As a long time reporter for Pacifica Network News and KPFK, it was exhilarating to watch staff at sister station KPFA in Berkeley put their jobs on the line to demand a little of the free speech, justice and democracy that the network has long advocated.
When KPFA Station Manager Nicole Sawaya and Pacifica correspondent Larry Bensky were fired this spring, staff took to the airwaves in defiance of Pacifica’s longstanding policy of not airing internal grievances, and told Bay Area listeners what many already suspected: the network was becoming a top heavy bureaucracy hungry for mainstream legitimacy. It was unaccountable to the community and preoccupied with ratings and market share. The conflict escalated when Pacifica National Board member Pete Bramson confirmed rumors that the National Board was considering a sale of the station.
In Southern California, KPFK listeners
could read about the crisis on the front page of the Los Angeles Times,
and in other major newspapers. But, they found little information
on their own station. Management clumsily tried to keep it under
wraps. In early April, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s media
criticism show, Counterspin, aired an interview with fired Pacifica
correspondent Larry Bensky. It was
pulled from the air in
mid-broadcast. Station manager Mark Schubb cut Pacifica Network News stories on KPFA’s troubles out of KPFK’s evening news broadcasts on at least two occasions.
In July, when KPFA staff were arrested inside the station at the height of the conflict , Pacifica’s Democracy Now ran interviews with both the arrestees and the network’s Executive Director Lynn Chadwick. KPFK ran the program at 6am, but it was not rebroadcast as usual at 9. Station Manager Mark Schubb says the decision to hold the rebroadcast was not his. Chadwick had directed him not to rerun it.
When the lock out of KPFA staff began, Program Director Kathy Lo finally told news producers they would not be required to ignore Associated Press wire stories on the dispute. But, Schubb says they were not allowed to do independent reporting because of their involvement with the station. He and programmer Marc Cooper held several call-in programs on the crisis, in which they presented their point of view, which was sympathetic to the network’s, but did not invite KPFA protesters to participate.
The local labor activists who produce KPFK’s Working LA discussed the KPFA situation on their August 1st program. Both host Henry Walton and producer Pete Goodman received phone calls from Kathy Lo the next day warning them to inform her before airing such sensitive material in the future.
Pacifica management has long argued that stations’ internal business makes for dull programming. Bay Area listeners proved them wrong. An on-air pledge drive in which staff appealed to listeners to help them bring back their fired co-workers and establish local control was the most successful summer fund raiser ever. But, at KPFK, open discussions on the changing direction of the station and the network are still taboo.
Many believe that Pacifica has strayed far from the commitment of its founders who pledged to develop “the creative energies of the community”, to air sources not heard on mainstream media and “to contribute to a lasting understanding between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors.”
In 1997, Pacifica national staff drafted a strategic five year plan for the network in which they argued that the stations - located in the country’s biggest cities - were reaching a fraction of their potential audiences. There was a huge market that could be tapped if Pacifica’s programming was more accessible
Shortly thereafter, Pacifica national staff took steps to change the network’s governance structure so that National Board members would no longer be elected by members of local station advisory boards. Instead, they would choose their own members. Local stations would not have a voice in the network’s operation. Those changes were approved by the Board earlier this year.
In implementing the five year plan, KPFK management pointed to much of the station’s programming that it said was obscure, ill produced and preached to a small core of loyal followers. Slicker programs that would appeal to a general audience, they said, would attract new listeners and expose them to progressive, alternative ideas. Talented reporters and producers would flock to the station to lend their creative energies.
Several years later, programming is more polished, and the station’s overall sound is better. Schedules are dependable. But, the promise of more relevant programming in an atmosphere that invites questioning and creativity remains unfulfilled.
There was little dialog on the programming changes, and management largely has avoided discussions with those who are critical of the station and of the network’s governance structure. It operates under a siege mentality in which critics are viewed as enemies, and only a select few individuals are trusted. Questioning of authority inside the station is taboo. The station has paid a price for stifling dissent. People who came to KPFK because they felt they’d be able to report on issues they were passionate about are mostly gone. Newsroom conversation is less about issues and more about where to find a job at the very radio and television outlets that come under so much criticism on the station’s own airwaves. It’s proven next to impossible to encourage news and public affairs staff to question authority outside the station while suppressing disagreement inside.
The “world of ideas” that KPFK promises
in station promos is an increasingly narrow one. There is little
diversity of opinion at 90.7 FM
Local organizing efforts around labor, environmental justice and welfare rights issues are on the back burner now. The three afternoon drive time hosts who also work as journalists cover news stories by interviewing their colleagues at The Nation, The LA Weekly, Salon Magazine and a few other publications almost exclusively, which drastically limits the range of ideas that are heard.
Ethnic diversity is even rarer now than it was two or three years ago. Of seven drive time hosts, just two are people of color and two are women. At a station and a network which has publicly supported the labor movement , KPFK staff members talk about their own union in whispers or in hurried conversations in the parking lot. Management has hired so many part-time and contract staff that of some 20 staff members, fewer than half are in the union.
Divide and conquer is the order of the day.
The union recently filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board that alleges station manager Mark Schubb retaliated against staff members for presenting him with a petition protesting the harassment of a staff member. Union members say Schubb tried to intimidate petition signers by announcing that he would hold personal interviews with each of them, supposedly to determine what they knew of the alleged harassment.
For the past two weeks, KPFK staff meetings have been taken up with attacks on Union Steward Terry Guy for his participation in a lawsuit that alleges that the self-selecting, self-perpetuating national board is illegal.
The hypocrisy and censorship at KPFK as
well as Pacifica’s handling of the KPFA crisis and its willingness to consider
a sale of Berkeley’s KPFA may be a wake up call for Pacifica supporters.
Listener groups around the country are studying governance structures that
would hold Pacifica and its stations accountable to its original goals,
and give subscribers, staff and volunteers meaningful input into station
fund drives coming up, some are advocating that subscribers put their pledges in escrow accounts to show their desire to support Pacifica stations while registering their protests against the current regime.