By JEFF MACKLER
BERKELEY, Calif.-Some 50 years ago, the Pacifica chain of radio stations charted unprecedented ground in U.S. radio broadcasting. Pacifica became the first network to be supported entirely by listener contributions as opposed to corporate advertising or foundation grants.
Today, one in five people in America lives within reach of the FM frequencies of the Pacifica radio network. Pacifica stations include its flagship station, KPFA-Berkeley; KPFK-Los Angeles; KPFT-Houston; WBAI-New York; and WPFW-Washington, D.C.
A major effort has been underway for nearly a decade to undermine these stations, gut their left-oriented social and political content, and subordinate them to increasing government and private control.
Unlike the corporate-owned-and-dominated radio networks, stations like KPFA have served to inform listeners about a broad range of political and social issues that are routinely banned from the corporate airwaves.
KPFA has been an important voice for those struggling to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, to oppose U.S. imperialist interventions worldwide, to defend the environment, and to fight for racial, sexual, and social equality. In decades past, it stood up to the McCarthyite witch hunters and others who sought to silence its criticism of the status quo.
Controversy erupted at KPFA early this year after the board refused to renew the employment contract of the station’s popular program director, Nicole Sawaya. After several KPFA radio hosts joined listeners in discussing Sawaya’s dismissal on the air, Pacifica’s board of directors charged them with violating their policy (popularly known as the “gag rule”) that prohibits broadcasting commentary related to the station’s “internal affairs.”
Later, popular commentator Larry Bensky and veteran music programmer Robbie Osman were fired on charges of violating the gag rule.
Dragged from the studio by armed guards
On July 13, KPFA’s listeners-from Berkeley south to Fresno and east almost 300 miles to the California-Nevada border-were shocked when the 6 p.m. regular evening news program was halted by broadcaster Mark Mericle.
“We interrupt this story,” said Mericle, “because Dennis Bernstein [co-producer of the radical political commentary program, “Flashpoints”] … has been put on administrative leave for his playing [a few minutes earlier] of a press conference concerning the crisis here at KPFA. … The guards that Pacifica has placed in KPFA are trying to drag him out of the studio.”
As he struggled in the clutches of armed guards hired by Pacifica’s board of directors, Dennis Bernstein was heard in the background as saying, “I’m nervous. I’m afraid you’re going to hurt me. I’m afraid you’re going to shoot me.”
A moment later the station went silent, returning to the air minutes later with replays of taped speeches from KPFA’s archives. Within minutes listeners gathered in protest outside the station.
Inside, Bernstein, who had been informed minutes earlier of his involuntary “administrative leave” status, was joined by other KPFA staff and community supporters, who sat down and refused to leave the station.
Pacifica leaders called in the Berkeley police, who several hours later arrested more than 50 people-including Bernstein, his co-producer Leslie Kean, and six other KPFA staffers.
Prior to the 6 p.m. news, “Flashpoints” had broadcast a well-attended news conference that had included comments on the inadvertently revealed secret discussions within Pacifica’s board in regard to the proposed sale of the station.
This was a topic that had been mentioned in numerous mainstream media reports, and thus did not fall under the strictures of Pacifica’s internal “gag rule.”
The “Flashpoints” segment, introduced by Kean, also included a taped segment by Mumia Abu-Jamal speaking in support of the beleaguered station and its staff.
The following day, Pacifica locked out and placed on paid administrative leave the station’s 25 paid staff, most of whom are members of Communications Workers of America, Local 9415. Some 150 unpaid staff volunteers were similarly excluded, and the station was placed in the hands of management flunkies who broadcasted “radical” tapes and music for the next two weeks.
In short order, and daily, huge crowds assembled at the station, and Pacifica’s actions became the subject of protests from every quarter. About 2500 rallied at the station a few days after the takeover, with hundreds assembling every day thereafter.
Within a week of the station’s closure, a capacity crowd of 3500 attended a benefit concert with Joan Baez and the popular hip-hop and spoken word artist Michael Franti. Additional hundreds were turned away by fire department officials.
Resolutions in support of KPFA and free speech were quickly approved by groups ranging from the Berkeley City Council and San Francisco Board of Supervisors to the San Francisco and Alameda County central labor councils. Hundreds of labor unions, social and political organizations, community groups, and media organizations followed suit with statements of protest against Pacifica’s actions.
Demands mushroomed for the resignation of Pacifica’s board of directors-including its now-notorious chair, Mary Frances Berry-and Executive Director Lynn Chadwick.
Thousands fill the streets
On July 31, a mammoth two-mile free-speech march and rally of 15,000, called on 10 day’s notice, culminated the initial protests. Demonstrators filled buses and carpools from as far away as Portland, Ore., and Houston, Texas.
The rally assembled at the University of California’s Sproul Plaza, the historic site of the 1964 Free Speech Movement (FSM). FSM leaders helped lead the march along with KPFA staff and volunteers, United Farmworker Vice President Dolores Huerta, and others representative of the multi-racial unity that has emerged in the course of this free speech battle.
