The Fight for Free Speech Radio: ‘KPFA-FM Pacifica’

In late 1994, a group of people inside Pacifica Radio’s national directorate seized control of the institution. They announced that “vast changes” were to take place and warned others that those “who do not feel that they can assist Pacifica in its present mission are advised to resign. If there are indications that actions are being taken collectively or individually to countermand the policies, directives, and mandates of the Pacifica Board, the Board will take appropriate steps.”

In late 1994, a group of people inside Pacifica Radio’s national directorate seized control of the institution. They announced that “vast changes” were to take place and warned others that those “who do not feel that they can assist Pacifica in its present mission are advised to resign. If there are indications that actions are being taken collectively or individually to countermand the policies, directives, and mandates of the Pacifica Board, the Board will take appropriate steps.”

“There are innumerable ways of wasting time and generating nonsense, and there are also uncounted ways of making money, many of which may be pursued in broad daylight. But the elaborate machinery and the peculiar intimacy of the radio medium have better and more basic uses. The theory I want to discuss rests on two particular assumptions: first, that radio can and should be used for significant communication and art; and second, that since broadcasting is an act of communication, it ought to be subject to the same aesthetic and ethical principles as we apply to any communicative act, including the most personal.” — Pacifica Founder Lewis Hill, from “The Theory of Listener-Sponsored Radio” 1951

“The primary signal would lend itself to a quiet marketing scenario of discreet presentation to logical and qualified buyers. This is the best radio market in history and while public companies may see a dilutive effect from a sale (due to the approximate 12 month repositioning effort needed), they would still be aggressive for such a signal. Private media companies would be the most aggressive in terms of price, which he [a radio broker] thinks could be in the $65-75m range depending on various aspects of a deal.” — Pacifica Foundation Director Micheal Palmer in a confidential memo to Pacifica Chair Mary F. Berry, on the possible sale of the nation’s first listener sponsored radio station, KPFA-FM in Berkeley, July 12, 1999

In late 1994, a group of people inside Pacifica Radio’s national directorate seized control of the institution. They announced that “vast changes” were to take place and warned others that those “who do not feel that they can assist Pacifica in its present mission are advised to resign. If there are indications that actions are being taken collectively or individually to countermand the policies, directives, and mandates of the Pacifica Board, the Board will take appropriate steps.

The stated purpose of the changes was to build a “modern, relevant, effective radio network,” that would “act as a leader for progressive social change.”

A series of purges of both on-air and off-air personnel took place. There was opposition from the beginning inside the organization, but gag orders threatened broadcasters with removal if they discussed “dirty laundry.” A climate of fear was created. The perpetrators of the coup assured important constituencies in the community that they were trying to strengthen Pacifica to fight off attacks from the Christian Right and to increase the audience for the progressive message. Many who should have known better suspended their disbelief. The Right had a lot of people scared.

Critics, who pointed out that the coup leaders’ intent to transform Pacifica into a top-down hierarchical organization run like a commercial broadcast network was at odds with progressive principles, were dismissed as “disgruntled former employees,” elitists, racists or “stuck in the ‘60’s” – whichever pejorative could most easily be applied.

To consolidate their power, the coup leaders hired union busters to strip station workers of their ability to effect decision making about policy and finances. They amended the station by-laws to remove voting power and management oversight from community advisory boards at the five local stations, to make the board of directors self-selecting so no one could unseat them. They closed meetings and made policy and financial documents off limits to the public.

Because there were no structures that assured open and accountable governance of Pacifica by the community, Pacifica was vulnerable to this takeover from within.

Last February, in spite of community opposition which included notables such as Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman and Howard Zinn, the Pacifica Board made itself into a self-selecting body accountable only to, in the words of Pacifica spokesperson Elan Fabbri, “the IRS, the CPB, the FCC.”

The CPB, the government’s Corporation for Public Broadcasting, headed by Robert Coonrod, a former exec of US propaganda outlet Radio Marti, had played a direct role in applying pressure to vacillating Board members by sending letters at the request of Pacifica Executive Director Pat Scott, and her successor Lynn Chadwick, that threatened the loss of funding if the by-laws were not changed.

Both Scott and Chadwick have been praised by Coonrod for their contributions to what many see as the neutering of Pacifica and the rest of community radio. Since the coup began in 1995 the federal government has come to the aid of the plotters more than once. In 1997, the CPB brass whitewashed their own investigator’s report which concluded that the Pacifica Board had violated open meeting guidelines. More recently, the Department of Justice got involved by questioning the Berkeley police about its “soft” treatment of Berkeley KPFA demonstrators, at the request of Pacifica Chair Mary Frances Berry.

