Shots have been fired, a mob has demanded the lynching of an executive and a broadcaster has been dragged screaming from a studio. Duncan Campbell reports on a very Californian media battle (even Joan Baez is angry)
Monday August 9, 1999
The reassuring words of Bob Marley - "every little thing's gonna be all right" - are being broadcast over the airwaves of the oldest and best-known non-commercial radio station in the US. But few who have witnessed the turmoil at KPFA's studios in Berkeley, California, over the past few weeks believe the sentiments for a moment.
Shocked listeners have heard a broadcaster being dragged screaming from the premises, have seen the staff of 26 locked out, witnessed dozens of arrests of supporters who occupied the station in protest and attended what is believed to be the largest-ever demonstration in support of an American radio station. For good measure, there have even been shots fired and a call for a lynching.
The story starts 50 years ago when a group of pacifists and conscientious objectors decided to start a radical radio station that would promote their ideas of peace and freedom. The statement of intent inside the studios of the KPFA building on Martin Luther King Way in Berkeley just over the water from San Francisco reads: "to promote cultural diversity and pluralistic community expression. To contribute to a lasting understanding between nations and between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors. To promote freedom of the press and serve as a forum for various viewpoints. To maintain an independent listener-supported funding base."
Since then KPFA and its powerful place on the dial at 94.1 FM has been part of the Californian culture. It covered the anti-Vietnam war movement (with the first broadcast from Hanoi), and the black power movement of the 60s and 70s and was part of the great political debates of the time, it broadcast the kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst calling her parents "capitalist pigs" and Che Guevara calling for revolution just before his assassination in Bolivia, it ran an eclectic mix of music, poetry and arts criticism. It has sometimes irritated its supporters, but often won their appreciation for providing a distinct and independent voice in an increasingly homogenised and corporate broadcasting world, all without the endless interruption of commercials.
By 1999, KPFA was one of five radio stations owned by the Pacifica Foundation, a non-profit-making body run by a 14-strong national board with responsibility for overseeing the stations. The others are in New York, Houston, Washington and Los Angeles - the Houston station was bombed off the air briefly by the Ku Klux Klan when it started in 1970. Before this latest row KPFA was broadcasting 24 hours a day with a full-time staff of 26 earning an average of $26,000 a year. Around 80 per cent of their money comes from listeners who subscribe or send donations during twice yearly fund-raising drives. The rest is in grants and bequests.
Then on March 31, the general manager Nicola Sawaya, by all accounts well-liked at the station, was told that her contract would not be renewed by the board. Staff were told that she "was not fit". Underlying the removal was a suggestion from the board that the station was not fulfilling its potential, making insufficient efforts to reach a wider audience than the loyal leftists who had been tuned in for years and who made up the bulk of the 200,000 listeners.
Pacifica executive director Lynn Chadwick, who has 27 years experience in community radio and is now the chief hate figure for protesters and staff, said that a hardcore of people were refusing to allow the station to change and grow. Staff for their part believed that this was all part of a calculated move to sell a station whose valuable wave-band makes it worth between $70m and $100m (£47m and £67m).
Larry Bensky, probably the station's best-known voice and with 30 years at KPFA, told listeners about the sacking of Sawaya and was himself sacked. In the meantime, three shots were fired into the Pacifica office, by a mystery gunman. Chadwick received death threats. Private security was hired by Pacifica and matters reached a head when the guards hoisted a staff member, Dennis Bernstein, out of the building still protesting loudly enough to be heard by listeners.
Then on July 13 came the lock-out of staff. It soon became clear that Pacifica had vastly underestimated the passionate support the station enjoyed. Supporters pitched camp outside. The police stood by. Slogans like "No Sale. Lynch Lynn" appeared on the walls. Joan Baez played at a benefit concert. Author Alice Walker sent her support. Last weekend, at a rally in Martin Luther King Park, a crowd estimated at up to 10,000 heard the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, actor Peter Coyote and the San Francisco [sic] mayor Willie Brown sing the station's praises. Contrary to the board's suggestion that the listenership was not diverse enough, many of the supporters turned out to be young and African-American or Asian-American.
