Twenty years after creating the nonprofit that launched independent community radio station WNRN, station co-founder Mike Friend is suing his former employer for unpaid sales commissions.
Filed on March 15, 2013, the suit claims WNRN refused to pay Friend commission for advertising sales. The court documents state that WNRN had a “well-established practice amounting to an oral agreement with its employees that any staff member who sold advertising for the station received 25 percent commission for all advertising purchases made by the accounts that were established by that staff member.”
Friend claims that WNRN “unilaterally broke this agreement” with him in April 2011, and owes him $33,000.
“In our view, he was pushed out for political reasons, and disagreements over the format of the station,” said Friend’s Richmond-based attorney Scott Simmons. “My client was in essence pushed out of the station that he founded.”
Maynard Sipe, WNRN co-founder, current president, and board chair, wouldn’t comment directly on the suit or why Friend is no longer on the station’s payroll. But Friend’s role at WNRN has been diminished in recent years. In 2011, longtime host Anne Williams took over his duties as general manager. He stayed on the payroll as the station’s engineer, but his salary dropped from $62,516 to $43,111, according to public tax forms. That September, his lawyer sent a letter to Sipe requesting investigation into the lack of commission pay. Sipe responded that he expected the matter to be resolved amicably. In 2012, Williams became the acting general manager, earning a total salary of $67,025.
In a 2011 C-VILLE article after Friend lost his leadership role, Sipe said he’d be surprised if Friend sued the station, and said he was “still a valued employee.”
“Obviously, things change,” Sipe said in an interview last week.
The station does not currently offer sales commission to its staff, according to Sipe, who wouldn’t comment on past practices due to the lawsuit.*
“The bigger story is how we’re moving forward,” he said.
Meanwhile, WNRN has a new general manager and program director. Dave Benson joined the team in October 2012.
“Everyone seemed excited to work with someone who had a lot of experience with the radio format that WNRN is known for,” Benson said.
He’s been a program director in San Francisco, Denver, and Seattle, and ran the station’s most successful fund drive in its history earlier this year.
Chuck Taylor, who worked with Friend at University of Virginia radio station WTJU for several years in the 1990s as both volunteers and paid staff and retired in 2010, said he did “really fantastic things for WTJU.”
“He, without a doubt, had the engineering skills,” Taylor said. “I was a little better with the people skills.”
Taylor said the circumstances around Friend’s exodus from WTJU and founding of WNRN were complicated and “not particularly fun.”
When asked if Friend was difficult to work with, Taylor paused before declining comment. He described him as a “brilliant, seat-of-the-pants type engineer.”
“But again, your people on the air are artsy-fartsy,” Taylor said. “And artsy-fartsy people and engineers have never gotten along real well.”
*While Sipe said the station does not pay sales commissions to its staff, new WNRN president Paul Wright has clarified that ad sales staff do, in fact, receive commissions—but those whose duties don’t include sales do not. When Friend became station engineer, his role no longer included ad sales, Wright said.