What's Going On at Pacifica?
Barely a month after the board meeting, on March 31, the last day of Sawaya's one-year contract, Chadwick told her she was being let go. The only reason stated: She was "not a team player." Whether or not Sawaya's firing was a good management decision--Berry says she agreed at the time but thinks in retrospect it was a mistake--the reaction that followed approximated a volcanic eruption and a six-month flow of sulfurous lava. A management dispute was about to become a battle for control of KPFA and the future of Pacifica. KPFA staff rose up in open rebellion, which continues today. Here are just some of the main events:
§ On the day Sawaya was fired, Chadwick ordered KPFA's news director not to report the firing on the air--applying a longstanding Pacifica rule against using the air to discuss internal business or "dirty laundry." News director Alfandary defied the order and aired the report. Protesters arrived outside KPFA.
§ Late that night, a .38-caliber pistol was fired into Chadwick's unoccupied office.
§ A few days later, Pacifica national correspondent Larry Bensky devoted seventeen minutes of his Sunday show to denunciation of Sawaya's firing. Chadwick fired him. "I bear the stigma of being fired for speaking freely on free-speech radio," Bensky said later. (The dirty-laundry ban--rechristened the "gag rule"--was unevenly applied. Station news personnel recorded a short statement of protest against Pacifica's board that was played as a disclaimer before almost every show for six weeks. Then, suddenly, in late June, Chadwick took volunteer music DJ Robbie Osman off the air for commenting on his show about the Sawaya firing.)
Protests got nastier, and eventually guards were hired. Protesters called an African-American Pacifica staffer an "Oreo" and "house Negro" as she walked to work through the protest, and they took to jostling Chadwick as she walked into her office. A poster showed Chadwick with bloody fangs hunched over the prostrate female body of KPFA. In late June, as the board was meeting in Washington, according to Berry, a staff member warned the board that an occupation of KPFA was imminent. Management ordered new, tougher guards into the station--and this time they were armed.
Rumors began to circulate that Pacifica intended to solve the problem by selling the station. An e-mail mistakenly sent by a board member to a wrong address confirmed that selling had indeed been discussed and was favored by at least that board member. Berry had denied such reports before, and she denied them again. But the incident set off another outburst. (That the idea of selling a Pacifica frequency should occur to board members was hardly surprising, given the commercial value of the stations. Berry says one board member frequently brought up the idea of selling KPFA and possibly WBAI--swapping them for cheaper stations in the area--to bring in a cash windfall that would put the network on a financially stable footing for decades. But she says the idea never enjoyed more than a small minority of support.)
A San Francisco organization, Media Alliance, called a press conference July 13 to make public the wayward e-mail message. Berry was ready with a denial she expected would be included on the air with any discussion of the issue. In a bewildering example of atrocious timing, however, Pacifica chose the same day to announce to KPFA that it was going to start seriously enforcing the dirty-laundry rule. Predictably, the rule was defied. An afternoon-talk-show host, Dennis Bernstein, devoted a portion of his one-hour show to a long excerpt of the Media Alliance press conference--with no reference to Pacifica's denial.
As he finished his program and walked to his office, Bernstein was met by interim general manager Garland Ganter, who had been brought in from the Houston station to run KPFA. Ganter told him he was being put on paid leave and was to leave the station, for violating the dirty-laundry rule. Instead, Bernstein took refuge in the control room of a studio that had just started broadcasting the KPFA nightly-news program. Ganter followed, accompanied by two burly guards. Bernstein protested that his rights were being violated and that he feared for his physical safety. Newscaster Mark Mericle, watching through the glass divider separating the on-air space from the control room, began to narrate the confrontation over the air. The control-room mike was switched on by a sympathetic radio technician, and the melodrama was live at 59,000 watts for all to hear. (Later erroneous reports of the scene said that armed guards had dragged a newscaster off the air, but Mericle's and Ganter's accounts agree that no force was used and that Bernstein's own show had ended before the confrontation.)
Faced now with total on-air rebellion by a unified KPFA staff, Ganter walked to another studio. He killed the feed from the newscast studio where Mericle and Bernstein were speaking and switched the station to archive tapes of past Pacifica broadcasts. With protesters already pouring into and occupying the first floor of the station, Ganter called the police. Six hours and fifty-two arrests later, the station was empty and quiet, except for the chatter of the archive tape playing from the main control room.