Radio Galleria

On Houston's glittering west side, the Pacifica national board gathered for community business. The community wasn't invited.


Houston, October 31, 1999

Pacifica’s big weekend began with a fire at KPFT. Early Friday morning, October 29, a fire investigators said was arson gutted a two-story storage shed behind the main studio building in the Montrose neighborhood and damaged utility lines sufficiently to silence the station for two hours. The station building itself was undamaged, and the dilapidated clapboard and stucco storage shed was used only for old LPs and unused equipment. But the Houston Chronicle had its front-page story: “Pacifica Radio will hold its biannual national board meeting here this weekend, and some familiar with the non-profit radio network said Friday’s fire may seem cool in comparison.”

It’s not surprising that the creaky Chronicle would play the arson as possibly related to the dispute throughout Pacifica, which has pitted network management against staff and station members. Unfortunately, KPFT station manager Garland Ganter was also quick to imply that opponents of Pacifica management, known to be planning protests at the board meeting, might be behind the fire. “It is some kind of eerie coincidence,” Ganter told the Chronicle, repeating that phrase Saturday morning to a television reporter in front of the meeting site at the Doubletree Hotel — where he refused to speak to reporters from his own network. Ganter was eager to collaborate in what has become the standard mainstream media spin on disputes within progressive organizations: those loony, violent leftists are at it again.

Yet Ganter later acknowledged to the Observer that break-ins into the storage shed had been a recurring problem at the station, and that as recently as two weeks ago he had evicted transients from the building and once again replaced the locks. So, despite immediate denunciations of the arson by representatives of the dissidents, Ganter had already hand-delivered his radical-saboteur spin to the local media.

Saturday morning at the Doubletree, in the heart of Houston’s posh Galleria shopping district, the hotel management had certainly gotten Pacifica’s message that the crazies were on the loose. Security personnel joined by uniformed city police were all over the lobby, converging around anybody who looked vaguely out of place, and informing reporters that (despite prior Pacifica assurances of board member availability and press briefings) there would be no access at all to the board meeting area, except for designated times of brief public meetings. The dissidents had scheduled a press conference and picket outside the hotel for 11 that morning, and the security detachment was on full alert. So when the police saw a boisterous but polite group of fewer than fifty people gather on the front lawn for conversations, speeches, marching, and singing, feverish visions of the bomb-throwing, shed-burning Berkeleyite invasion dissolved into the Houston smog. The cops would spend much of the day with little to do except to be puzzled at all the fuss.

Representatives of all five station cities were among the dissidents, with Berkeley predominant. Speakers emphasized that they had come not looking for a confrontation, instead hoping for dialogue, negotiation, and progress. Among the group: J. Imani of the KPFA local advisory board; Barbara Lubin of the Mideast Children’s Alliance; Washington civil-rights activist Acie Byrd; Andrea Buffa of the Bay Area Media Alliance; Dave Adelson of the KPFK local advisory board; several former national board members, assorted programmers, staff, and interested citizens. From Berkeley in particular came the complaint that attempts to get Pacifica Board Chair Mary Frances Berry to meet with the staff have met with no response.

Former Berkeley mayor Gus Newport, among several others, called for new board members, a notion that seemed to be gaining momentum in the week leading up to the meeting. The media watchdog group FAIR had organized a “reconciliation slate” of eleven candidates, including such luminaries as Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Urvashi Vaid of the Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Washington activist Acie Byrd (in attendance among the dissidents), author Robert McChesney, and from Houston, Sissy Farenthold and David Lopez (both also present).

Speaking for the Houston Committee for People’s Radio, former KPFT program director Duane Bradley welcomed the activists from other cities, and argued that KPFT had lost its bearings. “This was a station where we broadcast in eleven languages, and where the voiceless had a voice,” Bradley said. “Now it’s become the Kerrville Folk Station. Folk music is fine, but that’s not the sole or most important mission of Pacifica.”

The dissidents had agreed on four demands: (1) No sale of the stations; (2) a commitment to democratize the network; (3) the dismissal of Lynn Chadwick as executive director; and (4) no further censorship of programmers.

The next day, they would be granted only “no sale.” Chadwick’s contract was renewed, and the gag rule was reasserted “at the discretion of the station managers.” (At KPFA, that will essentially mean no gag rule; at KPFT, that will essentially mean no one should say anything to anyone that might offend Garland Ganter.) The Berkeley staff did receive a board commitment that no listener contributions will be used to pay for the lockout-associated security expenses, a seemingly insubstantial accounting distinction.

