A Conversation with Larry Bensky
The exiled Pacifica broadcaster talks about free speech, diversity, and the continuing fight to save community radio.
Larry Bensky has been a Pacifica broadcaster for nearly thirty years. Based in Berkeley at KPFA, he is perhaps best known for co-anchoring (with Amy Goodman of WBAI-New York) the daily Pacifica Network news show, “Democracy Now!,” as well as other interview programs. In December of 1998, Bensky was dismissed from his programming position, then reinstated after much listener and staff protest. At a Pacifica national board meeting in February, he denounced the network’s top-heavy, expensive bureaucracy, and called for greater democracy in network governance. He was fired again in April, officially because he violated Pacifica’s so-called “gag rule” on internal matters by discussing on air the earlier dismissal of Nicole Sawaya, KPFA’s general manager. Although other KPFA staffers have been allowed back to work, Bensky is still not heard on the network. Prior to the national board meeting, Bensky spoke to the Observer about the ongoing crisis at Pacifica. The following is an edited version of that conversation. — M.K.
Are board members talking about what’s likely to happen at the upcoming board meeting in Houston?
The board is now split. The pro-Mary Frances Berry faction you could say is about six or seven board members, the anti-Berry faction would be three, and the fence-sitters, three or four. And there are at least three vacancies. So, it’s not at all clear what could happen there. Most of their meetings are held — we believe illegally — in executive session. So you can’t go to a board meeting and actually find out what’s going on.
There are several things that are critical at this board meeting. Number One, they’ve got to figure out how to pay the enormous bills that they’ve incurred, in trying to shut down KPFA. They’ve admitted to $500,000 in expenses, but it may be as much as double that amount. There’s no cash reserve, and there’s no endowment in this organization, so they’ve got to face that. Number Two, there will be a job review of this executive director, Lynn Chadwick, who’s presided over this catastrophe. In normal organizations, she would have been fired a long time ago, but she’s there because she has the support of [Pacifica National Chair] Mary Frances Berry. And Number Three, they have three vacancies on the board, and they may attempt to just pack it again with people who have no responsibility or responsiveness to Pacifica, and no broadcasting experience, that are just there because they’re yes votes for whatever Mary Frances Berry wants to do….
How would you characterize the group of people acting against Pacifica, the KPFA people and the others who are pushing for change?
I think they’re very strong. We wouldn’t be here on the air again if it hadn’t been for the enormous support from thousands and thousands of individuals and dozens and dozens of organizations. It’s just a question of crystallizing that energy. Pacifica has not wanted to understand the nature of community radio here in northern California. They want to dismiss us as a bunch of crazies or something. They haven’t wanted to listen to anybody, from members of Congress to elected officials, dozens of whom have written to them, saying they’re on our side. They haven’t wanted to listen to the state legislative committee that’s investigating the crisis, where they refused to attend and testify. They had to have their books subpoenaed before they would give them up. They’re just stonewalling, so we’ll see how long their stonewall lasts.What sort of actions do you think they might take?
Well, we don’t know what they could do. It’s not clear. The two stations that are worth a lot of money are KPFA in Berkeley, and the one in New York (WBAI). They’re on the commercial band, and grandfathered in…. Just the right to transmit on those frequencies is worth probably, in total, over $200 million.
So they have this huge asset that they can’t realize any money out of, and they have people like [Michael] Palmer and David Acosta [on the board, both of Houston] who have no commitment to community broadcasting and to the mission statement of Pacifica, but see these frequencies as unrealized economic assets. That’s the problem — we have people on the board of directors who don’t understand what this organization is about….
Why do you think you and [former KPFA station manager] Nicole Sawaya were singled out, after the crisis, in not being allowed back to work on the station, when other staff at KPFA were allowed to return?
I think that’s clear. In her case, she was a very strong, resourceful leader, with the ability to crystallize energy and support in favor of community radio, and they didn’t want community radio. In my case, I was the signature national voice coming out of California, and they wanted to sell my station. It would be a lot easier for them to sell it, if I wasn’t there. Also because Mary Frances Berry has said repeatedly she thinks the organization is too much run by and for white males over fifty. So we have the head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission [Berry] creating a class of people in which I exist, as a discriminated-against individual.
I’ve read some arguments on the web and elsewhere, some in The Nation, arguing that the protestors have overreacted, or that you only acted when your own job was threatened, and so on.
