Policy Watch Investigates

Sanford radio show taken off college station after NC Rep. complains

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A Lee County community college stopped airing a radio talk show this month after a state lawmaker took issue with an online post a radio host wrote criticizing the lawmaker.

A legislative assistant for State Rep. Mike Stone, wrote the president of Central Carolina Community College on April 3 asking what the school’s affiliation was with “The Rant,” a weekly radio show hosted by three former Sanford-area journalists on the college’s FM radio station WDCC, 90.5. Stone is a Sanford Republican serving his second term in the state legislature.

The show’s hosts don’t plan on fighting the suspension, but will move to an online podcast format to shield the community college from negative pressure from Stone or others.

“We’re gracefully bowing out, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t think this is ridiculous,” said Billy Liggett, who started the show in 2008  as the then-editor of the Sanford Herald. “The fact that Mike Stone would be upset about this we find to be humorous and puzzling.”

The email from Stone’s office, obtained by N.C. Policy Watch through a public records request, had a link to a blog post “Good job Mike! (not really)” written by Gordon Anderson, one of the show’s hosts and another former Herald employee that questioned Stone’s introduction of three local bills at the N.C. General Assembly. Stone’s local bills would make school board and Sanford city elections partisan, require the county school district to pay for sheriff’s officers to be posted at schools, and strip the Lee school board of its appointees to the community college’s board of trustees to the Republican-dominated county commission.

“Taken together, these bills show that Stone’s priorities are misplaced,” Anderson wrote in his post for the Rant. “While we continue to struggle with unemployment and budgetary constraints, our representative in Raleigh is availing himself of the opportunity to dabble in local partisan politics. It’s a shame.”

Several other Republican lawmakers filed bills this session that would shift political power in their home districts, as the Charlotte Observer reported here in late March.

A few hours after Anderson posted his musings on the state lawmaker’s recent legislation, an email with a link to the critical blog post came from Stone’s office to T.E. “Bud” Marchant, the president of Central Carolina Community College, which has classes in Chatham, Harnett and Lee counties.

“Is this radio show affiliated with the Community College?,” wrote Susan Phillips, Stone’s legislative assistant, in the April 3 email with the subject line, “Quick question from Rep. Mike Stone.” (Click here to read the emails.)

Phillips followed up with another email the next day saying that Stone had questions about the station’s radio programming, budget and source of funding. (Click here to read that email chain.)

Central Carolina Community College is one of the state’s 58 community colleges that depend on the N.C. legislature for funding.

Stone did not return a request for comment Thursday.

The school’s president T.E. “Bud” Marchant indefinitely suspended the show on April 5, two days after Stone’s office contacted the community college’s president.

Conflicting reasons for the suspension have been given.

Liggett was told via email that the community college was putting the show on indefinite suspension because of “some recent issues discussed on the Rant (WDCC 4-3-13),” according to a copy of the email sent on April 5 to Liggett by Bill Freeman, who runs the radio station for the school. Marchant was copied on that email.

Marchant, in an email he sent Wednesday to the community college’s board, indicated that the suspension was not because of the show’s content, but because it was started in 2008 when the Rant’s hosts worked for the Sanford Herald, which they no longer did.

Liggett, the former editor of the Sanford Herald, now works as a magazine editor for Campbell University and Anderson, a former city hall reporter for the newspaper, does freelance writing and has also worked for Democratic campaigns. A third host has decided not to continue on with the show, Liggett said.

Marchant wrote in an email to N.C. Policy Watch that he has not had direct communication with Stone about the matter, but that Julian Philpott, the chairman of the community college board of trustees, spoke directly with Stone about the matter. Philpott, who works for the N.C. Farm Bureau Federation,  has not returned requests for comment left at his home and work.

Liggett said nothing was said on air about Stone’s bills that were out of the norm.

“We didn’t say anything that was not factual, we didn’t say anything offensive,” he said.

Stone’s local bills have been a heated topic in Lee County political circles this month. The Lee County School board passed a 4 to 3 vote opposing all three of Stone’s local bills to force changes to the elections, the make-up of the community college’s trustees, according to this Sanford Herald article. Former state Rep. Jimmy Love, a Democrat defeated by Stone in 2010, serves as the attorney for both the school board and community college and handled N.C. Policy Watch’s public records request for the community college.

Stone’s House Bill 490 proposes to make the Sanford city and Lee County school board partisan, a change that would reverse how the elections have been conducted for decades. Another bill introduced by Stone, House Bill 491, would require the Lee County school system to send money to the sheriff’s office to pay for school resource officers.

The third local bill introduced by Stone seeks to restructure the board of trustees at the community college, which Anderson opined was presumably to give local Republicans a larger share of seats. Stone’s House Bill 512, which is in the House education committee, would take away four seats that the Lee County School board choose and instead slide them over to the county commissioners, which are dominated by Republicans in Lee County and already select some of the community colleges’ 13 trustees.

Not all of the community college’s trustees felt the program should have been suspended.

Tony Lett, who is serving his fourth four-year term, wrote in an email to the entire board of trustees that if Stone was so bothered by the blog post, he should have come on as a guest of the Rant radio show to talk about the bills.

“I wonder if Mr. Stone has heard of our Constitution and the First Amendment concerning freedom of speech,” Lett wrote in an email sent Thursday morning. He added, “Why does he (Stone) fear criticism of the decisions he is making?”

Liggett was bemused the call-in radio show was embroiled in sudden controversy, pointing out that the Rant’s Facebook page only has about 500 “likes” or fans to date.

“We were surprised that we mattered that much to warrant a phone call or complaint,” he said. “We joke all the time that nobody’s listening but apparently people are listening.”

Want to learn more about the Rant? Go here.

Questions? Comments? You can reach reporter Sarah Ovaska at (919) 861-1463 or sarah@ncpolicywatch.com.