Pacifica Radio, which has over the course of its history been attacked by the House un-American Activities Committee, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, the Federal Communications Commission, and as “hate radio” by the US Congress now has a Chairperson who also chairs the US Civil Rights Commission, and attends meetings flanked by government bodyguards.

Pacifica’s “New Mission”

For the past several years, critics have charged that Pacifica was moving toward the mainstream. Pacifica management vociferously denied this, while pursuing systematic censorship, as well as purges, to eliminate anti-government voices. They have rebuffed these criticisms by pointing to Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” program. The fact is that from the beginning, Goodman and her crew were pressured by Pacifica Executive Director Pat Scott to go easy on government officials, especially Clinton. In 1997, WBAI New York program director Samori Marksman, who helped develop the program, reported to WBAI’s advisory board that Scott had told him, “How dare we criticize Clinton.” Anti-nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott, who had a weekly program on WBAI during that same period said that Marksman told her that Pacifica would not distribute her program over its new KU satellite service unless she stopped her constant criticism of the US.

The blueprint for the transmogrification of Pacifica was laid out in a document called “A Vision for Pacifica Radio: Creating a Network for the 21st Century, Strategic 5 Year Plan” which was completed in early 1997 after more than a year of closed door sessions.

Pacifica was to become a “national force” by “impacting political discourse” in order to serve as an antidote to the fare provided by the broadcast media which was described as “a deception that distorts reality and undermines people’s faith in government, their sense of community, and the notion of shared social responsibility.”

But the broadcast media does not undermine “faith in government” though it does undermines community. Rather, it instills fear of one’s fellow citizen’s and “demonstrates” that our civil liberties make us unsafe, and encourages us to trade them in for greater police powers. It does this by an endless portrayal of crime and conflict presented as inexplicable acts of evil instead of as a series of human responses to a set of circumstances. Faced with such apparently irrational evil, we feel powerless, in need of protection.

The coup leaders have strong government ties. Pacifica’s present and former Chairperson’s both are highly placed in the organization of the perpetual Democratic Presidential hopeful Jesse Jackson, and Berry, the current Chair, is a Federal appointee of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Recently departed Board Secretary Roberta Brooks, orchestrated the heist of Pacifica while serving on the staff of Democratic Congress member Ron Dellums.

Pacifica is being remade as a propaganda tool; this was not its original mission. No doubt many believed the ends justified the means. This was a unilateral decision and a perversion of Pacifica’s founding purposes. It was a theft of something that a great many people over the years had built with their love and labor for other purposes. Pacifica’s anarchist-pacifist founders understood the State as the police force of elite power and privilege which protected and expanded access to resources through the mechanism of war. They meant to expose that relationship. They could only do so by standing outside the spheres of influence of government and corporate control.

New Standards

Pacifica’s founders consciously threw out the existing conventions of broadcasting in order to use the medium of radio educationally, instead of as a wallpaper of sound in the background of our daily lives. Pacifica was not intended to have “mass appeal” but its intent was not “elitist” as Pacifica’s “reformers” have claimed. It was meant to make available a level of discourse, usually found only at universities, to any factory worker or waitress who cared to tune their dial to KPFA’s frequency. It brought voices to the airwaves which were excluded elsewhere because of their nonconformity or powerlessness. It’s reliance on volunteerism was not just a solution to financial constraints; it was meant to guarantee that the broadcaster would be motivated by a sincere desire to communicate on matters of importance, rather than as a larynx prostituted to the highest bidder, a state of affairs Hill criticized in his writings.

Pacifica before the coup was beset by many internal problems that left it divided and conquerable. There was a lack of cooperation and community inside the stations, which wasted precious energy on competition and turf wars. The problems endemic to the larger culture were brought into the stations and dealt with in a manner no more enlightened than in the wider society. A greater variety of people and views, excluded from media elsewhere, were vying for Pacifica airspace. No process was in place, that seemed fair and participatory, for deciding who got what. Almost everyone at every level felt victimized and disempowered. A group bent on strengthening Pacifica would have attempted to solve these problems. Instead, the problems were cynically exploited.

In 1992, Pacifica’s national management, led by David Salniker, decided to transform Pacifica into a network along the lines of National Public Radio by seeking grants from corporate foundations like Pew and Ford to develop and expand the stream of marketable national programming. This was laid out in a document called “A Strategy for National Programming.”

