(en)SF Bay Guardian on KPFA

Lyn Gerry (redlyn@loop.com)
Tue, 24 Dec 1996 15:44:40 +0000

------- Forwarded Message Follows ------- Date: Tue, 24 Dec 1996 15:09:00 -0800 (PST) From: TUC Radio <tucradio@igc.apc.org> To: redlyn@pop.loop.com Subject: SF Bay Guardian on KPFA Cc: melblcome@igc.org

Dear All, Here is the December 25, 1996 article on KPFA in the SF Bay Guardian, the best alternative weekly in this area.

The article is preceded by a large cartoon: Five grimfaced corporate type people sitting around a conference table, potted palms behind them. In front of them lie papers with titles such as: PHASE OUT PROGRESSIVE PROGRAMS / DESTROY UNION / 5 YEAR PLAN / REACH LARGEST POSSIBLE AUDIENCE and TOP SECRET.

The caption to the cartoon reads: Increasingly corporate: Founded as a voice of dissent, KPFA now faces charges that it silences critics of new policies aimed at attracting more listeners. Guardian illustration by c. shields

A very, very important part of the article is the reference to the planned cut of FLASHPOINTS, KPFA's only investigative reporting show and one of the station's top fundraisers at marathon time.

Distribute far and wide. Save Flashpoints! Maria Gilardin

HEADLINE: Radio static Battle for KPFA's soul mirrors fight for the future of the media of America's left. by: Belinda Griswold

TEXT: KPFA's comfy building in Berkeley is a remarkably tranquil place: potted plants, soothing pink walls, skylights. Even the name of KPFA's parent network, Pacifica, implies serenity and calm. But beneath the surface, a series of turbulent political storms are brewing at Pacifica, the nation's only alternative, listener-supported radio network and KPFA is right in the middle of the furor.

The battles are being played out in secret and in public, from community board and programming meetings to the national Pacifica board's "retreats" at posh digs in Houston, Los Angeles, and New York.

The subjects of disagreement range from labor relations (Pacifica hired a notorious union-busting consulting firm to write its most recent labor contract) to secrecy (the national board has been holding many of its meetings behind closed doors) to programming changes (critics say public-affairs programming is being gutted).

But Pacifica management and its critics agree on one thing: this fight is for the soul of the country's only progressive, listener-sponsored radio network. When former KPFA general manager Pat Scott became executive of Pacifica several years ago, the network began to reconfigure itself to become more "professional" and less reliant on volunteer programmers. Pacifica officials said the changes needed to be made to broaden the appeal of KPFA and its sister stations in Los Angeles, New York, Houston, and Washington, D.C., to listeners outside Pacifica's traditional progressive base. That would require cutting some of the stations' more eclectic shows, along with many of the volunteer programmers who produce them (see box).

Scott did not respond to Bay Guardian calls requesting an interview. Pacifica development director Dick Bunce denied to the Bay Guardian that national board meetings had been held in secret.

The reconfiguration has met with intense opposition from not only fired programmers but also employees, listeners, and activists who feel shut out of what they had come to consider a community-controlled institution. "I still cannot divine what the goals of KPFA and Pacifica management are," Michael Parenti, a journalist whose political commentaries are broadcast regularly on KPFA, told the Bay Guardian. "It seems like they want to mainstream KPFA so they can increase their listenership and their budget. In fact that may backfire. If they just want to build audience, they ought to get Rush Limbaugh and McNeil-Lehrer and they can build audience that way." Lyn Gerry, a former employee and union shop steward at KPFK (Pacifica's Los Angeles station) who was fired in a 1995 staff shake-up, also criticized Pacifica's secretive approach.

"One question keeps coming up," she said. "If these plans are so visionary and wonderful, why are these people planning in secret, allergic to debate on this considerable departure from Pacifica's traditions, purging and attempting to muzzle dissenters, and unwilling to let the subscribers know what's going on?"

The original mission For 40 years KPFA has been at the center of the Bay Area's progressive community. To many activists, it's a priceless institution that has reflected and included community voices on the most pressing issues of the late 20th century. So to many, the recent controversies feel like not just another squabble on the left, but like a benchmark of the direction the progressive movement in America will take in the post-communist age.

