Looking for Real Enemies

Austin's KOOP Radio began in dreams of cooperation, hip music, and progressive politics. Now it's a station at war with itself.


Since this is partly a story about a small group of wannabe revolutionaries, it’s useful to recall a bit of bitter wisdom out of Karl Marx: “Hegel remarks somewhere that great events and personalities in history reappear…. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Consider that classic reflection a sardonic commentary on what follows.

Earlier this year, the Observer reported (August 6 and November 12) on the struggle between staff and management at the Pacifica radio network, centered at KPFA-Berkeley but with reverberations across the country, including Houston, home to Pacifica’s KPFT. Although the network still broadcasts the best independent news reporting in the U.S., organizational tensions had grown over governance decisions of the Pacifica Foundation’s national board. The climax was a mid-summer lockout of staff at KPFA — at immediate issue was the firing or suspension of news programmers for violating a network non-disclosure policy (the “gag-rule”) by discussing internal station matters on the air. At Houston’s KPFT, the broadcast façade is much more peaceful; after a 1995 purge of eclectic community and ethnic shows, station programming is dominated by folk and light rock music, to the delight of the station’s balance sheet and the dismay of listeners who believe Pacifica’s activist tradition has been abandoned.

Meanwhile, at Austin’s fledgling community station, KOOP (established in principle as a “cooperative” and broadcasting since December of 1994), a long-simmering battle over the station’s governance and direction had grown nastier and nastier during the last two years — culminating in a lawsuit by disgruntled members against the station’s board, and a related dismissal of programmers, for violating the station’s gag rule by discussing internal station matters on the air. The battle at KOOP began to look like a miniature version of the battle at Pacifica — if you turned it upside down and held it in front of a fun-house mirror. And through that lens, it also looks like a disheartening example of the too-common inability of supposedly progressive organizations to deal adequately or democratically with the racial, class, and political tensions that inevitably arise when people of different backgrounds attempt to work together for the common good.

At the moment, after an intense year of emotionally charged and very public battles, the KOOP struggle appears relatively quiescent. Although the lawsuit is still pending, the largest protests have died down, and after a bitterly contested series of station elections, management insists that fundraising is improving and the members are full of enthusiasm. They announced this good news at the annual general membership meeting, held on a Saturday evening in mid November, to which some 2,000 station members had been invited. In attendance were approximately thirty station programmers and staff, perhaps ten non-programmer members, one lonely free speech dissident. And one reporter.

On the air, little of this controversy is now audible. (KOOP is actually half a station; it splits its non-commercial 91.7 FM frequency, roughly day and night, with U.T.-student station KVRX. Austin’s other community radio station, KAZI, follows early-morning talk with popular music aimed at the city’s black community.) To most listener-members, KOOP is known primarily for its eclectic mix of off-beat music (acoustic folk to rockabilly to jazz to show tunes to lounge to rap to various Latino and Latin-American genres). The acrimonious political battles have been fought over station governance and the news and public affairs programming: an extremely uneven mix of polemical discussions (better on local strengths like environmentalism), useful community bulletins, pseudo-Marxist rants, and random, undigested, and usually unattributed Internet postings. On a recent week of the “KOOP Evening News,” for example, one could be told breathlessly that at a demonstration in London, “4,000 leaflets were distributed,” that the Argentine health-care system is entirely inadequate, and that the heroic Spartacist League was single-handedly holding the line against the Klan in New York City. Even the political deviations are comical. On a “libertarian” news program, listeners were treated to sneering denunciations of gun-control laws, followed by an interview with Reagan administration hack Clint Bolick. Bolick denounced affirmative action and, to the enthusiastic approval of the KOOP programmers, smugly promoted his ongoing legal campaign against it. By any definition of “underserved communities” (a KOOP mantra), it is difficult to maintain that Bolick and his ilk are without sufficient mainstream broadcast outlets.

Rod Moag, a U.T. professor who hosts a popular country swing/rockabilly program, says he has tried to steer clear of the controversy, but describes the current situation as structurally awkward at best. “You’ve got a mismatch between the managers, who are largely issue-driven, left-wing ideologues interested primarily in news and public affairs, and the music programmers, many of whom are apolitical, and at least a couple of whom who are politically conservative. Most just want to be left alone to come in and do their shows. Others got involved in the ‘Friends of KOOP’ [a member organization opposed to management], so were seen as the enemy. Yet it is the money they raise on the music shows that is almost completely subsidizing the political programming, which raises very little.”

