For 50 years now, KPFA has been a foundation on which Berkeley's progressive character has resided. Established in 1949 as the nation's first listener-sponsored community radio station, KPFA (94.1 FM) has enriched the Bay Area with news about current events, passionately pursuing the values of pacifism, social justice and -- above all -- free speech.
So it came as quite a shock last week when Larry Bensky, a renowned talk show host and 30-year veteran of KPFA, was fired for, of all things, speaking his mind. His unforgivable sin was discussing "internal matters" about the radio station on the air, which, according to the official policy of Pacifica -- the corporation that owns KPFA -- is off-limits.
But the "internal matter" that Bensky had spoken about was something that had outraged virtually everyone working at the station -- the firing of Nicole Sawaya, KPFA's beloved general manager.
On March 31, the executive director of Pacifica informed Sawaya that her employment was being terminated. No one on the KPFA staff was consulted about this decision -- all they were told was that Sawaya was "not a good fit" for the local station and was "not a team player."
But Sawaya was one of the most popular managers the station had ever had. She worked to include the staff in many management decisions, exceeded all of the station's fundraising goals, and strongly supported the station's employee union. Not only was she a "good fit" for KPFA -- she was a perfect fit.
As for her not being "a team player," that was because lately Sawaya had been criticizing Pacifica for very legitimate reasons. In recent years, the national board of Pacifica -- a not-for-profit organization that owns five listener-sponsored radio stations throughout the country -- has evolved into a secretive, unelected body that is accountable to no one but themselves. They can hire and fire employees from the various stations at will, but these employees have no control over who sits on the board.
On a periodic basis, the national board requests a certain percentage of each station's revenue to fund their operations, a percentage that has nearly doubled in the last 10 years. However, the board refuses to disclose how the money is used. In the past, Pacifica allowed two representatives from each local affiliate to participate in their national board meetings. But last February, they chose to exclude these local representatives permanently from attending in the future.
The national organization also has a history of dubious action. Two years ago, a black employee of Pacifica's Los Angeles affiliate was fired after she complained to the national board about racism in the workplace. Last year,[ actually this occurred in 1995-96 - ed] Pacifica hired a union-busting consulting firm to negotiate new labor contracts with the various stations' unionized staff.
This is what Nicole Sawaya was complaining about to Pacifica -- why KPFA and Pacifica's other affiliates were asked to fork over more and more money to an ever-expanding and corrupt bureaucracy that did not pursue the stations' interests. She was fired for telling the truth, and Larry Bensky was fired for saying she was fired for telling the truth. The staff at KPFA has every reason to be outraged.
While Bensky is the only KPFA employee to have been fired for this particular reason, six other staffers have received verbal warnings for speaking out, and they, too, may be fired if they continue to express their disapproval.
What's really scary is that all of this happened at KPFA, a station that consistently reports news stories that more mainstream radio stations refuse to cover. This was the first station to broadcast controversial personalities like Allen Ginsberg and Huey Newton, and was the first to oppose the Vietnam War. This is the station that receives nearly all of its revenue from avid listeners, as opposed to corporate sponsors.
The national board of Pacifica ought to be ashamed of themselves. While running a free-speech radio station, they allow their employees to speak out on anything -- unless it comes to criticizing Pacifica. They support free speech, but censor its consequences.
If this can happen at KPFA, imagine how bad things can get in other media outlets. CBS is owned by Westinghouse and NBC is owned by General Electric, so they wouldn't broadcast anything against war because their owners make weapons. And what about the tons of newspapers owned by right-wing millionaire Rupert Murdoch? A lot more gets censored at those places than at a listener-sponsored radio station in Berkeley!
Internal scandals exist everywhere -- in the government, in the business world and, yes, in the media. But the only way we ever find out about these things is through the media. If an "internal matter," such as the one at KPFA, should happen in the government, or in a large corporation, you could bet that KPFA -- as well as every other media outlet -- would clamor over it like crazy and let the whole world know.
But they rarely criticize what goes on in their own backyard. It was only because some people at KPFA had the guts to speak out that anyone ever found out about this.
Instead of celebrating the station's 50th anniversary last Thursday, hundreds of KPFA employees and listeners protested outside the studio, demanding that Sawaya and Bensky be re-hired.
What struck me was the large number of journalists covering the protest. Would they be there if something like this had happened to them?
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