Meanwhile, in the guise of “helping” public broadcasting improve “private sector” support, the CPB began funding and promoting an agenda of mainstreaming public media. Lynn Chadwick, Pacifica’s current Executive Director, was President of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters(NFCB). Under her leadership, the NFCB, with grants from CPB, was sponsoring a program called “The Healthy Station Project” which advocated the professionalization of community radio and the use of Arbitron ratings as a measure of a station’s success.

Arbitron was developed by the commercial broadcasting industry as a means for establishing advertising rates. It gauged success by numbers of people listening, appropriate to the goals of selling ears to advertisers. By its standards the Howard Stern Show was “better” than an Isaac Stern recital because more people were listening to it.

Public radio consultants such as David Giovannoni of Audigraphics told Pacifica managers that their goal of doubling their audience was realistic, if they were willing to focus more on entertainment and content “geared toward a slightly more moderate audience.”

Increasing the audience at Pacifica stations took on a new urgency with the inauguration of the Newt Gingrich Congress. Christian Fundamentalist Republicans were now in a position to realize their dreams of defunding “liberal” public broadcasting. CPB money provided 15 percent of Pacifica’s funding. A compromise with Congress was reached. Pat Scott and Lynn Chadwick played a role. CPB grants would now be tied to “performance.” This meant achieving a certain Arbitron rating, which would force stations to mainstream their programming, or collect a certain level of funding which would drive them toward corporate underwriting and upscale audiences.

In 1995 massive purges of programming took place at KPFT in Houston, KPFK in Los Angeles, and at KPFA in Berkeley. Most of the programs with an overtly radical perspective were removed, programs in languages other than English were removed, programs geared toward particular ethnic communities and the poor were targeted. Many of these programs enjoyed strong community support. Dissident groups formed in Berkeley, Los Angeles, New York and Houston.

At KPFK, programmers have been told to gear there message to a more mainstream audience, and forbidden from encouraging listeners to attend anti-war demonstrations. Newscasters were ordered not to pronounce Spanish names with a Spanish accent and music programmers were told not to use expressions that would “alienate” an older audience.

In spite of the rhetoric from Pacifica management about “diversity” and a “re-engagement” it seems that Pacifica was now after the cash of National Public Radio’s middle-aged, middle-class, mostly white, listeners. They were aware that the changes were going to alienate many longtime listeners. They presumed that many would continue to support them anyway, having nowhere else to go. Those disaffected would be replaced by new listeners. KPFK manager Mark Schubb, speaking at a 1995 meeting of a listener group unhappy with the program changes, told the 50 people in attendance that they could be replaced with 5000 new listeners by changing the programming. Listener-sponsors had been told (and believed) that they were partners in the great endeavor that was Pacifica. The new “Pacifica Inc.” regarded them as consumers to be attracted, numbers to be tallied.

Even after the purges of several hundred people between 1995 and 1997, Pacifica failed to double its audience. It still hasn’t and Mary Frances Berry is now using the size of the audience as a reason to justify selling KPFA. Yet in 1996 and in 1998 Pacifica’s board was touting its great success in audience expansion.

One thing that had risen by 1997 was Pacifica’s income. Pacifica’s annual budget went from $8 million to $10 million. More and more money was being taken from what donors gave to the local stations, supposedly to fund national programs. By the beginning of 1999 they were taking 17.25% and a hike up to 20% was planned.

Those national programs never materialized. Instead money was spent on an expanding national bureaucracy and an unknown number of consultants whose activities were unclear. In December 1998, Pacifica abruptly fired Larry Bensky, a veteran broadcaster at KPFA, claiming there was no money for the program he was scheduled to begin. Where had all the money been being pulled out of KPFA, and the other Pacifica stations gone? This is what KPFA manager Nicole Sawaya asked when she was fired in March 1999. She told the Pacifica Board “No new taxes.”

Two consecutive events—the abrupt firing of Larry Bensky in December, and the change to a self-selecting Board in February, demolished what confidence remained in the management. Sawaya’s firing was the last straw.

In her last report to the KPFA Advisory Board on March 30, Sawaya reported that she had received a number of letters from listeners who said they would no longer contribute because of the governance change and the treatment of Larry Bensky. “People equate Pacifica with KPFA and KPFA takes the blame.”

