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Nation’s Oldest Public Station Under Arrest

by Dennis Bernstein

BERKELEY — As a broadcaster at radio station KPFA for the last ten years, I often wondered just how many people were tuning in. After all, these are the apathetic 1990s, the passions of the 1960s are supposedly long gone. But when Pacifica Foundation pulled me off the air, arrested me for trespassing and seized the station, the response came from an inspiring diversity of people — from far beyond Berkeley and well beyond the 1960s. They had been listening, and they cared deeply about progressive, alternative radio. Pacifica’s action touches some very raw nerves. It involves not just one radio station, but the new world of corporate control and the relentless logic of the market. This battle is about the future, not reliving the 1960s. Those who pay attention to media issues — including many in mainstream organizations — were shocked at the news that a radio journalist was forcibly removed from his radio station and put on “administrative leave” for covering a public press conference. Or that broadcasters would be fired for discussing the overall direction of a listener-sponsored station. Or that armed guards would be hired to seize a station founded by pacifists. KPFA is the country’s oldest community radio station, founded in 1948. The board of Pacifica Foundation, which includes KPFA and stations in Los Angeles, Dallas, Washington, DC and New York City, has moved to take accountability away from local stations. At KPFA, it fired the station manager without explanation, illegally locked out the staff, and secretly discussed selling off the stations. Pacifica claims it is simply trying to modernize, expand and diversify the network. Pacifica’s envisions “modernization” along corporate lines — more top-down control, greater reliance on foundation money, and programming based on ratings. It characterizes those who oppose these moves as holdovers from a bygone era. Pacifica’s tactics mirror those used in corporate takeovers. It has hired lawyers who specialize in fighting unions, a high-powered PR firm and IPSA International, a security firm which specializes in “hostile terminations” or firing in hostile takeovers. These moves took place with the connivance of the government’s Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which worked closely with the top Pacifica management and encouraged the move away from local oversight. Of course all radio stations want to attract more listeners, but robbing KPFA of its independence will rob it of its uniqueness, its loyal listener-base and its reason for existence. KPFA at its best has been about conscience and truth, not about audience-share.

We have seen what happens when market-driven solutions are implemented. They lead to less diversity — racially and politically. For millions of us, the market just doesn’t work. Sure, stock prices are soaring, there are more Silicon Valley millionaires than ever, and U.S. military and economic supremacy is unchallenged. But there is also an obscene chasm between rich and poor. There is still racism, discrimination, and official brutality. More prisons are being built than universities, the numbers on death row keep growing, dictators thrive, unjust military actions continue…. KPFA has drawn wide support by speaking forcefully and directly about these issues. The corporate market-driven approach has particularly troubling features when applied to the media. Will everything we see and hear be filtered through corporate public relations departments and market-share accountants? Will sensationalism, celebrity and homogenized coverage rule everywhere? In this era of U.S. triumph, is even one alternative, sometimes radical, voice too many? My arrest by Pacifica is a violation of everything KPFA stands for. But I will not be silenced. What’s at stake here is the future of community radio and the preservation of a Bay Area institution, nourished by listeners for 50 years, that has provided a voice for the voiceless and a platform for activists and progressives to speak truth to power — without fear of reprisal.

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