For the people who provide public access cable television in Maui County, their whole reason for being is speaking out. “Empowering the community’s voice through access to media”–that’s the motto of Akaku, which runs local cable channels 53, 54 and 55 for the community. That means the station airs programming that’s often at odds with the messages crafted by the county’s government officials, corporations and establishment. Controversy is something Akaku has embraced for pretty much its entire two-decade history.
So there’s a good deal of irony wrapped up in the manner in which the station is treating Shawn Michael, a 13-year employee who’s served the last two years as Akaku’s Programming Director. On or about Oct. 20, Akaku CEO Jay April placed Michael on probation.
The reason, according to Michael, is that Michael committed “insubordination” by telling April he didn’t want go to a private morning meeting with April, but preferred a general staff meeting. According to Michael, this angered April, who then placed him on probation when Michael showed up to the meeting.
A week later, Michael appeared at the Oct. 28 Akaku Board Meeting. Michael then read a long statement to the board, a copy of which I obtained. In the statement, Michael told the board he’d been placed on probation, then went on to call Akaku a “hostile work environment.” He also laid blame for the environment on April.
“Akaku suffers from an atmosphere and culture of bullying, harassment, incompetence, hostility and nepotism,” Michael told the board. “Why can we not have a performance review ordered of the CEO after all these years of him collecting an approximate six figure salary from the community? Why can we not have the board investigate allegations of harassment, intimidation and bullying of employees?”
Michael said that the work environment was causing him a long list of problems: fear, stress, emotional exhaustion, panic attacks, sleep disruption, mood swings, loss of concentration, sadness, headaches, irritable bowel disorder and chronic fatigue syndrome. “I have these symptoms,” Michael told the board. “Every single one. This is not a game.”
He added that April had forbidden him from talking to anyone about his probation, then went on to read from an email April had sent him. “Please keep this controversy under your hat,” April emailed Michael, according to Michael’s testimony. “Dissension and misunderstanding in the ranks is never a good thing and it is a problem with your help I am confident we will resolve.”
Michael also called upon the Board Chairman–Gene Zarro–and April to resign. Failing that, he called on the board to relieve April of his “power to hire and fire and make financial transactions as CEO” until the board could look into his allegations.
“Now that the cat is out [of] the bag and aired openly I see [no] way to turn back now,” Michael concluded, according to a written copy of his testimony. “Some serious decisions need to be made about how to best fulfill Akaku’s mission to serve the interests of the community.”
The board didn’t act openly on Michael’s allegations that day, though Michael said they did go into executive session. But the next day, April emailed Michael.
“Since you were unable to comply with our agreed upon conditions of employment outlined in my October 20, 2014 memorandum I have placed you on Administrative Leave with pay for a period of two weeks,” April said in the email, a copy of which I obtained. “The Board has designated a committee to review the allegations you have brought before it and will make a determination as to their merits or lack thereof as soon as the review can be completed.”
April then warned Michael against being “disruptive during this process,” and said that he would no longer be able to access Akaku programming or email.
Though the board apparently set up an investigation committee to look into Michael’s charges, April terminated Michael two weeks after he placed him on administrative leave. According to Michael, he maintained a clean employment record at the station, and the termination was retaliation for his speaking out against April and to the Board.
This was not an easy story to report. Akaku, one of the last indepdent media organizations left on Maui, is an old friend of MauiTime. We run ads for the station in our issues and have shared resources on election nights.
Back in 2008, we called the station the “pirates of public access.” At the time, then-editor Jacob Shafer quoted April as comparing media access to a city, with community access being the park–an apt metaphor that explains just how important a station like Akaku can be to the larger community.
“Anything can happen in the park,” April said in the Oct. 2, 2008 story. “Someone might get up and deliver the Gettysburg address; someone else might piss in the bushes. But either way, you need the park.”
But April refused to comment for this story. “We don’t comment on internal or personnel affairs,” he told me. Board Chairman Gene Zarro didn’t return a call for comment.
Akaku is a nonprofit organization that first incorporated in 1992 (its nonprofit status was confirmed two years later). It draws a substantial portion of its funds from the local cable company, made possible through the 1984 Federal Communications Act.
“Akaku: Maui Community Media is designated by the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs (DCCA) to provide Public, Education and Government Access (PEG) for Maui County,” states the station’s website (akaku.org). “Akaku recieves [sic] it[s] funding, in part, from the local cable franchisee, Oceanic Time Warner Cable. Akaku: Maui Community Media operates as a non-profit 501(c)3 community organization that provides education, classes, training, workshops, editing, field and studio facilities for the Maui County residents to express its right to free speech through public access to the media.”
Though Michael and two other former Akaku staffers I spoke with were highly critical of Akaku’s office environment (all three used the word “hostile” to describe working conditions there), they were all highly supportive of the station’s mission. “I love Akaku,” one of these former employees told me. “I was good at my job and still miss it.”
Another former employee spoke highly of April’s dedication to that mission.
“I shared his passion for free speech,” the former employee told me (though they no longer work at the station, neither former staffer felt secure enough to speak out publicly; both also agreed that the station was every bit as stressful as Michael testified to the Akaku board).
