Hundreds protest for KPFA after tussle on the air

Police arrest protesters who entered Pacifica headquarters by ladder, July 15. (Photo: S. Druding, Free Speech Movement.)

Published in Current, July 19, 1999
By Jacqueline Conciatore

Berkeley station KPFA sits boarded up and padlocked after a week's remarkable events. Pacifica's national management put KPFA's entire staff on administrative leave and filled its air with archival material after an on-air melee July 13 that brought hundreds of upset listeners to the station.

Reporters estimated the crowd between 250 and 500. Police equipped with riot gear eventually made about 50 arrests. The next day, 500 to 1,000 joined a protest, with no arrests, according to a local news report.

"We're going to win," said fired Pacifica correspondent Larry Bensky in an Oakland Tribune report. "Absolutely, I'm going to get my job back. How can we lose? I haven't seen such intensity and outpouring of sympathy since the Vietnam War years."

Pacifica Board chair Mary Frances Berry issued a statement July 14 calling for renewed negotiations with KPFA staff. Pacifica national execs were hard to reach last week, their voice-mailboxes full. But a Contra Costa Times article quotes Pacifica spokesperson Elan Fabbri: "All of the KPFA staff have been put on paid administrative leave to give us time to cool this down."

But the activist community was not likely to cool down and distrust was soaring. Activists lucked into evidence last week to support one of their lingering suspicions about options under discussion by the national board. Micheal Palmer, a board member, erroneously sent an e-mail intended for the board chairman to the Media Alliance, a grassroots group backing the KPFA staff. And in that memo Palmer discusses the option of selling KPFA and advocates the sale of Pacifica's New York outlet, WBAI. (Both stations operate on unreserved commercial frequencies.) [Text of Palmer e-mail.] It's unclear how many board members would support such a move. Berry's July 14 statement said there are no plans to sell any of the radio chain's five stations.

Palmer suggests in the e-mail that a majority of national board members have agreed KPFA should be shut down and "reprogrammed," an outcome that has now been achieved.

Pacifica spokeswoman Fabbri confirmed that Palmer wrote the e-mail, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Only a minority of the board wants to sell a station, Fabbri said.

KPFA staff members have for years been at odds with Pacifica's national office over issues of autonomy, democratic decision-making and national efforts to increase audiences and revenue. Pacifica's five stations reach audiences only a fraction the size of other public radio stations in their markets.

But that's appropriate for a station serving grassroots slices of the public, according to Pacific critics, who say management's efforts have weakened localism and the network's historic commitment to social justice. The conflict became an all-out war in March, after Pacifica's new Executive Director Lynne Chadwick fired KPFA General Manager Nicole Sawaya. Staffers were dismayed. Late that night, someone shot into the empty national offices, shattering a large storefront window.

In coming weeks, Chadwick would fire Bensky and music host Robbie Osman for violating Pacifica's rule against discussing internal controversies or policies on the air. Meanwhile, as staff and listeners staged street protests, Chadwick and staff/supporters made barely discernible progress toward mediation.

Dragged out of the studio

But any progress was derailed July 13, when Pacifica put Flashpoints host Dennis Bernstein on administrative leave for violating the gag rule. He had just aired a message of support for the KPFA staff from Pennsylvania death row inmate Mumia Abu Jamal and a tape from a Media Alliance press conference earlier that day.

During anchor Mark Mericle's newscast, listeners heard Bernstein's confrontation with the armed security guards Pacifica has placed at the station (Current, July 5). "I am nervous," Bernstein was heard shouting. "I am afraid you're going to hurt me, you're going to shoot me!"

With a shaking voice, Mericle interrupted his report to tell listeners what was happening--that the guards were trying to drag Bernstein out of the office. "What is Pacifica coming to?" Bernstein yelled. The dramatic scene ended with Mericle telling listeners that Pacifica had brought in Garland Ganter, g.m. of its Houston outlet, KPFT, to run the station. Then there was dead air, and KPFA began broadcasting material from its 50 years of tape.

Jeffrey Blankfort, organizer of Take Back KPFA, said that by the time he arrived at the station after hearing the on-air scuffle, KPFA's double-doorway was packed with people.

"KPFA supporters flooded the station lobby, sat down and refused to leave, even under threat of arrest," the San Francisco Examiner reported. Those who finally did leave on their own were cheered by demonstrators awaiting them outside." News reports say more than 50 were arrested on charges of trespassing.

The events, which could hardly have been calculated for greater effect on Berkeley's progressive community, attracted the even larger protest July 14. "We marched and sang and danced with abandon at each intersection we came to," one participant reported on the Internet. "Drums, masks, giant puppets and John Sheridan's brilliant banners were everywhere." Speakers included Angela Davis and writer Alice Walker. An unconfirmed report says Joan Baez is scheduled to give a concert on behalf of KPFA on July 19.

Politicians have weighed in as well. Jerry Brown, mayor of Oakland and former governor, told Pacifica management to "chill out," according to one news report. And Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Oakland, is also calling for peace.

Besides the community uproar and political attention, government officials are beginning to fret about the KPFA affair, said Blankfort. For one thing, there are complaints about the costs of the police presence. "The whole state of California is having to pay for Pacifica," he said. "Our chances now are better than ever."

Cooling down seems the last thing on the minds of many KPFA fans. One listener on the Internet suggests that organizers work to stir up international attention. "As of today, KPFA probably no longer exists as a voice of dissent. WBAI is next, and then there will be nothing." A young man told the Contra Costa Times: "I am prepared, in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi, to go to jail again and again and again and again."

Pacifica's formal response, in a statement from Berry, said the board is "deeply saddened and concerned about the continuing labor-management conflict. ... After extensive deliberation, the Pacifica Foundation Governing Board reiterates its full support for the renewal of negotiations, led by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services, selected by the Communications Workers of America, ... We urge the mediator to bring the parties to the table expeditiously, including any additional parties requested by the union. We stand ready to negotiate at any time. ... "

J. Imani, a KPFA local advisory board member who was involved in earlier negotiations with Chadwick, did not sound so conciliatory last week. If the board really wants to negotiate, "they have a funny way of showing it," he said, citing a "secret" press conference Pacifica tried to hold before the eruption, and the misdirected memo by board member Micheal Palmer.

Palmer's memo said about the KPFA situation: "I was under the impression there was support in the proper quarters, and a definite majority, for shutting down that unit and re-programming immediately. Has that changed?" It also discusses the worth of KPFA and WBAI, finally recommending a sale of WBAI "as there is a smaller subscriber base without the long and emotional history as the Bay Area, far more associated value, a similarly dysfunctional staff though far less effective and an overall better opportunity to redefine Pacifica going forward."


To Current's home page

Earlier coverage: Background on the firings of Sawaya and Bensky.

Related document: Micheal Palmer e-mail to Pacifica Chairman Mary Frances Berry.

Outside link: Save Pacifica web site, including documents, RealAudio files, photos of demonstrations.

Outside link: Pacifica Radio's website.

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