What's Going On at Pacifica?
The standoff lasted sixteen days. Employees were locked out but continued to be paid as archive tapes, then piped-in music, filled KPFA's air. On July 29 Pacifica management hollered uncle. Berry announced that the station would be opened and turned over to its staff. "This means we will not be enforcing any rules about what is on the air at KPFA for the time being, as a noble experiment," she said.
But far from dying out, the rebellion has escalated into a mini-political movement, fought on the air from the Berkeley station and over the Internet by activists all over the country. In October Chadwick removed (and assigned to unspecified duties) Dan Coughlin, news director of Pacifica Network News, a few days after he had written and put on the air a news item about sixteen Pacifica affiliates boycotting his own program in protest against the Pacifica board. Coughlin had been having his own run-ins, and a union employee had recently won a grievance against him, but the timing of his removal made it obvious that he was another victim of the sporadically applied gag rule. The side-taking was complete when the host of Pacifica's other national program, Amy Goodman, weighed in against the Pacifica national board, calling publicly for Coughlin's reinstatement.
A group of freelance reporters for PNN called a national "strike." The strikers didn't have the numbers to keep PNN from getting on the air, but suddenly longtime contributors to PNN who continued to file were branded as scabs. One of those so branded, Saul Landau, who had been writing commentaries for Pacifica for a decade, sent out "an appeal to all progressives" to "stop the Pacifica bashing" and warned that "continuation of what has become a veritable war against Pacifica could lead to the death of the only alternative radio network progressives possess." Signers included Oakland Mayor and former Pacifica talk-show host Jerry Brown, actors Ed Asner and Mike Farrell, and writer Barbara Ehrenreich. A similarly illustrious list, including authors Matthew Lasar, Ed Herman and Robert McChesney, countered Landau with a letter calling the strikers' action "appropriate" and part of a true "grassroots effort." Nevertheless, the respectful tone and lack of political invective in the exchange marked an important turn.
One station manager estimates that the year of crisis has cost the network as much as $500,000, depleting its reserves. In February Berry tried to move beyond the impasse. After standing by Chadwick for months, Berry announced that Chadwick would be replaced by Washington station manager Bessie Wash. Berry also said that she would step down when her term as chairwoman expires in September. In an interview, however, her language was less than conciliatory. "I'm so disappointed, because if these people are the left, the left is in bad shape," Berry said. "The elitism, the paranoia, is boundless. Worse, they use the mantra of free speech as a cover to protect their own little playpen."
She said she now regrets getting involved, and that KPFA activists and even some dissidents on her own national board, whom she called "wackos," used her national stature to generate media attention. "If they could, they would destroy me," she said. "They said I was a fascist, a CIA agent, a black bitch. They said I was going to sell Pacifica and buy some black stations in the South. Because that's what black people do." While acknowledging some errors, she says her tough stance was necessary: "We paid the price. We bore the brunt of it," she said, adding, "But it was contained enough so someone else can come in and heal it."
However, Bensky, the fired national correspondent, framed Berry's tenure as uniformly negative. Berry and Chadwick were guilty of "wholesale abandonment of Pacifica's principles and practices," he said, summarizing those as community control, free-speech radio and Pacifica's role as a provider of alternative political information. Bensky said KPFA, together with its sister station WBAI, is resisting such a top-down takeover of its programming. Another KPFA activist, Aaron Glantz, who helped organize the stringer strike against PNN, added a touch of hyperbole: "They have dreams of world domination. That's what this is all about."