The San Francisco Examiner
KPFA in revolt over firings
Seth Rosenfeld
April 11, 1999

Furor over dismissal of Larry Bensky and station manager

Freewheeling radio station KPFA in Berkeley has a long tradition of criticizing the American power structure as undemocratic.

So it is no surprise that the staff - and many listeners - are near open revolt against decisions by the nonprofit foundation that owns KPFA to dump a popular station manager as well as its venerated talk show host, Larry Bensky.

"Many staffers are outraged," said Philip Maldari, a host of "The Morning Show" and a steward of the union representing employees there.

The radical, listener-supported station has received thousands of calls, letters and e-mails from listeners upset at Pacifica Foundation's termination of station manager Nicole Sawaya last week, Maldari said Saturday.

Six staff members have been disciplined for reading a statement on air that opposes Pacifica's dismissal of Sawaya. "The staff at KPFA unanimously demands the return of Nicole and independent mediation of the
dispute," it says.

Raul Ramirez, news director at nonprofit KQED radio, called Bensky's firing "very unfortunate. He is an excellent journalist. I hate to see KPFA implode."

Bensky, who in 1988 won a prestigious George Polk Award for his coverage of the Iran-Contra hearings, was fired Friday after going on the air to criticize the Sawaya decision.

Ironically - or perhaps not - the discord comes as the station was preparing for the April 15 celebration of its 50th anniversary. It was founded in 1949 by pacificists opposed to World War II, and was the nation's first station to be supported by contributions from listeners.

Festivities postponed

But this week the KPFA 50th Anniversary Committee, a group of major donors, temporarily suspended its preparations "in view of the ongoing crisis within Pacifica," the committee said in a memo.

Several hours after Sawaya was dismissed on March 31, someone fired four shots into Pacifica's national office, a storefront next door to the radio station office on Martin Luther King Way, causing what Chadwick called "serious damage." The incident remains under investigation, said Maldari, who noted it endangered people in both offices.

Bensky, a longtime broadcaster at the radio station, was at no loss for words Saturday.

"I am outraged at being silenced," Bensky said of his firing.

Sawaya's termination, he said, was "a corporatist, militarist decision that would have been inappropriate even in a corporation or the military."

"This institution cannot and will not work in an authoritarian, top-down structure," Bensky said. He called Pacifica Foundation's directors "people who are insensitive to the organization's history and mission. They ought to be removed from power."

Sawaya, according to staff members, had widespread staff support and had exceeded the station's fund-raising goals. She has declined to comment on the matter.

Controversy over firing

Lynn Chadwick, executive director of the Pacifica Foundation, said Saturday that Sawaya was terminated "for cause." Chadwick declined to give details, saying she did not want to invade Sawaya's privacy.

Bensky was fired, Chadwick said, because he violated a long-standing station policy against using the airwaves to discuss internal personnel matters. She denied that the station sought to stifle his journalistic
work or the station's tradition of independence.

The controversy goes back several months. Bensky had been hosting a five-day-a-week show, "Living Room," that was broadcast nationally on the Pacifica Network, but wanted to shift to a once-a-week spot.

In December, Bensky claimed that he was fired. This triggered a listener outcry that prompted Pacifica to allow him to begin a weekly show called Sunday Salon, he said.

Chadwick denied that audience response had anything to do with his new show. She said the daily show was terminated merely as part of the switch.

In February, the defiant Bensky appeared at a Pacifica board meeting and criticized the foundation for having an increasingly "expensive, secretive, administrative bureaucracy." He alleged that Pacifica took a growing share of the station's funding while providing fewer hours of national programming.

Criticism of Pacifica

Chadwick conceded that the foundation supplied less programming, but said it had taken on other duties and had hired its own fund-raiser.

On April 4, Bensky used 17 minutes of his time on Sunday Salon to attack Pacifica's termination of Sawaya. He read a staff statement criticizing her dismissal and contradicted statements that Chadwick had made about his
termination on the air two days earlier.

Two days later, Pacifica announced that Bensky had been fired and Sunday Salon canceled.

Bensky, 61, has been involved with KPFA for more than 30 years. In addition to hosting talk shows and being a national correspondence, he has been a station manager.

Berkeley-based KPFA is one of five stations owned by the Pacifica Foundation, which is the parent of the Pacific Radio Network. The other stations are in Los Angeles, Houston, New York and Washington, D.C.

Unlike commercial stations that depend on advertising revenue, KPFA raises 80 percent of its budget from audience donations.

©1999 San Francisco Examiner   Page C 1 Examiner

Anatomy of a Heist
Audio Files
Legal Action