Pacifica’s Choice (12/99)

As a long-time reporter for Pacifica Network News and KPFK, it was exhilarating to watch staff at sister station KPFA in Berkeley put their jobs on the line last spring and summer to demand a little of the free speech, justice, and democracy that the network has long advocated.

When KPFA Station Manager Nicole Sawaya and Pacifica correspondent Larry Bensky were fired last spring, staff took to the airwaves in defiance of Pacifica’s long-standing policy of not airing internal grievances. They told Bay Area listeners what many already suspected: The network was becoming a top-heavy bureaucracy hungry for mainstream legitimacy. It was unaccountable to the community and preoccupied with ratings and market share. The conflict escalated when Pacifica National Board member Pete Bramson confirmed rumors that the National Board was considering a sale of the station.

In Southern California, KPFK listeners could read about the crisis on the front page of the Los Angeles Times and in other major newspapers. But they found little information from their own station. Management clumsily tried to keep it under wraps.

In early April, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s media criticism show, Counterspin, aired an interview with fired Pacifica correspondent Larry Bensky. It was pulled from the air in mid-broadcast. Station Manager Mark Schubb cut Pacifica Network News stories on KPFA’s troubles out of KPFK’s evening news broadcasts on at least two occasions.

In July, when KPFA staff members were arrested inside the station at the height of the conflict, Pacifica’s Democracy Now ran interviews with both the arrestees and the network’s Executive Director Lynn Chadwick. KPFK ran the program at 6 a.m., but it wasn’t rebroadcast as usual at 9. Schubb says the decision to hold the rebroadcast wasn’t his. Chadwick had directed him not to rerun it.

When the lockout of KPFA staff began, Program Director Kathy Lo finally told news producers they would not be required to ignore Associated Press wire stories on the dispute. But Schubb says they weren’t allowed to do independent reporting because of their involvement with the station. He and programmer Marc Cooper held several call-in programs on the crisis, in which they presented their point of view, which was sympathetic to the network’s, but didn’t invite KPFA protesters to participate.

The local labor activists who produce KPFK’s Working LA discussed the KPFA situation on their Aug. 1 program. Both host Henry Walton and producer Pete Goodman received phone calls from Lo the next day warning them to inform her before airing such sensitive material in the future.

Pacifica management has long argued that a station’s internal business makes for dull programming. Bay Area listeners proved them wrong. An on-air pledge drive in which staff appealed to listeners to help them bring back their fired co-workers and establish local control was the most successful summer fundraiser ever. But, at KPFK, open discussions on the changing direction of the station and the network remained taboo.

Many believe that Pacifica has strayed far from the commitment of its founders, who pledged to develop "the creative energies of the community," to air sources not heard on mainstream media, and "contribute to a lasting understanding between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors."

In 1997, Pacifica national staff drafted a strategic five-year plan for the network in which they argued that the stations – located in the country’s biggest cities – were reaching a fraction of their potential audiences. A huge market could be tapped if Pacifica’s programming was more accessible.

Shortly thereafter, Pacifica national staff took steps to change the network’s governance structure. Local station advisory boards would no longer elect the national board; instead, it would choose its own members. Local stations wouldn’t have a voice in the network’s operation. The board approved those changes in early 1999.

In implementing the five-year plan, KPFK management pointed to much of the station’s programming, saying it was obscure, ill produced, and preached to a small core of loyal followers. Slicker programs that would appeal to a general audience, they claimed, would attract new listeners, and expose them to progressive, alternative ideas. Talented reporters and producers would flock to the station to lend their creative energies.

Several years later, programming is more polished, and the station’s overall sound is better. Schedules are dependable. But the promise of more relevant programming in an atmosphere that invites questioning and creativity remains unfulfilled.

There was little dialogue on the programming changes, and management largely avoided discussions with those who were critical of the station and the network’s governance structure. It operates under a siege mentality in which critics are viewed as enemies, and only a select few individuals are trusted.

Questioning of authority inside the station is taboo.

The station has paid a price for stifling dissent. People who came to KPFK assuming they’d be able to report on issues they were passionate about are mostly gone. Newsroom conversation is less about issues and more about where to find a job at the very radio and television outlets that come under so much criticism on the station’s own airwaves. It’s next to impossible to encourage news and public affairs staff to question authority outside the station while suppressing disagreement inside. In short, the "world of ideas" that KPFK promises in station promos is an increasingly narrow one.

Robin Urevich has been a freelance reporter for Pacifica for six years. In 1999, she won a Golden Mike Award for Pacifica for Best Reporting by a Network. She also reports for Latino USA and The California Report.