No Peace at Pacifica

As an embattled Pacifica management circles the wagons, network dissidents say they will fight on for radio democracy.

The battle over community radio moved to Houston this month, as the Pacifica Foundation’s governing board of directors is holding its quarterly meeting at the Doubletree Hotel (October 29 to November 1). According to the published agenda, the board will be discussing programming, governance, finances, and other general matters, although the bland surface of the official schedule belies the controversies raging within the network. (For a report on the meeting, see “Radio Galleria”.)

The board meetings rotate among the five Pacifica station locations (New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Houston), but it is fitting that this session should land in the home of KPFT, founded as a Pacifica station in 1970. The winds of change blowing through the network are also swirling around KPFT, and it may well be that the Houston station becomes a test case for the continuation of Pacifica values and traditions.

As reported in the Observer August 6 (“The Crisis at Pacifica,” by Julie Hollar), long-simmering disagreements between the network and some station staffers exploded at KPFA-Berkeley on July 13, when an on-air shouting match between a manager and a broadcaster erupted first into a sit-in by station staff and then a two-week lock-out by network management, with the station defended by armed guards and surrounded by hundreds of demonstrators. The broadcaster was longtime KPFA staffer Dennis Bernstein; the manager was Garland Ganter, station manager at KPFT, who had been brought in from Houston by the network to run KPFA temporarily. Ganter had just placed Bernstein on administrative leave because — according to Ganter and Pacifica executive director Lynn Chadwick — Bernstein had violated the network’s non-disclosure policy or “gag rule,” by reporting news about internal Pacifica matters: specifically, a board member’s leaked proposal that the station frequencies for KPFA and WBAI be sold (“Freedom’s Just Another Word,” The Back Page, August 6).

The lockout ended August 1, the KPFA staffers are back at work, and Ganter is home in Houston. The ensuing weeks have been relatively quiet, although KPFA broadcasters are for the present not bound by the gag rule, and the web sites are humming with polemics, denunciations, charges and countercharges. Some of this controversy will come to a head in Houston: organized by the Media Alliance (a Bay Area non-profit media watchdog), Pacifica staff and listener and community groups will be attending the board meeting to rally, lobby board members, and hold a teach-in, part of their campaign to “democratize the network.” They will be joined by a new local organization, the Houston Committee for People’s Radio, founded to press for changes at KPFT.

Pacifica management has characterized the controversy as simply a labor dispute at one station, but the dissidents insist what’s really at stake is the core meaning of community radio. Unlike government-sponsored public radio, the Pacifica stations were founded by progressive activists who opposed commercial, corporate media, and who believed that broadcasting should be what writer Alex Cockburn has called “a rendezvous for cultural and political contrariness.” The founders considered Pacifica radio one small but crucial means to a much larger end: building and sustaining democracy in the society at large. They believed in participatory democracy at the sound board, and that a politically passive audience, however demographically large, is none at all. The current Pacifica management, on the other hand, apparently looks toward conventional public radio and commercial stations for its corporate organizational models — and finds the uproar generated in response to that perspective incomprehensible. One might wonder whether they ever listen to the programs on their own stations.

Lynn Chadwick, the network’s embattled executive director, told the Observer that the Houston budget meeting will set the network’s priorities for the coming year. Also at issue is how to handle the “extraordinary expenses” connected to the KPFA lockout. Critics charge that Pacifica wasted more than $500,000 on security and public relations, but Chadwick insists those expenses were necessary, because opponents of Pacifica’s new by-laws (which had removed local advisory board members from any direct network governance role) had earlier threatened to seize KPFA. “As difficult as these expenses are for Pacifica to absorb, the board understood why they were incurred: it was necessary to protect our people and property…. So it’s an unfortunate expense, it’s not one we chose, but given the situation that happened here, it was one we had to make.”