Ultimately, the conflict may embody a classic dilemma that has long divided the American left. Should a progressive media outlet like KPFA continue to preach to the converted, offering valuable information and analysis to a relatively limited audience? Or should it seek to expand its range and possibly, its influence even if that means toning down the politics and becoming more mainstream?

Or is there a third option that has not been explored, a vision that would allow for audience expansion into communities hungry for hard-hitting public affairs and grassroots cultural programming?

There's a deeper question: At a private foundation that has always had close ties to a loyal community base, who should make the final decision on any new political or editorial direction?

All this makes the issue even more tricky and complex. Progressives in general don't want to air their dirty laundry in public, especially when all over the country the entire progressive agenda is under attack.

But many former Pacifica supporters and employees have gone public with their complaints, saying they fear the network has abandoned its progressive roots and turned away from the mission of Pacifica's Quaker and anarchist founders. Quaker activist Lewis Hill founded Pacifica in 1948 as an antidote to the corporate-dominated and warmongering radio outlets of the day. The foundation's original mission statement declared that the network would "promote the study of political and economic problems and of the causes of religious, philosophical, and racial antagonisms" and to "encourage and provide outlets for the creative skills and energies of the community." Some believe Pacifica has not stayed true to its mandate to serve and represent the community. They say the station has moved away from its tradition of radical, eclectic, community-based programming in favor of shows that appeal to a more mainstream audience. Some have taken the unprecedented step of calling on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides as much as 15 percent of the network's funding, to investigate whether Pacifica's national board has held secret meetings that have excluded dissenting voices. Former KPFA station manager and Pacifica national-affairs correspondent Larry Bensky says the recent controversies are just the latest in a long line of power struggles within Pacifica.

"There's never been a time when the internal governance was not an extremely contested issue," he told the Bay Guardian. "This is the latest chapter in a long and difficult process which has always left a number of people dissatisfied. There is a small number of former programmers and wanna-bes who will never be satisfied unless their show is restored or instituted. This is not new. I don't consider that KPFA has taken a rightward lurch. I'm not a rightward person and neither is [former governor] Jerry Brown [who hosts the show "We the People"]. The issues change, the times change, and we have been as open and as free a voice presenting as many points of view as ever." Bensky defended the network's reconfiguration process, saying, "Input was solicited and people were talked to and changes were made. I don't agree with all of them myself, but I do agree that someone at some point needs to make a decision. When you make changes in a place like that, it's impossible to please everybody."

Expanding the audience Both sides agree that the latest round of controversy began in 1992, when KPFA instituted a sweeping set of programming changes, cutting back on public-affairs and community shows while increasing music and lifestyle coverage in an effort to gain a broader audience. With the programming changes came restructuring, programmer layoffs, and bitter fights over the network and station's mission.

David Assmann is a former publisher of Mother Jones who works as a public-outreach official at the San Francisco Recycling Program and sits on the local and national Pacifica boards. He explained what he thought was a need for change in KPFA programming to attract more listeners.

"KPFA is trying to work on expanding audience and reach and becoming more effective as a result," he told the Bay Guardian. "There are a number of reasons for this. One is to build on Pacifica's mission and to be a more effective vehicle for that mission. Second is the reality of financial support. Those two main reasons help us become a more effective voice and to be as self-sufficient as possible." And, he adds, he believes the strategy is paying off. Audience share is up, as are revenues.

The flash point In the Bay Area the organized opposition to Pacifica's transformation is Take Back KPFA, a dissident group made up of listeners, programmers, and former employees. Similar groups have formed around other Pacifica stations. A top priority of Take Back KPFA has been to preserve Flashpoints, one of the station's few investigative shows, after it was slated by management for cancellation in 1993. Flashpoints was subsequently spared largely because of public outcry, but many other community shows were not. Among them were labor, Native American, prison, and bilingual programs. In August 1995 KPFA shelved its entire evening public- and community-affairs programming in favor of music, astrology, and money-management shows.