Pacifica, realising they had lost the propaganda war, hired the top local PR firm Fineman Associates which was best-known for a damage limitation exercise for the company Odwalla after E-coli bacteria had appeared in its apple juice. Negotiations with mediators took place and finally on August 2 the staff were allowed back in as mediation continued. The "no dirty laundry" clause was lifted so that staff could discuss the dispute on air and part of the settlement was that the staff would have total control and a brief to increase listenership over the next six months to a year.
In the meantime, the Pacifica board, itself composed of many with liberal credentials, has been running the show, pumping out music like Bob Marley and - perhaps with some irony - Joan Baez and replaying a press conference given by the chairman of the board Dr Mary Frances Berry. Berry, who has herself been arrested and jailed on civil rights demonstrations, has been insisting that the board will not be selling the station. Berry says that Chadwick has been unfairly demonised, that the board merely wants greater diversity at the station and is hopeful that the whole row can be resolved.
"I have been with the company 18 years and have never seen anything like it," says Susan Stone, the station's director of drama and literature, sitting beneath portraits of Nelson Mandela, Frida Kahlo and Angela Davis in KPFA the day after the staff's return. She says that the staff are puzzled as to why the board acted in such a heavy-handed way. Staff are exhausted and the atmosphere is tense.
Claire Cummings, who presents the station's food and farming programme, says: "This is really about selling the station. We are the keeper of the flame but they (Pacifica) don't care if the flame goes out." She says that listeners depended on KPFA on major news stories because "we can tell it the way we see it." She says that the atmosphere when the security guards were introduced was fraught: "It was very hard to show up and have these thugs staring at you."
Matthew Lasar, author of a recent history of Pacifica, says: "What you have to understand is that KPFA is the nearest thing that the Bay Area has to a church, and sacking Nicola Sawaya two weeks before the anniversary was like getting rid of the preacher two weeks before Christmas. I agree KPFA could reach a larger audience but to what extent does KPFA have to dilute its politics to do that? This is the flag ship station. If it changes it is going to have a substantial effect on the political culture of the Bay Area."
Marc Cooper of the Nation magazine - a broadcaster on Pacifica's KPFK in Los Angeles - summed up what some see as the dilemma in an article for the LA Times: "One view... is that the five Pacifica stations serve mainly as a high frequency tom-tom for activists, the equivalent of a mimeographed bulletin of the left that makes little effort to reach beyond its current constituencies. The competing view, which I endorse, is that Pacifica should grow beyond the fringes into a sort of national newspaper of the left with some intellectual depth and, yes, even some occasional analytical distance from the movements to which it is sympathetic. And it is towards this vision that Pacifica has tried in its bumbling way to move." He blames both sides for the current impasse.
The sacked Larry Bensky says that "We're in for a long, protracted battle with the forces of darkness who are determined to bring down what we have built up." He adds that it is ironic that a station started by anti-materialists should now be at risk because of its commercial potential.
Chadwick says after the staff's return that the whole issue of selling the station was always a red herring and that the board's aim is merely to increase listenership, which had fallen, and reach a wider audience. "Could all of this have been avoided? Oh, that's the $64,000 question. It got real ugly, real fast. I am very interested in taking down the tension and I am very hopeful that we both have the same goal of increasing listeners and being a progressive voice in this country. This is our big chance." She feels that one positive aspect of the dispute has been to heighten awareness of the station.
As a weary staff try to get the station geared up once more, with their supporters still maintaining a vigil outside, uncertainty hangs in the air like the mist over the Golden Gate bridge. KPFA - for half a century part of the radical furniture of America and the place on the dial where people in the Bay Area turned when they wanted an independent voice on war or dissent, on riots or race - looks likely in the weeks ahead to continue making the news itself.
© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1999
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