News

Struggling D.C. Net Stages a Soap Opera

10/22/2000 8:00 PM Eastern

It was a nightmarish Friday the 13th for about a dozen America's Voice employees. Earlier in the month, the political-talk channel's new owner, Dallas-based Eciné Inc., had fired two-thirds of the network's 46 remaining employees. The ax fell after EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network dropped the service for running too many infomercials.

On Oct. 13, it was time for the remaining employees, mostly department heads, to be let go.

Several former America's Voice employees have since accused Eciné of issuing bad paychecks, and stopping payment on other checks since it assumed control of the network in early September. The District of Columbia's Department of Employment Services plans to hold a hearing on the dispute this Wednesday (Oct. 25).

Pamela Williams, associate director of the department's Office of Wage and Hours, said Eciné executives could face $300 fines and up to 30 days in jail for each offense.

The political-talk network filed for Chapter 11 protection under bankruptcy law in December. In August, Ray Horn, owner of Palmdale, Calif., broadcaster KPAL-TV, had said he was teaming up with Dallas-based Eciné, a 3-D production company run by Eddy Vakser, to buy America's Voice out of bankruptcy. Horn said he would be the chief operating officer of Eciné.

Apparently, there remains a difference of opinion concerning who owns America's Voice, and who was responsible for paying employees after Eciné took over.

"Ecine's position was that Ray [Horn] was supposed to come in and lay everyone off but a skeleton crew at the very beginning. As far as they were concerned, they were not employees," said Gary Stallings, former America's Voice vice president of operations.

Stallings and two other former America's Voice employees said it was Horn who issued them two paychecks covering one month's pay, drawn from an account from his TV station's holding company, 4 Pal Community Television.

Eciné CEO Vakser last week insisted that Horn only acted as a broker in his company's deal to acquire America's Voice. So why would Horn issue paychecks to America's Voice employees? "I believe he just attempted to take over the network, and he was trying to muscle his way in on it. He was originally a broker of the deal, and he got it in his mind that he ought to own it 100 percent," Vakser said.

Horn couldn't be reached for comment.

Vakser said he had attempted to open an account in Washington to support the America's Voice payroll. But the "wiring information" was accidentally sent to Las Vegas and "somewhere in California," he explained, and an account was not opened.

Vasker insisted he has paid those America's Voice employees he has decided to retain. He said the company has kept "four, five or six" employees-mostly master-control operators.

Eciné recently cut a deal with Vincent Castelli, CEO of Atlanta-based low-power television station operator Prism Networks, to run the operations of America's Voice.

Former America's Voice director of marketing Jim Halling said it was Castelli who visited the office on Oct. 13 to break the news to most of the remaining America's Voice employees that they didn't belong in the building.

"He insisted I was never hired by Eciné," Halling said.

Ironically, it was Halling who wrote a Sept. 7 press release announcing Eciné had closed its deal to acquire America's Voice.

"It's somewhat disingenuous to say we weren't working for Eciné," Halling said.

The story gets more peculiar. Castelli said the first deal he struck for America's Voice was with Paul Weyrich, the right-wing activist who founded the network in 1996 as National Empowerment Television. Weyrich resigned two years later.

Weyrich's ultra-conservative Free Congress Foundation owns the Washington building that houses the America's Voice headquarters. Castelli said he crafted a deal that allows Weyrich and his employees to host several shows each week on America's Voice in exchange for free rent. Free Congress is also paying cash to run the shows, Castelli added.

Castelli said he also cut a deal with Larry Klayman, the head of conservative legal group Judicial Watch, to host a biweekly program, which premiered Tuesday night. Klayman represented Paula Jones in her sexual harassment suit against President Clinton, and has filed other lawsuits against the Clinton White House.

Weyrich's
Direct Line

call-in show, which disappeared when he resigned from America's Voice, returned last Monday. Weyrich will host the program on Mondays and Fridays, said Free Congress director of media relations Notra Trulock, who will host the Wednesday night program himself.

Free Congress director Tom Jipping gets to host the show every Tuesday, and vice president for technology policy Lisa Dean will host the show each Thursday, Trulock said.

"We're not television people, so it gets kind of rocky at times. What we do is talk about substance. We'll say things people are thinking but are afraid to say," Trulock said.

Castelli outlined several other plans last week, from changing the name of America's Voice to The Renaissance Network to splitting its feed into several digital channels.

He said the initial strategy will be to offer "power blocks" of diverse programming on America's Voice, including sports, news, kids, 3-D shows, classic movies, and rock, country and blues music.

Castelli said that he and Vakser are forming a new corporation, which they will call Electronic Cinema Networks. Castelli said he would be the CEO, and that both he and Eciné would own 50 percent of the company, which will launch the new cable networks.

"Eddy's working on the investors. I'm working on making the programming and the advertising sales," said Castelli, claiming he "did almost $2 million in contracts the first week that I took control."

Castelli said last week that he struck a deal with one MSO that would give America's Voice an additional 5 million subscribers in November or December, but declined to name the company.

On Tuesday, Castelli called into one of Weyrich's new programs,
Endangered Liberties

, to welcome him back on the air. He also told viewers that America's Voice reached a distribution deal with WFNA-TV, which Castelli owns.

Castelli said in an interview last Wednesday that WFNA-TV will convert to a 24-hour America's Voice feed within the next few weeks. He said the station will also be renamed WECA-TV.

WECA-TV Atlanta will be the flagship station of America's Voice, which will continue to seek both over-the-air and cable distribution, Castelli said. But there is an ad on Castelli's Web site (www.prismtv.net) that states WFNA-TV "is for sale or lease."

Before the Free Congress programs launched last week, America's Voice had been running all repeats and infomercials since EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network dropped the channel last month.

Some programs, such as the weekly international-affairs show
Going Global

, were commissioned by outside producers. Feature Story News president and chief correspondent Simon Marks said his last live
Going Global

program ran on Sept. 27 America's Voice had been airing repeats of his international public-affairs show for the last month without paying him, he said.

He said Castelli approached him last week about bringing the program back to America's Voice. However, Feature Story News would have been required to pay America's Voice $500 per week to run the program. In the past, America's Voice had paid for the show.

"The old system, under which the network commissioned us to produce the program and paid us for doing so, was described by the owners as a 'good gig,' " Marks said last week, laughing at the notion of "paid public-affairs programming."

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