How Pacifica Fired Opal Nations

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

CounterPunchers know well the wars at Pacifica which we’ve reported on more than once this year. The nub of the story involves the efforts of the national governing board, chaired by Mary Frances Berry, to turn the whole Pacifica radio network into a top-down autocratic outfit, putting out NPR-type pap. The latest outrage has been Berry’s pressuring of attorney general Janet Reno to twist the arms of Berkeley police to act rougher in breaking up sit-ins outside Pacifica’s offices in Berkeley, inhabited by Berry’s subaltern, Lynn Chadwick.

But the autocratic onslaught began in the mid-1990s, when Pat Scott took over as KPFA manager in Berkeley and then became Pacifica’s manager. One of the reasons we are running our friend Opal Nation’s account of being fired by Scott is that it gives a vivid sense of how the whole process of autocratic bullying and jackboot tactics looked from below. It’s the first time he’s told this story. We’re also proud to have Opal in our pages because he’s the greatest authority in the US-meaning in this instance the entire world-on gospel music, and has compiled many wonderful collections, available on CD, among them, “There Is No Sweeter Sound” for Columbia and the”Testify” boxed set for Rhino.

The Confessions of
a Pacifica Programmer By Opal Nations

Strange to imagine fourteen years of your own radio artwork drifting aimlessly somewhere out there in space four years after I was dumped without reason from the on-air staff at KPFA. Yet it has taken me four years to get to the writing table and be able to somehow convey my thoughts without feeling overwhelmed by anger and bitterness.

I came aboard the Pacifica flagship in mid-1981. My only experience had been in acting in and producing radio drama at the Radio Coop in Vancouver, Canada. My sphere of interest lies in traditional forms of Afro-American gospel music. We decided on a middle ground and presented an archival quartet program labeled “Doo-Wop Delights”. This late night meander down memory lane, with occasional side trips into soul, gospel and R & B, aired for ten years. In 1981, the KPFA studios were located in the grunge-gray suite above Edy’s Restaurant where large rodents had carved out territory and the rancid smell of stale air seeped out of the walls from below during opening hours. The atmosphere of the place was funky. Dissension among the ranks was a major problem, even then. Battles raged-the arts versus politics-and which were more deserving of prime daylight air time. Naturally, discourse won over culture every time.

My first thought was to try to remove the barriers between the com-partmentalized disciplines. To have music programmers take a stab at news reporting and news people have a go at doing drama. This might lead to a better understanding and respect for everyone involved in making KPFA a people’s forum. But my proposal was laughed at and people went back to defending their own small squares of broadcast territory. As time went on, program guides got thinner and KPFA Christmas parties shrank into Sandwichville.

The David Salniker management style struck me as a “hands-off” policy of leave well alone. If you had a problem, it would fix itself. Like today, no one ever cared about the night owls who regularly came in to host the graveyard shift. Boy, those late hours were sometimes scary. You never knew who was lurking around the next corner or who was “crashing” for the night. When time came to staff the mikes at marathon fund-raising events, we all gladly played used-car salesman. But in those days we did not need to meet large mortgage payments and “other-than listener funding” seemed to almost cover the impending PG&E bills.

I joined the Drama and Literature Department and shared in the morning readings, “acting out” chapters from the light side of English literature. The morning readings were one of a number of components that made KPFA a special station to be part of. We had a far broader spectrum of programming in those days. It was not until the hiring of David Salniker’s replacement that managerial affairs at KPFA took a downward turn culminating in the sorry state of affairs we have come to today. The gradual incursion of Pacifica’s meddling and interference seemed like an advancing disease. More and more, key KPFA personnel seemed to be at odds with a system that grew like a corporate pyramid by the minute.

The move to the Architectural Digest-type structure on MLK Jr. Way set the stage for what was to come: a move away from creative spontaneity into a realm of responsible, corporate business management. Let us all remember that KPFA was founded on the principles of libertarianism, freedom of thought and action in the furtherance of peace and justice for everyone. The new managerial system snatched the power which was given in trust away from the people and from behind locked doors management used this power to cleverly corporatize its own interests. Instead of turning to those individuals who had supported KPFA in times of need for most of their listening lives and doing all they could to increase and strengthen their numbers, KPFA management hired consultants who advised a course which took them into the mainstream of National Public Radio.

The on-air arts suffered and were almost annihilated. Schemes to radically change the on-air image of KPFA were drawn up in late 1994-early 1995. Listener input, as always, was not a figure in the equation. A plan evolved whereby those on-air people with the least political clout, and those who the management felt were supporting those parts of our culture they deemed irrelevant in today’s marketplace, would be swiftly axed. On-air staff who were either effectively unionized, worked full time for the station, raised staggering amounts of cash during fund raisers, had given money to build the new station and had had their names etched on blocks in the station lobby, or had made high profile overtures in the form of servile deference were kept on. So were the formerly forgotten hosts of the wee wee hours, those who broadcast after 1:30 a.m.

