This summer began with a large shadow hanging over one of the nation's pioneering radio stations. Half a century after listener-supported KPFA took to the airwaves in the San Francisco area as a unique experiment in media independence, the battle raging over its future is ominous -- yet inspiring.
KPFA Radio provides an eclectic mix of progressive political news and views along with an array of cultural offerings. At a time when "public radio" routinely means a mish-mash of cautious mainstream programming, the station is an enduring symbol of feisty community radio. That's why you should care about KPFA's fate, even if you've never been within earshot of its transmitter.
The owner of KPFA is the Pacifica Foundation, which also possesses noncommercial FM stations in four other cities (Los Angeles, Houston, New York and Washington). The foundation's governing board has gradually consolidated power during this decade. The board fills its own vacancies. While demanding accountability from staff and volunteers, the members of the board are accountable to no one but themselves.
In late March, a crisis exploded at KPFA when Pacifica abruptly fired station manager Nicole Sawaya, a leader who had unified the station's diverse staff and volunteers. Immediately after the firing, Pacifica's executive director Lynn Chadwick tried to prevent the station's news department from reporting that it had occurred.
Chadwick wrote a three-sentence memo to KPFA's news staff. "I am directing you not to air a story about Nicole's termination," the memo said. "This is not a news story. Airing this story would be a violation of Pacifica policy."
The memo was preposterous -- and deeply contemptuous of the most basic precepts of journalism. The attempt by the Pacifica Foundation's executive director to suppress the story was unprecedented. During nearly two full decades of working at the station, Mark Mericle, co-director of the KPFA news department, had never seen anything like it. "In 18 years," he recalls, "no one ever ordered us not to cover anything."
KPFA's news staff faced a dilemma. The firing of the popular station manager -- an action with far-reaching implications for listeners -- was clearly newsworthy. But the network's most powerful executive had ordered that the story not be covered. What to do? Play it safe or adhere to journalistic principle?
The news staff chose principle, reporting the story in full on the station's widely heard evening newscast. Later in the spring, coverage continued as Pacifica's top officials reached new heights of arrogance.
Answerable only to the Pacifica board, Chadwick claimed that she was merely trying to enforce a network policy against airing internal matters. But management's selective enforcement of the nebulous gag rule had a transparent purpose -- self-serving censorship.
When news spread to the airwaves of other Pacifica-owned stations, management lashed out in retaliation. On April 4, a 30-year veteran of Pacifica's airwaves -- journalist Larry Bensky -- spoke out while hosting his live national program "Sunday Salon." Chadwick reacted by firing him.
The sad story could have ended there, with KPFA employees opting for silence and the network's management tightening its grip. Instead, a wonderful thing happened: Staffers and volunteers kept speaking up, eloquently and emphatically, on the air.
Listeners responded with a torrent of faxes, e-mails and phone calls backing Sawaya, Bensky, and the beleaguered staff and volunteers. Hundreds of people repeatedly gathered outside the KPFA building in Berkeley to rally in support. Local civic groups and labor unions passed resolutions in solidarity.
Pacifica's next move came on June 8, in the form of a memo from Chadwick to "all KPFA staff and volunteers." The memo warned: "Pacifica expects all KPFA employees and volunteers to refrain from discussing or raising Pacifica management decisions on any Pacifica or KPFA broadcast."
In effect, Chadwick threatened mass firings if people didn't hold their tongues in front of station microphones about the most serious threat to the station's integrity in its 50-year history. "Any future violation of Pacifica policy and this directive may result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination," she declared. "We do not want to take this step, but will if necessary."
The ongoing crisis at KPFA and protracted conflicts with unionized workers at other Pacifica-owned stations indicate that managers in Pacifica's upper echelons are imitating the arrogance found in executive suites of commercial networks.
Yet all is not lost. To hear brave souls behind KPFA microphones -- risking their jobs and future access to the airwaves on behalf of free-speech principles -- it is possible to hope that integrity can prevail in today's media world.