On March 13, after weeks of rumors, Pacifica Radio's board of directors voted to fire its executive director, Summer Reese, during what was essentially a conference call. But nothing is as simple as all that in the oldest and oddest public radio network in the country.
Four days later, Reese sent an email to the entire Pacifica staff announcing that she was not recognizing the board's authority: "I want to assure you that I am in possession of a signed and valid contract for three years of employment from the board of directors and that I fully intend to complete that contract."
And so it was that Reese marched to the Pacifica national office in Berkeley on March 17, bolt cutters in hand, removed a padlock placed on the front doors over the weekend, and essentially occupied the building. When newly appointed interim executive director Margy Wilkinson showed up, Reese and 12 of her compatriots — including Reese's mother, a longtime anti-war and civil rights activist — refused to let Wilkinson, her husband and two of her allies pass.
"You're all going to be personally liable — and I'm going to enjoy your houses!" Reese shouted at them, according to former board member Sasha Futran, who backs Wilkinson.
Later Reese read for all the staff, in her deep and booming voice, from the Book of Joshua: "Whosoever he be that doth rebel against thy commandment, and will not hearken unto thy words in all that thou commandest him, he shall be put to death: only be strong and of a good courage."
"I feel like I've ended up in an insane asylum," Futran told L.A. Weekly a few hours later, still in disbelief.
"I'm not leaving the building until this is resolved by either the Attorney General's Office or the court," Reese told the Weekly. "I don't want these people to destroy Pacifica."
The standoff is only the latest in a series of putsches and counter-putsches that have typified the network's last 15 years.
Pacifica has a long and storied history, and still features such leading liberals as Amy Goodman, the widely known host of Democracy Now! (on which journalists Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill are frequent guests), but it has fallen on hard times of late. Listenership, according Reese, is "extraordinarily low." During an average 15-minute period, just 700 people listen to its Los Angeles station, 90.7 FM KPFK, for at least five minutes, according to Nielsen Audio, which monitors radio ratings.
For L.A.'s other public radio stations, KCRW and KPCC, that number is 8,000 and 20,000, respectively. KPFK draws roughly one one-thousandth of all radio listeners in the Metro Los Angeles area.
Pacifica's New York station, WBAI, is even worse off, with too few listeners to register on the Arbitron rankings, and is all but bankrupt. Last year, most of the staff was laid off, including the entire news department.
Making matters worse, the federal government, via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is withholding Pacifica's grant money, thanks to the network's "failure to provide documentation" for a 2012 audit.
Ever since a string of protests and lawsuits led to a new set of bylaws establishing democratic elections for the boards of each of Pacifica's five stations and the national board, a parade of top managers have filed in and out of Pacifica, staying for a year or two before being forced out by whatever bloc happens to have taken power.
Ian Masters, host of Background Briefing, a smart if rather sedate, hourlong public affairs show on KPFK, has been publicly calling for an end to this experiment in democracy, which sees board members elected by both listeners and staff members two out of every three years.
"We're no longer a radio network, we're a sad political glee club," Masters says. "We desperately need adult supervision."
Voters don't seem to have any clue who they're voting for, and turnout is low. Last year's elections were called off due to lack of funding. Termed-out and retiring board members were replaced by the runner-up candidates in the most previous vote, leading, rather perversely, to the board majority flipping to the minority, the removal of Summer Reese and Reese's subsequent sit-in.
The national board is dominated by two factions: the new majority, which Masters calls the "Radio Havana crowd," and the new minority, which Masters dubs the "conspiracy and quackery crowd" — the latter group in 2010 approved a motion calling for all KPFK programs to question the "official story" of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
While board members have so far declined to say why they fired Reese, members of the various groups have made wild claims about one another.
Reese accuses her enemies of plotting to cover up financial malfeasance and even embezzlement. Reese's opponents accuse her of incompetence and scheming to turn over control of the organization to Gary Null, an alternative-medicine guru and longtime Pacifica host, who sells his own vitamins and nutritional supplements during pledge drives — for which he takes a healthy cut, according to several board members and managers who spoke to the Weekly.