I had always thought it important to develop relationships with regular listeners and fans. I made posters and mailers which went out on a mailing list. I sent information four to six weeks in advance to the tabloids concerning upcoming programs and special artist features. Few music programmers ever did this at the time. I made a habit of posting mailers and flyers around the radio station. This was a grave mistake. It seems that anyone can read anything into a graphic design. Something somewhere will offend or outrage someone. I had no intention of alienating or discriminating against anyone in any shape or form at any time, but there were somehow those who thought my poster designs offensive and in a roundabout way let me know about it. I had made enemies of the “p.c. police”.

I quit posting my program at the station. Somehow I got the feeling that certain KPFA employees resented the fact that a white, middle-class, middle-aged male whose life had been spent researching African American gospel music was conducting a weekly in-depth black roots music show. Never mind the fact that it was scheduled at midnight, when most folks were tucked in, after the regurgitated evening news. If I had been playing rock & roll, all would have been fine. Meetings took place at the station where some people argued that programmers should play music of their own race.

In 1991, I tried to remove myself from this issue by switching over to hosting a world music program. This seemed exciting to me. It was a chance to learn and appreciate the cultures of the planet. I had subbed for David Mayer’s world music program and had learned a lot from his excellent (and sadly missed by many) Wednesday morning show. I wanted to be able to contribute more to KPFA.

My show was called “Harmonia Mundi” (Global Harmony). After two years, I quit world music and took up profiling the principal movers and shakers of R & B, the artists who shaped the course of Blues & Rhythm music from its beginnings during the war years up to its death at the dawn of the “British Invasion”. This new show was called “Rockin at Midnite.” We had a ball, and in no way did I encroach upon the territory carved out by “Blues by the Bay,” a long-established program I often hosted when Tom Mazzolini was pressed for time to do it.

Dark clouds started to gather in late 1994, when programmers were told in staff circulars that our programs would come under review. I sensed something was wrong when no effort was made to review my show. In fact, no music department head or member of KPFA management ever hauled me in to suggest ways of how my show might be improved, changed or altered for the better. To my knowledge, none of the other programmers received a review of their programs either. The writing was on the wall. A secret re-programming committee was set up and convened behind closed doors. A series of lie-filled staff circulars were mailed out in an effort to conceal the real intentions of the management.

First we were told that all regular weekly programmers would keep their programs and be rescheduled. This was the first lie. Secondly, we were informed that pulled programs and hosts would get a chance to reapply as all regular KPFA programming would be reviewed and evaluated every three months. This of course was a bold-faced lie. The station did not have the means to put people through this time-consuming process. We were firmly directed to keep all station business under our hats. We were forbidden to tell our listeners anything. Most of us, those in fear of losing our shows, kept our mouths shut. We felt angry and intimidated. We felt helpless. A deathly silence reigned during the month prior to the mass “cleansing”. Rumors spread, but little information from the secret meetings filtered down to the on-air staff. The lid was shut tightly.

The death knell for me came one early Monday morning in July. Not a letter, not a meeting, not a confrontation, but a cursory phone call from the station manager thirty minutes before I was heading out to KPFA to sub for “Blues By The Bay”. A perfectly inept time to tell me I no longer had a show, that my services would no longer be needed in the Drama & Literature Department, and that my chances of hosting a regular world music program on KPFA were slim. That’s it. That’s how they fired me. But they added one last lie: You will however be on the top of the subs list for the morning world music slot. The management had no intention of calling me in to substitute for anyone, something that became obvious to me over the ensuing months of not a single call, in spite of the fact that world music shows ran five mornings a week and there were regular no-shows of the programmers.

I applied three times for a world music show, each time submitting formal, written applications. These were ignored and never even acknowledged. The most painful part was saying goodbye to my listeners. Some called with tearful voices. One listener told me she had moved to the Bay Area just so she could listen to my program. How do you respond to statements like this? The studio phone lines were jammed. I tried choking back tears and making excuses. After all, the truth had not been revealed to me by the management. I felt unable to give clear and substantial answers to the listeners. Why was I on the outs list? Why did the management want me off the station? Why did they not consult with me to work out a solution that best suited everyone? I was prepared to take my airtime in any given direction. I had proven I could be both inventive and versatile. Didn’t somebody say that KPFA was a forum for ideas that would not otherwise be expressed?

“Rockin at Midnite” was the kind of in-depth music program one never heard on any other Bay Area radio station. KPFA management was swamped with angry letters. They were all answered with the same old lies. Oh no, I had not been taken off the air, I was simply relegated to substitute world music programmer. To my amazement, I found that I was the first person to leak the mass firings to the press.

Hours of preparation go into putting a program together. Hours of unpaid research. Not once did any member of management show any gratitude, and eventually we came not to expect any. To be suddenly thrown off the air without fair reason, after fourteen years of devoting a substantial part of your life to public radio, leaves a deep and lasting scar.

KPFA is a station left to us in trust. If it is to survive it needs to rebuild its trust in the people even if this means a complete remodel of the Pacifica Foundation.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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