The Pacifica Struggle Continues
We've been swamped with mail, most of it angry, on our coverage of the situation at Pacifica. We hope to print more of it at a later date.
Marc Cooper, in "Pacifica on the Brink" [Aug. 9/16], argues that Pacifica's crisis has spiraled out of control thanks to the actions of "both sides in the dispute," with the KPFA takeover finally triggered by "one obstreperous programmer." I'm that programmer, but Cooper has the facts of my termination--and the bigger story of Pacifica's corporate agenda and goon-squad tactics--wrong. Cooper charges that I was "clearly looking to extend the conflict" and triggered the meltdown by defying Pacifica's order "banning any more on-air dirty laundry."
Here's what really happened. On the afternoon of July 13, San Francisco's Media Alliance called a press conference to announce that it had obtained a copy of an e-mail from Pacifica board member Michael Palmer to board chairwoman Mary Frances Berry discussing the possible sale of KPFA or New York's WBAI. It was also announced that several dozen notables, including Pulitzer Prize-winner Alice Walker, had recorded commentaries protesting Pacifica's hostile takeover of KPFA and that a lawsuit would be filed against Pacifica.
Earlier that day, Pacifica's Garland Ganter had told staff we could cover Pacifica-related stories reported in the mainstream press. Since that afternoon's press conference had attracted a bevy of established journalists and was clearly newsworthy, I played a fifteen-minute clip--with four key news hooks that made headlines throughout the Bay Area--and two related commentaries. I made no on-air comments. For this, I was yanked from the station, put on administrative leave and arrested for "trespassing." Then the whole staff was locked out.
What Cooper trivializes as airing dirty laundry is in fact informing listeners of Pacifica's agenda. Berry has written in these pages that "there is no conspiracy or secret agenda at Pacifica" ["Exchange," May 31]. But Palmer's e-mail (which Cooper refused to mention) confirms that a secret agenda had been discussed: "I was under the impression," Palmer writes, that "there was support in the proper quarters, and a definite majority, for shutting down that unit [KPFA] and re-programming immediately."
Pacifica has now done just that. But the shutdown was in the works for months--despite Cooper's effort to portray the crisis as a product of miscalculations on both sides. Pacifica's endgame started with the firing of popular station manager Nicole Sawaya. Soon afterward, a gag rule was enforced, and door codes staffers used to enter the building were abolished--replaced by armed door guards from IPSA International, which employs ex-CIA and FBI agents and specializes in "hostile terminations" or firings.
Berry flew into town unannounced the day before the takeover for an invitation-only press briefing--clearly to prepare media opinion for KPFA's shutdown. Ganter was flown in from Houston to supervise the seizure.
Cooper claims that KPFA is resisting Pacifica's needed attempt at "change and growth," but the "change and growth" Pacifica has been pushing would turn our network into an NPR clone--controlled from the top, driven by market-share rating, increasingly dependent on corporate and foundation funding, with coverage and commentary limited to what's acceptable to America's political establishment.
My censorship and arrest by Pacifica is a violation of everything KPFA stands for. Pacifica is setting a new standard in censorship. But I will not be silenced or gagged. What's at stake is the future of community radio and the preservation of a Bay Area institution, nourished by listeners for fifty years, that has provided a voice for the voiceless and a platform for activists and progressives to speak truth to power, without fear of reprisal.
As someone who appeared on KPFA its very first year and then uninterruptedly from 1958 to 1995, as well as on WBAI since before it was given to Pacifica and on KPFK from the day it went on the air, my view may be of interest.
Lew Hill never intended KPFA to reach the entire public. He estimated that 2 percent of the potential radio audience would contribute to its support. He saw it as an intellectual outlet, precisely as is The Nation, which has influence exponentially beyond its readership. Intellectuals, including creative artists, constitute a force by their work and not the numbers they reach. That is what KPFA has done.
In the McCarthy years, attacks on dissidents and, particularly, dissident print voices, never got remotely the support that the KPFA staff has gotten from every mainstream paper in this area, even a totally fair, half-page national story in USA Today. The board is not only wrong, it is so out of touch that it should resign. Those members, a large minority, who deserve reinstatement, will get it when at least a quasi-democratic means of organizing the board is established.
For the record, I violated the gag rule deliberately every year for the twenty years after its institution that I remained on the air. I was fired for breaking it only after I attacked the Strategy for National Programming circulated in 1993 with its object of making the change, now under way, to mildly liberal mass pablum.
WILLIAM (BILL) MANDEL
Palo Alto, Calif.
Does everyone agree that Pacifica is wrong? On what evidence do KPFA supporters suspect that a malicious corporate takeover is in progress? Isn't it possible that this is just a power struggle between a faction of the old left at KPFA, who may be defending privilege, and the Pacifica Foundation, which may have a vision for change? When everyone knows that the left has had only a marginal influence on the nation for decades, aren't changes called for, in thinking, leadership, programs?
