clash at heart of KPFA mess
Furor over firings comes from struggle between local station and network
By Robert Selna
SPECIAL TO THE EXAMINER
BERKELEY — When Pacifica Radio Foundation executive director Lynn Chadwick meets with her board of directors this weekend, she will likely be asked to explain the battle raging at KPFA, the network's Berkeley flagship station founded in 1949 on principles of pacifism.
Over the past several months, the station, known for its left-of-center alternative programming, has been the scene of street protests and arrests, a handful of potential lawsuits, radio broadcasts used to air internal disputes, the firing of longtime employees and scattered gunshots. This week, the quarrel even precipitated a call from a U.S. Department of Justice official.
Pacifica is a one-of-a-kind, national network of five listener-sponsored radio stations that receive about 85 percent of their funding from donations. Pacifica stations are distinct from other local public stations like San Francisco's KQED and KALW because, among other things, they refuse corporate-backed funding, said Carol Pierson of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.
Working with a small budget since its inception, KPFA has relied on volunteers for much of its programming, and listeners have had an informal but direct influence on its shows. There are about 180 community radio stations in the United States but none of the others belong to a network like Pacifica.
At the center of the KPFA controversy is the belief held by veteran station employees, volunteers and listeners that Pacifica's consensus-driven, democratic culture consistent with its liberal programming is falling prey to a hierarchical bureaucracy. This bureaucracy, they say, is bent on taking money and control away from the local stations and potentially wresting power over what goes on the air.
A dismissal and gunshots
It came to a boiling point March 31, when,
without the consultation of volunteers or employees, Chadwick did not renew
the contract of popular station manager Nicole Sawaya. A KPFA news reporter,
going against Chadwick's directives, announced that decision on air. Later
that night, in a case Berkeley police continue to
investigate, someone fired several gunshots at Pacifica's Berkeley offices. No one was hurt. Protesters condemned the action and continued with nonviolent demonstrations to try to have their concerns heard.
"There have been instances in the past
where people were fired, but it has been the culture and the practice that
others were consulted," said Larry Bensky, KPFA's signature voice who began
volunteering in 1969. Bensky also worked as a station manager at KPFA in
the '70s and, until recently, hosted a public affairs
program broadcast on all of Pacifica's stations. Bensky was fired in April for an on-air denouncement of the way Sawaya's contract was handled.
Pacifica spokeswoman Elan Fabbri said Chadwick, who became executive director in November 1998, was legally prohibited from discussing the issue. Bensky was fired, she said, because he violated a long-standing Pacifica policy of not airing internal disputes over the airwaves.
Bensky asserted that he never saw such a policy. Sawaya could not be reached for comment.
Bensky said Chadwick's decision to let
Sawaya go — and the way she went about it — is the most recent example
of efforts by Pacifica to control local stations. He said other indicators
of a power grab are Pacifica's increasing absorption of KPFA funds and
a February 1999 national board decision eliminating the local
boards' long-standing power to nominate national board members.
Demand letter to directors
On Monday, a coalition of local board members
and others from several of Pacifica's stations announced they had sent
a demand letter to Pacifica's board of directors and its chairwoman, Mary
Francis Berry, asserting that the board's decision broke the law. Oakland
attorney Dan Siegal said a lawsuit would be filed next
week if Pacifica does not respond by Friday. Berry could not be reached for comment.
"They (the board) violated the California corporate codes that say you cannot take away local power without approval from the local boards," Siegal said. "That (decision) makes them (Pacifica's national board) a self-selecting board with no accountability to anyone."
Fabbri said last year the Corporation for Public Broadcasting told Pacifica it could lose federal funding if it continued to allow local board members to hold national seats. The money makes up part of its annual budget of just over $2million.
Fabbri and Bensky said that Pacifica's administrative arm now receives about 17 percent of the foundation's funding, but could not verify the amount that has increased in recent years.
Fabbri said a 1995 strategic plan — which was devised by local and national boards, as well as employees and volunteers — has provisions to consolidate stations' administrative services and diversify programming to make it accessible to more listeners. Fabbri said she did not know what that would mean for programming.
"We have a core group of listeners, but they are not growing," Fabbri said. "If you look at the protesters, the vast majority are over 50 and white."
Fabbri said that in the fall of 1998, each
of Pacifica's stations was asked to conduct studies to better understand
their untapped audience potential. Without providing an explanation, Fabbri
said Sawaya refused to
conduct such a study.
Younger listeners wanted?
Whether this refusal contributed to Sawaya's departure is unknown, but local media experts say programming is always a contentious issue at any radio station.
"The management at Pacifica wants younger listeners and more listeners, which is understandable," said Ben Bagdikian, media analyst and former dean of the UC-Berkeley graduate school of journalism. "But, they (Pacifica) have gone about it in a bureaucratic way and ignored the culture which is very local and independent... That (decision to remove local power) is contrary to the whole culture and philosophy."
On Monday, 14 protesters demanding reinstatement of Sawaya, Bensky and volunteer host Robbie Osman — who was dismissed last week for on-air criticisms of internal decisions — were arrested.
Protests have continued throughout the week, with vocal calls for Chadwick's ouster, but Berkeley police have made no further arrests. In a curious twist, Berkeley Police Chief Dash Butler said he received a call Monday from friend and U.S. Department of Justice official Joe Brann. Butler said Brann inquired about Monday's arrests, and that that was unusual, despite their friendship.
Butler said he was surprised by Brann's call and was not sure who at the Department of Justice had asked him to make it.
"I laughed and said, 'Wow. What is this... why has this gotten to be such a big deal?"
for more on the background of the "clash" see "Anatomy of a Heist"