By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by Jordin Isip
WORD IS OUT THAT I'M WORKING ON A STORY about the latest coup at KPFK, and troops from both sides are massing on my voice mail, my e-mail, my editors' voice mail in varying tones of panic, paranoia and PR. The radio station's interim manager, Steven Starr, worries that the opposition is giving me a distorted picture of what's going on. A woman who had pitched a KPFK story to the L.A. Weeklya year ago leaves me precise instructions on how my piece should be written. A member of the newly rejuvenated Local Advisory Board, fondly or otherwise known as the LAB, wants to set me straight about the "antics" of Marc Cooper, host of the station's most popular drive-time talk show, who was suspended by Starr for refusing to raise funds for the new KPFK because he didn't like the direction in which it was headed. And my in-box is buried under an avalanche of variously furious, anguished or waggish electronic mail from the dispossessed, who have taken to calling the LAB and the national board "the Branch Pacificans."
Going in, I imagined I would write a wry, detached account of yet another brawl at KPFK, yet another palace coup in the long history of Pacifica radio wars. My piece would be about two camps of battle-scarred lefty partisans fighting over very little, yet convinced that the Earth was at stake. I'd seen such futile wrangles elsewhere, notably in my years as a college professor, when people of allegedly higher intelligence fought to the death over the protocol of office supplies. It's an old story in any hermetically sealed organization where no one outside the zone of combat gives much of a damn about the issues or the outcome. But on the marginalized far left, whose history is pocked with struggles over minuscule differences of policy or procedure -- distractions from the task of playing gadfly to the powers that be -- infighting is second nature. Over the years I've taught myself to knit, crochet, and sleep with my eyes open at meetings where the agenda was the agenda.
Except that as I sank into the thick of things, the battle at KPFK began to matter, to reveal itself as more than an internal power play, more even than a struggle about what counts as good alternative radio. Can it really be that the left in Southern California, which apparently helped fuel the station's highly successful February pledge drive, is willing to have its agenda set by people who give airtime to black separatists who refer to other blacks as "paint jobs" and "Uncle Toms," or to a nutball conspiracy theorist who got ample airtime in the closing hours of the fund drive to persuade us that the CIA plotted the attack on the World Trade Center? KPFK's troubles, which stretch back over the years since the station was founded in 1959, offer a case study in the widening abyss between two wings of the aging American left over the question of whether to go forth into the world speaking truth to power, or languish in splendid, and increasingly irrelevant, isolation. On one side are the '60s activists who have become intellectuals and argue that the left must work from within society and refine itself through dialogue and debate. On the other are the '60s activists, mostly hard-line Marxists or self-appointed guardians of minority identity, who believe that any contact with corporate capitalism and white elites contaminates and dilutes the cause.
A BUNDLE OF BRIGHT-ORANGE PEACE STICKERS adorns the coffee table in the lobby of KPFK's offices in North Hollywood. Outside the studio, two musicians with exotic-looking instruments wait to begin a live performance on the daily music show Global Village. In January, KPFK station manager Mark Schubb, along with four other managers at sister stations around the country, was placed on administrative leave and then fired without formal reason, though various LAB members charge that he has separated the station from them and from its "true" audience. In the weeks since, the station has raised a record $914,000 in its fund drive -- and watched helplessly as its staffing fell apart. Several key staffers and volunteer programmers have resigned or been dismissed, while those who chose to hang in fire off memos protesting iniquitous decisions on the part of the interim management. Meanwhile, much of the dwindling programming schedule is plugged with canned local and national reruns, as the public-affairs directors scramble to find guest hosts to fill in for the departed.
What's left of the permanent staff signs off on morning duties, while the afternoon program director, Dan Pavlich, contemplates the alarming white expanse of his board as he scrapes to fill Cooper's critical 4 p.m. slot with guest hosts for the rest of the week. A calm, business-as-usual atmosphere prevails after the frenzy of the fund drive, whose volunteers were heavily peopled with the "banned and the fired" under Schubb's watch, now hoping to get their old slots back. Interim manager Starr, an affable man in jeans and sweatshirt who talks with the bushy-tailed bonhomie of one who has been dishing out PR for years (he was once an agent), breaks off from a meeting with interim part-time troubleshooter Andrea Buffa, who's down from the Berkeley station, to tell me that the fund drive exceeded all expectations and everything is terrific. When I ask for specifics on the projected changes at KPFK and on increased community outreach, the pair expand on plans for a slew of "programming collectives," two of which are already in the works: a West South-Asian collective, to include Kurds, Afghans, Israelis and others ("some experts, some not"), and a youth collective. I mention that in several conversations with members of the LAB, I've been able to elicit no concrete plans for the future. "Forget the LAB," Starr says, and on hearing who I've talked to at the station, he intimates that they're the wrong people. He personally escorts me to the offices of two employees who are understandably so anxious to hold on to their jobs that they witter on generally about "regrouping" and "redistributing responsibilities." A third, an African-American who is filling in as interim operations director, is torn between real regret at the departure of Cooper and others, and fury at Schubb for failing to include "a broad range of voices" in programming.