I've heard a lot of name-calling: Lynn Chadwick was called a "feminazi," Mary Frances Berry was likened to Mussolini. I've heard the staff mislead listeners: A reporter said demonstrators were blocking Chadwick from entering her office; later reports said Chadwick had people arrested for peacefully demonstrating. I heard that station manager Nicole Sawaya was fired for defending Wendell Harper. I believe the incident with Harper took place on Sawaya's last day; surely the decision on her had already been made.
I've heard repeated use of hot-button words: corporatization, freedom of speech, antidemocratic. I've heard one of the staff speak about how KPFA is free-speech radio, only for him to open the phones and then silence the first caller by hanging up on him when he spoke critically of the staff's position. And, other than on Democracy Now, I haven't heard KPFA devote any time to the other side of the controversy.
Regarding criticisms about democracy within the Pacifica Foundation, are they valid? Is KPFA democratic? The staff has not been elected. The local advisory board members are not elected. They are picked by the staff and, I presume, by board members picked by the staff. A listener who felt the changes made several years ago by the former program director and station manager made the programming more effective, requested application information to be on KPFA's local advisory board. No application was received, nor was there any response to a second letter. This doesn't sound like democracy to me.
Much is at stake: credibility, power, influence, unity. Is the left examining itself critically with an eye to the truth?
Dennis Bernstein warns of a "corporate agenda," a "secret agenda," a "shutdown" of KPFA that was "in the works for months" and alleges that Pacifica plans to become an "NPR clone." For those familiar with Bernstein's scantily published writings and his frequent on-air commentaries, this sort of conspiracy-mongering is common, noisome fare. The charges of secret corporate agendas simply don't pass the laugh test. Which corporations, Dennis? References to NPR-ization are also ironic in the current context. The dismissed KPFA manager around whom Bernstein has rallied as a veritable totem of Pacifica purity was, prior to her Pacifica gig, a network field rep for NPR. And why would Pacifica plan a shutdown of KPFA, which has resulted only in the loss of untold thousands of dollars and tons of precious credibility?
Let's talk--to use Bernstein's terms-- about "what really happened." And about Bernstein's role in precipitating the entire KPFA debacle--an incident disfigured in his own account. Based on discussions with several eyewitnesses (almost all of them sympathetic to him) here is Bernstein's contribution to the near-collapse of KPFA.
On July 13, after Bernstein played a program that Garland Ganter alleged had violated "dirty laundry" rules, he was asked to come to see Ganter, who had decided to put him on administrative leave. This might have been a good or bad decision. But if Bernstein felt aggrieved, he had immediate recourse to appeal through his quite vigorous and effective union. Instead, Bernstein refused to meet with the acting manager, ignored the contractual grievance procedure and began to shout and run toward the second-floor KPFA news studio, saying he was in danger from armed guards.
As the KPFA evening news was broadcasting a taped report on HMO abuse, Bernstein hid under the tape console playing the news. Ganter, accompanied by a couple of rent-a-cops, urged Bernstein to come out. He refused. Ganter told the guards not to arrest him. Then someone jostled the console Bernstein was hiding under and the HMO news report was knocked off the air three times. Next, newscaster Mark Mericle and his engineer stopped the regular news and began excitedly narrating Bernstein's predicament. Then Bernstein was given a mike by the engineer so he could shout out to a startled audience that he was in imminent danger of being hurt. Ganter then pulled the plug on the station signal, as any responsible manager would.
Within minutes, protesters, alarmed by Bernstein's on-air screaming, converged on the station. About fifty were let in the door by a staff member. When they refused to leave the building after about a half-hour of Ganter's pleading, the police were called in and an evacuation order given. After several hours, the occupiers were arrested. Bernstein and a few other staffers were still in the second-floor news studios and refused to leave. They were arrested. This is a world away from Bernstein's shamelessly self-serving assertion that "I was yanked from the station, put on administrative leave and arrested for 'trespassing.'" I would say that Bernstein's grandstanding and his alarmist shrieks supplanting the evening news is a "violation of everything KPFA stands for."
Perhaps Ganter should have used more finesse to coax Bernstein from his lair. Recourse to arrest was extreme. But it's also plausible that Bernstein would never have left voluntarily. After all, his arrest was a sweet triumph--a concrete vindication of his daily over-the-top rantings about jackbooted thugs running Pacifica. What Bernstein has not said--to date--is why when he felt wronged he didn't revert to union grievance procedures and why he and fellow staff thought they had the right to use their access to the air to further inflame an already volatile atmosphere around KPFA. The rest is history.
No surprise to me that William Mandel should materialize in this controversy to clank his chains in favor of a small and limited audience for Pacifica. Mandel is an undisputed master of speaking into closed echo chambers. Thirty-eight years on the air is too long a run, even for the most sensible of broadcasters.
Pacifica listener Nate Peters should be congratulated for his call to reel in the rhetoric and to stop the name-calling. His insights from outside the walls of KPFA prove that the audience is not only listening, it's thinking.