On-ramp to Rebellion

On December 7, 1998 Larry Bensky was told he was fired. He described the sequence of events in a letter to supporters: ”Last Monday, as I left the studio after anchoring the first day of Pacifica’s ‘Impeachment Watch,’ I was handed a two sentence letter from Gail Christian, ‘Director of Program Services,’ informing me that I was terminated immediately as host of ‘Living Room’ and ‘Impeachment Watch.’ No reason was given for this sudden action.”

Bensky’s firing threw the KPFA staff into turmoil. Program Director Lawrence Shorter was shocked by Bensky’s peremptory dismissal. He had promised to deal openly and honestly with staff and listeners and received no guidance from the National management as to what to tell the angry listeners. Every call-in show was deluged with questions about the firing.

Nicole Sawaya took a public stand in support of Bensky and allowed him to go on the air to address the community. Bensky had made clear that he had the full support of KPFA management, and that his dispute was with Pacifica’s top management. The community responded to his call for support and Bensky was reinstated two weeks later.

Bensky’s firing had jeopardized the careful work that Sawaya had been doing to rebuild the station’s community and internal relations. In a letter sent 2/23/99 to the Pacifica Board of Directors, the KPFA staff expressed a vote of no confidence in Pacifica management: “We are growing increasingly concerned that the management of Pacifica is being conducted in a manner that is contradictory to its mission. One year ago, when Nicole Sawaya was hired as KPFA Station Manager, she assumed leadership of a staff that had been demoralized by acrimonious union negotiations, hostility from some listeners opposed to program changes, and fund drives that had fallen short of their goals. Under Nicole’s direction, the station has started to flourish again.”

Lynn Chadwick had been Executive Director of Pacifica for only two months. Her predecessor, Pat Scott knew who she could stomp on and who had clout. But Scott had lost control of her own takeover and been forced out, according to insiders.

Mary Frances Berry had been recruited in 1997 as a replacement by retiring Chair Jack O’Dell and Scott. Berry had the right connections and a glamorous resume. Berry admits she had originally declined O’Dell’s invitation as she was already very busy, but she was “hooked” by the strategic plan. Berry understood the power of a radio network.

O’Dell had taken a hands off role as Board Chair and let Scott run the show. Berry had her own ideas. Scott’s style had alienated even her allies and made her an easy target for a growing legion of critics. The Board backed Berry.

To rid itself of the radicals, the plotters turned increasingly rightward for allies. Pacifica’s Board was now populated by power brokers for whom KPFA was just part of a cornucopia of deployable assets.

Whose station?

Nicole Sawaya’s firing was not a surprise to everyone. By a quirk of fate, a secret session of the Board Executive Committee, where Sawaya’s firing was discussed, was witnessed by WBAI staff member Erroll Maitland, who had flown into town for the Board meeting. Pacifica had changed the meeting location and waited until the last minute to announce the change, hoping to confuse demonstrators. Maitland had not gotten the word about the change, so he went to the original location and walked in on the session. Before his presence was noticed, he heard Chadwick demand that Sawaya “must go” and the committee give the go-ahead. Maitland reported the conversation to local activists, who informed Sawaya and influential community leaders who supported her.

A quiet campaign was waged in her support, to no avail. On March 31 KPFA News reported that Sawaya had been fired, that they had been ordered not to report it, and that they were defying the “gag rule” and reporting it anyway.

KPFA supporters had consistently been told two things: KPFA was their station and KPFA was free speech radio. A gag rule? It was immediately obvious to many that the purpose of the rule was to keep them in ignorance. They were hurt and angry. A week after Sawaya’s ouster, Bensky raised the issues on his Sunday call-in program. He was fired again. April 15 was KPFA and Pacifica’s 50th birthday. Instead of the celebration originally planned, 1000 people demonstrated. The story was front page news in the Bay Area dailies and carried round the world on the wire. But not on Pacifica Stations in Los Angeles, Washington and Houston, where FAIR’s Counterspin and Pacifica’s own news was censored to remove any mention of the rebellion. Pacifica was trying to keep the lid on by insisting the matter was a “labor dispute” and attempting to prevent the hypocrisy from being exposed listeners in other Pacifica cities.

