May 31, 1999
Exchange: The News From Pacifica
I was puzzled by Alexander Cockburn's commentary on Pacifica in his April 26 "Beat the Devil." He expressed particular ire at me, at Pat Scott (Pacifica's former executive director) and at Marian Wright Edelman, who have nothing in common except that we are black women.
There is no conspiracy or secret agenda at Pacifica. When I agreed to become chairwoman of the board in 1997, I did so for two reasons: I regularly listen to WPFW in Washington, DC, and I believe that the strategic plan, "A Vision for Pacifica Radio: Creating a Network for the 21st Century," unanimously adopted by the organization before I came, articulates the goals for achieving the network's mission as set forth by its founders fifty years ago: to promote cultural diversity and pluralistic community expression; to contribute to a lasting understanding between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors; to promote freedom of the press and serve as a forum for various viewpoints; and to maintain an independent funding base.
Since I became chairwoman, the board of directors and now our current executive director, Lynn Chadwick, have been implementing the strategic plan, which in part addresses the need for our stations to reflect the demographic realities of their signal areas. Taken as a whole, our programmers, local advisory board members and listeners do not reflect the rich cultural and age diversity of our country, which our mission clearly requires us to do. Given these realities, the future of our stations hinges on our ability to implement change. We must add more people of color as programmers and on local advisory boards, and we must expand our listener base by attracting a younger audience.
The strategic plan envisions more quality national programming, such as Democracy Now! and the Pacifica National News, as well as more local programming to meet the needs of the diverse populations in our signal areas. To achieve these goals, our plan requires greater administrative efficiency, consolidation of financial management, and support services and other functions to provide greater resources for programming.
As for the recent change in the way the national board is elected that so irritates Cockburn, that too was unanimously adopted by the board, including representatives of the local stations. Pacifica, along with dozens of other CPB community radio grant recipients, received a letter from CPB approximately a year ago that caused us--and others--to question whether we were in compliance with Communications Act law. We raised the question to insure against the loss of funding, as well as CPB certification. Clarification by the CPB and our very capable legal counsel interpreted CPB regulations--and the Communications Act of 1934--to the letter of the law, and we acted accordingly and in good faith.
Anyone who wants to know what is really going on at Pacifica should read our strategic plan, available from all Pacifica stations, or visit our Web site, www.pacifica.org, where there are also board meeting transcripts, press releases and other information about Pacifica.
Dr. Mary Frances Berry
"Nothing in common except that we are black women..." I'm sorry. I thought I'd made it clear that what Berry, Scott and Edelman have in common is their willingness in their public role as liberal black women to act as troopers in defense of white capitalist power, which likes to keep everything shipshape, not just in "welfare reform" (Edelman's role) but in tidying up such minimally disruptive elements as Pacifica.
Actually, I'm sure Berry understands this well enough, but her preferred mode is to serve up slabs of boilerplate, admit nothing and be the last one standing on the battlefield. To hear her on KPFA the other night--in a rare confrontation with Pacifica's listeners--was like hearing Wesley Clark deny that NATO planes hit that refugee column. "But these are dead bodies, Professor Berry. Are you going to destroy an entire radio network?" "Thank you for the question. We are proceeding with our plan." Berry hasn't even the guts to explain her conduct, cowering behind cant about "greater administrative efficiency."
Of course, if one wants to know what is going on at a radio station, you don't read a ponderous twenty-five-page "strategic plan," you listen to the radio, where these days the staff at Berkeley's KPFA is in open on-air revolt against Lynn Chadwick for not renewing the contract of general manager Nicole Sawaya and for sacking veteran programmer Larry Bensky, who exposed Chadwick's deceptions and Pacifica's power grab on the air, something Berry pointedly ignores. If nothing else, Pacifica's actions, kick-started by the questionable governance changes, have united the left-progressive community in Northern California behind the KPFA staff and its demands that Sawaya and Bensky be rehired. One major demonstration blocked the streets in front of Pacifica's Berkeley offices, and a rally on Mother's Day drew close to 2,000. Moreover, an e-mail campaign launched by the staff and the threat of pickets at the office of Representative Barbara Lee led to the resignation of Roberta Brooks, a Pacifica board secretary and strong Chadwick backer, who works there.
