Locked Out at Pacifica

The Pacifica Foundation hires a Houston hitman to silence dissent at a Berkeley radio station.


Pacifica has been less than peaceful lately. The community radio foundation, which owns five stations across the country (including KPFT in Houston), has been embroiled in a lengthy controversy over the mission and future of its radio network. Protests are taking place at all five stations, but currently the most explosive battle zone is Berkeley, California, home to the founding Pacifica station, KPFA.

Since July 14, several hundred protesters have rallied daily outside KPFA in response to a literal lockout of the entire KPFA staff by Pacifica’s national management. (Pacifica spokesmen insist that the staff is not locked out but has been placed on “paid administrative leave.”) As many as two thousand demonstrators have marched through Berkeley to protest Pacifica’s actions, and the ongoing “Camp KPFA” outside the station is generating teach-ins, impromptu concerts, and around-the-clock protests. “I have never seen a movement build this fast,” said renowned Pacifica broadcaster Larry Bensky. “All you’ve got to say is, they shut down free speech radio in the name of what?” Bensky, fired earlier this year for discussing the controversy on the air, is now a spokesman for the protest.

The most recent conflict at KPFA began March 31, when the contract of outspoken KPFA program director Nicole Sawaya was not renewed because, according to Pacifica management, she “wasn’t a good fit” with the organization. KPFA staff protested, Sawaya sued, and Pacifica took steps to tighten security at the station – including re-programming coded door locks and closely controlling station access. “It’s like The Gulag Radio,” said Dennis Bernstein, one of the locked-out KPFA staff members (see “Banned by Pacifica,” page 21). Pacifica says the security measures were made necessary by threats against administrative personnel, and because shortly after Sawaya’s dismissal, shots had been fired into Pacifica’s Berkeley offices. (The shooting remains under police investigation.)

The KPFA dispute is the latest chapter in a larger controversy within the national organization, particularly over governance changes (also the subject of current litigation) which have diminished the authority of individual stations’ local community boards. But Pacifica also maintains a so-called “non-disclosure policy” (informally known as “the gag rule”) forbidding programmers to discuss internal station matters over the air. “This is not a soap box. And for people to misuse it in that way is a terrible travesty. That’s not what community radio is about,” said ex-Pacifica spokesperson Elan Fabbri (on July 22, Fabbri was replaced by a pricey San Francisco public relations firm specializing in “crisis management”). But correspondent Bensky, who has been with Pacifica radio for more than thirty years, said that the policy now being punitively enforced had been no more than an informal network custom against airing “dirty laundry”: that is, personal criticism of colleagues on the air. “You’ve got to know the difference between dirty laundry and a burning laundromat,” said Bensky, “and this is a burning laundromat.”

The repeated invocation of the gag rule by Pacifica management triggered the current lockout and protests at KPFA. Following Bensky’s April dismissal from the national network, volunteer KPFA programmer Robbie Osman lost his show in June for a similar violation.

On July 13, during the daily “Flashpoints” news discussion program, reporter Dennis Bernstein broadcast a taped portion of a public press conference held earlier by media watchdog group Media Alliance. The pending lawsuit against Pacifica had been discussed, as well as a leaked e-mail memorandum from Houston-based national board member Micheal Palmer to Pacifica board chair Mary Frances Berry, discussing in detail the possible sale of KPFA and New York station WBAI (see The Back Page, “Freedom’s Just Another Word …”).

Immediately following “Flashpoints,” interim station manager Garland Ganter (imported by Pacifica executive director Lynn Chadwick from Pacifica’s Houston station, KPFT, where he is station manager) informed Bernstein that he had violated the gag rule and was being placed on administrative leave. When Bernstein refused to leave the station, he was threatened with arrest by Ganter and his armed security guards. But Bernstein was soon joined in his defiance by the rest of the station staff. A portion of the loud argument between Bernstein and Ganter was broadcast live over KPFA, attracting numerous protesters who surrounded the newsroom and the station. After several hours of fruitless negotiations, fifty-two people (including Bernstein and other staff members) were arrested at management’s insistence and removed. Paid staff members were placed on administrative leave, the station’s doors were locked and chained, and the windows boarded. Around-the-clock protests began outside the station.

Ganter told the Observer that he was asked to join Chadwick in Berkeley to help with administrative chores, and that in enforcing the gag rule, he’s simply trying to maintain “balance” in the news coverage. “I just didn’t want to see the flagship station go dark, you know, to get sucked into a black hole, and that’s why I’m here,” Ganter said. Since the lockout began, the station, staffed by Ganter, a single engineer (also from Houston), and a few contract staff, has continued to broadcast – but only pre-recorded tapes and recorded music. Ganter dismissed charges by his colleagues that he is acting as a “scab” for Pacifica management. “Nobody’s been fired,” he said, “so I disagree when people call me a scab.”

Last year, ostensibly to bring Pacifica into compliance with long-standing Corporation for Public Broadcasting rules, the national governing board became self-nominating, and prohibited concurrent local-national board membership. Critics accuse Chadwick and her predecessor Pat Scott (both former C.P.B. Task Force members) of using C.P.B. to force the changes by threatening the withholding of C.P.B. funds (about 15 percent of Pacifica’s annual funding) if technical governance regulations that had not been enforced for twenty years were not immediately complied with.

