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March 3, 1999
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Pacifica grabs power from KPFA and its audience

By A. Clay Thompson

BEFORE INVITING the public to weigh in, the board of directors of Pacifica, the nation's alternative radio network, voted unanimously Feb. 28 to establish a centralized, self-perpetuating governing structure. Board members said the new rules were necessary to retain federal funding. A crowd of some 120 station staffers, volunteers, and listeners at the network meeting responded with a torrent of dissent.

"I urge you to reverse this decision you've evidently already taken before hearing this public opposition," said poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti at a public-comment session held a couple hours after the board's vote. The political firebrand and San Francisco poet laureate has supported KPFA since the station was founded in 1949.

The revisions to the network's bylaws will mean major changes to local progressive media cornerstone KPFA-FM. Until now, members of five local advisory boards, representing each of the five Pacifica stations, were chosen by fellow listeners to sit on a national board. Two local advisors from each outlet sat alongside six at-large members. Now the national board will nominate and choose new members, leaving local stations and listeners out of the loop.

Federal regulations for public radio prompted the rewrite. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds Pacifica to the tune of $1.5 million annually, requires publicly funded stations to maintain separate advisory and governance boards. Pacifica's overlapping of local advisory boards and the national governing board was forbidden under federal rules.

The rules, however, don't bar public stations and networks from allowing listeners to elect governing boards. Interviewed for a Feb. 17 story, Richard Madden, CPB's vice president for radio, told the Bay Guardian that Pacifica could have a more democratic structure and continue to receive federal funds. For example, KQED, San Francisco's public-broadcasting behemoth, holds annual elections to its 27-member board while maintaining a separate advisory board.

Pacifica chair Dr. Mary Frances Berry defended the consolidation of power as a step toward better management. "We want to centralize, as much as possible, administrative services, all of the managerial and administrative aspects of this place that can be centralized in order to save money and in order to find ways to do things more effectively -- so that there will be more money to go into programming," she said.

Network spokesperson Elan Fabbri told the Bay Guardian the bylaw changes were inconsequential. "It's really a paper change, if you will," she said. "The bylaw decision really didn't change anything." Asked about the possibility of Pacifica adopting a more democratic structure, Fabbri said: "If we're going to change our structure, it would be up to the board to do that. That would be up to them, and they're not currently looking at that."

"The current board structure is accountable," she told us. "We have bodies that we are accountable to such as the IRS, the CPB, the FCC."

The bulk of Pacifica's funding comes from listeners. According to the network's most recent financial documents, donations comprise some 60 percent of the budget; federal money makes up most of the rest.

Most of the board members left during the raucous 90-minute public-comment session, in which a stream of speakers decried the loss of accountability and local input. Radio activist Jeff Blankfort presented the board with a letter from left intellectuals Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, and Howard Zinn. "We would strongly urge the board to celebrate Pacifica's 50th birthday by a firm commitment to democratic forms of governance and participation," the letter stated.

Dennis Bernstein, cohost of KPFA's Flashpoints, said frontline station staffers have been "kept in the dark and treated very poorly." This mistreatment, Bernstein said, has "come down from on high too often."

Veteran programmer Larry Bensky, the host of Sunday Salon, hauled out an easel and pie charts to show that the network wastes money creating jobs at the national level.

For the past half decade, listeners, volunteers, and paid station staffers at KPFA have repeatedly dogged Pacifica for imposing what they say is a heavy-handed corporate management style and watered-down politics. Several critics at the Feb. 28 meeting voiced a desire to end the conflicts. As Ferlinghetti put it, "KPFA listeners may have to take back the power by seceding from the network."

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