CPB Office of the Ombudsman

WHDD and Tri-State Politics

Joel Kaplan

October 10, 2013

Marshall Miles is the founder and president of WHDD, a public radio station in Sharon, Conn. which is considered the smallest NPR affiliated station in the country and which services the tri-state region of northwest Connecticut, eastern New York and southwest Massachusetts.

Mr. Miles is also running for election as a representative on the Region One Board of Education in Sharon next month.

That potential and real conflict of interest has a number of local citizens upset that Mr. Miles is using his influential position as president of Tri-State Communications, the parent of WHDD to further his political aspirations and denigrate his opponents.

"For six years, Marshall Miles has been president and CEO of Tri-State Public Communications, the organization that operates that station," says a complaint filed by four Connecticut residents. "He currently is using the his own on-air commentaries and a political blog, regiononereport.com, to attack the educators in the Regional School District One in Connecticut, as well as members of the Region One Board of Education. His strident voice is one of the major factors in the five defeats of the regional school budget. His attacks are very personal and rarely related to educational issues.

"Moreover, he is currently running for election to the Region One Board of Education from the Town of Salisbury, and using his NPR connections to promote that candidacy, even on his Facebook page."

The letter questioned whether Mr. Miles was violating the NPR Code of Ethics, which among other things, calls for impartiality in one's personal life, which includes not running for political office.

In response, Mr. Miles says that while WHDD is an NPR affiliate, "We're not NPR journalists. We never pretend to be NPR journalists. We don't call ourselves news people. We don't get paid for what we do. We do this as a public service."

While I agree that the NPR ethics guidelines are directed towards NPR journalists, there remains a code of editorial integrity for local public media that specifically addresses some of these issues. In it there is an admonishment for all who work for public media to be sensitive to conflicts of interests between personal interests and their professional public media responsibilities.

And while Mr. Miles and his WHDD co-founder, Jill Goodman, are not journalists, WHDD does employ journalists. The code of integrity also says that those with direct responsibility for news and public affairs content should not engage in partisan political activities, should not espouse views on controversial issues of public importance and should not run for elected office.

Whether or not Mr. Miles gets paid to run WHDD is irrelevant. Also irrelevant is a March 30, 2012 letter from the FCC that he cites which supported his right to endorse a candidate running for the Region 1 Board of Education. The letter stated that it was Mr. Miles' right to endorse a candidate on the air as long as he specified that the endorsement was his personal opinion and not that of the stations.

But that is a far cry from running for office himself. "Before I decided to run, I called our lawyer and I found out what the legalities were for me to run," Miles said. "And my FCC attorney said, 'Well you don't have to offer people time but if somebody calls and asks for equal time you have to give it.'

"I'm pretty sure that person who's running against me is not going to be able to give up three hours a day to come on the radio so there's got to be some way we can work this out. And you know what? We worked it out. Because of the community service that we do, they're allowing me to stay on the air as long as I don't give any editorial opinions or endorse or not endorse anything pertaining to Region One."

Among those who signed the complaint letter are John Mauer, who has been on both the regional board and the Kent, Conn. board; Susan Clayton, a selectman from North Canaan; and Terry Cowgill, a journalist and independent blogger from Salisbury, Conn. Ms. Clayton said he has known Mr. Miles for several years since both were involved in radio. After Mr. Miles left his private radio station he started several entities including an Internet only station called Robin Hood Radio, which eventually took over WHDD.

"When all this started happening and he started going on the air and being very critical of the superintendent and other people within Region One, I got concerned and questioned him on it and it didn't stop," she said.

"Since then he's been getting involved in local contests. And he's even gone so far as to put himself on the slate in Salisbury to run for one of these school board positions. And as someone who has worked in radio before, I just found that a little disconcerting, particularly public radio.

"I know public and private are a little different and there are different rules. But I just think there needs to be unbiased reporting when it comes to public dollars. And I don't see that equal time is being given. And I just think that the role of a public station is to put out the facts and let people decide and not put your own opinions out there in such a harmful way."

Mr. Miles said that airing his opinions about the regional school board has been a good thing. He said that before he got involved in publicizing the vote, only 300 or 400 people would vote. Now, 1,200 people are voting. "That's what they're upset about," he said. "They're upset more people are participating."

In addition, Mr. Miles says he has been scrupulous in separating his political and personal activities from his radio station activity:

"My personal Facebook page, and the blog they're talking about is a Region One report blog that has no connection with the radio station at all. I mean, those are totally separate things. Nothing from the radio station is on my personal page. When I post things on my personal page, it goes on my personal page. When things are on Region One report, it goes on Region One report. When things are posted on our Facebook page, it's solely radio station stuff that does not have anything to do with school. You can scroll through it and you'll see it. Occasionally, before I stop doing them because I'm running, is we put up audio on our Facebook page and so yes, some of the editorials that I did, they were on there.

"We keep things separate, but every day we're on the air, we say people can call in. It is open to anybody. Because they choose not to trust me to call in … we never do journalism. Never have and never will. We're not journalists. We are members of the community who have it open to anybody."

The complaint about Mr. Miles has some similarities to the complaints registered against WAMC president Alan Chartock.

In both cases, critics are saying that the presidents of public radio stations are using those stations to further their own political agendas. In both cases, the response is that they are not journalist and they are simply expressing their own opinions.

But in both cases, the men are also in charge of the radio station. There is nothing wrong with Mr. Miles running for a seat on the regional board of education. There is also nothing wrong with his presiding over a public radio station. What is wrong is that he should not do both at the same time.

It is wrong; it is unfair; it is a conflict of interest and it should stop.

About CPB

CPB promotes the growth and development of public media in communities throughout America.

Programs & Projects

CPB awards grants to stations and independent producers to create programs and services.