Now it appears that Flashpoints, produced by journalists Dennis Bernstein and Julie Light, is again facing cancellation. An anonymous source has told the Bay Guardian that at a recent Pacifica programming meeting, KPFA management made it clear that it intends to eliminate Flashpoints, even though Bernstein and Light have broken a number of stories of national significance, on subjects ranging from Gulf War syndrome to the Southern church burnings. "To remove a politically radical and successful show is not only fiscally irresponsible, it shows a frightening determination by Pacifica's management to pursue its long march to mediocrity," Maria Gilardin, former KPFA development director and a Take Back KPFA member, told the Bay Guardian. Bernstein would not comment specifically on Pacifica management's possible plans to end Flashpoints. But he did say, tellingly, "I'll be frank with you. I am gravely concerned about the future of hard-hitting, agenda-setting investigative reporting at KPFA."

Station manager Marci Lockwood told the Bay Guardian she could not confirm or deny any reduction in hard-news shows like Flashpoints, but she did say that "the staff of Flashpoints has indicated that they do not wish to continue with the show as it is."

Bernstein described Lockwood's statement as "extremely misleading" and stressed that the show has been deprived of resources by station leadership. "Management has repeatedly attempted to nickel-and-dime the program to death," he said. Bernstein added that although Flashpoints is one of the station's biggest raisers of funds during pledge drives, it operates on an extremely limited budget and runs only four days a week.

According to Assmann, KPFA is doing quite well financially. He characterized the station as the network's "most stable" and said that all fund-raising goals are being met.

Critics say the move to eliminate Flashpoints is just another example of Pacifica's turn toward more politically moderate programming a change that's clearly evidenced in the recently drafted Pacifica Strategic Five Year Plan, a copy of which the Bay Guardian has obtained.

The plan was compiled during secret national-board meetings (called "retreats") held over the past year, and national board members have limited opportunities to make public comment on its many goals and strategies. The plan will not be available to subscribers or listeners until it is formally adopted next year.

While a heavy emphasis is placed on audience growth, centralization of programming, revenue enhancement, and professionalization of staff, the plan barely mentions the original Pacifica mission: the creation of diverse, accountable, community-based progressive programming.

The plan's first goal: to "reach the largest possible audience." Its next-most-urgent strategies include no mention of strengthening Pacifica's grassroots base. They instead involve "improving the quality of air sound, developing professional management, organizational structures, and support systems, and substantially increasing financial resources."

The strategic plan continually refers to KPFA as a "franchise" that must overcome its "anarchic or bureaucratic systems" to be truly successful. The introduction, written by Bunce, calls for the network to "fix ineffective and unsustainable aspects of programming, financing, and operations."

And in a section on "organizational culture and communications," the plan calls for the network to "articulate and maintain clearly defined roles, relationships, and authority at all levels."

Secret meetings Assmann supports Pacifica's decisions to hold closed meetings, saying the board had obtained a legal opinion confirming its right to do so. But such decisions raise troubling questions about the spirit of the Pacifica leadership's drive to implement change.

According to Terry Francke, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, organizations like Pacifica that receive federal money to broadcast in the public interest are legally required to hold all their meetings, with a few exceptions, in public.

"Although those [federal] standards are not anywhere near as comprehensive as [California's] Brown Act, they do clearly call for open meetings, with only a couple of exceptions for proprietary business information, personnel matters, and maybe litigation," Francke told the Bay Guardian.

For Bunce, though, that's not the point. "Strategic plans are the responsibility of the leadership of the organization," he said. "It's not a popularity contest."

The strategic plan, Bunce said, is the result of the national board's effort to develop a strategy enabling the network to survive budget cuts and move into the next century.

"We need to make adjustments," Bunce said. "We're not fulfilling our mission if we're not reaching a lot of people. Pacifica is in a unique position. Being completely noncommercial is our franchise, our niche. The better we are at developing that niche, the more our audiences will grow."

But Stephen Dunifer, founder of the pioneering pirate station Free Radio Berkeley, believes that increasing one's audience shouldn't necessarily mean mainstreaming.

"If they really went out and explored the vibrant cultures in the Bay Area and let those voices speak, they'd have no problem with support," Dunifer said. "It is possible to be a successful community voice if you can do it right and have a vision they just don't have a vision. They're just going where the money is, and that's a great disservice to the community and to the vision of Lew Hill."