In the absence of KOOP, Austin ears would not suffer in dire need of eccentric music, which commercial and public stations already provide in abundance. But here as everywhere, political commentary and talk shows are dominated by the far right, and consistent, independent left reporting and commentary would find a ready audience. Until recently, KOOP listeners could at least hear “Alternative Radio,” a weekly interview program featuring many major independent speakers and writers on the left: Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Angela Davis, Eduardo Galeano, Howard Zinn … etc., etc. It’s a long, eclectic list, and distributed at nominal cost. But the producer of Alternative Radio, Colorado-based David Barsamian, has been in bad odor with KOOP managers since a 1998 talk he gave in Austin, during which he pointed out that left activists did not automatically become “the community” by self-appointment. Later he published an article in Z Magazine in which he deplored the community radio version of that “debilitating left pastime: the small savaging the tiny in order to become the infinitesimal.” Alternative Radio bit the KOOP dust this fall; Barsamian was given no explanation, but programmers were told the show cost too much and it would better to play music during “drive-time.” “Alternative Radio was the reason I first volunteered at KOOP,” said a public affairs programmer who, like many of his colleagues, asked not to be identified. “I’m just hanging on, hoping things will change for the better — but I don’t see any evidence of it.”

KOOP loyalists bristle at comparisons to Pacifica, because the station has loudly opposed the actions of Pacifica management. Board of trustee members insist that KOOP is run democratically, and that the board’s decisions to dismiss certain programmers were not censorship, but justified reaction to on-air attempts to undermine the financial well-being of the station. They describe the members’ lawsuit as motivated by malice, an attempt at “economic terrorism.'” Management insists their opponents are threatened by board actions to increase the station’s “diversity,” and that the dissidents have subjected women, gays, and minority volunteers to intimidating harassment. “Some people are unhappy that non-whites have been elected to positions of power,” KOOP board chair Teresa Taylor said. “They preferred it when Latinos and other minorities were only tokens, being given things instead of exercising power. It’s not just what we broadcast — it’s having those people as active members, and broadcasting producers, at the station.” But Robert Singleton, who helps produce a KOOP environmental news show, reiterated a judgment of management expressed by many disaffected current and former station volunteers. “We don’t disagree with their politics,” Singleton said. “We disagree with the way they treat people.”

At KOOP, “the way they treat people” can cover a lot of ground. Bitter charges and countercharges of ballot theft and election fraud have dogged recent board elections (actually two boards: an at-large community board, and a smaller board of trustees elected by the community board). The station’s minimal by-laws are ostensibly drafted to spread power throughout various community organizations. But if they are to result in a station in which no one community faction has control, the by-laws require unceasing and broadbased community outreach. Otherwise they readily enable small, fractional, and even overlapping activist organizations to dominate station governance — precisely the current situation. Although board members angrily insist otherwise, several long-time station volunteers describe widespread disaffection, low morale, and a sense of powerlessness over station governance. Many volunteers have left the station, out of what might be described as political exhaustion — saying they “just don’t have time for the arguments anymore.” Board members and their close supporters, on the other hand, charge opponents with racism, sexism, and homophobia — and more recently have added charges of criminal harassment, intimidation, and violence or threats of violence. And allegations expressed in “political” language, said one former programmer, may in fact be something else. “I’d sit through these three-hour meetings of people yelling at each other,” labor activist and author Bill Adler says, “and what they were defending as high political principle just seemed more and more to be a conflict of big egos and nasty personalities.” Another observer described it even more bluntly: “It’s a tempest in a sandbox.”

The station has been embroiled in controversy (not all of its own making) since its beginnings. The lowlights, in roughly chronological order, go something like this.

Conceived in the early eighties by a group of local activists organized by Jim Ellinger (dismissed as news programmer in July of this year for violating the gag rule), the station fought a decade long legal battle with the University of Texas over the license to the last available non-commercial frequency in Austin. (The university already owned public radio station KUT, devoted to a mix of music and NPR programming.) The currently split frequency is the result of a legal compromise, and the station rents its transmitter space from the university. The battle also generated a burden of station debt not yet eliminated.

Going on-air occasioned a celebratory honeymoon period, but controversy soon resumed. There was a bitter fight over revisions to the station’s “mission statement”: one faction wanted to enumerate all “underserved communities,” another argued that was inevitably more exclusionary (since not all could be listed), a few complained about what they considered left-wing “political correctness.” Most volunteers objected strongly to what they describe as an undemocratic and inadequate process of revision. An atmosphere of mutual distrust and suspicion began to dominate station discussions.

