There’s a scene in The Godfather when Clemenza, anticipating the outbreak of a full-scale war between the families, nonchalantly remarks to young Mikey Corleone: “This thing’s gotta happen every five years or so…every ten years–helps to get rid of the bad blood.” You could almost say the same thing about Pacifica Radio.
Just such a periodic Pacifica war erupted recently when Lynn Chadwick, the executive director of the Pacifica Foundation, summarily dismissed Nicole Sawaya, the popular manager of Berkeley affiliate KPFA. Sawaya’s most egregious transgression apparently was her impolitic way of questioning some of Pacifica’s internal operations. After she was let go, her enraged staff went to the mattresses. Veteran programmer Larry Bensky broke an internal rule and–in the middle of a nationwide show he was doing about the war in Kosovo–spent seventeen minutes discoursing on the Pacifica personnel battle. Pacifica retaliated and offed Bensky from his job. In his absence the staff continued to violate Pacifica’s rule banning on-air dirty laundry, and the mutiny continues as we go to press [see page 2 for a letter from the Ad Hoc Committee of Listeners and Supporters].
Sawaya’s firing was dead wrong and should immediately be reversed. But the deeper conflict that has been shaking Pacifica is not a clear-cut battle between Good and Evil, between Democracy and Dictatorship, between radical purity and encroaching commercialism, as it has too often and simplistically been portrayed (including in these pages by Alexander Cockburn). The bad blood that boiled over these past few weeks has been heating up for almost five years. Fueling the conflict is a tension between two visions of what Pacifica Radio can and should be as it completes its first fifty years. One view is that the five stations should be a high-frequency tom-tom for activists, the equivalent of a mimeographed bulletin of the left that makes little effort to reach beyond its current constituencies. The competing view is that Pacifica should be a newspaper of the left, an electronic Le Monde or Guardian with some intellectual heft and depth and–yes–even some occasional analytical distance from the movements to which it is sympathetic.
Both visions can be defended, and they’re not mutually exclusive. But as a Pacifica programmer going back, on and off, twenty years, I unabashedly support the latter strategy as the only way for Pacifica to stop occupying only the fringe. And it is toward that second vision that Pacifica has tried over the past five years–in its awkward and inefficient way–to move. But every tentative step in that direction has been met by a relentless guerrilla war of distortion and hyperbole from former programmers and other activists who have made Pacifica a full-time obsession. They accuse Pacifica of a long list of indictable war crimes: unionbusting, creeping corporatization, “NPR-ization” and secret cabals and conspiracies to seize the network.
Framing the Pacifica conflict in this manner is absurd. Yes, a few years back, Pacifica hired a management consultant with ties to a unionbusting firm–a stupid mistake that was corrected. Today all four Pacifica bargaining units have signed enforceable labor contracts stewarded by UE, AFTRA or CWA. That the entire KPFA staff are willing to risk their jobs to defend a fired manager should put to rest the notion that Pacifica is some sort of antiunion sweatshop. As for other “crimes”: If anything, they were weak half-measures that didn’t go far enough in shaping a professional, effective and credible radical voice. Some programs–not enough–that had ossified over thirty years without as much as formal review were finally pulled.