This of course always goes on, and you’re never going to have that not happen. But the astonishing thing about this particular struggle is how little of that there’s been. That always surfaces at times of weakness. I’ve been on radio for thirty years, and not everybody loves me. Radio is a very personality-driven and personal medium. I would say the overwhelming number of people who listen to Pacifica at least tolerate if not admire what I do. There will always be some — they heard me say one thing once, and they think I’m “blah blah blah.”
Similarly, in actions, anytime you take any action, there are always going to be people who will say, “You didn’t act strongly enough, or you didn’t act soon enough, or you acted in your own self-interest.” I think the facts indicate that I acted how I did and when I did, in a way that I believe was appropriate. Other people seem to think it was appropriate too, or I wouldn’t have had all the support that I’ve had to get me back on the air.
What’s your sense of the response of other people still with the network — people at KPFK or WBAI, or elsewhere in Pacifica?
It varies. I was just in New York recently, on a media panel with the programming director at WBAI, Bernard White. And he was being strongly attacked by the audience for not being sufficiently aggressive about this whole thing…. And it’s the same way here at KPFA, with people who criticized me for not quitting my job five years ago, because they didn’t like what was going on then. People and choices ripen, and they tend to ripen locally.
We’ve gotten a lot of support individually, and organizationally, from the WBAI union in New York, for our struggle. But the idea that certain people have that everybody in all factories should put down their tools at once, and have a general strike, and put the workers in command all over the planet, is a wonderful fantasy that everybody on the left has had forever. It just doesn’t work that way. People will do what they can do, when they can do it.
I am afraid that the situation at Pacifica will continue to deteriorate before people fully realize how grave the situation is. But there are really good people at all the stations (with the possible exception of Houston, where they’ve been so badly purged) who understand the nature of community broadcasting at Pacifica, and I have confidence that they will do the right thing, when the right thing becomes apparent to them.
Has the role of KPFT-Houston station manager Garland Ganter been amplified at all in the weeks following his acting management at KPFA?
I think he revealed himself for what he is. And he’s made it clear by his actions that there will never be a real community radio station as we know it, a Pacifica station, at KPFT in Houston, as long as he’s associated with it, because he has no idea of what a Pacifica station’s mission is, and he never did. He showed that by how he acted. It’s tragic for a community of the nature of Houston.
KPFT-Houston now has a minority audience of about 5 percent [KPFT says 22 percent], versus something like 32 percent for KPFA, 53 percent in New York. L.A. is something like 29 percent. Washington is in the 50s. I took the trouble of going through the demographics of the congressional districts where KPFT’s signal hits, and you’ve got something there like 40 percent Latino, 10 to 15 percent African-American, and at least 5 percent Asian. So if you’re in a majority-minority area, and you’re programming white cowboy music — this is not a Pacifica station, and it’s not in our mission, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with what Pacifica stations are about.
It’s been hijacked by people with a certain standard of audience building. Everybody in commercial radio knows about audience building — that you build an audience by playing non-controversial popular music most of the time, and that’s what they’re doing there. That’s not what Pacifica’s mission is, and that’s not what the stations are for. This is a very, very serious betrayal of our mission, and the fact that it is condoned or encouraged by Mary Frances Berry, who at the same time talks about how she wants to build a minority audience, is an indication of how hypocritical her position is….
You will not have a true Pacifica station in Houston again, until the community is involved, and the community has a voice, in an uncensored manner, and people can decide what goes on the air, without Garland Ganter’s big foot on their throats. That’s not the way Pacifica stations operate, not in New York or California, and that’s not the way the station used to operate in Texas.
What’s your response to Pacifica’s claim that the groups protesting are a small fringe group, and that the network is programming to a larger community?
This is always the great discussion, between mass outreach and keeping your principles. If a Pacifica station can’t figure out how, in an area like Houston, to get people to listen to the station that should and could be broadcasting about things like air pollution and the effect that it has on everybody who breathes in Houston, if it can’t figure out a way to get people to listen to shows about the discrimination against Latinos in education in Texas and the Houston area, if it can’t figure out a way to discuss things that are of interest to people who are desperate to survive brutal economic inequality — if it can’t figure out a way to do all these things, then it ought to mail in its license. Garland Ganter, by saying that, is saying that he has a failure of imagination and a failure of leadership, and he doesn’t believe in the Pacifica mission — and therefore he shouldn’t be there.