In 1997, a labor dispute at Pacifica’s KPFK-Los Angeles drew KOOP into the beginnings of the Pacifica battles, as a decision was made to broadcast a brief “disclaimer” before and after the daily “Pacifica Network News” concerning Pacifica management’s hiring of an anti-union law firm. The disclaimer continued to run on KOOP even after the Los Angeles union dispute had been settled, and generated tension between the network and the Austin station.

According to several sources at the station, the majority of the programmers supported some kind of anti-Pacifica statement. But they also contend the disclaimer (which made no precise distinction between Pacifica management and programmers) was rammed through undemocratically, as was a subsequent “emergency” decision not to renew the Pacifica contract (while Pacifica was simultaneously making the same decision). In the fall of 1997, the dispute resulted in the loss of the station’s Pacifica affiliation. (There persists a tedious KOOP historical dispute over who cancelled first — but the Pacifica Network News and related programs are no longer available on KOOP, and have not been replaced by anything approaching the same quality.)

Many other Pacifica affiliates have succeeded in taking a principled opposition to network management without jeopardizing the news coverage, but at KOOP it became much more important to thumb the station’s nose at Pacifica than to consider the listening community’s needs. In radical circles, this self-defeating fanaticism is known as “ultraleftism.” Among ordinary folks, it’s called cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Those who questioned the tactical wisdom of the disclaimer were judged to be insufficiently anti-Pacifica, therefore politically suspect. Among them was Jennifer Wong, KOOP’s first general manager, among those who had worked hard to establish the station, often without pay, long before it went on the air. The Pacifica disagreement was not Wong’s only difficulty. Wong was very popular among programmers, and to the trustees she represented an independent center of authority. The trustees accused her of inadequate financial management and “over-personalizing” station administration. The arguments concerning Wong’s tenure polarized station volunteers. When she was finally dismissed, in July of 1998, the Austin Chronicle newsweekly described the action as a debatable “business decision.” But many station members saw it as purely political. In a reference to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, one music programmer told the Chronicle, “Snowball has officially been chased off the farm.” That programmer, Scott Gardner, remains at the station, but says that KOOP is now controlled by “four or five” people, and said he sees no real prospect of democratic change: “We missed our chance.”

Whatever the merits of the board’s case against Wong, it handled her dismissal in a manner hardly becoming to a station supposedly dedicated to women’s empowerment and workers’ rights. She suspected her dismissal might be imminent for several months. Yet when she requested information, or even suggested a replacement might be hired for transition, she got no response. There was no appeal process, and she had to threaten to sue to receive several months’ back pay she was owed. When she complained by phone to the new station manager that her tax forms had been completed incorrectly, a trustee called her at home to inform her that she was banned from station premises and henceforth she should communicate by attorney.

The missed chance Scott Gardner referred to was represented by a station membership meeting organized by Friends of KOOP and other management opponents in August of 1998. Several hundred members gathered at the Unitarian Church in central Austin (a venue the board describes as unfair to minority East Austinites), to discuss and vote on what to do about the management at the station. Board supporters insisted that any membership vote must include “proxy vote” from members and organizations not present; that issue resulted in a lengthy procedural debate, with the predictable effect of exhausting the meeting and driving many members away. In the end it made no difference: either by proxy or present voters, the meeting overwhelmingly voted “no confidence” in the current board of trustees, and asked the board to step aside for a transitional committee which would organize new elections for station governance. The board ignored the request and denounced the meeting as “illegal,” and took steps to revise station by-laws to prevent the possibility of any such meeting ever happening again.

The August meeting resolved nothing, and the dispute
ecame increasingly rancorous. Two subsequent community board and trustee elections generated counterpoint accusations of election fraud, and despite an attempt at a court-ordered compromise, an independently monitored election resulted in more irregularities, still unresolved before an Austin court. A separate attempt at mediation broke down when the participants couldn’t refrain from denouncing each other publicly while it proceeded.

Music programmer and board opponent Ricardo Guerrero used the occasion of the station’s 1999 spring pledge drive to mount a symbolic protest: during his world music show, he asked listeners for “protest pledges” of $9.17. Guerrero says he raised nearly $800 on and off the air in protest pledges (a sizable program total by KOOP standards). But despite letters from listeners sustaining the pledges and saying they would give more if democracy were returned to the station, the board called the pledges “phony,” removed Guerrero from the air, and terminated his station membership.