Akaku is best known for broadcasting Maui County Council hearings (the full council as well as its various committees). But they also broadcast a wide range of public affairs and education programming. On election night, candidates flock to Akaku for interviews. At a time of declining media of all types, nationally and locally, Akaku provides a vital point of access for any and all members of the community.
According to Michael, that’s what first brought him to the station more than a dozen years ago. “I came to Akaku as a fan of public access TV and Akaku specifically in 2002 to apply for a job opening to work at the front desk,” Michael said in his testimony before the Akaku board. “During my interview I alluded to the fact that I actually watch the County Council and public meetings and enjoy them. I was immediately hired to work the ‘Special Projects’ production department at the time.”
Other than April, I was only able to reach one current member of the Akaku staff. That person, who also requested anonymity, said Michael had been unhappy at the station for “a long time” and that his problems stemmed from a “philosophical difference” between Michael and April. Michael’s own testimony before the Akaku board bears this out.
When Michael first hired onto Akaku, Sean McLaughlin was the president and CEO. “He had rules for staff back then that seemed counter-intuitive to me,” Michael told the board. “There were rules against staff producing and covering things just because we wanted to. Everything had to be accounted for–there was not the ‘Commercial Network TV’ model like we are operating under today.”
McLaughlin’s philosophy, as Michael saw it and took to heart, was that Akaku was simply a place for the community to bring their voices. It had no voice of its own.
But in 2005, the Akaku board fired McLaughlin–the result of a involved series of actions and controversies too convoluted to go into here (dramatic terminations are nothing new for the station). The station didn’t quiet down until early 2007 when April–who had been a member of the board–took over as president and CEO.
There’s no question April came to the station’s leadership with a lot of television experience.
“Mr. April is a television producer, director, video journalist and artist whose work has been featured on many national networks and won awards from film festivals worldwide,” states the Akaku website. “Credits include special correspondent to CNN’s Environmental Unit, the TODAY Show on NBC and the much acclaimed PBS series, The 90s. He was responsible for the successful start up of E! Entertainment Television as a founding producer, and he has produced, directed, written and shot hundreds of television segments and commercial spots in a variety of genres. His documentaries about ecology and American culture have been called, ‘prolific and passionate’ by The Wall Street Journal, ‘poignant’ by the LA Weekly, and ‘provocative’ by The Los Angeles Times.”
But one former employee told me that April–who made $93,080 in salary and $9,904 in “additional compensation” in 2012, according to the most recent Akaku tax filings available–also brought a curious management style to the station. “He has a theory of ‘chaos management,’” the former employee told me. “He waits until the last minute on everything. He also said that he’s gotten fired from every job he’s ever had. He’s very proud of that.”
Emails sent from April to Akaku staff obtained by MauiTime show a rough and tumble style of management more typically found in an aggressive combat unit than a public access cable station. One email from July of this year, sent by April to the staff as a whole, calls for testimony against the Comcast merger with Time Warner.
“Names were due at 10am today,” April wrote in his email. “I need 5 names and phone numbers of people you have or will call to attend the July 15 or July 17 hearings or to submit written comments by July 25 to DCCA [Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs]. If I do not receive these by the end of today, consider yourself volunteering not to work here anymore. If you have a problem with this request come and tell me why.”
That apparently wasn’t the only time April spoke loosely to employees about sacking them if they didn’t do as he asked. Michael told the Akaku board during his testimony that his getting placed on probation happened after receiving a voicemail from April “that I can consider myself no longer employed at Akaku if I didn’t attend a 9am meeting in private with him the next morning.”
But Michael’s charges of hostility and “bullying” went far beyond April’s email style.
“We as staff last year already were required to attend sensitivity training with the CEO present,” Michael told the board. “He cracked jokes most of the time and excused his chaotic behavior, yelling and cussing as ‘part of the culture’ of this industry. Is that part of Board of Akaku’s culture to allow staff to be treated like that? He was informed that that [sic] behavior was inappropriate, he disagreed and compared our office to a movie studio lot where certain forms of aggressive and inappropriate behavior are just part of the culture. That meeting was videotaped, I have no need to make things up.”
Since April’s taking over the station, the makeup of the Akaku board and staff has almost completely changed. Indeed, until his termination Michael was the station’s most senior member.
What happens next isn’t clear. Though April terminated Michael (who says his final paycheck didn’t include his 300 hours of accrued vacation time), there is apparently a board investigation of the charges he leveled against April. How long that investigation will take, who it will interview and when the Akaku board will meet again remain open questions.
“I fear the longer the CEO and the Board Chairman wait to resign and the longer the board delays to take action against him the uglier it will get,” Michael told me. “There is an avalanche of complaints and allegations awaiting that have yet to be heard and not just from me. I’m prepared to see this through till the end. I’m fighting a battle on behalf of many employees past and present and also for the community that suffers from his [April’s] mismanagement of the resource that is Akaku. I have the truth on my side and nothing to hide.”
Cover design: Darris Hurst