Board fires Radio KDNA director

GRANGER -- After more than a year of internal conflict and public protests, the controversial figure at the helm of Granger's beloved Spanish-language radio station has been fired.

Radio KDNA's governing board dismissed executive director Maria Fernandez in a meeting Thursday. An interim replacement, immigration attorney Laura Contreras, begins today.

"It's just a culmination of things that said we probably need to be in a different place, going in a different direction," said Len Black, a member of the Northwest Communities Education Center governing board. "And it's a good opportunity for Maria to begin pursuing other opportunities."

Fernandez hung up when called by a reporter Thursday evening.

Radio KDNA -- the nation's first Spanish-language public broadcaster -- was started more than 30 years ago to educate and entertain farm workers in the Yakima Valley. It reaches about 17,000 people while they work in the fields and or drive home from packing warehouses.

The board hired Fernandez in summer 2008 to replace longtime director Ricardo Garcia, who retired.

There was conflict almost immediately.

Station staff complained about Fernandez's management style and said she unfairly dismissed some of their co-workers. They unionized, staged protests and went on strike, demanding Fernandez's resignation.

Since then, most of those employees have quit or been fired.

In multiple interviews, Fernandez said her opponents were sexist and unwilling to accept the changes she wanted to implement at KDNA, which has a mission of serving farm workers. Fernandez reportedly kept a closer eye on employees than her predecessor.

She also wanted to reach out to more second-generation Mexican-Americans and help KDNA transition into the digital age by streaming programs online.

In a news release, board president Irma Jimenez-DePrieto thanked Fernandez for her work.

"We sincerely wish her well with her future endeavors," Jimenez-DePrieto wrote. "The NCEC Board is focused on reinvigorating the mission of NCEC, rebuilding community relationships and moving ahead."

The station will partner with Yakima-based Columbia Legal Services during a transitional period. Contreras, the interim director, is an immigration attorney with Columbia.

"We want to have nothing but good things to look forward to as we continue to focus on our mission," Black said. "We are blessed with having a very strong, supporting staff here at the station and NCEC. They have really soldiered on under some trying circumstances."

Black said the organization is an underutilized resource.

"While the radio station has been a beacon for many, it provides tremendous opportunities going forward to amplify and reach a wider audience, and maybe a newer audience," he said. "We call ourselves the 'Voice of the Farm Worker,' and we want to be the voice of their children as well."