Labor trouble Meanwhile, the changes have created a furor among the network's strong unions. That was made clear last summer when it was learned that Pacifica had retained consultant American Consulting Group (ACG) which critics say is notorious for corporate union-busting.

Pacifica has refused to disclose the exact nature of its relationship with ACG. Bunce would not respond to Bay Guardian questions about ACG and other labor issues. But according to KPFK union leaders, ACG attorney Eric Becker was retained by Pacifica management to bargain with them and to handle the dispute over Lyn Gerry's termination from KPFK. Valerie Van Isler, station manager of WBAI (Pacifica's New York City station), said that each Pacifica station had spent $30,000 to fight the unions. Union leaders in Los Angeles say ACG wrote Pacifica's latest contract offer, which some employees refer to as "the contract from hell."

The contract battles at KPFK and WBAI have been fierce, but union leaders at KPFA have thus far been unwilling to take on management over what local union spokesperson Mark Mericle called "non-personnel issues." But there's little doubt that scuffles over the retaining of ACG have undermined management's reputation among progressive labor circles, as well as among station employees.

At KPFA, Flashpoints reporter Lyn Duff quit after, she claims, she was harassed by a manager who was never rebuked. "In the time I've been at the station, I've realized that the 'progressiveness' of KPFA is just an illusion," Duff wrote in her resignation letter. "I deplore the union-busting the station has engaged in. I am disgusted by the way that public-affairs programming is not given the support it needs while management's pet programs have an abundance of funds, despite lacking an abundance of listeners."

Duff's disappointment is echoed by longtime programmer and KPFA Community Advisory Board member Vini Beachem, who wrote a letter to Scott last summer questioning Pacifica's labor policies and programming changes a letter Beachem said was never answered.

"I've never had an agenda," Beachem told the Bay Guardian. "But I've worked in radio for six and a half years, and they don't even listen to my questions. What I say to KPFA is, if you're going to talk the talk, you better walk the walk."

Banned by Pacifica In June 1993, Pacifica Foundation management banned Take Back KPFA activist Maria Gilardin from entering any Pacifica station because, managers said, she had become "violent" during a Pacifica national-board meeting in Los Angeles. Pacifica has since characterized Gilardin as an out-of-control protester who advocates violence against board members. At the meeting Gilardin objected to the board's attempts to curtail public comment on programming and personnel-policy changes.

The Bay Guardian has obtained a video of the meeting in question a meeting that was attended by a number of Pacifica critics and it clearly shows that Gilardin did no more than argue with board chair Jack O'Dell. When he insisted that she not speak further, Gilardin became upset and told O'Dell that the public must be heard. She urged the other activists in the room to block the doors so that the meeting could not be adjourned before critics of the network had had their say.

When her suggestion was not taken up, Gilardin stood by the door as people left the room, passing out flyers to observers, board members, and a smiling Marci Lockwood, KPFA station manager. No one appeared to be afraid of her. On video Gilardin appeared confrontational but civil, well within the bounds of Pacifica's tradition of free speech.

The most pressing question raised by the banning of Gilardin may be how Pacifica treats its dissenters, however inconvenient or unpopular they may be to management's goals. Take Back KPFA says KPFA has since banned more than 12 programmers and staffers, including former national-board member Ron Wilkins. B.G.

The old and the new Here are some of the programs that have been cut from KPFA's programming schedule, as well as some of the ones that replaced them: Cut En Contacto Directo (bilingual public-affairs program) Freedom Is a Constant Struggle (public affairs) Fruit Punch (gay and lesbian issues) Focus on Women in Music Labor and the Global Economy Living on Indian Time (Native American public affairs) Making Contact (public-affairs program hosted by Norman Solomon) Mama O'Shea (eclectic call-in program) Woman's Magazine Other Americas Radio Source (Latin American news) Added Cover to Cover (interviews with authors) We the People (Talk show hosted by Jerry Brown) Audio Evidence (Docudrama and interviews) Democracy Now (Election coverage) Your Own Health and Fitness The Visionary Activist Show: A Metaphysical News Service with Caroline Casey Music of the World Brainstorm About Health with Dr. Michael Lenoir (a medical call-in show) Latino USA Pacifica Network News B.G.



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