KGEZ’s Ordinary Problem

By Beacon Staff

John Stokes is on the air. Despite the shutdown of radio station KGEZ by authorities last month after a federal bankruptcy judge ordered the liquidation of Stokes’ assets, anyone pining for the reassuring sound of his broadcasting baritone can simply go to Youtube.com.

There, entering Stokes’ name reveals he’s been a guest on numerous radio shows throughout the country, where hosts describe him as the victim of an illegal seizure of private property by the government.

“Is it fair to say you’ve suffered because of your political views?” Gary Johnson, host of the Austin, Texas radio show, Live and Let Live, asked Stokes during the Oct. 18 broadcast.

“Oh, absolutely,” Stokes replied. “I don’t want nothing from this government and I don’t expect nothing from this government. If they’d just leave me alone we’d get along fine.”

On that show, and on Z-600’s newly redesigned Web site, Stokes informs his listeners that he has recruited former Georgia Republican Congressman Bob Barr in his fight to retain the station, and asks for help in raising $75,000 for legal fees. A rally was planned for last weekend to start collecting money toward that goal.

But while the notion that Stokes was brought low because of his stalwart willingness to speak truth to power may be compelling to his supporters, it’s simply not true. In order to understand why Stokes is off the air, it’s instructive to first examine what the shuttering of KGEZ isn’t about.

First, it is not an issue of free speech. Stokes’ conservative voice has been a part of the Flathead for years, and free speech suffers when virtually any media voice is silenced. Yet recent years have shown Stokes’ rhetoric to be less inflammatory than the era when he burned a green swastika on the station’s lawn.

In the last year, listeners of Stokes who also read the Beacon have asked why our stories about his legal troubles neglected to mention the planting of vegetable gardens, food drives and other beneficial initiatives spearheaded by KGEZ. These efforts, however, raise the question of why, if someone wanted Stokes off the air, they would do it now and not five years ago when his message was louder, stronger and more acerbic?

Nor is the KGEZ closure the result of the long-running dispute with the City of Kalispell over the placement of radio towers conflicting with airport runway space. Although negotiations over the placement of the towers have been complicated and antagonistic, city officials have spent years and significant funds locating a new site for the towers. Had some semblance of a deal been struck, Stokes ultimately would have emerged with more advanced broadcasting equipment.

Besides, it is hard to imagine what the upside for Kalispell could possibly be in taking on the vast public outcry that would result if it appeared that the city government somehow closed KGEZ, or any other business, when it didn’t have to through sheer imperiousness – precedent that would concern even those who aren’t Stokes listeners.

Todd and Davar Gardner aren’t responsible for KGEZ’s seizure, either. Although Stokes filed for bankruptcy after a jury ordered him to pay $3.8 million to the Gardners for defaming them on his show, they won’t see a dime until the entities with priority claims against Stokes’ assets are paid, a list including several mortgage companies along with the state and federal government.

And that, ultimately, is what caused a federal bankruptcy judge to order Stokes’ assets seized: tax and mortgage problems. It doesn’t get much less interesting or more commonplace in 2009 America than that. At an August meeting with creditors Stokes testified that since arriving in Montana in 1994, he has not filed a state income tax return and he has not filed a federal income tax return since 1985.

A failure to pay the bills is much more likely to lead to a business shutting down than broadcasting opposition to the swine flu vaccine.

Stokes now disputes whether the bankruptcy court has the power to transfer his broadcasting license with the Federal Communications Commission. He can, should and certainly seems intent on exploring every option possible to get back on the air. And if he succeeds, many loyal listeners throughout the Flathead will rejoice.

As Stokes’ legal travails continue, however, both his supporters and foes should see the issue for what it is: not a lone bastion of independent thought buffeted by cruel authoritarian forces in an unfair world, but one more small, struggling business in the Flathead whose owner appears to have made some miscalculations.