Just days ahead of a key Grand Forks election, KNOX radio has drawn sharp criticism for satirical radio spots cracking wise about Fergie, the Fighting Sioux nickname and pro football.
Chamber President and CEO Barry Wilfahrt has been a strong advocate of increasing the sales tax-which could go from 1.75 percent to 2.25 percent after a Tuesday vote-but he's decidedly against the "disinformation campaign" he sees at KNOX.
"The Chamber has taken numerous calls from voters who have been misled or confused by the fake radio ads being run on KNOX," Wilfahrt said. "We are very disappointed in this attempt by local talk radio hosts to use blatant disinformation in their attempt to undermine our campaign to pass the proposed city sales tax. We believe these actions cross the line between providing entertainment and responsible use of the public airwaves."
Wilfahrt's comments come after some Grand Forks residents appear to have mistaken satire for an actual advertisement on behalf of increasing the sales tax. In a letter to the editor emailed on Thursday morning, local voter Laurie Hollifield accused the pro-sales tax campaign of juvenile, immature behavior. She referenced what she said she'd heard on KNOX in what she believed was a genuine, if cheeky, advertisement supporting the sales tax.
"What intelligent human being would state that raising the sales tax would bring back the Sioux nickname and logo? Or a Fergie concert? Or promise that there will be more NOONERS?" she wrote in a Thursday email, describing an apparent sexual reference. "As a retired high school teacher, I can state that teenagers have more courtesy and common sense."
In a phone interview Thursday afternoon, Hollifield confirmed the details of her letter and, upon learning the advertisement was not part of the sales tax campaign, voiced her displeasure with the broadcaster-though she said she's still a "no" on the sales tax proposal.
"Why would KNOX even run something so distasteful?" she said.
The controversy comes ahead of a citywide vote to raise the city's sales tax slated for Nov. 7. If approved, the local sales tax would increase from 1.75 percent to 2.25 percent, bringing the effective local sales tax rate to 7.25 percent. City leaders say it's a necessary funding source to help pay for road and water projects. Opponents have expressed skepticism that the city can't find the money elsewhere or raise it by other means.
"The region turns to KNOX not only for news and our great local talk shows, but also for the hot topics with differing opinions and important issues," Michael Brooks, general manager of KNOX with Leighton Broadcasting, said in an interview. "Reference to a free concert along with a pro football team was intended only as humor, fun and completely satire. We sincerely apologize if anyone mistook our message as anything other than humorous entertainment.
Pressed if prior radio spots included a sexual reference, Brooks acknowledged that such a spot had aired.
"We are airing currently a rotation of spots that are intended to further clarify that it was our attempt at satire, and an apology included in there for anyone who may have mistaken the message," he said.
KNOX has been met with establishment ire before. City Council member Bret Weber, speaking at a Sept. 5 meeting, excoriated the radio station when he mentioned a "vocal minority" scuttling a proposed mill levy increase that would have fully funded the city's salary plan.
"(KNOX radio) have got to fill the airwaves each day, and they do so by being as provocative as possible," he said. "Our job is to provide leadership."
Weber, reached on Thursday, took a softer tone. He recalled that on Sept. 5 he'd said KNOX fills a "watchdog role."
"They're an important check on things in the city," Weber said. "Once in awhile, they slip into being shock jocks. I also said they do a lot of good work in town."
City Council President Dana Sande was conciliatory as well. Speaking Thursday, he said he found the satirical ads funny-despite consistently voting in favor of advancing the sales tax vote.
"(KNOX is) in the media business just like the Herald, and they provide a voice for some people that have differing opinions than the people at City Hall," Sande said. He added that Mayor Mike Brown was re-elected to his fifth term last year with about 60 percent of the vote, "But that doesn't mean that the 40 percent that didn't vote for him don't matter."