The prospects for democratization, meanwhile, seemed to dim as the afternoon wore on. As announced, the board admitted the public to view its session on governance, but within moments Lynn Chadwick was insisting that all tape recorders be turned off, even turning to a policeman for enforcement. When the cop shrugged and said there was no law against taping a public meeting, Chadwick’s frustration was obvious. She and Chair Mary Frances Berry resigned themselves to intermittently shushing the audience.

Prior to the weekend, Jeff Cohen of FAIR told the Observer that he believed informal private discussions were proceeding in an attempt to persuade the board it should step down for the greater good of Pacifica. Judging only from these proceedings, the discussions must be very private indeed. If the many calls from prominent progressives for the board’s resignation had been heard, there was little visible effect. The board’s discussion focused solely on the fate of two proposed trustees, Tomás Moran and Karolyn van Putten, both of Berkeley. Moran (who is also on the reconciliation slate proposed by FAIR) may be the only person in America whom all sides support. But van Putten was strongly opposed by the Berkeley group because of her close association with Chadwick and her suspected collaboration in the lockout. In a tactical compromise, the nominations were bound together and the candidates were eventually elected as a duo.

But not without some fireworks. When the board rejected a proposal to allow Berkeley city council member Kriss Worthington to speak against Van Putten’s nomination, the crowd objected loudly and Chadwick had the cops evict the audience, some of whom chanted briefly in protest as they left the hall. Afterward, hotel security announced that there would be no further public access — not even to the ritual “public comment” session traditionally held at the close of all Pacifica board meetings. Scheduled for Sunday morning, the public session was a central reason many people had traveled so far: for brief permission to speak directly to those determining the future of Pacifica.

Under that shadow, about 100 people gathered for a teach-in Saturday downtown, called together by the Committee for People’s Radio. It’s only a couple of miles east from the Doubletree to the much funkier Unitarian Church, but especially to Houstonians, the board’s choice for its venue said volumes about the distance Pacifica had traveled from its community roots. Speakers recounted the history of the KPFA lockout, defended the Berkeley station’s record on diversity and community issues, and speculated on the reasons that the Pacifica foundation leadership has for several years steadily pushed the network toward corporate governance and mainstream programming, with its most restrictive current model at KPFT. The majority of this crowd was local, and there was palpable frustration at the direction the station has taken under Garland Ganter, whose only radio standards appear to be Arbitron ratings and fundraising. Several speakers complained that Ganter allows only the most minimal discussion of pressing community issues and virtually no publicity for community organizing. A few former programmers among the audience contributed their memories. In particular, Rosalind Holt, who formerly hosted a black music program, said she had been terrorized at the station by phoned-in threats of violence, and despite her pleas station management (including Ganter) did nothing.

In the old days, someone noted, KPFT would have called this meeting. And in a backwards way, it had — the gathering had been generated by accumulated years of KPFT neglect of Houston community action, needing only the spark of Ganter’s craven collaboration in the lockout at KPFA.

The next morning, after overnight and last-minute negotiations with hotel security — bolstered by Tomás Moran’s steadfast refusal to accept his board appointment at a closed meeting — the board finally surrendered its allotted one hour for direct communications from the community. In staccato three-minute bursts, the same arguments, awkward and eloquent alike, were brought before the board — with quick and stern correction from Berry if anyone lingered too long in attacking Chadwick or Ganter. There was some support for the board, including a KPFT music programmer who insisted that “Houston is not Berkeley” and that it’s too much to expect conservative Houstonians to listen to radical “preaching to the choir.” He did not say how long the church doors might remain closed.

Mark Wilde, of the Houston Committee for People’s Radio, ironically congratulated the board for its success in “marginalizing” its opponents, and read a statement from Jim Hightower asking the board to step aside in favor of the FAIR reconciliation slate.

Partly in response to Berry’s repeated warnings against personal attacks (she would close the meeting with a condescending lecture in the same vein), Van Jones, director of Berkeley’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, denounced the “slanders” from Pacifica management, and its reiterated implication that its opponents were promoting violence. Then he told the board it would be remembered for one thing: “acting as a catalyst for a movement for democracy, not just at Pacifica, but in all media. And beyond the media, a movement for democracy in all the institutions, all across the country.”

Local station host Ganter ritually closed the pop-off session, congratulating himself and his station for bringing many more listeners to “Pacifica Network News” and “Democracy Now!” By then it was abundantly clear that his bosses at Pacifica believe very much in “Democracy Now!”

As to democracy at Pacifica: not now, and maybe not ever.