As for those governance changes--contrary to interpretations of CPB CEO Robert Coonrod and Pacifica's legal counsel--attorney and former Pacifica board president Peter Franck says, "There is absolutely nothing in the communications law prohibiting members of local station boards from serving on the governing board, or governing board members being elected by the local board." There was nothing "good faith" about that tango with Coonrod and the CPB.
The vote for the changes may have been unanimous, but that unanimity was obtained under duress. Both the KPFA and WBAI boards had passed resolutions calling for postponement of the vote, but last-minute arm-twisting in the form of a threatening letter from CPB caused their representatives to cave in.
One year after Pacifica's strategic plan was approved, Scott announced her resignation, upon which Coonrod, former deputy director of Voice of America and head of Radio/TV Martí, said in fulsome praise of Scott: "She guided the effort to implement the much-needed reform that is returning Pacifica to a leadership position in community radio." It seems that Coonrod and Berry have something in common, too.
IS IT 'DIRTY LAUNDRY'?
Marc Cooper's analysis of the current Pacifica crisis ["Whose Pacifica?" May 10] leaves the distinct impression that Cooper is unable to tell the difference between dirty laundry and a burning laundromat. Had Cooper bothered to read what I actually said during the program for which I ostensibly was fired (text available at www.freepacifica.cjb.net), he would have known that far from "interrupting" a program about Kosovo to "discourse" about an "internal Pacifica personnel battle," what I did was carefully planned. I replayed a three-minute tape by Lynn Chadwick with her official statement about the firing of KPFA's general manager, Nicole Sawaya; then I responded to two false statements about me in that taped statement; then I read a jointly drafted KPFA staff statement protesting Chadwick's and Pacifica's actions; and finally I read a statement I had prepared for the Pacifica national board meeting in February. That statement, accompanied by charts and graphs, criticizes Pacifica for its out-of-control, expensive, self-perpetuating, secretive bureaucracy.
It should be noted that the "gag rule," which purportedly bans discussion of "dirty laundry" on the air, for whose violation (supposedly four times during thirty years of broadcasting) I was fired, is not a rule but a custom. Despite management contentions to the contrary, I never promised--nor would I promise--to observe such a stricture, which, by the way, nowhere exists in writing! In fact, "internal" Pacifica matters are constantly discussed during fund drives, although, of course, in self-serving and sometimes deceptively positive ways.
As I was but one of dozens at KPFA who went on the air--and continue to go on the air since my firing--to let listeners know there was and is a major crisis at Pacifica, why was I fired and a handful of others merely warned? The answer lies, I believe, in the very aspects of Pacifica that I criticized in my February statement to the board (during which chairwoman Mary Frances Berry walked out of the room; as Cooper correctly observes, she has abrogated her responsibilities to Pacifica by not being seen in Berkeley since).
Cooper has his interests in dismissing Pacifica's current illness as "dirty laundry." If he wishes to keep his paid job as anchor of a daily program on Pacifica station KPFK in Los Angeles and also wishes to have KPFK not censor off the air your own RadioNation, which he anchors (as FAIR's Counterspin was censored when it dared to include an interview with me!), he must toe the Pacifica line. The absurdity of the present Pacifica effort to keep its listeners from being informed about what their money now pays for--censorship to protect bureaucracy--could not be more obvious than in Cooper's case. He can opine at length about what is now a matter of national concern in these pages, but not on his own radio program, nor on The Nation's radio program. This is speaking truth to power?
New York City
We at WBAI were amazed to read Marc Cooper's assertion that there is no unionbusting going on at the Pacifica Foundation, which owns WBAI. Our union has been fighting one unionbusting tactic after another from Pacifica. While management claims it hired only one person from the American Consulting Group, a notorious unionbusting firm, they certainly derived the fruits of that organization's years of experience. ACG drafted the current Pacifica employees' handbook. ACG wrote the contracts in effect at KPFA and KPFK. This same contract was offered to the staff of WBAI, who rejected it because it demanded givebacks, concessions and an evisceration of the grievance procedure, among other antilabor provisions.
In 1996, Pacifica/WBAI management attempted to remove 90 percent of the WBAI staff from the collective bargaining unit (CBU). But the NLRB ruled that the staff that management had attempted to remove were rightfully members of the CBU. Management ignored this ruling and refused to negotiate the contract. They have appealed part of that decision. Currently the union at WBAI, UE Local 404, has unfair-labor-practice charges pending against WBAI management. Furthermore, management is attempting to steal jobs from the CBU and relabel them as management positions, also the subject of a number of unfair-labor-practice charges.
