Pacifica opens KPFA's doors, staffers continue protest
Two board members confirm that Pacifica may sell Berkeley station

Supporters of KPFA staff march July 31. (Photo: Susan Druding, Free Speech Movement.)

Originally published in Current, Aug. 2, 1999

By Jacqueline Conciatore

Pacifica Board Chair Mary Frances Berry last week unexpectedly extended an olive branch to the KPFA workers she had shut out of their station two weeks earlier, even as additional reports surface that the board plans to sell the Berkeley station.

"We will reopen KPFA tomorrow morning at 9 a.m., Pacific time. We will release the security guards inside the station. ... invite the people who are on leave now and volunteers to come back to work. . . We will ask the union to operate the programming and on-air content at the station," Berry stated during a telephone press conference Thursday, July 29. "This means we will not be enforcing any rules about what is on the air at KPFA for the time being, as a noble experiment."

KPFA staff and their supporters--warring with Pacifica since Executive Director Lynn Chadwick fired KPFA manager Nicole Sawaya in March--did not have the expected response to the unexpected offer. Leaders refused to return to work and accused Berry of making an "end run" around the mediation process. Ultimately, they did go to the station on Friday, only to leave it empty because windows had been broken in the process of boarding up KPFA, and other damage made it unsafe, said Andrea Buffa of the Media Alliance. "The building was trashed."

Since Pacifica put the KPFA on administrative leave, the station has aired tape from its archives.

The community needs a few days to consider Pacifica's proposal, Buffa said. They may agree to return unconditionally, or may refuse unless the board agrees not to sell the 50-year-old KPFA. There are also tactical considerations: "We have a lot of momentum now. If you go back in, does that say to everybody, 'This is over. You can go back home now?' Or do you go back on air and use it as an organizing tool?"

A rally [estimated by organizers to number 10,000] was held on the University of California campus on Saturday, July 31. Just the kind of thing Pacifica must be hoping to get away from. Another unexpected event: the national organization said it will move its headquarters to Washington D.C. in the next few weeks.

"Washington would be a better location for us, given the agencies we have to deal with ... and how we intend to grow," Berry said.

"I think she's lying"

Berry stressed that Pacifica's offer was a good-faith move. But board member Pete Bramson's announcement that the board was secretly discussing the sale of Pacifica's beloved flagship station had demolished whatever trust remained between Pacifica's national and local leaders.

Berry denied a secret plot as strongly as she could: "We are not attempting to sell the station or any Pacifica station. We are not, N-O-T, attempting to sell any Pacifica station."

Buffa's assessment: "I think she's lying."

Bramson said Pacifica's national board was having "serious" discussions about selling KPFA, which operates on an unreserved frequency and could garner $65 million or more. According to Bramson, Vice Chair David Acosta had proposed that Pacifica take out a $5 million loan against the value of KPFA's license, sell the station and with a small portion of the proceeds buy another Northern California station, he said. On Friday, another board member, Rabbi Aaron Krieger, iterated a somewhat fuzzier but similar account of Acosta's plan during an appearance on KCRW, Los Angeles.

These remarks from board members supported an unintentional disclosure by another board member. During the week of July 12, board member Micheal Palmer erroneously e-mailed to Buffa at the Media Alliance his argument for selling either KPFA or WBAI, New York. He had meant to send it to Berry.

Berry suggested that Bramson misheard the conversation. "We have board members who in a joking manner and [others who] seriously believe that we should sell a station," she said. "The board doesn't agree with them."

But she also said the board would listen to offers for KPFA, such as a reported bid from the Berkeley city council that at least now appears to be little more than a rumor. "If there's a genuine desire in Berkeley not to want to be part of the Pacifica network, it means that in Berkeley we will never be able to achieve the goals we have laid out." These include goals to increase and diversify KPFA's audience.

To have Berkeley buy the station would only be palatable as a last result, says Buffa.

"I don't understand what's motivating this board," she said. "It's not like they would financially benefit from a sale. They have to know they would be vilified for selling the oldest listener-sponsored radio station."

Nasty names

Pacifica padlocked and boarded up KPFA July 14, in the aftermath of host Dennis Bernstein's on-air struggle with security guards. When listeners heard what was going down in the studio, hundreds spontaneously converged on the station and began a protest that resulted in 50 arrests.

The Pacifica-KPFA struggle had already galvanized Berkeley's progressive community, but Bernstein's on-air drama--in which he at one point shouted he was afraid the guards would shoot him, while an anchor informed listeners that Bernstein was being dragged away--brought the crisis to a new level. Politicians weighed in, Joan Baez gave a concert, film producer Michael Moore wrote a sarcastic letter, and media everywhere took notice. Virtually no one weighed in on behalf of Pacifica.

Asked about the effect on Pacifica's credibility, Berry said much of the criticism was "totally unfair." "We do have a responsibility to be concerned about our audience and whether we're serving the total community," she said.

The board doesn't think it needs an image makeover because it's "concerned about solutions." But she also said that "we don't like being depicted as anti-civil-libertarian when we're not. We don't like being called fascists and all kinds of nasty names." Berry is chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and has a noted record as an activist.

About a week after the lockout, Pacifica hired public relations firm Fineman and Associates, which specializes among other things in crisis management. Michael Fineman wouldn't comment on Pacifica's handling of the crisis up to this point, but did say the managers have admitted publicly that they "blundered."

"They were not getting their story out at all," he says. "So that void was being filled by their opposition. They were being demonized."

Bramson during his press conference said Fineman's firm--which itself became the target of pickets after signing on with Pacifica--had plans to quit. But Fineman says no. He only quits if he feels his clients aren't proceeding in good faith or don't give him freedom he requires to do his job. For Pacifica, "right now, as of this moment in time, we are still on the case."

"Too high"

Pacifica left a loophole in its concession to KPFA staff. The staff would have six months to a year to increase listenership and reach a more diversified audience in any way it chooses. But if there is no evidence of trends in those directions, "the board reserves the right to take corrective action," Berry said.

Asked if an emphasis on audience wouldn't risk prodding the station to a more commercial direction, Berry said KPFA could surely bring its cumulative audience up from 146,000. "The board does not believe there are only 146,000 or 200,000 people in that area of 8.5 million potential listeners who could be listening to alternative radio and progressive messages and public affairs programming and interesting music packaged in a way that is appealing to people." And KPFA's listening audience should not be 85 percent white in an area as diverse as the Bay Area, she said.

But staffers expressed doubts that they could make the necessary changes in a year, especially given Bramson's comments that the station was nearly out of money. "We feel they want us to go back to work without any new resources or management and let us do our own damage," the San Jose Mercury News quoted KPFA programmer Susan Stone. And Bramson was quoted in the Contra Costa Times: "I think basically this will allow the station to be sold should they not meet some requirements. My concern is the proverbial bar is too high."



To Current's home page

Earlier news: Hundreds protest as Pacifica puts entire KPFA staff on leave, July 1999.

Outside links: web sites of Pacifica Foundation and the Save Pacifica movement.



Web page created Aug. 1, 1999
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 1999