Berkeley's famous, often controversial and decidedly-liberal radio station, KPFA, has been the focus of a management reorganizational dispute which has become very public. At 94.1 on the FM dial, KPFA, which started 50 years ago as a "voice of the voiceless," has hosted the Blank Panthers, gay and lesbian supporters and other so-called "radical" organizations. The station reaches as far south as Monterey and north to Mendocino. One of five radio stations owned by the Pacifica Foundation, the present and rapidly-escalating confrontation between KPFA management and staff has, in the last few weeks, resulted in street protests involving literally hundreds of station supporters, all-night vigils, crowds stampeding to invade the station building while police pulled screaming climbers off the station's front balcony. The rising temperature of these physical demonstrations, which resulted in the arrest of several of the more active staff supporters is matched by the letters to the editors in Bay Area papers:
Nick Alva from Cotati writes: "KPFA... is the last source of in-depth news in the Bay Area. Devoted to truth, it is a station supported by the people, uncontrolled and unrestricted by market pressures. KPFA covers stories that no other news source covers... tells the truth about illegal government actions at home and abroad... speaks of issues important to health, ecology, humanity and peace."
Columnist Alexander Cockburn noted in The Nation (April 26th), "When Pat Scott was installed as Pacifica's national executive director in 1995, she speedily threatened all dissenters, hired unionbusters and made her long-term goal the removal of Pacifica's governing board from any accountabililty. Her successor, Lynn Chadwick, has been just as bad."
The dispute surfaced in February when Pacifica Foundation's president, Lynn Chadwick, pushed through a ruling enabling the Foundation's national board to name its own members, thus producing a self-perpetuating hierarchy. Previously, national board members were nominated, two from each of the five stations. Public outcry was instantaneous. Management supporters told the press that Pacifica Board's intent was "to give KPFA a more mainstream image so as to attract corporate donations," which approach flew in the face of what has been a largely member-supported organization. Not long after, on March 31st, Chadwick fired KPFA station manager Nicole Sawaya without giving her a reason, though Sawaya's supporters say it was her questioning the growth of the Pacific bureaucracy and its control over local stations. The share of listener donation supported stations passed on to Pacifica management has grown from 3 percent 25 years ago to 17.2 percent at present. Sawaya had also been critical of KPFA's curtailing of long-time programmer Larry Bensky in 1998. Bensky had complained that his national daily had been cut. The newly-hired communications director, Burt Glass (formerly with the US Justice Department's community policing program), had issued what he called a "cheat sheet" describing how Pacifica staff and board should disguise schedule changes with "verbal fluff."
Some weeks after Sawaya's dismissal, when Larry Bensky and long-standing folk music host Robbie Osman discussed the station's political issues on the air, Chadwick responded by firing them both. Dennis Bernstein was Chadwick's next victim. Hosting his popular "Flashpoints" program, Bernstein ran segments of a news conference by 14 protesters who had been arrested on civil disobedience charges. Bernstein was told to "leave the building," but refusing, listeners on the air heard him struggling with Chadwick's armed guards and shouting: "Those are my personal papers. Don't go near my desk." Bernstein was placed on administrative leave.
On July 13th, Chadwick had called in the cops again, and 53 station supporters were arrested. Next day, hundreds of activists, many wearing mouth gags to get their message across, swarmed the corners of University Avenue and 16th Street under the eye of Berkeley's riot-geared police. KPFA's entire staff was fired, station doors padlocked and windows boarded up.
As the Chronicle reported (July 19th): "The private security police now occupying padlocked KPFA has ties with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies and could be having a field day with the confidential records kept by reporters at the frequently anti-establishment station."
Meanwhile, Dan Siegal, Oakland attorney, had filed a suit by 18 members of the local advisory boards of four of its five station, in Alameda Superior Court. The suit asks for an injunction to stop Pacifica from removing the power of local boards to name national board members. In a surprise move, on July 16th, respected media watchdog group FAIR (New York-based Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), an ally of Pacifica which for 13 years had shared in its alternative reporting, called for the resignation of Pacifica's leadership.
Public figures have been getting into the act. Berkeley's retired professor of journalism and media critic Ben Bagdikian praised FAIR's critical approach. Alameda County Board of Supervisor's chair Wilma Chan called for an end to KPFA management's lockout. Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who once had a talk show on KPFA, called on the station's management to "chill out," while from Sacramento, Senator John Burton (D-San Francisco), Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) and 14 other legislators signed a letter criticizing Pacifica for its "recent lockout of station staff" and its removal of local board selection of national board members.
On July 19th a possible breakthrough emerged as the committee representing both station workers and supporters agreed to accept mediation as did the 11-member steering committee representing KPFA in its dispute with its own governing body.
There is obviously more to come in this struggle between corporate control and the local station's need for program independence. As Cockburn noted in his Nation article, directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which presently underwrite 14 percent of Pacifica's budget, had been pressuring Pacifica to adopt more governing-board domination. * * *
This week's press revealed another not-unexpected outgrowth of corporate media financing. Our local KQED-TV along with other PBS stations were discovered to have been brokering their list of commercial donors to various political parties and candidates, despite tax laws that prohibit public stations from playing political favorites. California's Senator Barbara Boxer and the Democratic National Committee, along with over 100 companies, were eager recipients. WGBH in Boston in return for donating its list to the Democratic National Committee received from the DNC a list of contributors to the Party. Republicans in Congress were furious. The office of Representative Edward Markey, ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee's telecommunications subcommittee which will consider hundreds of millions in potential funding for PBS, said to the press: "The problem is that there are very strong opponents of public broadcasting who will seize any opportunity to try to hurt that system."
Today, as similar areas of conflict surface across the whole spectrum of our media, the forces for freedom will continually find themselves at war with the Darth Vaders of mind control. Thomas Jefferson could not have said it more clearly.