When Nick Wood walked into WUNC Radio headquarters in Chapel Hill during the station's pledge drive last month, he got an unpleasant surprise. There, on the receptionist's desk at the Friday Center, was an eye-catching display of Mt. Olive Pickles and a sign inviting station volunteers and visitors to help themselves to a free jar. Wood took some bread-and-butter pickles, but he has no plans to eat them. The UNC-Chapel Hill senior is saving the snacks as evidence of what he considers a breach of the public trust by the public radio station.
Wood is a member of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), a national labor organization that has launched a consumer boycott of Mt. Olive Pickles because of the company's refusal to take action to improve working conditions for migrant farm workers who harvest its cucumbers. Mt. Olive has argued that the boycott is unfair because the company has little control over the growers who hire migrant laborers. The company has also shown little desire to encourage its workers to join the union. Nationwide, about 200 labor, religious and community groups have joined the pickle boycott.
Given the publicity surrounding Mt. Olive's labor troubles--including news stories broadcast on WUNC--Wood was dismayed that the radio station would offer the company what amounted to free advertising in the form of a pickle giveaway. "It seemed pretty blatant and over the line," says the 21-year-old communications major. "You expect a little more from a public radio station."
Jonathan Howes, WUNC's interim general manager, counters that the pickle display was merely a perk offered to station fundraising volunteers by a long-time corporate donor. (Mt. Olive sponsored WUNC to the tune of $3,000 this year.)
"Mt. Olive has been an underwriter of ours for many years and for at least 10 years, has brought a few cases of their products to put out at our fundraisers," Howes says. "We are certainly aware of the issues surrounding the labor practices of their suppliers. We've done news stories about them."
While WUNC doesn't accept paid advertising, it does accept contributions to its Business Support Fund in exchange for on-air recognition. Station guidelines state that WUNC can decline contributions from any company. In Mt. Olive's case, radio station officials had no such leanings.
"We didn't really consider not accepting underwriting from them," Howes says. "We weren't aware of any concerns." In general, "we don't look behind what the companies that underwrite with us do," Howe adds. "We don't look at their business practices. We try to treat them all the same."
But his justification flies in the face of other station policies. WUNC does, for example, decline sponsorship money from certain business, Howes admits, including those that sell hard liquor or guns.
This grey area bothers FLOC supporters. Mt. Olive's sponsorship "raises a lot of questions about journalistic integrity when they're covering our issue," says Matt Emmick, a national pickle boycott organizer. "It's something we're concerned about and talking about."