle Toms based on their betrayal of black people," Burton responds unapologetically. "That's what Straight Talk was about. It was honest, up-front and in your face."

In addition to "making personal attacks" (management's words) or "holding people responsible" (Burton's), Burton and the Uhuru movement also challenged WMNF management to diversify - both on Straight Talk and through demonstrations. Three of the station's 14-member staff are people of color, and Santa, Lorei and program director Randy Wynne - the three senior staffers - are all white.

"We've pressed and pressed for them to [diversify]," says Sandy Thompson, who produced Straight Talk. "[Connie's] been a thorn in their side - and this is also a retaliatory measure to shut her up." (Thompson is white.)

Some members of WMNF's Community Advisory Board (CAB) have used Straight Talk's cancellation as an opportunity to bring up what they see as a critical problem at the station.

"I could sort of see this whole thing coming," says Maura Barrios, a member of the CAB. "WMNF has a problem [in] wanting to appeal to their core audience, and then they marginalize all other groups onto the edge of their programming on Sundays."

Many people inside WMNF say that the "core audience" is made up of, as one member of the WMNF community put it, "40- to 50-year-old white guys with ponytails."

According to this view, older white liberals constitute the bulk of the station's audience and fundraising base, so it wouldn't make fiscal sense to offend them. Nevertheless, shows like Straight Talk that express challenging viewpoints are an important part of WMNF's history.

"The local progressive voices are being harassed, pigeonholed or moved out in favor of mostly national, mostly white interpreters of the minority experience," says WMNF volunteer producer Randi Zimmerman, who is white.

"There are sometimes conflicts around those two missions - reaching the core audience and prioritizing them, and the all-inclusive diversity mission statement," Barrios said, echoing a recommendation the CAB made in July 2004 that these conflicting goals be addressed.

Burton and her supporters, many of whom believe that her show has been removed because it made the target audience uncomfortable, say the cancellation also brings the station's commitment to free speech - and to the African-American neighborhood in which it's located - into question.

"We find it very strange that a community radio station would try to stifle African speech in an African community," says the Uhuru movement's Waller. "It's just an obscenity to me."

Lorei and Santa both say that Burton, and the Uhuru movement, will continue to be covered on WMNF. Stories about the cancellation have appeared on the station's evening news, and Burton has been given significant time to explain her position on air.

"This is not about shutting down that point of view," Santa says. "This is just about deciding that we're not going to present it on that particular show. But we would be abandoning our mission if we were to look to take those issues off the table."

Yet for Connie Burton, taking away her place at the table means taking away the voice of a group who needs to be authentically heard from. Straight Talk, she says, was one of the few places in Tampa Bay where African Americans could speak out against a system they find horribly unjust.

"It's clear to me that when WMNF promotes free speech, they're talking about free speech for white people," she says. "Not for poor, working-class African people."

After WMNF board member Bettye Stroud got off the air Sunday, she said she was excited for the future of the Sunday morning slot. "We will focus on more positiveness, instead of putting people down," she said.

Outside, a small radio cackled at Burton's side. "Who decides who can speak for the black community?" she asked.

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