Endgame at KPFA

What the hell is Pacifica doing?

By A. Clay Thompson

THE PACIFICA FOUNDATION is likely deciding upon one of two options for KPFA: Selling the frequency for tens of millions on the open market, or drastically reformatting the station.

The heavy-handed tactics of Pacifica management no longer come off as ham-handed and clueless. They now look like calculated manuevers plotted to achieve long-term goals.

One goal would be selling off either KPFA or New York's WBAI, both of which hold high-dollar commercial spectrum licenses in prime markets and both of which have been critical of their parent network for years. The other would be toning down KPFA's politics, upping the number of cheaply produced music shows, and seeking out a shinier, happier demographic. Pacifica's Houston and Washington, D.C. outlets have already gone in this direction.

Just what the parent net intends to do at any given time is murky. Despite the fact that about 90 percent of Pacifica's funding comes from listeners and taxpayers, the foundation has conducted its business in a less-than-forthcoming manner for years.

Pacifica has long contended it intends to broaden its stations' appeal with better-produced, more culturally diverse programming. That's a laudable goal and one that should be endorsed. But by and large, that programming has yet to materialize. Rather, we now have what looks like a thoroughly undemocratic coup-from-above, staged in the name of spreading democratic, progressive news to more people.

By this point the sad truth should be obvious. Literally 90 percent of the station's listener-donors pledged under protest. Armed guards dragged veteran host Dennis Bernstein from the building. The entire staff is locked out while the station airs 100 percent canned content. Thousands of KPFA listeners are mobbing the streets of Berkeley, hoping to reclaim the community institution. Elected officials and esteemed intellectuals are calling on Pacifica management to quell the conflict. The national and local media are dogging the net on a daily basis.

If the execs and board had any desire to keep the station around in anything close to its current form they'd be moving quickly to undo the damage. The vast bulk of KPFA's funding comes from listener-supporters; the station can't survive without them. That Pacifica is doing nothing to stem the controversy, to dispel the animosity of the audience, leads us to think this is an endgame move by Pacifica.

After a half-century of rabble-rousing radio, this is the end of KPFA as we know it.

Expect to hear something entirely different emanating from 94.1 FM in the near future.

Late on Wed. July 14 Pacifica spokesperson Elan Fabbri told the Oakland Tribune the network intends to resume negotiations with the locked-out staffers. But given the events of the past few days, the P.R. flack's brief statement rings hollow.

The mysterious e-mail sent apparently inadvertently to Media Alliance does little to allay the public's sense of dread. The memo, which was supposed to have passed from Pacifica board member Micheal Palmer to board chair Mary Frances Berry, was first authenticated by e-mail server IGC, and then confirmed as real by spinmeister Fabbri.

"I was under the impression there was support in the proper quarters, and a definite majority, for shutting down that unit and re-programming immediately," reads Palmer's message, which goes on to detail plans to sell KPFA, or New York's WBAI.

"Mary I think any such transfer we would ever consider requires significant analysis, not so much regarding a decision to move forward, but how to best deploy the resulting capital with the least amount of tax, legal, and social disruption."

The misrouted e-mail, Fabbri told the dailies, represents only one board member's thoughts not imminent Pacifica plans.

But the arrogant and autocratic manner in which the national board and execs operate is keeping those of us at street level listeners, station staffers, and reporters skeptical. We have nothing but bad faith to go on at this point.

The recent timeline goes like this:
In February the national Pacifica board voted to create a self- perpetuating governing body devoid of any local oversight. The board and executive director Lynn Chadwick cited a need to conform to public funding dictates. But when we called the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which gives Pacifica its federal money, they told us the network could certainly adopt a more democratic structure and obey its regulations rather than taking the opportunity to excise any shred of accountability. The board heard public comment after the vote to centralize power was taken; at that point the bulk of the board left, and remaining members generally treated the overflow crowd with disdain.

Then in March the wave of firings commenced when much-loved KPFA general manager Nicole Sawaya got the axe with absolutely no explanation. Folks close to the conflict contend Sawaya was asking too many questions about where Pacifica money was going.
Then came Larry Bensky and Robbie Osman, booted for using their shows to ask why Sawaya was booted.

Sure, they violated the station's gag rule barring discussion of station business on the air. And sure, airing an institution's dirty laundry can turn off listeners and come off as absurdly self- absorbed. But the staffers, knowing they were up against a highly questionable establishment their own employed to the only tool they had.

In June prominent local figures like Van Jones of PoliceWatch, Andrea Buffa of Media Alliance, Father Bill O'Donnell, Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange, and Berkeley city council member Maudelle Shirek, asked Pacifica to behave like the progressives they claim to be. In return the net essentially flipped 'em the bird.
When activists nonviolently blocked the doors of Pacifica's local offices, the foundation pressed charges.

Pacifica board chair and Clinton appointee Mary Frances Berry managed to make a bad situation worse by calling U.S. Justice Department officials who then rang up Berkeley police chief Dash Butler for a friendly chat about the arrests. The whole incident, which has been played off by the participants as totally benign, is ultra-dubious. It suggests the Clinton administration's complicity in the stifling of a prominent voice of protest from the left.

Given this sorry track record, we expect soon to hear of a retooled (read: pacified) KPFA or news of a sale.

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