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. Weekly a 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.
Meanwhile, the wrong people are telling me that the staff, paid and volunteer, is beaten down and barely functioning. The money from the pledge drive, even though it was earmarked for the exclusive use of KPFK and is supposedly sitting in a local bank account, has yet to filter down to the station. So short is ready cash that there's no money for colored markers; recently the phones were cut off for a day. More than one employee expresses weary frustration at the endless internal sniping on and off the air. One predicts that in six months the audience will dwindle into "the banned and the fired" and their supporters -- the LAB's "true" audience.
THIS IS THE KIND OF BATTLE THAT HAS MORE THAN once threatened to destroy Pacifica, a tiny network of five stations nationwide that for the last 50 years has been the sole broadcast voice of the left, a radio equivalent of and collaborator with The Nation magazine. Founded after World War II by a group of Bay Area conscientious objectors as a listener-sponsored alternative to commercial radio, Pacifica was designed to offer a forum for the free exchange of views between diverse groups. The network's highs have been high indeed, mostly when competing factions have united against a common enemy -- McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, Iran-contra. Time was when the network also boasted some of the richest cultural programming in radio: Film critic Pauline Kael cut her teeth at KPFA in Berkeley, which also aired guru-philosopher Alan Watts, and the Beats; the network was the first to air Allen Ginsberg's Howl. But in the late '70s, as movements on the left grew more fragmented and identity politics displaced class struggle on the left agenda, sectarian programming crept in, carving up the audience by ethnicity, gender or ideological tendency. Listener-sponsored radio was reborn as "community radio," with airtime allocated to those mostly unpaid volunteers who could shout the loudest on behalf of their ethnic, political or spiritual groups. One KPFK activist, according to a piece by John Dinges in The Nation two years ago, actually tried to bequeath his air slot in his will.
In the late '80s, with audience numbers in free fall and many so-called loyal listeners tuning in for as little as minutes a week, Pacifica's national board began to enact reforms designed to professionalize the stations and increase their audiences. This brought loud protests from local programmers passionately attached to their soapboxes. Since 1998, both the board and its detractors have squandered time, energy and scads of money squabbling over the practice of its mission, with one side claiming the other was stuck in the '60s while the other accused the board of trying to water down Pacifica and turn it into NPR, which had lured away not only many of the network's listeners, but some of its liveliest broadcasters. Thousands of dollars were spent on lawsuits, public relations, and even on security when the brawling became physical. For a while, Schubb, who was committed to reform, managed to keep KPFK out of the fray. The station doubled its audience, tripled its fund-raising, and rebuilt its studio and its transmitters. Though even some of his supporters say Schubb's diplomatic skills were not what they might have been, he did replace some of the ghettoized programming favored by the LAB and its supporters with more cerebral fare that brought the station some much-needed sophistication without abandoning its critical edge. The jewel in the crown was drive-time public affairs: Cooper's daily show, plus Radio Nation, his weekly collaboration with The Nation magazine (He also writes a column for L.A. Weekly.); Jon Wiener's, Suzi Weissman's and Joe Domanick's early-evening drive-time shows. (Full disclosure: I occasionally contribute film commentary on Wiener's show.) And though, aside from the music programming, arts coverage remained inexplicably weak for a network that once boasted the likes of Kael, Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jon Beaupré's early-morning magazine lent the programming a certain urbanity and elegance.