The rally raised $26,000 on KPFA’s behalf. It was co-chaired by KPFAers Bensky, Bernstein, Miguel Molina, Khalil Fantauzzi Jacobs, Whalen Southern, Susan Stone, Walter Turner; as well as Andrea Buffa of the Media Alliance and this writer, representing Socialist Action, one of the groups that helped to initiate the united protest.
Actor Peter Coyote, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and UFW leader Dolores Huerta were joined on stage by a diverse group of KPFA supporters, including California Labor Federation President Tom Rankin, Berkeley Mayor Shirley Deam, and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. Brown, who was roundly booed for his politics favoring big business, nevertheless called for the resignation of the Pacifica board.
Some 80 speakers and performers addressed the six-hour event, both at the march assembly point and at the Martin Luther King Park rally.
The event was seen as a celebration of a partial victory in light of Pacifica’s decision a day earlier to reopen the station and place its operations in the hands of its union staff, without restriction, for a time period of six to nine months. After this time, according to the Pacifica public statement, and after a closer look at KPFA’s Arbitron ratings, the station’s future would be reevaluated.
A maneuver to sell the station?
The stunning reversal by Pacifica’s Board is widely viewed as a maneuver to retrench and eventually sell the station to corporate or foundation interests.
Board Director Mary Frances Berry, in defense of her actions and denying political or organizational motives, told the media at a press conference from which KPFA staff were excluded, “There is no conspiracy or secret agenda at Pacifica.”
But an errant e-mail sent mistakenly to the radical-oriented Media Alliance by Houston real estate developer and Pacifica National Board Treasurer-elect Michael Palmer spilled the proverbial beans. Palmer’s confidential memo stated that there was “support in the proper quarters, and a definite majority, for shutting down that unit [KPFA] and re-programming immediately.”
Mary Frances Berry is an African American woman who, in addition to her Pacifica post, serves as chairperson of President Clinton’s U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Berry requested the assistance of high-level Justice Department officials to secure the assistance of Berkeley police in employing more aggressive handling of demonstrators at KPFA.
Under Berry’s stewardship and before, the Pacifica Board established formal links to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), whose president, Robert Coonrod, was previously the deputy director of the U.S. ruling-class-dominated radio instrument in foreign affairs matters, the Voice of America.
Coonrod, who came to CPB in 1992, following his Voice of America (including the CIA-influenced Radio and TV Marti) stint, has established close relationships with Chadwick, Berry, and the board in general.
His “advice” and “counsel” were seen as critical to Berry’s recent restructuring of the network governance-that is, a power-grab designed to insulate Pacifica from local control. Coonrod is not without influence given the fact the CPB underwrites 14 percent of Pacifica’s budget.
Money was undoubtedly another factor in Pacifica’s machinations. In his intercepted e-mail, Michael Palmer revealed that KPFA alone could be sold for $65 to $75 million. “This is a movement from community radio to commodity radio,” said an insightful KPFA staff member.
To deflect the incredible public outrage against her actions, Berry went to great lengths to assert her commitment to KPFA’s progressive tradition. She insisted that the Board was committed to actively seeking a more “diverse” listener base. Berry accused critics of creating a “climate of violence, hate, racism, and misinformation.”
Where implemented, however, the results of Pacifica’s “mainstreaming” plans have been clear. A former programmer at KPFT-Houston, Rafael Renteria, described the Board-ordered changes at the Houston Pacifica affiliate:
“There is no longer a single public affairs program rooted in the Latino community. … There is now one hour of feminist programming each week. Peace Pipes and Visions, the Native American program, is gone. The Atheist program is gone. The Vietnamese program is gone. The Chinese program is gone. The Pakistani program is gone. Only one Black program remains today at KPFT and an African music program. … Today the policy is `English Only.”‘
“Pacifica,” according to Alexander Cockburn, “is operated like a prison run on Benthamite principles, in which the directorate levies ever-thickening slabs of money from member stations, most particularly WBAI in New York and KPFA in Berkeley.”
An estimated 17 percent of all funds raised by KPFA through its on-air fundraising campaigns must be sent to the Pacifica Board.
Cockburn continues, “Pacifica issues hire-and-fire commands and stipulates silence and obedience. When Pat Scott was installed as Pacifica’s national executive director in 1995, she speedily threatened all dissenters, hired unionbusters and made her longer-term goal the removal of Pacifica’s governing board from any accountability.
“Her successor, Lynn Chadwick, has been just as bad. With the active connivance of the governing board, headed by Mary Frances Berry, she is now trying to flush out the last vestiges of resistance.”
Community activists and KPFA staff, paid and volunteer, are now engaged in many informal meetings regarding the station’s future, plans for programming changes, and how best to prevent the sale and corporatization of this critical voice of dissent.
The firing several months earlier of Program Director Nicole Sawaya and staff members Larry Bensky remain unresolved, although Robbie Osman has been allowed to return to work.
The broad mass mobilizations in defense of free speech and KPFA demonstrate the great potential for a winning fight to preserve and expand listener-sponsored radio in the Bay Area and nationally and to return all fired staff.
The corporate-oriented and government-abetted attacks on free speech did not sit well with the tens and hundreds of thousands who see KPFA as an alternative voice that represents their interests as opposed to the corporate agenda. The future battles on this issue hold great potential for victory.
As we go to press, KPFA has returned to the air. -Editors