Ousted KPFA manager speaks out

Jul. 20, 1999

Press Democrat Staff Writer

Sawaya also faced battles in Philo

Nicole Sawaya, a former Mendocino County radio personality whose ouster as general manager of Berkeley's KPFA radio has triggered a noisy series of Bay Area protests, said Monday she's trying to avoid the limelight by staying away from the picket lines and demonstrations.

"This thing is way bigger than me now. The lid's been blown off,'' said Sawaya during a rare interview Monday.

Sawaya's low profile contrasts sharply with a continuing series of high-profile demonstrations in support of embattled staff members at KPFA, the nation's oldest public radio station. As the flap continues, protests have reached the North Bay. More than 200 listeners and supporters rallied Sunday in Ives Park in Sebastopol on behalf of KPFA staff. Another rally is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday at Old Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa.

Sawaya, a former National Public Radio staff member in Washington, D.C., before being tapped to run KPFA, is no stranger to controversy.

As program director and later station manager at Philo-based KZYX, Sawaya cut her teeth on programming disputes surrounding Mendocino County's first public radio station.

In 1993, Sawaya negotiated an end to a tense standoff at KZYX after a group that included the late Earth First! activist Judi Bari and former Mendocino Supervisor Norman de Vall forced their way into a broadcast booth and demanded that their grievances over cancelation of a weekly talk show be aired publicly.

Sawaya's solution? She gave demonstrators three minutes each of air time, followed by live statements from former talk show host Beth Bosk and then station manager Phil Tymon.

"Because of Mendocino, I thought I was prepared for anything,'' recalled Sawaya.

But Sawaya, who developed a reputation in Mendocino and later with National Public Radio for bringing diverse community-based groups together to resolve programming disputes, was shocked to learn in April that directors of the nonprofit Pacifica Foundation voted not to renew her contract as KPFA's general manager after 15 months at the helm.

Sawaya said she was given just two hours to clear her desk and leave the nation's oldest public radio station, one of five controlled by the Pacifica radio network.

"It was stunning. I'm still struggling to come to terms with the politics behind it,'' said Sawaya.

Since Sawaya's ouster, KPFA has been rocked by street protests organized by critics who contend free speech is the core issue. They fear a "corporate takeover'' of a beloved public radio station that was founded by pacifists during World War II.

Observers say KPFA has weathered many disputes in its long tenure, but none as ugly as the one unfolding now.

So far, station officials have fired two veteran program hosts for criticizing Sawaya's dismissal on the air, and last week they pulled the plug on another announcer for playing a tape of a news conference about the dispute.

As tensions escalated, KPFA placed armed guards in the radio station lobby and at its transmitting towers.


(Editor note... That's all Folks... I'll type in the rest asap from the newsprint version.)

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