KPFA fans cited while protesting latest firing 

Tuesday June 22, 1999

By William Brand

Among those gathered outside Berkeley radio station KPFA on Monday were Curt Gray (left), Emily Jan (center) and Dave Kadlecek. 

BERKELEY -- The furor continued Monday at Berkeley listener-sponsored radio station KPFA, three days after the station fired another popular programmer without notice, the third staff member booted in the last 90 days.

In a day of protest, 14 listener-demonstrators, some in wheelchairs, were cited by citizens arrest for preventing Pacifica Foundation executive director Lynn Chadwick from entering her office.

Later, staff members said Chadwick had moved her office from the station at 1929 Martin Luther King Jr. Way to a secret location.

KPFA is owned by nonprofit Pacifica and is at the center of the controversy about management and direction of the grassroots FM station. The station has a small, but outspoken core of about 150,000 Northern California listeners and 20,000 subscribers.

It is one of five FM subscriber stations owned by Pacifica, which was founded in Berkeley in 1946 by Lewis Hill, a conscientious objector during World War II, who wanted to create an independent voice representing a variety of views.

The dispute between local listeners and Pacifica has been simmering since 1995, when the foundation, acting on a new strategy, abruptly discharged a number of staff members and began centralizing control over the stations. The latest firing comes a week ahead of the national Pacifica board meeting in Washington this weekend, a meeting certain to be marked by protest.

Pacifica Communications Director Elan Fabbri said Monday that Berkeley police advised Pacifica to move temporarily. "We had to get a police escort out of the building and it was messy," Fabbri said.

"This is nothing but a long, protracted labor dispute," she said.

But the fired programmers and protesting KPFA listeners disagreed. "Pacifica has developed a complex mythology about who we are -- a bunch of hippies and out-of-touch protesters, but they really don't know us at all," one said.

KPFA and Pacifica were founded for free speech, but there is no free speech within Pacifica, said protester John Sheridan, an artist who drew his own protest posters.

On Friday, Chadwick fired Robbie Osman, who has hosted "The Great Divide," a wide-ranging, eclectic folk music show for the past 22 years.

On April 6, Pacifica fired award-winning investigative journalist Larry Bensky a week after Pacifica refused to renew the contract of popular KPFA general manager Nicole Sawaya, who strongly supported Bensky.

Protesters -- from a dozen to two dozen -- have camped in front of the station since Osman was fired. The sidewalk was littered with protest signs and passersby honked frequently in support.

KPFA staff members also shut the station down for two hours Sunday -- during the time slot when Osman's show was supposed to air. It was the first time the station had been shut down since August 1974, when it went silent for an entire month in a bitter, political dispute, said Matthew Lasar, author of "Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network," (Temple University Press, 1999).

Chadwick said she fired Ossman because he discussed the ongoing battle between some listeners and Pacifica on the air last Sunday. Bensky was fired for the same reason twice, once last December and again in April.

Osman, who has always worked as an unpaid volunteer, said Monday he decided to devote 17 minutes of his show last Sunday to the problem after thinking about it for a long time.

"It's an ugly story," Osman said. "There have been slow, incremental changes and the distance between KPFA and Pacifica has grown greater. They basically think people in Berkeley are crazy. This is the most serious dispute at KPFA in a long, long time.

"The people who control KPFA are strangers to Berkeley and our heritage. They have full legal authority, but no other kind of legitimacy."

Speaking for Chadwick, Fabbri, who was working at home, said a lot of people on the protest line are disgruntled former employees. "Larry Bensky and Robbie made conscious decisions to violate the policy of not discussing these matters on the air.

"They were clear violations of the policy," Fabbri said.

"Pacifica is a national network and needs to be run that way. Berkeley is a unique place, the birthplace of demonstration and as such we respect and value it," she said.

"My guess is people are afraid of change, even if change is for the good. We're trying to encourage listeners of color and younger listeners and again that leads to more change," Fabbri said.

But a number of African-American volunteers at the station Monday released a letter to Mary Frances Berry, the U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner, who chairs Pacifica, stating that "African-American programmers will not be complicit in any Pacifica-driven purge of KPFA staffers under the guise of 'diversity.'"

Lasar, who volunteered at KPFA for seven years, said the problems confronting the station bother him greatly.

"I love Pacifica radio and my heart is breaking at what's happening right now," Lasar said. "Robbie's show is and what will be again, I hope, the epitome of community broadcasting. If you wanted to explain to people what community broadcasting is all about, you would say listen to Robbie Osman."

Meanwhile, at KPFA, the dispute continued. The producers of Flashpoint, the 5 p.m. news show, introduced the program Monday, by calling it "Flashpoint, also known as The Great Divide."

More protests are planned, a staff member said.

KPFA broadcasts at 94.1 FM. It can also be heard on the Web at

Anatomy of a Heist
Audio Files
Legal Action