Chadwick complained that the media has not fairly reported what happened in July at KPFA. She said programmer Dennis Bernstein, in response to a legitimate managerial request by Garland Ganter, provoked and exaggerated the disagreement on the air. “Garland asked Dennis to leave, and the drama that got added to that situation was a fabrication on the part of Dennis.” (For Bernstein’s version of the incident, see his “Banned by Pacifica,” August 6.) Chadwick said people are unaware of the “level of violence” following the incident: “the four-lane street in front of the station was blocked. A campground was set up for several days on end. There were rallies at night, where they had to actually pull out the riot police several times. They tried to rock over a paddy wagon with several people in it…. There was a case of Molotov cocktails discovered in the crowd, during one of the riots. The station was assaulted by ladders, people broke into windows and came through the skylights, into the station. There were numerous death threats made against me and my staff.” Captain Bobby Miller of the Berkeley police department told the Observer the protests were “civil demonstrations” and not violent, and that there were no Molotov cocktails at any time. “There was a street performer who was twirling batons he could light. We checked them out, and determined they were alright.” He added that the station protest was “a civil dispute, in which the police never should have been involved.”

Chadwick dismissed the notion that bringing in an outside manager to run KPFA might have been seen as a provocation. “Garland was very patient and even-handed,” she said, “and to characterize it as Ôthrowing his weight around,’ is a misperception.”

During the lockout, KPFA staff were placed on paid administrative leave. They are now back on the air and in control of programming. Said Chadwick, “You could say they got everything they want…. So, the continued push, or whatever it is, is somewhat mysterious to me, to tell you the truth.” Chadwick reiterated Pacifica’s official position that the memo discussing selling the Berkeley and New York stations was an unsupported proposal by board member Micheal Palmer of Houston. “The truth is,” she insisted, “the stations are not, have not been, and are not contemplated to be for sale. I want to make that absolute statement.”

At KPFT, Garland Ganter and his staff are celebrating the completion of a record-breaking fall membership drive, which he says reflects the growth of the station’s audience and listener loyalty. “I think the station sounds better than it’s been sounding in a long time,” he said, “and our programming is really doing well, and as a result we have additional listeners that we didn’t have before.” Since extensive programming and staff changes in 1995 — which critics refer to as “the purge” — KPFT emphasizes light rock and folk/country music during the day, leavened with blues, zydeco, and jazz. There is no local reporting: the morning leads with the BBC World Service, followed by Pacifica National News’ “Democracy Now!” What Ganter calls “public affairs” programs are confined to the early evening, followed local and alternative rock late at night.

Recently, Ganter and program director Edmundo Res?ndez added one hour of talk shows to the evening “public affairs block.” Ganter says the changes were not in response to outside criticism, but because “it’s part of our mission.” He hopes to restore a local news department — absent entirely from the station for more than three years — by next year. Asked why independent local news coverage, a Pacifica priority, has been silent so long, he responded, “It’s expensive. News programming is very labor intensive, and it was a budget constraint a few years ago that led us to not have it anymore, and now that we’re doing better, we can afford to have it again.”

Many former staffers and local listeners remember Ganter’s 1995 re-programming of the station, when he was program director under then-general manager Barry Forbes (since departed). They recall specifically his cancellation of many international music programs, gay and lesbian programming, and political talk-shows, in favor of country-folk music. Pokey Anderson, for nine years one of the volunteer hosts of “Breakthrough,” a weekly lesbian feminist news and music show, describes the station at that time as “a great United Nations — an amazingly diverse group of people.” She says Ganter cancelled “Breakthrough” and other gay shows with little notice or discussion, and told eight separate programmers they could combine all their work in order to do occasional news spots. The same was true of the multicultural music shows. When one programmer responded to the cancellations simply by playing the Indian music of a cancelled show during his own Celtic music program, Ganter deemed that broadcast a violation of the gag rule and cancelled the Celtic show as well. The station’s new motto became “The Sounds of Texas and the World.” Over time the playlist has narrowed, as has the revised motto: “The Sound of Texas.”