In fiscal year 1996 WBAI spent $32,000 fighting the union, and WBAI general manager Valerie Van Isler has admitted that Pacifica spent an additional $30,000 fighting unions. Since then all fees relating to Pacifica/WBAI's fight against its own labor force have been hidden in Pacifica's budget. All these facts are public knowledge, and some of the primary documents are available online at www.glib.com/union.html. It is unfortunate that Cooper chose to ignore them.
R. Paul Martin, chief steward
WBAI/UE Local 404
Has Larry Bensky so merged his own persona with the bigger questions facing Pacifica that he has lost the ability to think straight? I write that the two top bosses at Pacifica are inept, have made colossal blunders and are directly responsible for the meltdown under way at KPFA, and Bensky says I "toe the Pacifica line" to protect my own radio program! I fail to see how giving my--albeit reluctant--support to the collective civil disobedience now under way at KPFA and attaching my name in print to a frontal criticism of Pacifica's top leaders makes me their puppet.
Bensky also grossly mischaracterizes my editorial when he says that I dismiss Pacifica's current illness as the airing of dirty laundry. Come on, Larry! I stated clearly that Pacifica's problems are long-simmering, derive from differing views of what the network should be and are accentuated by mismanagement and the sort of exaggerated political overlays that Bensky is pushing. As I said in my piece, airing of internal management problems (which drives away legions of audience and contributors) has nothing to do with free speech, and Bensky is disingenuous to argue otherwise. I did, however, write that the dirty laundry being aired at KPFA is an understandable, if lamentable, response to management's intransigence.
Bensky's explanation of what he did on the air during a nationally broadcast program only confirms my assertion. Bensky indeed interrupted his war coverage to "discourse" for seventeen minutes about Bensky's view of Sawaya's firing, Bensky's view of his own temporary dismissal and Bensky's view of Pacifica. The show could have been renamed "The World According to Larry."
One of the endemic problems at Pacifica is that the low pay, long hours, lack of recognition and easy access to the airwaves are key ingredients for nurturing a messianic complex. Take note, Larry: Not every decision made by Pacifica, not every program it airs or doesn't, not every word you or I or anybody else says on Pacifica will save the world or let it burn.
Your going on the air to denounce Sawaya's firing was a necessary evil forced by Pacifica's moronic move to fire her. But your discussion of your own conflict was an unseemly and gratuitous abuse of your privilege of being on the air (this from someone who was also fired by Pacifica once. I too was tempted to take my grievance to the air, but didn't). Your inability to accept my editorial support because I failed to fully endorse your behavior, and your outrageous characterization of my motivations, are inconsistent with so much of the journalistic and political good sense you have demonstrated in years past. I repeat: Nicole Sawaya's firing was an outrage. Pacifica should reinstate her. The turmoil sweeping KPFA is the responsibility of Pacifica's national organization. The macabre spectacle of KPFA devouring itself must come to an end.
R. Paul Martin's screed is quite misleading. He neglects to mention that the 90 percent of the "staff" in question are not salaried employees but unpaid volunteers. WBAI must be the only local in the world that insists that unpaid volunteers be included in a bargaining unit. Talk about wage depression! The screeching over unionbusters is emblematic of the malaise that plagues Pacifica. Too many people have too little capacity to think in shades of gray. Any conflict is rhetorically stretched to cinemascope dimensions. Management is never merely inept; it is "reactionary," "pro-corporate," "unionbusting."
Martin should note that Pacifica is more than an employer that owes eternal jobs to a few dozen people. As one of our leading alternative media outlets, it also has a responsibility to broadcast the best programming to its hundreds of thousands of listeners. Sometimes those two goals conflict. Clearly the union at WBAI has had some profound disagreements with its management. But to inflate that into a charge of unionbusting is intellectually insulting.
At KPFK we are also represented by UE. We have a signed contract. There is no mobilization in our workplace to resist unionbusters. There are hundreds of community radio stations in the United States. I know of only three that are unionized. All are Pacifica stations. Contracts at Pacifica are negotiated at the station level, between the union and the station managers. Currently, the entire KPFA unionized staff are risking their jobs to defend their fired manager--the person responsible for enforcing what Martin claims is their "unionbusting" contract. Enough said.
Send your letter to the editor to email@example.com.
Copyright ©1999 The Nation Company, L.P. All rights reserved. Unauthorized redistribution is prohibited.