Photo by David Bacon

BERKELEY — AT 7 A.M. LAST THURSDAY MORNING, the insistent twang of Philip Muldari once again crossed that inch of airspace between lips and microphone, beamed out over the transmitter high in the Berkeley hills, and welcomed listeners to KPFA's morning show.

The staff is back on the air. Armed palookas no longer sit in the lobby, checking every person in and out. The hated gag rule is gone, defeated by on-air civil disobedience that finally let the listeners know the truth about the struggle over the station's direction and control.

Three weeks ago the Pacifica Foundation, which owns KPFA's license, locked the staff out of the station on an incredible night which saw its two news directors, Aileen Alfandary and Mark Mericle, arrested for trespassing as they sat in the newsroom fielding calls from reporters from coast to coast. Fifty-two others were arrested along with them, including Dennis Bernstein, who was yanked off the air and suspended after broadcasting on the daily newsmagazine Flashpoints a press conference which talked about previous arrests at the station.

The arrests and lockout galvanized an already angry community. By the weekend before the lockout's end, 15,000 people had marched through Berkeley streets to protest Pacifica's campaign against the station. They were led by the station's staff — older white news reporters beside young hip-hop apprentices, African-American producers in step with union stewards.

It was a clear demonstration of the source of the pressure that forced the reopening of the station — community power.

But the end of the lockout is more a truce than an end to the conflict. The station is more threatened now than ever. Despite months of denials by Pacifica board chairwoman Mary Frances Berry that there were any plans for KPFA's sale, two daylong board meetings in early July discussed various scenarios for selling the Berkeley license, or possibly that of New York's WBAI. The board decided it would eventually choose between various sale options.

Three board members dissented, including Rabbi Aaron Kriegel of Los Angeles. Pete Bramson, another board member, says he was called a “fascist thug” for his opposition, and he finally blew the lid at a press conference in front of the Berkeley station.

The station may also be close to going broke, a bitter irony. Last spring, the staff, while fighting with Pacifica, raised $608,000 in its fund-raising marathon. But most listeners checked a box on the pledge form devised by staff, stating they were pledging under protest. Pacifica then wrote them all a letter saying the foundation couldn't accept money under those conditions.

The lockout's end has resolved none of the underlying issues in a conflict that has not only engulfed the Berkeley station, but also rages in New York and licks at the doors of Los Angeles' KPFK. The conflict is unlikely to be settled easily or quickly. The differences between the foundation and its opponents in the local listening areas are profound.

Pacifica's ideology is ill-defined, but its view of how to create an alternative media network is clear. Power over programming and the allocation of resources has become concentrated in the foundation, a reversal from early days when station managers in the five-station chain chose a Pacifica director who had little power.

Now Pacifica's budget eats up 17 percent of revenues collected from listeners, up from 4 percent two decades ago. It depends increasingly on revenue sources independent of listener contributions. That's always been anathema at Pacifica, which prided itself on the absence of financial strings.

SOME NATIONAL PACIFICA PROGRAMS, AMONG THEM Democracy Now!, produce award-winning investigative journalism. But many syndicated shows on the national feed have been sleepers — interview programs concentrating heavily on personalities. Program hosts define the issues, provide what they see as an alternative view, and expect local communities to accept it with little input — a far cry from the original vision of community radio.

KPFA is the U.S.'s oldest community broadcaster. Its founders saw it as a free-speech forum that could challenge the intellectual suffocation of McCarthyism. In the 1960s and '70s, Pacifica stations became more radical, giving a microphone to growing civil rights and anti-war protests.

Programming has always been uneven, with some programmers long on politics and short on production skills. Debates have raged between advocates of more music and advocates of public-affairs documentaries. But behind the sometimes messy debates is a core philosophy: Community radio stations need to identify the various diverse constituencies in their local listening area, groups that are locked out of the mainstream — minorities, immigrants, workers, gays and lesbians, intellectual radicals and political leftists.

Community radio gives those communities access to the airwaves. They, in turn, support it. That's what makes it different from National Public Radio. Success is measured not just in the number of listeners, but in the kind of base the station builds in the communities it serves.

In the last decade, however, critics increasingly accused the programming of becoming irrelevant to most people. They pointed to low production values as proof of their contention that not just technical skills, but programming itself, should become more mainstream.

But more control over programming required more control over the staff. KPFA station manager Pat Scott first tried to turn key programmers into temporary contract employees. Then, as Pacifica director, she hired the American Consulting Group, a notorious firm of union-busters, to develop a negotiating strategy to the same end. As a result, Pacifica walked into bargaining at all three union stations four years ago with the same set of proposals to turn newly hired programmers into at-will employees, who could then be fired at any time. Reformatting programming also provided a vehicle for removing staff unwilling to go along with the new direction, and brought massive layoffs, especially to Los Angeles.

Berry has continually criticized KPFA for having an audience of 146,000 people in a media market of over 4 million, accusing the staff of lacking diversity and being unconcerned with reaching out to communities of color. African-American and Asian/Pacific Islander programmers responded with statements criticizing her for manipulating the issue. In fact, the union contract at the station has strong affirmative-action language, and KPFA's minority-apprenticeship program — instrumental in teaching broadcast skills to young people of color — is graduating its 20th class. Nothing like it exists elsewhere in the Pacifica network.

Outreach by African-American, Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander staff members has brought crowds of listeners down to the demonstrations in front of KPFA. In a recent labor rally, representatives of more than 20 unions spoke in solidarity with the staff, along with an official representative of the state AFL-CIO. Four Bay Area labor councils and numerous local unions have passed resolutions in support. This outpouring of local community backing provided the political muscle that forced Pacifica to end the lockout.

But the communities that support the station do need more input into programming decisions, especially because the ongoing crisis can only be resolved with their financial and political support. The station not only has to broadcast to them, but has to use the power of the airwaves to help organize them in its defense. KPFA's staff members of color have called for the re-establishment of the Third World and women's departments, abolished by current managers in the mainstream push.

The attack on KPFA's staff, by managers who say ending job security is the key to better programming, must be stopped. Long-term planning for in-depth programming requires a commitment from the station, and from Pacifica, to the people whose work makes up that programming. And that work is done by both paid and unpaid staff, who have managed to hold together throughout this dispute, despite the efforts of Pacifica for years to pit them against each other. Stations like KPFA can't survive using just paid staff members, nor should they.

The return of the staff is an opportunity to do more than defeat Pacifica's drift to the right. It is a chance to redefine what community radio means, far beyond the Bay Area. Hip-hop programmer Davey D warns that “If KPFA falls, all the other stations around the country will fall with it.” By the same token, KPFA can help remake community radio — providing an alternative to Pacifica's top-down conservatism — that could create a real network of stations based in local communities, linked by a common progressive outlook.

“We have some restructuring to do,” says Khalil Jacobs-Fantauzzi of the station's steering committee, “not just at KPFA, but at Pacifica itself.”

LA Weekly