Pacifica's heated conflict boils over at KPFA

Originally published in Current, April 22, 1999

By Jacqueline Conciatore

It's been a rough three weeks for Pacifica Radio's flagship station KPFA, Berkeley, and its parent nonprofit, located in the same building.

On March 31, Pacifica Foundation Executive Director Lynn Chadwick told KPFA's popular general manager, Nicole Sawaya, that the network wasn't going to renew Sawaya's contract. Staffers were outraged, and programmers quickly included in their broadcasts a prepared statement demanding Sawaya's return.

That night at 11 or so, someone fired a gun at the Foundation's storefront windows, sending shards deep into the office and collapsing the large window frame onto a desk, according to spokesperson Elan Fabbri. No one was inside, though one person had left not long before, at 10 p.m., Fabbri says. Police think the shooting was "targeted," not a random drive-by, she says.

In the following days Pacifica reprimanded six programmers, including veteran Dennis Bernstein, host of Flashpoints, for violating its policy against on-air discussion of internal matters. On April 9, Chadwick fired one of the network's most prominent journalists, Larry Bensky, for the same offense. By this time, Pacifica was daily receiving a flood of e-mails and phone calls from upset or concerned listeners — Pacifica's critics say they number in the thousands; Fabbri says the hundreds.

All of the turmoil comes at a bad time — Pacifica celebrated its 50th birthday April 15. Media coverage at least in the near term isn't likely to focus on the organization's pioneer role as the first listener-supported radio broadcaster, or its steadfast commitment to "peace and justice" politics. And the news of internal tumult won't help its ongoing capital campaign either. KPFA's 50th Anniversary Committee, comprised largely of major donors, on April 6 suspended its fundraising, saying the job is now impossible. Fabbri says Chadwick is trying to schedule a meeting with the committee members "to share with them what she can" about the firings.

Unfair charges are being leveled against Chadwick, Fabbri says. "The problem [is] we're so limited in what we can say, by our own lawyers."

Sawaya's firing

"The reason there was this meltdown is because everybody was shocked," says Bernstein. Sawaya, a onetime station manager of public radio station KZYX-FM in Mendocino County, Calif., and reporter for KQED-FM in San Francisco, came to KPFA in January 1998 from NPR's station services unit. Bernstein and others say she had made tangible improvements, not the least of which was improved fundraising. They say she also united staff, improved morale and strengthened KPFA's community relations. "We were soaring," says Bernstein.

"She had unprecedented support from listeners, staff, the advisory board," says Bensky. A one-time KPFA manager himself, he says: "She was in my 30 years the most successful station manager we've had."

"We certainly were on the path to repositioning KPFA in the community," said Sawaya in her only comments about the situation. "Fundraising had been good, very strong — we had crawled out of a deficit. And we had pulled together a great 50th anniversary plan, including fundraising and programming throughout the year, that the community was really responding to. We were starting to really build bridges into the community."

Fabbri says: "Clearly there were reasons why her contract was not renewed." She denies charges that Sawaya was pushed out for publicly criticizing management decisions, including the board's recent vote to become a self-selecting entity [earlier article]. KPFA's staff say Chadwick told Sawaya she wasn't a "team player." An Oakland Tribune report quoted Pacifica Board Chair Mary Frances Berry saying Sawaya was not doing her part to help Chadwick make administrative and staffing consolidations among the five Pacifica stations.

As for the staff's on-air demands, Fabbri says: "Nicole will not be rehired. Neither will Larry."

Bensky's firing

This was the second time Pacifica fired Bensky in less than 4 months. In December it terminated his job as host of Living Room, a move Bensky sought, to allay job demands. But he also wanted a Sunday talk show. Instead, he got a letter from then-Program Director Gail Christian saying he was terminated. Pacifica says the letter was pro forma, required by union regs, and that they hadn't fired Bensky. After a hue and cry from Bensky fans, Chadwick suggested listeners could help birth a new Bensky show by making up a funding gap, and they did. Pacifica launched Sunday Salon in January.

Bensky predicts he'll be back on Pacifica's air. He plans to file a grievance through his union, and if that fails he says he may take legal action.

He contends that his April 4 on-air statements didn't break Pacifica's ban on airing internal matters because he was responding directly to Chadwick's own on-air remarks that he hadn't been fired and that public pressure was not responsible for his new show. "She was not telling the truth about me on the air and had not given me a chance to respond, and I chose to respond," Bensky says.

He has supported the "custom" prohibiting discussion of internal matters, to prevent "nit-picking" on the air, he says. But that shouldn't apply to communications when staff face a "desperate" situation, he says.

Despite the difficulties that the rule poses for a network whose unofficial motto is "free speech radio," Fabbri defends it. "Any and all media outlets have like policies. It is not appropriate to use your media outlet to voice personal grievances, whether in public radio, commercial radio, or newspapers."

Why didn't Bensky get a warning the way the other programmers did? First, he falls under a different protocol because his union representation is different. Second, Fabbri says: "This is not Larry's first offense."

Underlying issues

The current conflict between the heads of KPFA and Pacifica is also fueled by KPFA staff concerns about the board's new status as a self-selecting body, a change Pacifica says was required by law. All these years, it had been violating the Communications Act by having reps from its five Local Advisory Boards (LABs) also serve as governing board members. The law requires separate advising and governing bodies, Pacifica said, and CPB was threatening to withdraw station grants if the board didn't correct the problem. What made Pacifica's move seem fishy to some was that Chadwick's predecessor, Patricia Scott, had initiated with CPB the conversation about whether Pacifica was in compliance. CPB had just asked stations to renew certification that they were following CPB grant policies.

The move on the board's part has raised criticisms that Pacifica national is directing more station money to the national office, and station staff members ask, "Toward what purpose?" "We at national do a lot more than just national programming," says Fabbri. "We administer benefits, payroll, accounting. We have the legal and fiscal responsibility for the entire organization." Pacifica also recently launched a Ku-band satellite network that feeds Pacifica station and affiliate offerings.

There are also fears Pacifica plans to sell KPFA or its New York station WBAI, which both operate on unreserved frequencies. Chadwick said on the air that there is no intention to sell.

"The bylaw change was about good governance, and removing the burden of potential conflict from board members," says Fabbri.

Working it out?

The KPFA staff's second on-air demand calls for a third-party mediation to resolve the dispute — and end a major distraction. A staff statement says: "The extent of management's obtuseness and irresponsibility can be judged from the fact that it has visited these vexations on us as we are struggling to deal with national crises — wars with Iraq and the former Yugoslavia." Says Bernstein: "One of the things that hurts me the most, in a time of war we're distracted from doing the work that the network was founded to do." Pacifica was founded by World War II conscientious objectors.

Says Fabbri: "I believe the people at KPFA believe they're doing the right thing. I think what we need to do is have a joint discussion so we all understand what is appropriate for the airwaves and what is not. That's not gagging people; that's not telling them not to report something valid. But it's about not using the airwaves to promote a personal agenda."

Chadwick has already agreed to bring in a mediator. "We're ready to go ahead with that," says Fabbri. "We're waiting for them."

To Current's home page

Earlier news: Pacifica national leaders drop elected reps on national board, provoking protests, spring 1999.

Later news: Pacifica remains under siege, armed guards hired, mediations fail, June 1999.

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