KPFA, Public Do the Scuffle at Invitation-Only News Conference
     Meredith May, Chronicle Staff Writer
     Tuesday, July 13, 1999
     ©1999 San Francisco Chronicle


     The battle for the future of the nation's oldest public radio station, KPFA-FM in Berkeley, grew uglier yesterday
     when management tried to bar the public and certain reporters from attending a press conference to discuss
     station changes.

     The invitation-only press conference with Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the board of directors of KPFA's
     parent company, the Pacifica Foundation, was blocked by a security guard with a list, provoking shouting matches
     between the anointed and the outcast.

     A 20-year veteran reporter with credentials from KPFA Evening News was about to be thrown out by guards
     when Berry arrived and overruled the guest list, allowing everyone a free seat at the press conference, which was
     held at the Oakland Marriott hotel.

     Since April, Pacifica and KPFA have been fighting over local control and the terminations of station manager
     Nicole Sawaya, on-air talk show veteran Larry Bensky and ``Across the Great Divide'' volunteer disc jockey
     Robbie Osman. Protests, legal threats and bullets have all since landed on the front steps of the station made
     famous for its leftist approach to programming.

     The vitriol and violence has become so bad that Berry flew from Washington, D.C., to talk to worker union
     representatives and the media. She also announced that KPFA will begin a monthly, hourlong program to let staff
     and listeners discuss their frustrations about station changes, so they will not do it during regular programming.

     Bensky was let go in April after criticizing Sawaya's termination during his talk show. Osman also criticized
     Pacifica and was let go last month.

     ``We on the board miscalculated how the people at the station would respond to a change in management,'' said
     Berry, who was joined by Pacifica Executive Director Lynn Chadwick.

     But change is imminent, she said, for a station that has only 200,000 listeners, who are mostly white, mostly male,
     and mostly older than 50, she said.

     ``We're not reaching a large enough or diverse enough audience, especially in a place like the Bay Area,'' Berry
     said. ``We need to have a real discussion about what we have on the air, and if it meets the needs of our

     KPFA serves listeners from Fresno to Mendocino, she said, not just Berkeley. But Pacifica has a hard time selling
     KPFA radio programs to its national network because some subscriber stations think KPFA programming is too
     outdated, she said.

     Because KPFA is listener-supported, its dwindling listener base is jeopardizing the station's ability to hire more
     people and increase salaries, Chadwick said. She said KPFA has the capacity to reach 6.5 million listeners in the
     greater Bay Area.

     Berry suggested producing more shows dedicated to gay and lesbian issues and to the multiple communities of
     color around the Bay Area.

     KPFA already does that, said Bensky, who spent yesterday working out of his home, where he has been writing
     free-lance articles, working on Web projects and preparing to teach broadcast journalism at California State
     University at Hayward and Stanford University.

     ``This station was founded 50 years ago to be specific and targeted to people who find themselves censored and
     eliminated from other media outlets,'' he said. ``I've taken thousands of phone calls over the years from all
     different races and ages of people.''

     Bensky views the company line as a corporate grab for more power and profits.

     ``If you start saying the only thing that matters is massive numbers of listeners, you will do what commercial
     stations do and turn into alternative music jukeboxes.''

     ©1999 San Francisco Chronicle  Page A13

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