If not overturned by the recent lawsuit filed by local station staff, the new national policies could damage community radio in Berkeley and elsewhere. They would leave Pacifica free, for example, to pursue management’s apparent project of “shutting down that unit [KPFA] and re-programming immediately.” That’s a quote from the now notorious Palmer e-mail, which Media Alliance made public and Pacifica management insists was only Palmer’s personal speculation. (Micheal Palmer is a Houston real estate broker and treasurer-elect of the national governing board.) In the e-mail, Palmer details to Berry, “as an update for you and Lynn (Chadwick),” the financial benefits of selling KPFA or WBAI. The two stations are uniquely valuable among national non-profit stations because their signals are “grandfathered” into broad FM frequencies normally reserved for commercial stations.

Fabbri – nicknamed “The Fabricator” by her critics – insisted that Palmer speaks only for himself. “We have absolutely no intention of selling any of our frequencies, including KPFA and WBAI,” Fabbri told the Observer. “Micheal himself acted of his own volition, out of frustration with what was going on here.” Palmer told the Observer he has been instructed not to publicly discuss Pacifica issues but released a statement through Pacifica apologizing for his memo. “I’m just sorry that a wrong keystroke on my part has created such an uproar. I still think we should look at selling one of our frequencies,” he added, “but it’s evident that the board and national organization don’t agree with me.”

Local dissent within Pacifica has been brewing for several years. During Scott’s tenure, station managers were directed to increase fundraising by “broadening the audience.” Programming consultants hired by Pacifica advised station managers to diminish the role of what they consider “fringe” political and social affairs programming, in order to increase revenue-generating shows, especially pop music. Nowhere has this trend been more extensive than at KPFT in Houston, where beginning in 1994 and 1995, Ganter replaced most of the local public affairs programs and ethnic music programs with a mixture of folk-rock and world-beat music, under the rubric “The Sounds of Texas and the World” (now reduced to “The Sound of Texas”). Ganter and Pacifica boast that KPFT now has more subscribing members and increased funding. But the station now produces no local news programming. It has retained little programming in the progressive Pacifica tradition: a weekly prison call-in show, some gay and lesbian programming, and the weekly one-hour “Progressive Forum” – on which the program director has forbidden any discussion of the ongoing Pacifica controversy. Ganter told the Observer a two-person news department is planned, and he defended the current minimalist state of KPFT informational programming, pointing to daily national broadcasts of “Democracy Now” and the “BBC News Hour.” “We have a good amount of daily local public affairs,” he said. Incidentally, KPFT is the only Pacifica station not to join the lawsuit against the Pacifica Foundation.

Pacifica defends its changes in the name of fostering “diversity,” accusing opponents of racism. But KPFA protesters respond that in fact national management has undermined diversity throughout the network, and the effective replacement of Sawaya by Ganter symbolizes the overall change. “In the name of diversity,” said Bernstein, “they replaced a Lebanese single mother from the Berkeley community with a middle-aged white man from Houston, whose job is to impose a programming plan developed in Washington, D.C.” As happened at KPFT, an alarming number of programmers at WBAI, KPFA, and KPFK in Los Angeles, have been removed from their positions over the past few years, sometimes without prior notice by management, while others have resigned in frustration.

Bensky posits two possible reasons why Pacifica is doing what they’re doing: “One is that they’ve blundered from misstep to misstep because they’re massively incompetent. The other is that they did have a plan all along, which involved selling either this station or the one in New York, and in order to do that they had to clean house and get all the union people out.” Regardless of management’s motivation, Bensky sees Pacifica’s vision as inherently flawed, dismissing the notion that the way to save Pacifica is by building a huge endowment. “There’s only one way that Pacifica’s going to be on a firm financial footing for the future,” he said. “You put on programming that listeners value enough so that they will share a little bit of their money with you.”

In the wake of the KPFA lockout and the mounting nationwide protests, Pacifica management appears increasingly isolated. The Berkeley mayor, city council, and California state legislators have spoken out in favor of the protests and in support of mediation. Even the national board is becoming sharply divided. According to Rabbi Aaron Kreigel, a board member from Los Angeles and vocal opponent of the lockout strategy, each decision Chadwick makes alienates the board further. “There’s a strong showing of no-confidence,” he said. “People who have been quiet are no longer quiet on the board.”

On July 19, the Berkeley community held a benefit concert for Camp KPFA, featuring Joan Baez, Utah Phillips, and a number of local bands. Following the sold-out concert, much of the crowd marched to KPFA, vowing to continue the protests. The following day, Bensky told the Observer that Pacifica had finally agreed to meet with a group representing KPFA, whose members include community, staff, union, and volunteer representation. “I don’t see any way that we’re going to lose this,” Bensky said, “because never in my lifetime have I seen a movement build as quickly as this one. This is not only local and national, but it’s international now.”

Julie Hollar is an Observer editorial intern.

(For current information, consult the rebellion websites at www.savepacifica.net, and www.radio4all.org/freepacifica/index.html. The official Pacifica page is at www.pacifica.org. For news on Houston action, contact Edwin Johnston: [email protected])