Static over latest KPFA dispute 

By Julie Chao
Nine people were arrested outside Berkeley listener-supported radio station KPFA Monday, escalating the protest against the station's management that included two hours of dead air Sunday.

 The nine were arrested after they refused to move aside to allow Pacifica Foundation executive director Lynn Chadwick to enter the building. Chadwick performed citizen's arrests and police said those arrested face charges of blocking a sidewalk and unlawful assembly.

 The arrests were peaceful. They occurred after Berkeley police Officer W.H. Pittman failed to persuade the protesters to unblock KPFA's front door.

 Protesters said they will continue the demonstrations until several fired employees are restored to their jobs.

 Robbie Osman, longtime host of a popular folk music program, indicated KPFA staff silenced the station Sunday to protest recent dismissals adding that potential replacements showed solidarity with them by refusing to fill his time slot.

 But management at the troubled station said it decided to turn the transmitter off and subject the audience to silence for the first time in 20 years because it did not have time to find a replacement host.

 On Friday, Osman became the third person in three months to lose a job at KPFA, the nation's first listener-supported radio station and a champion of free speech and democracy for 50 years.

 Although the air was dead inside the station, hundreds of supporters jammed the sidewalk outside its office on Martin Luther King Jr. Way near University Avenue, just a few blocks west of the UC-Berkeley campus.

 As passing drivers honked in support, the protesters waved signs and made speeches demanding mediation of the dispute with management and reinstatement of Nicole Sawaya, the well-liked station manager let go March 31.

 Although most of the crowd dispersed by midafternoon, about 10 longtime supporters and listeners set up a tent with plans to camp out on the sidewalk possibly until Friday, when the Pacifica radio board meets in Washington, D.C.

 The board sets policy for the Pacifica Foundation, which owns and operates KPFA and four other stations in Los Angeles, Houston, New York and Washington, D.C.

 Chadwick fired Osman after he made a long statement on his show a week ago Sunday criticizing Chadwick and the station's "gag rule."

 The policy forbids broadcasters from discussing internal personnel matters on air and has been invoked to dismiss Osman and award-winning broadcaster Larry Bensky, who was dumped in April after criticizing on the air Pacifica's refusal to renew Sawaya's contract.

 "(Chadwick) has affronted the KPFA family in every way," Osman said Sunday. "Under her leadership, this is a train headed for a washed-out bridge."

 KPFA spokeswoman Elan Fabbri said Osman blatantly violated Pacifica policy.

 "Our airwaves are a very, very precious thing," she said. "We need to focus on producing radio that... puts the listeners as the top priority, not the people behind the microphone. Venting personal grievances on the air is not appropriate."

Where is halfway?

As for the larger dispute between KPFA staff and Pacifica management, Fabbri said Sawaya would not be rehired but that management has made several attempts to negotiate with concerned staffers.

 "We have been trying repeatedly to enter into mediation," she said. "We have had a tremendous show of good faith."

 "Nonsense," countered Dennis Bernstein, who hosts KPFA's daily news show "Flashpoints." "There was no attempt to even begin to meet us halfway."

 The two sides have also been at odds over management's decision in mid-May to hire a 24-hour security guard in response to bullets fired into the Pacifica Foundation's office the evening of March 31, the day Sawaya was dismissed.

 KPFA staff members wrote a letter of protest to Chadwick, saying the guard was not needed, especially at a cost of $10,000 a month.

 Fabbri said she didn't know the cost but that she and other employees feel safer with the guard.

 "They feel having a security guard not only provides security for KPFA and everybody there, it's a deterrent to whoever may come in and try to attack us," she said.

Police probe shooting

Berkeley police are investigating the shooting as an attempted homicide, according to Fabbri, whose computer was destroyed by the gunfire. Although no one was in the building at the time, an employee arrived 20 minutes later.

 Fabbri also said a homicide detective asked for copies of close to 2,000 letters and e-mails of protest from listeners so a police psychologist could analyze them for signs of violent tendencies.

 Fabbri said the letters are being photocopied and will be delivered to police this week.

 Bernstein said he was worried about the civil liberties implications of such a move. He and several other staff members were disciplined in April for reading a statement protesting the termination of Sawaya and Bensky.

 Peter Whittlesey, a building construction consultant in San Rafael and KPFA listener for more than 35 years, was at home Sunday morning when he noticed the station went dead. He said he hoped to see stronger local control of the station.

 "It's changed a lot of people's lives in politics, culture and knowledge of community. It's one of the only sources for that," he said. "I feel like if the trend continues, something will die nationwide, not just public radio."

 Examiner correspondent Rob Selna contributed to this report.


Anatomy of a Heist
Audio Files
Legal Action