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Tuned In, Turned On and Locked Out 

KPFA struggle recalls ’60s, but this time lefties are fighting each other

Wednesday, Jul 28 1999
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Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

Anyone who thought radicalism was dead should have been in Berkeley over the last several months, as dozens of activists got arrested in the course of round-the-clock protests and sit-ins. It was the ’60s all over again. But the progressives aren’t at war against the religious right, the CIA or the military-industrial complex. These lefties are at loggerheads with other lefties, and apparently taking no prisoners.

Ground zero is Berkeley radio station KPFA, which was founded in 1949 by local pacifists and became the springboard for the Pacifica Radio Network and its five affiliate stations that have, for decades, provided both an alternative and a tonic to commercial radio and middle-of-the-road politics.

The conflict flared with the March firing of popular station manager Nicole Sawaya, then quickly escalated when Pacifica Foundation board members tried to enforce a gag rule regarding on-air discussions of Sawaya’s dismissal. One of the first to be fired over the matter was newsman Larry Bensky, one of Pacifica’s most respected and honored contributors. Another host, Dennis Bernstein, was ordered out under guard in the middle of his program. Since July 14, the entire staff has been locked out, with the station subsisting on network feeds and tapes of old programs.

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It’s a dispute rife with ironies. The radicals who decry network management are launching their missiles against a Pacifica Foundation board peopled with minorities, women and civil rights activists. It is not your average board of directors. At the same time, the Foundation has fallen into the role of villain with remarkable dispatch by resorting to tactics entirely at odds with the ethos of an organization that has been, historically, an anti-corporate beacon of unfettered speech and ideas.

The current struggle grew out of years of tension between local-station staff and the Pacifica Foundation. By 1993, the group Take Back KPFA had already formed in response to increased local tithing to the network required by Pacifica and to changes in programming viewed as hostile to the station’s mission. These changes have included the dismissal of longtime radio personalities Bill Mandel, who discoursed on the Soviet Union, and jazz aficionado Phil Elwood. Some observers applauded the removal of these hosts and other related moves as an attempt to bring life to an ossified lineup. But both men had their loyalists, and any revamping of the station brought out critics who accused KPFA of becoming too mainstream or trying to ape National Public Radio.

KPFA has for years been the C-SPAN of radio. Where else was there 24-hour-a-day coverage of the Free Speech Movement, or gavel-to-gavel broadcasting of the Clarence Thomas confirmation or Bill Clinton’s impeachment? That unique programming, along with shows featuring non-mainstream music and quirky or talented hosts, is what KPFA has meant to many. (Famed movie reviewer Pauline Kael hosted a KPFA show before becoming famous; Jerry Brown had a gig here between government jobs.)

Like National Public Radio, Pacifica relies on federal funds for a portion (about 15 percent) of an estimated $10 million operating budget (making Pacifica a favorite target of conservative politicians for years). And this tie to federal money, with its evolving requirements, helped set off the current furor. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the federal funding agency, asserted last year that the board members of local stations could no longer serve on Pacifica’s national board, further reducing KPFA’s autonomy and reversing what had been common procedure. When Pacifica executive director Pat Scott (a onetime KPFA manager who has since left Pacifica) received the advisory, she queried whether Pacifica was in compliance. The answer was no, putting Pacifica’s federal funds at risk. KPFA was told that Pacifica stood to lose $1.4 million should the network not rectify matters.

KPFA station manager Nicole Sawaya was asked to draw up prospective budget cuts in anticipation of a possible cutoff in funds. But Sawaya refused to slash salaries or positions — a stance that endeared her to staffers — and, instead, defiantly stated that she’d cut the 17 percent of locally raised funds that is automatically transferred to Pacifica to offset parent-organization expenses. For this rebellion, apparently, Sawaya was canned, although the Foundation has never offered an official explanation.

All of the other firings, and the July 14 lockout of the entire local KPFA staff (they remain on paid administrative leave), have arisen from defiance of a so-called gag rule (long in place, but never enforced) that forbids discussing the station’s internal matters on the air. Hence the rebels’ cries for "Free Speech Radio" and their depiction of Pacifica as a dictatorship.

For a station founded on the principle of airing alternative opinions, the decision to fire Bensky et al. was ill-advised at best. Protests over the firings are now playing out almost nightly in the streets. A tent encampment of demonstrators has risen outside KPFA’s headquarters, and on one evening, Joan Baez headlined a fund-raiser at the local Berkeley Community Theater, a reconvening of the protest culture that was birthed here in l964. On another night, a burst of gunfire shattered a small plate-glass window at the station. So far there have been nearly 100 arrests, compelling Pacifica to spend a small fortune on private security and saddling the city with $160,000 in police overtime costs — which prompted a mediation offer from Mayor Shirley Dean.

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