Fired employee trying to still WHFS Radio station license challenged at renewal

February 13, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

Patricia Ebbert would like nothing better than to squeeze the sound out of WHFS.

For five years, she has asked the courts and other agencies to punish her former employer -- one of the region's most popular radio stations -- for transgressions she claims range from poor management to rigged contests.

Now, Ms. Ebbert is asking the Federal Communications Commission to block the Annapolis station's license renewal and give her the 99.1 frequency for a new station. Even as the federal government moves to make such challenges tougher to file in new telecommunications reforms signed into law Thursday, Ms. Ebbert continues her fight.

While some former and current WHFS staffers call the petitions harassment by an embittered former employee with a vendetta against the station, Ms. Ebbert says she is "just a little guy" fighting for justice against radio's corporate giants.

Whether she wins or loses, Ms. Ebbert is playing a high-stakes game. Radio frequencies are highly valued, especially along the East Coast, where the airwaves are jammed. Stations such as WHFS, worth more than $16 million, rise in value each year.

In the case of 99.1, the frequency carries considerable name -- and number -- recognition. Programmed on the car radios of many 18- to 35-year-olds in the Baltimore-Washington area, it is one of the region's top 10 stations.

Challenging a licensee is rarely successful, and communications experts say not one such application has been approved in the past five years. But the action has the potential to saddle a station with legal bills, license delays and time-consuming go-rounds with the FCC. As for Ms. Ebbert, it will cost her $2,335 just to submit the petition.

Ms. Ebbert knows her enemy well. The 43-year-old Potomac resident worked at the station for 19 years as national sales manager until she was fired in 1991. She is married to Damian Einstein, a disc jockey who left WHFS in 1994 after a highly publicized dispute with managers.

Several fronts

Her fight has played out on different fronts -- with a civil lawsuit, a failed petition before the Maryland Human Relations Commission and repeated complaints to the FCC. The complaints did not stop even when the station changed owners.

In her latest petition to the FCC, written by the Washington law firm of Bechtel & Cole, Ms. Ebbert rails against a "litany" of alleged violations by WHFS staffers.

Ms. Ebbert, who declined to be interviewed, contends in the petition that WHFS is unfit to broadcast because it has done little to address her past complaints of rigged concert ticket giveaways, misleading station identification and sponsorship announcements, and unlawful broadcasts of telephone conversations with people who called the station who did not give prior consent.

She also charges that the station plugs records and concerts for the purpose of promoting employees' relationships within the industry, and airs music that violates FCC regulations for decency.

Past and present general managers of WHFS would not comment for this article. But other former WHFS associates said the petitions suggest Ms. Ebbert has a personal agenda that includes harassing whoever owns the station.

"The number of actions she filed we think are intended to make life difficult for us, and now the current owners," said Mike Flannery, general counsel for Duchossois Communications. The Illinois company once owned WHFS and had countersued Ms. Ebbert for allegedly trying to devalue the station through her complaints.

In a 1993 opinion, Melanie A. Vaughn, then a state administrative law judge, also suggested that Ms. Ebbert's motivations were purely personal. She dismissed a 1991 complaint to the Maryland Commission on Human Relations in which Ms. Ebbert accused Duchossois of unlawful retaliation and firing.

"Ebbert engaged in a continuing and escalating course of conflict and insubordination with management," Judge Vaughn stated. "She ignored directives; challenged, criticized and thwarted management activities and, ultimately, she assaulted her immediate supervisor. Her demeanor was increasingly confrontational and inappropriate."

Battling 'discrimination'

Ms. Ebbert has called that statement untrue and unfair.

"I was taught to stand up for what you believe in," she said in a prepared statement.

"I'm just a little guy that stepped forward against discrimination and against questionable, unethical and illegal activities, and the big corporate guys don't like that," the statement said.

Ms. Ebbert's battle against WHFS began after 1987, when Jake Einstein, her father-in-law, sold WHFS to Duchossois. The station soon shifted from the offbeat to more mainstream rock offerings.

By 1989, the new management had moved Damian Einstein to a nonstudio job, citing a speech impediment that developed after a 1975 car accident.

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