The San Francisco Bay Guardian
April 7, 1999



Fire power
Pacifica sacks KPFA manager; staffers in revolt

By A. Clay Thompson 

AFTER YEARS of tension between staffers at Berkeley's KPFA-FM and the Pacifica network, which runs the station, open staff revolt erupted March 31. The firing of a popular KPFA employee by national management has rank-and-file workers up in arms.

Battles between network execs and KPFA staffers have raged since the early 1990s, when the venerable progressive network unveiled plans to move its programming toward the mainstream and canned a number of longtime programmers. Critics say the network is wasting money and creating watered-down, "left-lite" programming, against the wishes of Bay Area listeners and staffers.

The March 31 firing of KPFA general manager Nicole Sawaya has prompted programmers to voice their anger on-air -- and to take to the streets in protest. On April 2 some 150 listeners and current and former staffers hit the streets in front of the station's headquarters. Longtime show hosts, including Larry Bensky, Dennis Bernstein, and Philip Maldari, denounced Pacifica executive director Lynn Chadwick for canning Sawaya. The move, according to 26-year veteran Maldari, means "the executive director is out of touch with reality. Nicole was the most popular station manager in my memory. She had 100 percent support of the staff."

Pacifica spokespeople didn't return our calls. But Chadwick took to the airwaves April 2 to present the network's side of the story. "Let me make it perfectly clear that Nicole Sawaya was not fired," she said on the air. "Her contract expired on March 31, and we made a decision not to renew it."

She also told listeners that someone had fired a gun through the windows of her office -- in apparent retaliation for Sawaya's termination.

KPFA employees released a fiery statement slamming the network for Sawaya's termination and other offenses, including moves to consolidate power at the network level. "The extent of national management's obtuseness and irresponsibility can be judged from the fact that it has visited these vexations on us as we are struggling to deal with national crises -- wars with Iraq and the former Yugoslavia," the letter reads. "To say our work as radio professionals serving our audience on these issues has been disrupted is to state what would be obvious to any casual observer -- but apparently not to national management."

The staffers are demanding that Pacifica rehire Sawaya and find an outside arbitrator to mediate the dispute over her firing and the underlying issues they say caused it.

Media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has gotten involved. FAIR, which produces Counterspin, a weekly show that airs on Pacifica stations, condemned the move to boot Sawaya. "Pacific should have open and accountable management processes," reads a statement the group issued April 5. "Indeed as a community radio network, Pacifica owes it to the public to be far more open and accountable than corporate, mainstream media outlets.... We urge Pacifica to reconsider the move not to renew Sawaya's contract."

For several years the network has forbidden station staffers from discussing network business in public. It remains to be seen how it will handle KPFA employees' defiance of the gag order.

"Internal Pacifica issues and management decisions are precisely that -- internal," Chadwick said on the air. "We have made decisions that reflect the best management practices for the organization, regardless of their popularity."

Sheryl Flowers, producer of Sunday Salon, told us the time to handle KPFA's problems is long past. Said Flowers, "This has taken us all over the edge." 



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