Fellow KOOP programmer Rod Moag said he believed canceling Guerrero’s show was justified, because programmers cannot undermine the station’s financial support. He added, “But terminating Guerrero’s membership was uncalled for.” Moag, who supports station management despite what he thinks is a need for “more democracy,” said management has made its own questionable financial decisions, as when it redirected money pledged specifically for dearly needed equipment to other uses. “The board is inexperienced,” said Moag, “and has made some serious mistakes. It has contributed to polarization at the station. People who consider themselves revolutionaries tend to have an ‘Us versus Them’ mentality.”

The most notorious programmer dismissal at the station was that of KOOP founder Jim Ellinger, host of the “Austin Airwaves” weekly news program and an unforgiving opponent of management. Ellinger’s program covered a variety of Austin news, but focused on media, and as the controversy proceeded he became increasingly negative in his reports on KOOP’s board; in his opinion, they have “stolen” the station he helped build. Ellinger did not coin but popularized the term “The Cadre” to refer to a handful of managers and staff he considered to hold undue influence at the station (primarily Teresa Taylor and her husband Eduardo Vera, also a programmer, trustee “Mac” McKaskle, and programmer Paul Odekirk). He regularly accused them of mismanagement and anti-democratic actions. In July, in a report on the member lawsuit, Ellinger countered the board’s public assertions that the suit had been “dismissed” by reading directly from the court decision and pointing out that most of the suit remained active.

Shortly thereafter Ellinger’s show was cancelled, officially on grounds of technical violations of F.C.C. rules and “misinformation” about the station. Station management now says Ellinger’s most egregious violation was to willfully overstate the station’s debt to its lawyers as $100,000, when he had reason to know it was much less. (At the November station meeting, Taylor reported overall current debt as $72,000.) Ellinger says board members had a standing invitation to appear on his show, which they chose not to exercise. New trustee Hannah Riddering commented that all Ellinger did was “attack, attack, attack, and there was never any balance. Unlike the mainstream media, we believe in giving the other side of a story.” (If such were indeed the case, there wouldn’t be any news programmers left at KOOP.) Volunteer Donna Hoffman, who strongly supports the current station management, acknowledged frankly that Guerrero and Ellinger were terminated “for being critical.” Programmer Elaine Wolff, who remains on the public affairs programming staff despite her own criticisms of station management, said that by the standards that resulted in the dismissal of the board opponents, “Eduardo Vera and Paul Odekirk shouldn’t be allowed on the air either.”

Much more seriously, in the months since Ellinger’s dismissal, board members have charged him with making many “harassing” and “threatening” phone calls to the station, and have attempted to ban him from all station premises and public gatherings. Ellinger denies the accusations, insisting that the only calls he has made have occurred during the pledge drive, attempting to persuade volunteers that the station is not telling the truth about the controversy and is not fulfilling its mission. Ellinger calls the accusations “an attempt to undermine my credibility, and to silence one of their most vocal and effective critics.”

On the other hand, several former and current station volunteers say they are afraid to speak their minds about management openly for fear of making themselves subject to reprisals or personal abuse. Even one volunteer who strongly supports management let slip a mild criticism of Eduardo Vera, only to demand worriedly that it not be published. Another volunteer, Raul Alvarez, who helps produce an environmental show for PODER, an East Austin group, says he has friends on both sides of the controversy, tries to avoid station governance matters, and only wishes the various factions could sit down and work things out through negotiations. “That doesn’t seem very likely,” he added.

The most recent accusations can be added to a long list of vituperative, potentially libelous, and largely unsubstantiated charges and countercharges flowing daily across the Internet (one of the more dismal drawbacks of e-mail). Trustee Glen Riley said the station is considering a policy of no station communications that do not bear an official station imprint. One can only wish him well.

Eduardo Vera has also been subject to many accusations of arrogance and bullying. His personal activism is centered in the rebel struggle in Chiapas, and his Sunday afternoon programs promote that cause and support the Zapatistas. But fellow activists say he can be domineering and difficult to work with: two professional journalists from outside Austin (unfamiliar with the KOOP controversy) report that on a solidarity trip to Chiapas, they found Vera so manipulative, disingenuous, and overbearing they felt obligated to complain to the trip’s organizers. Asked about these accusations, Vera responded, “I am very proud of my work for Chiapas and you can ask the Zapatistas on how they evaluate my work.” He added, “I have good relations with the many aspects of work around Chiapas, be it Accion Zapatista, the Mexico Solidarity Network, or the work done sometimes by the American Friends.”

