San Francisco Bay Guardian - Nov 3
Trouble in Texas
Pacifica's board wanted to discuss the network's future in secret. KPFA staff and supporters wanted them to resign. Our reporter wanted an interview with Pacifica's leaders. Nobody went home happy.
By A. Clay Thompson
HOUSTON, TEXAS - The doors opened, and supporters and staffers of KPFA-FM filled the Double Tree Hotel's conference room. They had flown nearly 2,000 miles to address the board of directors of the Pacifica Foundation - KPFA's nonprofit parent. Moments before the meeting began, the delegation presented each director with a manila envelope; inside was a letter listing the 11 demands of KPFA workers and listeners.
Board member Ken Ford, representing Pacifica's Washington, D.C., station, didn't need words to voice his opinion: he tore up the envelope and tossed it on the carpet without opening it.
Ford's show of contempt took place halfway through the network's three-day executive rendezvous. For the rest of the meeting, not one of the 12 board members made a single reference to the letter.
It was the first board meeting for Pacifica, the 50-year-old left-wing radio network, since workers at Berkeley's KPFA were locked out of their station for 26 days this summer.
That top-down decision, coming on the heels of a power grab by the board and the firing of three popular KPFA staffers, has earned Pacifica - especially executive director Lynn Chadwick and board chair Dr. Mary Frances Berry - a barrage of criticism. Thousands of KPFA supporters gathered in the streets during the lockout. The California state legislature is auditing the foundation's finances. Listeners have filed suit essentially alleging an illegal takeover by the Pacifica governing body. A veritable who's who of the left signed an ad in the New York Times calling on Berry and Chadwick to resign. The mayors of Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco have all slammed Pacifica.
While 60,000-watt KPFA is back on the air, the drive to oust Pacifica's potentates is building. Last week media-watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting called on the board to step down in favor of a transitional governing team of grassroots stalwarts, including esteemed media theorist Robert McChesney and queer activist and author Urvashi Vaid. Leftist notables from Alice Walker to Howard Zinn are backing the proposal.
Representing station staffers and listeners, the KPFA steering committee is calling for a "legally-binding written commitment to democratize" the governance of the station; an end to the "gag rule" barring on-air discussion of network affairs; a reduction in the amount of money Pacifica siphons from its five stations; the rehiring of deposed employees Larry Bensky and Nicole Sawaya; and an expanded youth training program.
It is the biggest crisis to face the five-station network in its half century as a beacon of alternative information in the corporate- media wilderness. The core issue, critics of the current regime say, is democracy. The 1998 bylaw changes basically made the board a self-perpetuating entity with no channels for meaningful public input. How can Pacifica, which purports to represent people struggling for social justice, and which is funded almost entirely by public money and listener support, operate unaccountably and undemocratically?
"Never underestimate the power of a proud people insulted," San Francisco police accountability activist Van Jones roared at board members during the meeting's one opportunity for public input. "Your role in history is going to be confined to being remembered as the people who sparked a movement for democratic media in America."
Flames of controversy
Some 40 Bay Area activists, radio programmers, and listeners trekked to the Lone Star State to lobby Pacifica's shot-callers over Halloween weekend. I went in hopes of an interview with Berry or Chadwick.
Pacifica P.R. flacks no longer return my phone calls. When Berry holds a teleconference, I'm not allowed on the line. Chadwick, like a peasant revolutionary or a loathed despot, has been underground since someone fired three shots into her office windows last spring. No one will even give me a number at which to call her.
Antipathy seems to follow Chadwick around. In the early morning hours of Oct. 29, someone set fire to Pacifica's Houston outlet, KPFT-FM. Actually the arsonist or arsonists burned down a two- story storage building behind the Houston community station.
The fire was started a few hours before the Bay Area delegation touched down at Houston's George Bush Airport. But that didn't stop Pacifica apologists from trying to tie the conflagration to the conflict surrounding the board meeting.
KPFT station manager Garland Ganter, who had flown to Berkeley not three months ago to represent Pacifica during the KPFA conflict, played the blaze for all it was worth in the local media. "I do think it's kind of an eerie coincidence that it happened as the national board was meeting here," Ganter told the Houston Chronicle, the local NBC affiliate, and me.
But when I pressed him, Ganter admitted that it was possible that terrorists with matches and gasoline had not flown in with the Pacifica critics. He confirmed that transients had been sleeping in the storage building, that KPFT had repeatedly thrown them out, and that one of them might have been angry enough to torch the place.
"I know the fire department is looking at all possible angles," Ganter told me. "They asked me about the possibility that it had something to do with vagrants and the possibility that it has something to do with people from out of town."
The day after the fire, I stopped by the 100,000-watt station, which bills itself as the "sound of Texas" and operates out of a two-story house in the Montrose district. I walked right in the open front door and trudged around for a couple of minutes before finding an employee. For a place quaking in fear of armed airwave terrorists from Berkeley, the station wasn't exactly on red alert.
Public meeting, Pacifica style
Pacifica board meetings were weird before, but after the events of recent months they are now real weird. Try surreal. Half the meeting time was devoted to private "executive sessions"; all the major decisions were made in these closed-door huddles. Attendees weren't given an agenda, or any information on what the board planned to discuss.
Following its long-standing practice, Pacifica barred any public comment until the very end of the three-day affair. So the listeners, volunteers, and employees get to offer their thoughts - for up to one minute each - after all the votes have been taken and the decisions have been made.
You might think that a nonprofit network that relies on its listeners for 80 percent of its funding would want to engage those listeners, dialogue with them, hear what they have to say. But then you'd be thinking rationally, and there isn't much rational thought going on at Pacifica these days.
