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PACIFICA: The Plot Thickens

by David Bacon

BERKELEY–Pacifica Foundation’s growing practice of saying one thing in public, while doing the complete opposite behind closed doors, achieved remarkable new heights this week. For months board chair Mary Francis Berry, fired publicity flak Elan Fabbri, and even the Fineman public relations firm hired by Pacifica to replace her (specialists in corporate damage control in the wake of food poisonings and similar disasters), have denied that there were any plans for the sale of Berkeley radio station KPFA. But that was precisely the subject of not just one, but two day-long telephone conference-call board meetings early this week. Members were sworn to secrecy, warned not to divulge the explosive contents of the discussions.

On Tuesday, Berry first held a meeting of the board’s executive committee, in which various scenarios were floated regarding the sale of the license of the station in Berkeley, or possibly of New York’s WBAI. The following day, the full board debated the proposals. At the call’s conclusion, board members decided they would eventually choose between various options for transferring ownership of the license(s).

Three board members dissented, and according to Pete Bramson, who represents the Bay Area, they were berated by Berry and her allies. Bramson was even accused of being a "fascist," he says. The whole discussion, coming on the heels of repeated denials that the move was even being contemplated, was too much for him, and he blew the lid at a press conference in front of the Berkeley station that afternoon.

KPFA is the U.S.’s oldest community broadcaster, a non-commercial station started in 1949 by pacifists interested in using radio to promote free speech in opposition to the corporate-dominated media. The Pacifica Foundation was established to hold its broadcast license, and now runs four other stations as well in New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC and Houston.

Conflict has been growing for years between the foundation and local stations over issues of democracy and local control, unionbusting in contract negotiations, expanding foundation budgets at the expense of local stations, and the desire of the foundation to make programming more "mainstream" and less overtly leftwing and progressive.

While discussing the sale of its flagship station in Berkeley in private with board members, however, Berry began a media blitz publicizing a completely different proposal. She called the secretary-treasurer of the union representing KPFA paid employees, CWA Local 9415, and offered to end the immediate dispute which has paralyzed broadcasting for weeks. Staff, both paid and unpaid, has been locked out of the station since July 13, when programmer Dennis Bernstein was hauled away from a microphone at the conclusion of his "Flashpoints" radio magazine show. Bernstein and 53 others were arrested for refusing to leave the station, including co-news directors Aileen Alfenderry and Mark Mericle. The two were put under citizens arrest for "trespassing" — for remaining in their office and working at their jobs — by Berry loyalist Garland Gantner, manager of the Houston Pacifica station, imported into Berkeley for the occasion.

Since the arrests, demonstrations have gone on day and night in the street out in front, marked by numerous arrests. Protesters set up a tent city, and after being rousted by the police on several occasions, were finally permitted to permanently block the street in front of the station doors.

Berry’s proposal seems crafted more for the media than for a resolution of the deep disagreements which lie at the root of the crisis. She was on the phone to newspapers from the Washington Post to the local Bay Area dailies before the afternoon was out, in a major PR offensive. Saying nothing about any possible sale, she announced she would open the station doors on Friday, let the staff run it until an interim station manager was appointed, and review the situation in nine months to determine whether KPFA had increased the number and diversity of its listeners (measured by the infamous Arbitron ratings service.)

The proposal, however, was not made at the table where a steering committee formed by the union, unpaid staff and community supporters has been in mediation with Pacifica for the last week. The plan avoids the key issues which lie at the heart of the dispute, including the firing of past station manager Nicole Sawaya and programmer Larry Bensky, and the democratization of control over staff and programming.

Furthermore, Berry told CWA secretary-treasurer Bill Harvey that the foundation only had enough money to pay the staff for another 2-3 weeks. Not only has the foundation squandered millions of dollars since the dispute began on expensive public relations campaigns and strong-arm guards, but it has sabotaged collection of the funds actually raised by station staff. In KPFA’s last fundraising marathon, an outpouring of listener support raised pledges for over $600,000, way over the drive’s target. But most listeners checked a box on the pledge form devised by staff, stating they were pledging under protest. Pacifica then wrote them back a letter saying the foundation couldn’t accept money pledged under those conditions.

Meanwhile, board member David Acosta from Houston has proposed getting a loan for $5 million, using KPFA’s broadcast license as collateral. That license is worth $65-75 million, if it is eventually sold to a commercial broadcaster.

Sale of the license is a complicated process. The foundation is a non-profit entity, and therefore a sale for profit, or to a for-profit corporation, would require state consent. Sixteen state legislators have cosigned a letter to Pacifica condemning its actions against KPFA, and it is questionable whether the foundation would get a sympathetic hearing from Attorney General Bill Lockyer, president pro-tem of the State Senate until his election last November.

In addition, to staff and community activists the nine-month grace period Berry is offering sounds suspiciously like the kind of time that would be necessary to negotiate the legal labyrinth a sale would entail. Perhaps Berry, her supporters, and the Fineman firm hope that the situation would appear to return to normal, and they could then engineer the station’s sale after the protests died down and the pressure of the lockout was removed.

Berry has continually criticized KPFA for having an audience of 200,000 people in a media market of over 4 million. She has accused the staff of lacking diversity and being unconcerned with reaching out to communities of color. Berry refers to the KPFA audience as white men over 50 in ponytails.

But her emphasis on diversity has been criticized by people of color among station staff and listeners as an attempt to manipulate public sentiment, using a real issue of concern for covert purposes. Both African-American and Asian/Pacific Islander programmers have signed letters to her demanding she agree to the demands of the staff.

Staff of color point out that the union contract at the station has strong affirmative action language, which requires hiring committees which have to take into account the racial, national and sex composition of the station staff, and the need for minority representation, in making hiring decisions. Rather than protect that language, Pacifica negotiators have sought to weaken affirmative action protection in contract negotiations, as well as the right of the staff to form hiring committees to fill vacancies.

KPFA has the only minority apprenticeship program in the Pacifica network, which has been instrumental over the years in teaching broadcast skills to young people of color.

In examining the diversity issue, staff of color have called for the reestablishment of the Third World and Women’s Departments, which were abolished by previous Pacifica managers as being out of touch with mainstream programming needs. They hold that the philosophy of community radio requires, not just staff diversity, but an emphasis on creating programming for communities of color, who then have a reason to become part of the organized support base for the station. Staff of color calls as well for democratization of the station’s internal functioning.

Outreach by African-American, Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander staff members has brought crowds of listeners down to the demonstrations in front of KPFA, where a microtransmitter has broadcast programming to the surrounding neighborhood. Last weekend featured an afternoon of music by reggae programmers, a full day Latino music celebration, and a labor speakout.

This outpouring of support from local communities has provided the kind of political muscle which has forced Pacifica to make the concession on ending the lockout. In the recent labor rally, over 20 unions spoke in solidarity with the staff, along with an official representative of the state AFL-CIO. Four Bay Area labor councils and numerous local unions have passed resolutions in support. One of them — from the local District Council 57 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – was greeted with particular enthusiasm. AFSCME’s national secretary-treasurer, Bill Lucy, is a member of the Pacifica board.

The KPFA steering committee is set to return to mediation on Thursday. Although it will probably receive a formal presentation of Berry’s proposal to end the lockout, it will have to begin refocusing on the new reality of the station’s threatened sale.

David Bacon is one of the nation’s premier labor reporters. He lives in the Bay Area.