Depending on who's talking, KPFK has either sailed into a glorious new era of free speech and accountability to its listeners, or slunk back to a chaotic and politically byzantine past. Starr and the LAB are promising to reopen the station to community participation, especially minorities, which they accuse Schubb and those he nurtured of neglecting. "Mark Schubb, with the blessing of the prior Pacifica administration, simply refused to fulfill his duty to work with the LAB," says Dave Fertig, the LAB's representative to the interim national board. "With resumed community involvement and openness at KPFK and Pacifica, I believe the recent reckless mismanagement, and the enforced silence about it, is unlikely to recur." This line of argument maddens Schubb, who says he hired more people of color during his tenure than had ever been hired during the station's history, though he freely admits that it's hard to find talented black, Latino, Asian or other minority journalists when the pay at Pacifica is so lousy. Which goes to the heart of the degree to which identity politics has displaced the less sexy but more useful category of economic inequality on the far left. Is ethnic inequality redressed, as Schubb interprets it, by affirmative action or, as the episode of the black separatists amply illustrates, by doling out airtime to anyone ä who happens to have dark skin? Schubb is infuriated by the thought that the balkanized programming he so painstakingly dismantled will return to KPFK as a result of such woolly and condescending thinking about how ethnic minorities use radio. "I'm sure," he says dryly, "that if you're a janitor working a 10-hour job and then another in some fast-food place, you want to come home and listen to the Marxist Struggle Hour or the Latvian Accordion Hour on KPFK." Pacifica has allowed such programming to go on, he says, "out of some bogus liberalism, some bullshit permissiveness that I think is one of the core problems of the left in America. Whoever yells the loudest gets whatever they want. At a certain point the smart people just leave, and the angry ones run it until it's dead."
Right now there are gifted haters on both sides of the KPFK dispute. Cooper calls the LAB "an unelected, unrepresentative lump group of eight people whose opinions are no more valid than the opinions of the first eight people you get out of the phone book." In turn, he and Schubb are held primarily responsible for KPFK's perceived ills and dismissed as agents of corporate capital. Cooper has received hundreds of e-mails insinuating that he survived the coup in Chile because he's a CIA agent who plotted the murder of his own boss, Salvador Allende. And during Schubb's tenure, his car sustained $3,500 worth of vandalism when protesters picketed the station. The vilification has been mirrored at Pacifica stations around the country in lockouts, death threats and letter campaigns on both sides. But a casual trawl of the Web sites shows that it's the activists who have the edge when it comes to crafting a hate campaign. While Schubb was running KPFK, the LAB and ousted programmers constantly disrupted the daily conduct of business at the station and held meetings in which Schubb and his staff were shouted down and harassed.
If there's one thing activists know how to do, it's organize. During the February fund drive, for the first time KPFK's sister stations banded together for a day of fund-raising to save the station's powerful but ailing transmitter -- and this without the efforts of Cooper, the station's most talented fund-raiser. But try to get Starr or the LAB to articulate a philosophy of radio and a vision of future programming at KPFK, and you get a lot of vague predictions of greater community involvement, increased sensitivity to people of color, and apprenticeship programs.
It seems the antagonism and mistrust between activists and intellectuals that has always bedeviled the left never dies. On almost any issue, Cooper, Schubb and their volunteer allies at the station -- among them Weissman, Wiener and Barbara Osborn, who hosts the weekly show Deadline L.A. -- can think and talk the LAB people into a cocked hat. They have a grasp of how radio is made and used. They're willing to entertain new ideas and debate those who disagree with them, on and off the air. They're witty, irreverent, and brimming with ideas and a sense of fun -- something that's always been in short supply on the Marxist left. Schubb recalls a meeting about cultural programming early on in his tenure in which he noted that KPFK had given birth to Fireside Theater, Harry Shearer and a whole new world of political satire. One protester sprang to her feet and yelled that there were horrible things going on in the world and the last thing that was needed was more jokes. The activists don't want for sincerity or commitment, but as a group they come off as anti-intellectual, dull, humorless and hidebound. The new Pacifica board held its meetings in Los Angeles two weeks ago, and for sheer lumbering, procedural tedium, the live broadcasts out-snored even KCRW's Santa Monica City Council meetings.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO I WENT HIKING IN Anza-Borrego with a group of middle-aged leftist women like myself -- or so I fondly imagined. When we stopped to rest, I produced a copy of The New Republic, and was immediately hauled over the coals by a woman who professed herself shocked that I would lower myself to read such a right-wing rag. I told her I didn't see how I could expand my critical thinking if I only read stuff I already agreed with. Off she flounced in a huff, leaving me to imagine her reaction had I brought along the National Review.
To me her response was dispiritingly emblematic of the defensive maneuvers of a far left that has been spinning its wheels on vulgar-Marxist doctrine of the oppressors and the oppressed since the '60s. Cocooned in monastic disengagement, its adherents are hanging on for dear life to a set of rigid and often obsolete principles so as to avoid contamination by the evil corporate empire. Some have embraced a crude identity politics that ends up not only condescending to the very people they champion, but perpetuating a culture of the victim that includes their own privileged selves. And while the intellectual left engages with the establishment, not to say the right -- Robert McNamara and Pat Robertson have both been guests on Cooper's show, and both gave great radio -- this group is interested in talking only to itself as it relives, over and over, the unexamined life.
