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AIM to move headquarters but cannot yet close chapter on financial concerns

Arlington Independent Media in Clarendon (file photo)

(Updated at 12:20 a.m. on 12/7/23) After a 2-year search for new digs, Arlington Independent Media is on the cusp of moving from its long-time headquarters in Clarendon.

Next week, Arlington’s public access TV channel, community radio station and media training provider intends to sign a lease for space in Courthouse Plaza, says its CEO Whytni Kernodle. The building is owned by JBG Smith and home to Arlington County headquarters.

The cash-strapped organization is having to look outside its coffers to leave before its Dec. 31 deadline. The organization disclosed it had $31,000 in cash on hand during its November meeting, according to Lynn Borton, a former producer with AIM who was in attendance.

Kernodle requested $350,000 in funds that Comcast sets aside for expenses by public institutions, Arlington Public Schools and the county government. She also intends to fundraise another $25,000.

Once settled in Courthouse, Kernodle envisions an “On Air!” sign attracting passers-by to come and listen to music and watch AIM produce live shows. Next year, she wants to add public speaking events.

“The really great community media organizations are out in the community without waiting for people to come to their location,” she said. “We’re coming to the community as opposed to expecting the community to come to us.”

AIM will retain its rent-free second location in a county-owned building in Green Valley, for which it pays an “affordable license fee,” according to the county.

Kernodle says it was not a viable headquarters because it was too small and too far from the broadcast tower AIM uses in Courthouse for live shows. She also did not want to give up a North Arlington presence.

The move comes as the organization faces pressure to clarify its finances and rely more on fundraising, membership fees and advertising, and less on county funding, for its operational expenses.

AIM also faces existential pressures from consumers choosing streaming over cable, as fewer cable subscriptions means less funding for Public, Educational, and Governmental (PEG) Access Channels — and fewer viewers.

Streaming, along with better technology and the dominance of social media, can also weaken the value of AIM’s core offerings — professional-grade equipment, studios and training for content creators — says Rodger Smith, a senior instructor in the George Mason University Department of Communication.

“Why go to AIM when I can be in my house and I can create a podcast that still sounds broadcast quality or I can produce video,” says Smith, who is also the faculty advisor for WGMU, the campus online radio station. “They have to offer a service that [people] can’t find anyplace else.”

Rocky finances and a forthcoming  governance document

AIM will be leaving a building where the rent almost sank it financially, but its woes are not behind it.

When AIM lost free rent at 2701 Wilson Blvd as part of a 2016 local cable franchise agreement, it racked up $80,000 in debts and nearly went under, even after the county paid its market-rate rent for several months, says Borton.

While serving as AIM’s president, she got collections officers to stop calling in 2019 and negotiated a lower rent. The organization has known it needed to move since 2021, when the new owner of 2701 Wilson Blvd opened the Beyond Hello dispensary next door, with plans to take over AIM’s space, Borton said.

All this time, the county tried to wean AIM from county support, proposing, then lessening, cuts after outcry from AIM staff and listeners.

The organization continues to face financial transparency challenges, as it is behind on its Form 990s. The IRS makes public these nonprofit tax forms so people can gauge an organization’s financial health.

Kernodle says AIM filed its 2021-22 Form 990 on Nov. 20, one year late, and has an extension until next spring to file its 2022-23 form. She put the newest 990 online this weekend after ARLnow asked if audit reports and the names of board members — previously available on its old website — could be restored.

The filing raised the eyebrows of former AIM board member Zakiya Worthey, who issued the following statement to ARLnow.

I was stunned to see the numbers reported in this document as the CEO was hired at a six-figure salary, which is not reflected on page 7 of the 990. In addition, the 2021 990 was filed late in November of 2023, and therefore neither I nor any of the Board members in the 990 whom I’ve spoken to had the opportunity to review it prior to AIM filing it. I have notified the current AIM Board and have asked them to rectify the situation.

Compensation for Kernodle, who was hired in November 2021, is listed as $12,500, likely because the IRS requires nonprofits to report executive compensation for the calendar year. Organizations filing for the July-June fiscal year, like AIM, must also report compensation under expenses.

As this sum is not separated by position, there is no public record that Kernodle’s annual salary was $118,000 at the time, former board members say. It is now $170,000 with a bonus of $30,000, per a contract effective September 2022.

Kernodle stood by the 990, noting a reputable accounting firm filed it and the board treasurer, also an accountant, reviewed it.

After publication, the board treasurer told ARLnow this was “an outright lie” and the fact that no board members reviewed the Form 990 before it was submitted “was discussed extensively” in an administrative board meeting this Monday.

Kernodle then acknowledged that she learned the treasurer did not review this on Monday.

Takis Karantonis, the Arlington County Board liaison to AIM, says the 990 likely follows the rules but buries the real story: that county funding is AIM’s most reliable funding stream and payroll its biggest expense.

“AIM should be more upfront about its financial situation to the public, especially as a public independent media organization, and not leave it to the 990 that may or may not reflect the reality of their current financial statements,” he said.

The document discloses that AIM did not undertake an independent process for determining executive compensation nor obtain an independent audit for the tax year. Prior 990s certified these steps took place.

A 2022-23 audit is forthcoming, says Kernodle, as is a memorandum of understanding with the county.

The document could formalize some of these budget transparency issues. It outlines the timeline and criteria for requesting and receiving PEG funds and requires AIM to report how it uses them, says county spokesman Ryan Hudson.

For instance, Kernodle last secured $433,000, which she says went to building out the Green Valley studio and upgrading equipment. The money cannot be used for rent and salaries.

Looking forward 

Karantonis says it is reasonable to question the continued role of county funding and pointed to new board members and incoming County Board-appointed positions being able to steer AIM in the right direction.

“The county has a reason to support AIM’s programs in general,” he said. “To me, it’s important that AIM survives. This is only possible with a constituency of people who have been producing and are still producing programs, community-based programs.”

Former board member Lori Messing McGarry says AIM will succeed if it comes clean about finances and gets off of public funding.

“Despite everything we read about media gloom and doom, some local outlets are thriving,” she said. “AIM is struggling because it lacks transparency. To improve community standing, governance documents and an audit must be accessible. Dependence on public funding is not a sustainable path forward.”

AIM could keep an arm’s length from the government but still receive money from it by offering the county and public schools a platform for exclusive stories and interviews for a broader audience, suggests GMU’s Smith.

Ultimately, its survival depends on constantly promoting its content and membership perks on social media and at in-person events.

“A media company like AIM can provide a voice to the community that heritage media or larger media either doesn’t have the time to provide or the funding to provide,” he said. “If they have that ability to market it and to provide it, then a media company like AIM will be successful.”

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