Vera’s self-image is certainly untroubled: opening a talk on KOOP and its enemies at the recent KOOP-related Grassroots Media Conference (a “huge international event” attended by about three dozen people), he insisted that the opponents of station management were “the same” as Kissinger and the C.I.A. in their coup against Salvador Allende in Chile, “the same” as the imperialists in their war against the people of Guatemala. Vera condemned (among many other things) the “completely racist” city of Austin for its total insensitivity to Latino community concerns — and a few minutes later enthusiastically congratulated the same city for validating KOOP’s work by awarding it a community arts grant. Asked again, at the close of this remarkable and largely incoherent disquisition, if he truly meant to say that this endless shouting match among a bunch of self-appointed radicals at a tiny radio station in Austin could be honestly compared to a military coup in Chile or a genocidal war in Guatemala, he responded passionately, “Absolutely! It’s exactly the same!”

That was in October, in a conference room of the East Austin-friendly Rosewood-Zaragosa Community Center. A few weeks later, the same room hosted KOOP’s almost equally sparse membership meeting, with Vera (who insists he has no role in day-to-day KOOP business) carefully checking member admissions, and his wife Teresa Taylor presiding. There was about an hour of business: financial notes, warnings about studio security, stern admonitions that programmers who neglect their volunteer hours would be losing their shows.

Then the meeting became a surreal ritual of self-congratulation, sort of a bizarre New Age corporate pep-rally. Virtually every volunteer in the room (and many others not present to accept) was awarded a certificate, recognizing his or her “Outstanding Achievement” for excellent programming, for volunteering, for something or other. This was followed by a series of “recognitions,” during which almost everybody in the room (or at least those who hadn’t already received a certificate) received praise from somebody else for all the great work she or he had done for KOOP. Near the very end of this not-quite-spontaneous outpouring of mutual cheerleading, first Joe Perez (who represents on the community board a construction workers organization called “Stop Metro Scam”), and then long-time neighborhood activist Paul Hernandez, rose and thanked Eduardo Vera for “opening the door” of the station to Austin’s Chicano community. Vera cheerfully accepted, saying his interest would continue to be in “more participation” and “more democracy” at KOOP.

As the meeting closed, Ricardo Guerrero, who had stood silently throughout the meeting wearing a “KPFA Free Speech” sign (modified for local circumstances) was permitted to ask if KOOP’s gag rule would remain in effect. Teresa Taylor answered yes.

Later, I asked Paul Hernandez about his praise for Vera and about his sense of the station in the wake of all the controversy. He reiterated that Vera deserved praise for his work in welcoming Latinos into the station. He said there was certainly some racism — personal and institutional — at KOOP, citing for example some Anglo programmers’ objections to Hernandez’ broadcasting in Spanish, adding that the presence of Latinos in governing positions is the only long-term solution. But Hernandez, who says his primary interest at the station is getting broadcasting resources for the Latino community in Austin, was reluctant take sides in the ongoing flame-wars. “It should never have descended into name-calling, in which the opponents become the devil reincarnated,” Hernandez said. “There’s been demagoguery on all sides.” He acknowledged that Eduardo Vera is “not an easy person to work with,” and laughed, “neither am I.” Nor did he wish to criticize Jim Ellinger, whom he said he respects, along with his family.

“There are no saints here,” Hernandez concluded. “But there’s a fine line between discontent and sabotage. Some of these people want the station to fail. The people who are opposing station management may believe the station is being taken away from them. Then they need to organize to get it back.” Asked if he thought that organizing for a broader democratic change, without generating even more hostility and acrimony, remains possible, Hernandez couldn’t say.

Speaking from Colorado, David Barsamian commented that based on his understanding of what has happened at KOOP, local activists need to begin asking themselves, “Why is there so much disharmony in Austin?” The station’s dominating faction appears to be, he said, composed of rigid sectarians, “who believe with a religious fervor in what they’re doing, so that justifies their exclusionary behavior.”

“So much of community radio is based on trust,” Barsamian went on, “and in the prevailing atmosphere, it’s not clear how that trust can be recovered. How and why did the situation get to that point? Perhaps after years of being politically ineffective, they’ve given up on the real enemy, and turned on the people standing next to them.”