Marginalization has the virtue of keeping the marginalized honest, in a limited way. But it can also cramp the mind and narrow the spirit, creating a siege mentality that's defensive, sanctimonious, mistrustful of change and suspicious of political maturity. If there's one Pacifica radio show that exemplifies the best and worst of the American far left, it's Amy Goodman's popular Democracy Now, which is broadcast nationally out of WBAI in New York. Goodman is unflagging in her pursuit of corporate and political malfeasance at home and abroad. She is incorruptible, unimpressed and unintimidated by power or authority, which is why she's one of the few interviewers who've ever been able to fluster Bill Clinton. And she's excellent at providing a voice for the wretched of the Earth, from Ohio to Afghanistan. But one doesn't turn to her show for open debate about leftist thought. On almost any issue, she will trot out verbatim speeches of a small circle of like-minded friends -- Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti, Cornel West. During KPFK's fund drive, Goodman rebroadcast a tortuous speech by West in which he contrived to read into the bombing of the World Trade Center a parallel with the oppression of blacks in America. Admittedly, this is more dotty than harmful. More seriously, when Goodman rightly scolds the commercial media for their distortions, she's not above replacing those distortions with others of her own. As the conflict in the Middle East escalates, she routinely reports Palestinian casualties -- which the mainstream media have also been doing for some time -- while ostentatiously omitting those on the Israeli side.
So diligently has Goodman internalized her identification with the oppressed that she has come to believe herself to be one of them. When it comes to the Pacifica wars, Goodman is hobbled by a whopping martyr complex that plays on the air as the irritating whine of the career victim. Thus WBAI, from which she was exiled for five months in a dispute with the old Pacifica board, became "the station of the banned and the fired." This continued throughout KPFK's mid-February fund drive, when her show (which had not been broadcast here while she was fighting with the board) sometimes aired three times a day, in which she peppered her energetic pitches with requests for cash to help restore a "plundered network."
Goodman has played a key role in shaping the on-air narrative of oppression worked up by KPFK's new regime during the fund drive. If that wasn't dreary enough to listen to, the station also saw fit to boost the fund drive's final hour by peddling the video of Mike Ruppert, a defrocked cop who sought to convince us that the CIA was behind the attack on the World Trade Center. Dave Adelson, a LAB member who told me he saw no reason to condemn the hateful rhetoric of the black separatists on the air even though it made him "cringe," nonetheless leaped to interrupt a Grateful Dead show and excoriate programmer Barbara Osborn for the crime of paying tribute to Cooper and asking listeners to call in their response to his suspension. Starr, who was initially seen by the opposition as a nice fellow who was in over his head, is by now so thoroughly in the pockets of the LAB that he allowed this intrusion. When the public-affairs programmers, led by Beneath the Surface's Suzi Weissman, handed him a forthright letter of outrage over the Mike Ruppert debacle, he responded that, in the context of a rebuttal, the program made "compelling radio." Thus does the loony left come full circle and join hands with the meshuggeneh right. If confirmation were needed of what Christopher Hitchens has called the "ardent confusion" of the ultraleft, this is it.
The sad part of all this is that there is nothing visibly new about the new regime at KPFK. It's a classic and possibly terminal case of the divorce of thought from action in that part of the left that refuses to grow up. All the signs are that, now the first flush of victory is over, the station is sliding back to the vapid populism that distinguished it before Schubb arrived, when programming was carved up by putative interest groups and any nut or bigot with a grievance could grab the airwaves if he or she yelled loud enough. Programming collectives, which bring people together solely on the basis of their ethnicity, age or gender, can only aggravate such separatism. Someone has to be responsible for making good radio that won't bore listeners to death. In the unlikely event that a new manager with vigor and vision is hired, he or she will have his hands tied behind his back if he tries to lift things out of the uncertainty and confusion that already prevail at the station. "We were here for the listeners," says one employee sadly. "Now we're here for us."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.