Members of the newly formed Committee for People’s Radio say that under Ganter’s direction the station’s programming has been bland, spiritless, and commercialized, aimed more at building a moneyed audience than at fulfilling Pacifica’s tradition of progressive politics and activism. “They keep bragging that their fundraiser netted over $200,000. So they’ve got yuppies cutting them checks,” said Mark Wilde, a local psychologist and one of the organizers of C.P.R. Wilde says that at pledge time, the station gives lip service to “free speech radio” and the progressive values of Pacifica founder Lew Hill, and “it makes me so mad I just have to turn it off.” Station programmers say privately they are afraid to mention the Pacifica controversies at all, for fear of violating the gag rule and losing their shows, although Ganter insists that he has issued no edicts and national network shows like “Democracy Now!” have covered the Pacifica story. “People charge us with censorship, but it’s an editorial decision,” he insisted. “We decide what goes on the air, and if somebody wanted to mention it, we’d have an editorial meeting, find out who was going to be on and how they’d handle it, and then make an editorial decision accordingly. Basically, we’re not going to provide a forum for this because it’s internal Pacifica business.” So, although the Pacifica board meeting and related events are taking place in Houston this weekend, programmers for the weekly “Progressive Forum” were told they could not discuss the controversy on the air.

And even off-air free speech can alert managerial suspicions. Longtime KPFT programmer Ray Hill, one of the founders of the station, is host of a long-running call-in show for the families of Texas prison inmates. Hill, who served as station manager in 1980-81, says he supports the Pacifica gag rule for on-air remarks. But recently, when Hill was interviewed by a Houston Chronicle reporter about his show, he also answered some questions about the Pacifica controversy. Hill says he was reprimanded afterward for violating the gag rule, by Edmundo Res?ndez and development director Molly O’Brien. (Ganter and a station technician were in Berkeley, broadcasting taped music while the KPFA staff were locked out.) Hill departed their meeting uncertain whether he would be allowed to continue his prison show, but said Ganter called him later to say he had reviewed the incident and no action would be taken. Asked if he thought the episode reflected the free speech traditions of Pacifica radio, Hill said, “They have the keys to the station, and they can tell the programmers what to do.” Asked about the incident, Ganter said the issue was only whether Hill made it clear to the reporter that he couldn’t speak as an official spokesman for station management, and that the programmer was never in danger of losing his show.

Ganter says he has visited with the people asking for changes at KPFT, and invited them to submit program proposals. “I believe one of their members did so,” he said. “We called them a couple of times to try to set up a meeting to talk about it, but we haven’t heard back from them.” Mark Wilde says that Committee members have various ideas about what they’d like to hear on KPFT, but that in general the desire is for “more programming oriented specifically towards the community; more programming directly relevant to the minority community (including the Asian, Latin-American, and black community); and more on local, community issues.” Wilde said the station’s programming makes no real attempt to reflect the multicultural nature of Houston. “We don’t object to the music,” Wilde said, “although so much of it is the same, all day. But right now it is a mockery of diversity, and a mockery of ‘free-speech radio.'” The Committee is holding weekly meetings and working to expand contacts among community groups who want to improve KPFT. Asked about the recent additions to the station’s public affairs programming, Lee Loe, also a Committee member and editor of the Houston Peace News, called the changes “just window-dressing.”

Ganter says the criticisms of the station’s programming and audience are unwarranted. “I know they say [our minority audience] is like 5 percent, which is actually not true. Our minority audience is actually 22 percent…. That’s above the average for public radio, as a matter of fact.” Ganter showed the Observer AudiGraphics figures confirming the 22 percent figure, apparently still well below the rating for the other Pacifica stations.

