WCBE withdraws as a Fashion Meets Music sponsor

Following several days of deliberation - both internally and with the listening public - local radio station WCBE 90.5 FM has chosen to withdraw from the forthcoming Fashion Meets Music Festival.

WCBE initially signed on to sponsor a smaller stage at the fest as a way to support the local music scene ("One of our core missions," general manager Dan Mushalko wrote on the station's Facebook site), but started to question the decision as the chatter surrounding controversial headliner R. Kelly increased.

"The bottom line is [we've decided] to pull ourselves away from the festival," Mushalko said via telephone from the station late Sunday afternoon. "It's a two-pronged reason. One, obviously, is we have to serve our listeners, and this is what they're saying. Secondly, a lot of people forget we are part of the Columbus City Schools. We're self-funded and relatively autonomous, but they do hold the license. I need to be cognizant of what we're doing, and how that might reflect on them. I took the issue to the schools and asked them, 'What do you think?' Obviously, since they represent children and they represent teenagers, they didn't want us associated with the event if R. Kelly was a part of it. So whether you looked at it from our internal ethics, or the feedback from our listeners and the school district, it came down to everything saying, 'You just can't do it.'"

The blowback is rooted in Kelly's lengthy history of legal troubles - including a 2008 trial where the R&B singer was acquitted on charges of making child pornography - which were documented extensively in a Village Voice piece that went viral after it posted late in 2013.

WCBE's decision follows the departures of local bands Damn the Witch Siren and Saintseneca, both of which cited Kelly's inclusion as the reason for dropping off the bill.

Fashion Meets Music organizers did not respond immediately to an email requesting comment.

As with Saintseneca, which wrote of its intention to stage an alternative concert to help support the victims of sexual assault, Mushalko said he sees the station's decision to cut ties with the fest as the first step in what he hopes will become a larger dialogue. Already plans are underway to launch a series of panel discussions, which the station will edit down for a 60-minute on-air segment. WCBE has also been in touch with the organizers of FeMMeFest - an alternative festival launched in response to the R. Kelly booking that intends to "connect our female-friendly local scene in a celebration of women as a viable part of the Columbus community" - though no decisions have been made regarding the station's involvement.

"I really hope other companies - other media outlets, other corporations - look at what happened in this case and look at how we dialogued about this and they start doing the same thing. Corporate America does have a tendency to say, 'We made our decision; live with it,' and I really think it's important to engage," Mushalko said. "What I'm also hoping comes out of this is people realize they don't have to be quiet. They can voice how they feel. That, to me, is the measure of a human, really. Are you willing to stand up for what you believe is right? Or are you going to go back in the shadows and let others decide your fate? I hope people learn that others will pay attention if you just speak up [in a respectful manner]."

Mushalko also said he hoped FMMF organizers were taking note of the ongoing community response, and would absorb the criticisms and try to improve the event for next year.

"It may be too late for this year, but I think it is important for them for the next festival to really understand the reasoning behind [our decision]," he said, adding he appreciated what organizers were hoping to accomplish in launching a large-scale music festival. "I'm hoping that's the process that will go on with the festival, and next year everybody will be able to give it a big thumbs up."