"It is not required that we have public comment, but we do," Berry said at one point. "We aren't required to respond to your comments, but we do."
After tolerating an hour of input from the public, Berry failed to muster any meaningful response and jetted back to Washington.
At the behest of Pacifica, the hotel was crawling with armed security guards and Houston cops. Stationed outside and inside the conference room, police checked bags and patted down meeting-goers as we entered. When Bay Area folks and KPFA staffers, like the media activists they are, showed up to a public session equipped with tape recorders and video and still cameras, director Ken Ford freaked out again: he instructed the cops to stop anyone from documenting the discussion. Houston's finest had to explain to Ford that there is no law barring the taping of "public" meetings.
Director Pete Bramson, who represents the Bay Area and is regarded as an ally by the KPFA community, made a very modest proposal to survey Pacifica listeners and staffers for their thoughts on how the network should be organized and governed. The idea was shelved indefinitely.
As the session closed, Berkeley City Council member Kriss Worthington quietly tried to address the board. Berry promptly adjourned the meeting and ordered the cops to boot out the 75 or so members of the public in attendance. "You can't keep locking out the community!" shouted KPFA supporter J. Imani, his dreadlocks swinging. Police ushered everyone out of the hotel.
A couple hours later I showed up for the next open session only to be greeted by a phalanx of cops. The meeting, it turned out, was no longer public. The hotel, pissed at Pacifica for the minor disturbance earlier in the day, would only allow three or four members of the public in. The Berkeley contingent quickly voted to boycott.
Then Mary Frances Berry, clad in an old blue T-shirt, stormed out of the conference room. "Who's got press credentials?" she demanded of the 20 people gathered in the hallway.
She waved me over. I looked into her eyes. This is my chance to get the interview, I thought.
She explained that she wanted a couple of reporters to sit in on the meeting, so it could be dubbed "public." I turned and walked away. Or rather, was escorted onto the elevator by a very bulky rent-a- cop.
Though it took broadcaster Dennis Bernstein's forcible removal from the airwaves July 13 to draw people into the streets, the battle at Pacifica had been brewing for at least five years. The network says it has been trying to expand its audience and update its '60s-relic image. Its critics say that's a cover story for an attempt to water down hard-hitting leftist programming.
Houston's KPFT is the model for the new Pacifica, and it's not a pretty sight. Over the past four years station manager Ganter has smoothed out KPFT's rough edges, axed the news department, cut back talk programming, and pulled all non-English shows. It now airs a preponderance of music - tons of acoustic, folk, rock, blues, and "Texas" tunes, along with two hours of public affairs in the morning and two to three hours of news and talk at night.
At the meeting, Berry heaped praise on Ganter for pumping up the station's Arbitron ratings. KPFT now boasts a 1.2 percent market share, with 112,000 listeners a week.
The surging audience, Ganter said, "means more people listening to Democracy Now! than ever before, more people listening to Pacifica Network News than ever before, more people listening to local public affairs programming than ever before."
But some locals aren't excited by the new format. "The voiceless have no voice at KPFT," said Duane Radley, who spent years with the station before leaving his job as manager in 1989. "We'd like KPFT to go back to what it was supposed to be." Radley says the outlet once boasted shows in 11 languages.
During the board sessions, Berry noted disdainfully that KPFA's market share was diminishing. She also chided all five stations for targeting listeners in the 35 to 55 age range, and urged them to expand their reach in communities of color.
Berry's stated goals are commendable, and some at KPFA have thanked her for bringing the issues to the table. But her my-way-or- the-highway management style - in full effect all weekend - drives the same people nuts. Yes, they say, Pacifica must grow, Pacifica must diversify - and Pacifica's workers and listeners must figure out how to do it.
"I find it ironic, Dr. Berry, that you would speak of diversity," Kayamunggi, a KPFA host, said. "When you came to the Bay Area, you never consulted with the Asian Pacific Islander staff, the people of color staff. You've disrespected us."
The final day's public session was nearly axed. The hotel didn't want to host the semi-raucous function. At one highly ironic juncture, a board member called a leader of the dissident delegation and asked for help in finding a new venue. The Bay Area troublemakers offered to host the meeting at their hotel - and foot the bill for security. Pacifica declined.
After much wrangling, the Double Tree and the network agreed to let in the people, as long as they were on their best behavior.
KPFA backers won several concessions. The board passed a resolution barring Pacifica from selling any of its stations' broadcast licenses - a relief to the KPFA crowd, who feared the network would move to unload the valuable airspace and shed the troublesome staffers.
Bramson was admitted to the board's elite executive committee. Tomas Moran, a candidate supported by KPFA staffers, won a spot on the board. And Pacifica promised not to pull the $500,000 it spent on armed guards and P.R. during its summer military adventure from KPFA's budget.
On the other hand, there were setbacks. Chadwick's contract was renewed, despite the protests of KPFA supporters who say she's clearly unfit to run the network. Karolyne van Putten, a close ally of Chadwick's, became a board member. And none of the board members showed any sign of stepping down.
The meeting ended, and I stepped to the table. Berry was whisked out a back door within three minutes; I didn't get to ask her a thing. Chadwick was around a little longer.
"Quick comment for the print media, Ms. Chadwick?" I asked.
"Who do you work for?" she spat back.
When I told her the Bay Guardian, a look of nausea crossed her face. She grimaced and said maybe in five minutes. Texas Observer editor Michael King stood on the other side of the table, trying to get the interview he'd been promised. "I'd expect this out of Chevron," he said. "But Pacifica?"
And then Chadwick hurried out the back door of the palatial hotel ballroom and was gone.