It seems unlikely that these matters will be resolved at the Houston meeting. The network administration appears to hope the whole crisis will just go away, and while there is some board dissent, Chair Mary Frances Berry (who declined to be interviewed for this article) appears to have the votes to pursue her agenda. However, many national progressive media figures have called for the board’s resignation, and dissident support is building for a transitional slate solicited by the media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

One of those on the FAIR “reconciliation slate” is media analyst Robert McChesney, author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy, and also a programmer with community radio station WORT in Madison. McChesney has watched the battle develop at Pacifica with dismay. “When this whole thing started a few years ago,” he told the Observer, “it seemed many of the critics just wanted to scream at Pacifica. But Berry and the board have done everything wrong, in terms of unifying their own opposition…. They’ve acted like Rupert Murdoch trying to bust a London union.”

Because of Pacifica’s high-handedness, McChesney said, it will be very difficult to resolve the crisis, “because they just don’t seem able to enlist the informed consent of the members.” In a period of accelerating media conglomeration, community radio is more necessary than ever, and Pacifica could be a catalyst for change. “You can expand the audience without sacrificing the politics,” said McChesney. “We’ve done it in Madison.” You do that, he says, not with high-priced media consultants, but by going out into the community to the people you want to reach, finding out what they want, and getting them directly involved in the station. That means more work and more risk, but also more reward.

Instead, Pacifica’s current leaders seem to be intent on moving toward a
more corporate, National Public Radio model, the antithesis of the Pacifica tradition. “They need to come up with a better management structure,” argued McChesney, “and a more democratic mechanism for running the network. This is the legacy Berry could have: to create a viable structure for community radio. Or she could destroy it. I don’t think she knows what she’s doing. I don’t see what their road map is.”

The network’s managers seem similarly unable to understand why they have generated so much opposition. Chadwick suggested that the KPFA staffers should simply be happy to get back to work. “They came in and went back on the air, the first week of August, and they have been in charge and doing whatever they want to do, on the air, ever since. So to some degree, I don’t know what they’re complaining about right now. I’m serious. Nobody ever lost a day of pay, during the whole thing. Everybody has been paid, there has never been anything about that. Nobody lost a job.” Setting aside the fact that former KPFA station manager Nicole Sawaya and Larry Bensky, whose dismissals by the network contributed much to the current crisis, are still absent from Pacifica, Chadwick seems oblivious to the notion that what’s at stake at the stations may be more than steady employment. Staffers clearly believe they are fighting a battle for institutional democracy and freedom of speech — reasons they work for Pacifica in the first place.

Similarly, Garland Ganter seems surprisingly unmoved by the knowledge that he may have made himself the most hated man in Berkeley, and that (whatever the ongoing divisions over the crisis among Pacifica staffers, which are serious and real) none of his network colleagues were willing to betray their co-workers at KPFA and attempt to operate the station during the lockout and protests (which Ganter referred to as “the brouhaha”). He says he’s received some “nasty e-mails,” but otherwise he feels he did his job as requested and came home. “My impression from here in Houston,” he said, “is that things are starting to calm down some. I hope they calm down enough so that both sides can sit down and talk some more about it.”

On a national level the organizing against Pacifica management continues, and many people are calling for resignations of the current leadership, the lifting of censorship, and the creation of a new management structure. In August, dozens of national progressive figures published an open letter in The New York Times, accusing Pacifica under Mary Frances Berry of having “abandoned and betrayed” the network’s historic mission. “Under your direction,” they wrote, “Pacifica has violated U.S. citizens’ rights to free speech, peaceful public assembly, and freedom of the press.” The list of signatories asking the leadership to resign reads like the interview list for a year’s anthology of “Democracy Now!”: Adrienne Rich … Angela Davis … Ben Bagdikian … Danny Glover … Dave Dellinger … Howard Zinn … Kathleen Cleaver … Noam Chomsky … Tillie Olsen … and on and on and on.

Some of these folks will likely be interviewed by Pacifica programmers in the coming year, a few even on KPFT. But unless something changes, broadcasting their letter to Mary Frances Berry won’t be allowed.

(“No Peace at Pacifica” was written prior to the Pacifica Foundation National Board meeting in Houston. For a report on the meeting, see “Radio Galleria.”)

You May Also Like:

Published at 12:00 am CST