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Rebellion at Pacifica | The Nation

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Beat the Devil

Rebellion at Pacifica

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One in five people in America lives within reach of the FM frequencies of the Pacifica radio network, which consists of stations in Berkeley, Los Angeles, New York, Washington and Houston. Indeed, the Los Angeles station, KPFK, has the strongest signal of any FM station west of the Rockies. It's one of the last institutions of even vaguely radical pretensions we have. So, for the past five years the core mandate of Pacifica has been under attack by establishment liberals, who have silenced many of the network's most original voices under brutish conditions that would delight any corporate axman. Pacifica's bosses have imposed gags, brought in unionbusters and jimmied the rules so its governing body of fourteen can preside over the $200-$300 million in Pacifica assets without accountability.

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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn, The Nation's "Beat the Devil" columnist and one of America's best-known radical...

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The directorate doesn't like anything that smacks of the unmanageable. It doesn't like radicalism. It wants respectable NPR-type stuff. One can construct a decently plausible scenario that if push comes to shove the directorate would fire its listeners, thus flashing a final contemptuous finger at Pacifica's founder, Lewis Hill, who wrote half a century ago that listener sponsorship was the foundation stone of Pacifica's notion of freedom. "Since values and expressions as fundamental as this," Hill wrote, "are what we must have to improve radio noticeably, there is no choice but to begin by extending to someone the privilege of thinking and acting.... Whatever else may happen, we thus assign to the participating individual the responsibility, artistic integrity, freedom of expression, and the like, which in conventional radio are normally denied him. KPFA is operated literally on this principle."

Oh no it's not. Pacifica is operated like a prison run on Benthamite principles, in which the directorate levies ever-thickening slabs of money from member stations, most particularly WBAI in New York and KPFA in Berkeley; issues hire-and-fire commands; stipulates silence and obedience. When Pat Scott was installed as Pacifica's national executive director in 1995, she speedily threatened all dissenters, hired unionbusters and made her longer-term goal the removal of Pacifica's governing board from any accountability. Her successor, Lynn Chadwick, has been just as bad. With the active connivance of the governing board, headed by Mary Frances Berry, she is now trying to flush out the last vestiges of resistance. Berry herself has played a despicable role. This professor of American social thought at the University of Pennsylvania has all the best liberal credentials. She chairs the Civil Rights Commission. But she reminds me of another showcase liberal, Marian Wright Edelman, whose collusive career with power reached shameful climax with her failure to denounce Clinton's welfare plan when it first emerged in all its awful contours. At a meeting this past February in Berkeley, Berry presided over the alteration in structure that places her and her thirteen co-directors beyond such accountability to the network's listeners as still remained. Gently urged to reconsider the reorganization by stalwart supporters of Pacifica Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, Berry pooh-poohed their demurs, suggesting that Zinn was misinformed and didn't know what he was talking about.

The main player in this context is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's president, Robert Coonrod, who came to CPB in 1992, having formerly been deputy director of the Voice of America, Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Marti). Scott, Chadwick, Berry and the rest of the governing Pacifica gang have connived with him, playing a charade whereby Pacifica sought "guidance" from Coonrod, asking for the CPB's view on why Pacifica's structure of governance should be eliminated, with some pro forma muscle-flexing from Coonrod about how CPB, which underwrites 14 percent of Pacifica's budget, might be forced to withdraw funding if "reforms" weren't implemented.

Of course, any lawyer assigned the task could have dreamed up a dozen ways of satisfying the CPB while retaining some form of accountability to listeners by the Pacifica governing board, but Berry and her accomplices weren't interested.

At the end of March, Chadwick summarily ditched Nicole Sawaya, KPFA's most popular manager in decades. Sawaya's dismissal had been scheduled by the directorate at the end of February because she was not a "team" player and had stood up to them, particularly over the dumping of Larry Bensky, probably the network's best-known voice.

Chadwick ordered no on-air discussion of the firing, but Pacifica's thuggery was too much for many KPFA workers to swallow. The edict was disobeyed, and the next day Bensky, Dennis Bernstein (of Flashpoints) and others demonstrated on a flatbed truck outside the KPFA/Pacifica building in Berkeley.

Now many of KPFA's workers and broadcasters are in open revolt, and listeners are privy to the turmoil and its causes. If Berry has guts she will change direction, cut out the bully tactics and speak to Lewis Hill's vision. If she sticks to her present course she'll probably think--maybe she already has--in terms of firing all the mutineers and the audience as well. How would she do that? She'd bring in scab professional broadcasters from the stagnant NPR pool and then, as subscribers drop away, she'd go to the Tides Center, run by David Salniker, who, in his Pacifica days, first started the rot. Tides is a pass-through for huge amounts of money from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Then, presto! Pacifica and its stations would be creatures of the foundations, brought to heel just like the environmental movement.

When Samori Marksman, program director of WBAI, died a couple of weeks ago, Janet Jagan ordered a recess in a meeting of the Guyanan Cabinet. Cuba sent regrets. Upward of 3,000 attended Samori's funeral. For six days there was no formal expression of regret from Pacifica's board. Samori died at the age of 51 from his heart condition only four days after a long and stressful meeting with Chadwick.

You want to do something? Make your views clear to Berry. Check out the Web site www.radio4all.org/freepacifica. This is our radio network.

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