I've been following the latest KOOP fire on Current.org for a few days now. The most recent newsblog post has inspired me to post as well.
I want to begin by saying that I'm basing my opinions on what's been reported, and it's important to remember that there's a big difference between something being reported and something actually being true. (WMD's in Iraq, anyone?) Or at least there's a difference something being determined in a court of law. I don't want to condemn Paul Feinstein too much until he's had his say in court...so don't take this too much as an indictment of Feinstein, but rather an indictment of overly-passionate volunteer DJ's everywhere.
Okay, that said...if you haven't heard, it appears Feinstein set fire to the station (the third fire to strike KOOP in less than two years, although the first two appear accidental and external to KOOP itself). Allegedly he did so because he was pissed that someone changed the music he selected to play on the overnight internet-only version of KOOP (KOOP shares a broadcast frequency with KVRX in Austin, TX).
Andrew Dickens, president of KOOP, has been quoted as saying "We are kind of worried that people will look at us like a bunch of idiots....Who the hell would have thought somebody would have snapped?" (presumably meaning, "snapped over something so trivial")
KOOP was well known for having a lot of "fringe" (perhaps the "lunatic fringe") volunteering at their station, which is itself in a "fringe" city. (Austin's rallying cry? "Keep Austin Weird"). I personally have worked with a lot of "fringe" myself...between WMFO at Tufts University, WZBC at Boston College, Radio Free Allston, Allston-Brighton Free Radio, Radio LOG, Zumix Radio and many others...Boston has its fair share of people who firmly believe the ends justify any means. So actually I don't look at KOOP like they're a bunch of idiots per se, but I do wonder if they demonstrated poor judgment by allowing continued involvement by unstable volunteers.
Of course, that presupposes Feinstein was visibly "unstable"...initial reports seem to indicate that by and large he wasn't. But put Feinstein aside for a moment and accept that MANY of the stations in the same style of KOOP do indeed have visibly unstable people working/volunteering at them.
Snide comments of the stability of WEOS's current GM are understandable, but will be ignored. :-)
Now, bringing this home, I worry about this personally because I run a small community/college radio station myself. I don't think we're all that analogous to KOOP, but certainly we broadcast in a "weird" or "fringe" area: Ithaca is often half-jokingly referred to as "Ten square miles surrounded by reality". Most of our volunteers are passionate about their shows, sometimes a little excessively so but I actually like that; I'm of the opinion that radio spectrum is too precious to be wasted on people who don't give a damn.
But how passionate is too passionate? Never mind the obvious off-the-air issue...I don't want to imagine the sling my ass would be in if one of my volunteers or students set fire to the station. Fortunately this isn't something I have to worry about too much...but I can remember some other stations I've been involved in where it was a near-constant concern.
There's no easy answer here. You can "fire" anyone, even if they're a volunteer, but like any firing you can rest assured that feelings will be hurt. With someone you're worried is too extreme to begin with...that could easily boil over into revenge. Usually not in the sense of physical damage or harm, but said person could do a real number on your reputation by dragging your name, and your station's name, through the mud. Simply appeasing the person and hoping they don't blow up is the common approach but there's the obvious risks inherent to that...although if you're lucky, it's not all that uncommon for a truly unstable person to fizzle out and go away on their own.
If that's not an option...fortunately in today's internet world and easy-media world, you can set things up so said person may have limited or no access to your actual facilities but can still participate in the station. And in today's security-conscious world you have plenty of reasons (and often funding) to set up protective measures at your studio and transmitter anyways. Stroke a little ego and you might be all set.
In the interest of my continuing education as a manager, though, I'd love to hear other ideas that other folks might have.