Pacifica Tunes Out KPFK
by Sam Frank---LA Weekly, March 1995

Firing top managers leaves listeners, programmers fuming
by Sam Frank

In an attempt to shore up declining listenership, KPFK executives have drastically altered the radio station'e weekly line-up, a move that has angered many programmers and listeners. The changes were instituted after the station's owner, the Berkeley-based Pacifica Foundation, replaced KPFK's general manager and program director in January.

"Our listenership has gone down at a dramatic rate, mainly because our people don't know where to find their favorite programs," new program director Gwen Walters said in a statement to the press. To try to attract listeners, the station, which says it will retain its progressive viewpoint, has moved to the kind of strip format used by other public radio stations like the more popular KCRW.

But the changes have come at the expense of some shows, which have been eliminated or moved to less desirable time slots. And many within the station feel that the decisions have been arbitrary and that the changes have been instituted in insensitive---even brutal---ways.

"None of us were told in advance about the changes, none of us were consulted on the logic of the changes, none of our listeners were consulted on the logic of the changes," says film critic Dean Cohen, who has been with the station since 1974 and whose show on film criticism used to air twice a month on Saturday night.

Turmoil at the 36-year-old station is nothing new. Except for a six-year stretch during the '70's when Will Lewis was general manager, the station has been known as much for its political infighting as for its left-wing political slant. Key executives have turned over quickly, and programming changes have generally followed.

The station's new strip programming, in which shows of a similar nature will air at the same time each day, includes political, cultural, music, health and news shows, some of them syndicated by Pacifica.

Among these changes instituted by Walters at KPFK are the elimination of Tom Jefferson's twice monthly pro-marijuana show, Sturdy Child of Terror, the moving of Alan Watts popular Monday afternoon lecture show to Monday nights at 11, and the elimination of 15-minute political commentaries.

It had been known for some time, insiders say, that Pacifica executive director Pat Scott was unhappy with KPFK's format. As a result, former general manager Cliff Roberts and former program director Lucia Chappelle had planed a series of metings throughout January to discuss possible alterations with programmers. On January 4, however, both executives were asked to resign, and the job of assistant general manager was eleiminated.

The new management team of Pamela Burton as acting general manager and Walters as interim program director did not meet with individual broadcasters as their predecessors had planned. Instead, programmers were summoned en masse to a meeting on January 28 at the Unitarian Fellowship in downtown Los Angeles. There, more than a 100 people were told of the new schedule, leaving even those pleased with their new time slots outraged at the arbitrary way in which information was transmitted.

Feathers were further ruffled by a strict enforcement of the station's dirty-laundry rule, which prohibits broadcasters from discussing station business on the air. The policy was used, says production assistant Lyn Gerry, "as a gag order to silence anyone who was even thiking of mentioning the resignations, let alone protesting them or protesting the program changes. This, on free-speech radio."

Indeed, on January 5, the day after Walters and Burton assumed power, volunter board operator Herman Padilla says he was removed from his shift and told not to return for on the air reading a newspaper article detailing personnel changes at the station. (Burton says Padilla resigned).

On February 10, after turning down a slot in a new health and environmnt strip,Health Report [sic] host Al Huebner spoke out against format changes on the air, claiming listeners had not been consulted. The following Monday, Burton informed Huebner that, after 2 1 years, he would not b broadcasting his show again. Burton insists that by his action, Huebner took himself off the air and realized it would be his last show..

Listeners, too, have been upset by the changes. At a monthly advisory board meeting in mid-February, some 20 subscibers and volunteers turned out to express outrage over what they saw as management's refusal to be candid about program changes and cancellations.

Subscriber Rutthy Taub led the attack. "We'd all like to know what is going on here and why we're not allowed to talk about it on the air," she said. "Because we know that very soon we will be told on the air, repeatedly, when you are asking us for our money, that it is our station, that it belongs to us, and we are involved in it. We want to know why this is only true when you want our money."

Advisory board members seemed shocked by the hostility and size of the crowd(usually only one or two subscribers attend board meetings), and they left it to Walters and Burton to answer the criticisms being leveled. Board member Dorothy Nasatir concluded the meeting by saying she would present her notes of listener criticisms and suggestions to the Pacifica board at its next advisory meeting.

KPFK is one of five stations in the Pacifica network and is tied for second place in its subscriber base. Other Pacifica stations include the foundation's flagship station, KPFA in Berkeley, WBAI in New York, WPFW in Washington, D.C., and KPFT in Houston. Officials of the Pacifica foundation did not return numerous phone calls regarding this story.

The changes come at a time when KPFK, with a weekly listenership of 136,000, trails as a distant fourth in the Los Angeles public radio market. (KCRW with a listenership of 367,000, is first, followed by KUSC and KPPC, with 364,000 and 250,000 respectively.)

But despite a generally positive rsponse to the new line-up, many station employees remain upset. "The way things are being handled is like a Stalinist purge," says staffer Gerry. "The fact that management won't comment publicly supports their critic's contentions of [KPFK's] being a secretive station."