San Francisco Examiner
Wednesday, July 14, 1999

Arrests at KPFA after another firing
By Ilene Lelchuk

BERKELEY - Hundreds of noisy protesters stormed Berkeley's beloved Listener sponsored public radio station and drew dozens of police after KPFA management dismissed its third radio host in three months, a tussle heard on the air by shocked listeners.

Fifty-two people were arrested during Tuesday's conflict, including Dennis Bernstein, who hosts the station's public affairs program "Flashpoints." Bernstein was taken into custody five hours after being pulled off the air and refusing to leave the building.

At least seven other employees and station volunteers were arrested when they refused to disperse, along with 44 protesters inside and outside the listener-supported station on Martin Luther King Way.

The street demonstration was expected to continue Wednesday.

The protest, which quickly escalated and brought police in riot gear, began just before 6 p.m. as Bernstein ended his one-hour program. He aired segments of a news conference held earlier in the day about 13 protesters who were arraigned Tuesday on trespassing charges for demonstrating against personnel changes at the station last month.

Bernstein violated orders not to report about growing tensions between KPFA and its parent company, the Pacifica Foundation, station spokeswoman Elan Fabbri said.

Listeners said Bernstein spent only the last few minutes of his broadcast on the KPFA struggle, but Fabbri said he spent his entire hour violating the station's policy. She later admitted, however, hearing only a few minutes of the broadcast.

About 6:10 p.m. Bernstein, off the air, was informed that he was being put on administrative leave, according to witnesses.

Somehow his ensuing struggle with Pacifica guards went on air, breaking into a newscast under way.

Another host tried to explain what was happening but management shut him off, leaving listeners with dead air for a few minutes.

"There was all this yelling and the Flashpoints host said, "I'm afraid I'm going to get hurt!' and then there was nothing," said longtime 94.1 FM listener Felicity Buxton of San Francisco. "It was totally frightening."

"A bastion of free speech'

Bernstein maintains he was just reporting the news.

"I'm flabbergasted that I would be pulled from the air . . . by people who founded the station to stand as a bastion of free speech," Bernstein said. "I believe this is about First Amendment rights. This is an absolute case of censorship."

Pacifica canceled all live broadcasts and replaced the evening news with a taped Marxist-Maoist analysis of the 1960s.

Taped lectures continued throughout the night in what staff and protesters called a corporate coup and the death of the nation's oldest public radio station, now 50. Some employees remarked as they left the building Tuesday night that they did not expect to have jobs when they returned Wednesday morning.

"It is unbelievable that a journalist can be roughed up on the air, yanked off the a said Bernstein's attorney, Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

Bernstein's dismissal touched off a massive community response. KPFA supporters flooded the station lobby, sat down and refused to leave even under the threat of arrest. Those who finally did leave on their own were cheered by demonstrators awaiting them outside.

"KPFA sparks a lot of emotion. I just started listening three months ago and I never figured I'd be here," said 21-year-old Jon Logan of Benicia as he left the lobby. He sped to the station as soon as he heard the on-air

Among those arrested were demonstrators who sat or laid down in front of a police paddy wagon, refusing to allow it to leave.

After police cleared the lobby at station management's request, two Berkeley councilwomen arrived to discuss the situation with KPFA and Berkeley Police Chief Dash Butler.

Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek later announced she would introduce an emergency resolution demanding that Pacifica begin mediation with KPFA staff and the outraged community.

"It will take more than the police'

Butler, looking weary as the arrests continued, also called for immediate mediation.

"We tried as hard as we could to de-escalate the situation, but it will take more than the police," he said.

Complaints about the direction and control of the station - considered the last bastion for liberal voices - have been increasing since April after popular station manager Nicole Sawaya's contract was not renewed.

Since then, broadcaster Larry Bensky and volunteer folk music host Robbie Osman were fired for denouncing management's policies on the air.

And more than a dozen KPFA supporters were arrested during a protest at the station in June, when they refused to move away from the entrance to allow Pacifica Executive Director Lynn Chadwick inside.

Longtime staffers maintain that Pacifica's board wants to give KPFA a more mainstream image so that it can attract corporate donations. Others worry that KPFA might be sold to a commercial buyer.

An e-mail written by a Pacifica national board member that mentions his interest in selling was intercepted Monday by the San Francisco-based Media Alliance, a First Amendment watchdog group that has been monitoring the deepening rift at KPFA.

That news had been announced in Tuesday's press conference, snippets of which Bernstein used on Flashpoints.

A gag order curbing staff

Tensions may have started even earlier that day, however, according to co-news director and anchor Aileen Alfandary. Tuesday morning Chadwick issued a memo reinstating a gag order curbing staff from commenting on the air about its struggles with management.

Chadwick also alienated staff this week, Alfandary said, when she brought in Garland Ganter, the station manager of KPFT in Houston, one of the five radio stations Pacifica owns and operates. He was the manager who put Bernstein on leave Tuesday.

In other developments Tuesday:

*An e-mail that might finally confirm long-running rumors that the Pacifica Foundation plans to sell KPFA and WBAI, its New York City station was intercepted by a member of Media Alliance. The e-mail allegedly from board member Michael Palmer is addressed to Pacifica board chairwoman Dr. Mary Frances Berry. The e-mail mentions that Palmer consulted a radio broker who believes a commercial radio company would buy KPFA for $65 million to $75 million.

Palmer could not be reached for comment, but Fabbri, the station spokeswoman, confirmed that Palmer accidentally misfired the e-mail to Media Alliance. She stressed, however, that Palmer is alone in his desire to sell.

"Dr. Berry never had a conversation with him about this and she doesn't think we should sell any frequencies," Fabbri said.

*An attorney representing community advisory boards from Pacifica stations in Los Angeles, Berkeley and New York announced he will file a lawsuit this week aimed at Pacifica's recent elimination of local input in national board member elections.

*Pacifica announced that it brought in Ganter to get it through this rough spot. Ganter called the shots Tuesday night and was viewed as a hired gun by many staffers, but a source close to his Houston station said he is well liked there and considered a hands-off manager who brought KPFT back from the brink of financial despair.

*Thirteen of the 14 demonstrators arrested June 21 during the protest in front of KPFA were arraigned in Alameda County Municipal Court in Berkeley on Tuesday. Another protester was scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday. Judge Carol Brosnahan set an Aug. 23 trial for the first group.

KPFA, one of the original FM stations, is a 59,000-watt radio station with about 30 paid full-time staff and 200 volunteers. Marianne Costantinou and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

©1999 San Francisco Examiner

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