Chadwick issued a memo telling KPFA staff that further violations of the gag rule would lead to disciplinary action. Long-time host Robbie Osman denounced the legitimacy of the gag rule and was removed on June 20. The station broadcast dead air during his usual 2-hour Sunday morning program. In the ensuing protest, 14 were arrested. Berkeley police had refused to arrest the peaceful demonstrators until Chadwick made a citizen’s arrest. Andrea Buffa of Media Alliance, a press advocacy group, was one of those arrested. She told the press, Chadwick was “desperately, and aggressively, trying to make KPFA’s loyal staff and supporters go away. But it’s not going to work: we have kept this station alive for 50 years. We won’t stand by and watch it be taken from the diverse community that supports it—financially, politically and creatively.”

Setting a New Standard for Censorship

On July 13, listeners to KPFA heard a sequence of events that set a new standard for censorship—host Dennis Bernstein being pursued by armed guards who were attempting to remove him from the building. His screams of “don’t touch me… I’m afraid you’re going to shoot me,” could be heard in the background of the evening newscast. In a shaky voice, anchor Mark Mericle explained what was happening. The station went dead. Then a tape from the Pacifica archives began playing; they had switched off KPFA. Several hundred community members rushed to the station. By the end of the night, Bernstein, Mericle and more than 50 other staff and listeners had been arrested.

The next day, Pacifica locked the doors of KPFA, while community members set up a tent city in the street in front of the station. Programming piped in from elsewhere was broadcast from KPFA’s transmitter, which had been rerouted for that purpose, even as Berry made statements to the press that this would not occur. Staff were locked out of KPFA’s studios until July 30.

Bernstein’s broadcast had included a press conference given by the 14 demonstrators who had been arrested the previous month. The press conference featured a bombshell: a misdirected e-mail from Pacifica Board member Micheal Palmer destined for the Chairwoman. The memo asked about the progress of plans to “shutdown and reprogram” KPFA and provided an analysis of marketing scenarios for KPFA’s and WBAI’s signals.

Pacifica’s spokesperson admitted that the memo was Palmer’s. Andrea Buffa of Media Alliance, who had received it the night before, had already traced the route of the message to Palmer’s computer. Pacifica’s explanation was that Palmer was speaking for himself only and the Board had no plans to sell KPFA.

But Pete Bramson, a Board member from the Bay Area called a press conference two weeks later. He confirmed that serious discussions about the sale of KPFA were taking place. “Pacifica Board Chair Mary Frances Berry has repeatedly said during these past several weeks that she has no intention of selling KPFA. That’s not true.” he said.

Evidence has emerged that the lock-out was planned more than a month in advance. According to the East Bay Express, “it was early June when Pacifica officials began importing managers from other stations, consultants from companies that handle labor problems, and archived tapes of lectures and music which could be played in case of a lockout. On June 7, Chadwick brought “human resource consultant’ Gene Edwards to the station, ostensibly to review personnel files. According to his associates, Edwards has a long history of advising companies in the process of terminating employees en masse; for several years in the mid-’90s, Edwards developed ‘employee transition’ programs for the consulting firm Lee Hecht Harrison, a subsidiary of the giant temporary employment agency Adecco. Lee Hecht Harrison specializes in downsizing firms and coordinating mass layoffs.”

Edwards was also responsible for the hiring of armed security guards from IPSA, a security and investigation firm whose staff includes former US government intelligence agents, experts in hostile terminations, and sharpshooters. According to documents obtained by an audit committee of the California Legislature which is looking into whether expenses for the lockout violate Pacifica’s non-profit status, $380,000 was spent on the IPSA guards alone. More than half a million dollars has been spent on the assault on KPFA and its community.

Meanwhile, a campaign of censorship continues at other Pacifica stations, to keep listeners in ignorance. Recently, award-winning journalist Robin Urevich joined the ranks of more than a dozen people who have been banned from KPFK for criticizing management’s policies. Urevich’s offense was writing an article for a local paper which detailed censorship of content about the KPFA rebellion.

Of KPFK, she wrote: ”Questioning of authority inside the station is taboo. The station has paid a price for stifling dissent…. It’s proven next to impossible to encourage news and public affairs staff to question authority outside the station while suppressing disagreement inside.”

Testifying before the California Legislative Audit Committee, Pacifica historian Matthew Lasar said, “Of late we have heard Pacifica’s representatives claim that Pacifica radio needs to more effectively get out its message. Last night I got a telephone call from a good friend. Her name is Alice Hamburg; she knew Lewis Hill; she was one of the first KPFA subscribers and she still supports the station to this day. ‘Matthew,’ she told me, ‘what Pacifica doesn’t realize is that your message isn’t just what you say, it’s what you do.’”

The fight for free speech radio continues.

Author: Lyn Perry

News Service: Alternative Press Review


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