The New York Times
July 23, 1999

The Battle for the Berkeley Airwaves Rages on


By EVELYN NIEVES

BERKELEY, Calif. -- By 8 a.m., a dozen or so protesters were standing in front of the offices of radio station KPFA, holding signs asking the drivers zooming across Martin Luther King Jr. Way to "Honk for Free Speech."
Everyone did.

Some drivers also waved and yelled, "Yeah!" and "Free KPFA!" as if they were cheering the home team before a crucial match. A few even waved at the police officers stationed across the street, next to the television news vans. And the officers smiled back.

What started four months ago as a squabble over who should control programming -- the staff and management of KPFA, the oldest public radio station in the country, or its parent, the Pacifica Foundation -- has become Berkeley's biggest battle in years.

With each new round of that battle, which began when Pacifica fired KPFA's popular station manager on March 31 and became fiercer as other members of the staff were discharged for airing their gripes over the radio, the rallies have multiplied. Since Tuesday of last week -- when Pacifica closed the station after physically yanking the host of a news program off the air in midsentence -- rallies, some involving thousands of people, have occurred daily. And protesters have been camping out in front of the building, now boarded and padlocked, day and night. (Tents even occupied the middle of the street until Wednesday, when the police had them moved.)

The Pacifica Foundation, which also owns four other publicly supported, politically progressive stations (KPFK in Los Angeles, WBAI in New York, WPFW in Washington and KPFT in Houston) denies what many here suppose: that it is dismantling the only radio station that the political left has in the San Francisco Bay Area in order to sell it. Fifty-year-old KPFA has a vast signal, and would most likely prove a lucrative asset on the open market.

Pacifica says it is simply trying to improve KPFA's often quirky programming in order to attract more listeners. But the foundation's actions have aroused animosity, not least among groups that once got their message across to the public through KPFA programs. To them, some of the big social issues of the past -- censorship, community vs. corporate power, the threat of force (in the station's hiring of armed guards as a response to protests) -- are back.

So some of the old radicals -- from activists of the Free Speech movement to onetime Black Panthers to People's Park founders -- are back, too. They have been joined by college students, supporters of listener-sponsored community radio from all over and local residents not typically prone to Berkeley's protest tradition. Nearly 100 people have been arrested during demonstrations.

"I haven't been arrested before, but for this it's worth it," Liam Kirshner, the president of an Internet consulting business, said as he stood among protesters blocking traffic the other day. "This protest is going to continue until we get the station back."

The protests here are starting to have an effect at Pacifica's other stations. Demonstrators rallied at WBAI in Manhattan last Friday, and members of the staff at KPFK in Los Angeles have organized a teach-in on the Berkeley situation for Saturday.

Progress toward a resolution appears to be minimal, although both sides met with a federal mediator on Tuesday and plan to do so again on Friday.

Every day, it seems, the protesters acquire new allies. "Free KPFA" T-shirts are becoming as common in Berkeley as the Nike swoosh in a locker room. State legislators plan a hearing to investigate Pacifica's handling of the situation. Alice Walker spoke at a rally. Joan Baez volunteered for a fund-raising concert. Even officers in riot gear have mentioned that, well, they too are sympathetic.

"I can't go into a coffee shop without people stopping me to give their support," said Dennis Bernstein, the news-program host who was dragged off the air by armed guards and an interim station manager, because he was addressing the dispute. "I've gotten calls from Hawaii, South Korea, all over the world."

The Pacifica Foundation concedes that in the public relations battle, it is getting flattened. Thursday Elan Fabbri, who had been Pacifica's sole spokeswoman during the crisis, was replaced by a San Francisco public relations firm. Lynn Chadwick, Pacifica's executive director, said the foundation realized that its message had not been getting across. "I plan to be much more available now" to the news media, Ms. Chadwick said.

Pacifica has maintained that the station's offices were closed for the sake of the staff's safety. It says that protesters had barged into the KPFA building and that shots fired on April 1 into the Pacifica Foundation office next door are being investigated as attempted homicide.

To the foundation and its chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry, who is also the chairwoman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, the crux of the problem is KPFA's unwillingness to change to reflect the changing demographics of listeners. While the station's 59,000-watt signal could reach more than 6 million listeners, its audience, Pacifica says, has stagnated at 200,000. Most of those, Dr. Berry said, are "white males over 50."

Since shutting down the offices last week, Pacifica has been broadcasting old programs from the station's archives over KPFA. The staff's programmers, meanwhile, say they will continue to provide a voice to their loyal listeners. In recent days, they have started broadcasting their shows over pirate airwaves from in front of the building, where the plywood covering the windows is now papered with posters announcing the latest events to "free KPFA."

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