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Broadcast Blues

by mitch e. perry Tuesday, Jul. 10, 2001 at 12:01 AM

"For those community stations airing Free Speech in lieu of Pacifica, it's their strongest commitment to date about the vast dissatisfaction toward the once-progressive voice of the nation's left wing."

The Weekly Planet, Tampa

July 6, 2001



For the past month, the national half-hour daily news program Free Speech Radio News has been heard every night at 6 p.m. on WMNF-88.5 FM. Though it may be short lived, Free Speech Radio News is the first sustained attempt at creating an alternative to the purported "alternative" daily news radio broadcast, The Pacifica Network News.

Free Speech is being produced by some of Pacifica Network News' most prolific stringer reporters, as well as others who have vowed since January 2000 not to contribute to PNN. The broadcasts had been airing weekly for the past year and a half by those who, disgusted by the censorship and heavy-handed moves by Pacifica management, banded together and raised enough funds to go daily in broadcasting their program to 35 markets across the country.

Their initial aim to go for one full month has been extended to at least a second month. And over half of those local stations are preempting Pacifica Network News to air Free Speech, though some stations, such as the case at WMNF, have already paid for PNN.

The producers of Free Speech Radio News' idealized scenario -- that their production becomes so successful that it creates a seismic shift in attitude by the national Pacifica radio hierarchy -- was always an iffy proposition but it may yet prove to be an effective one. In June, those who want Pacifica to return to its roots have had cause for hope. Two Pacifica board members targeted by critics, Board Chairman David Acosta and Karolyn Van Putten, both resigned from the board. And attorneys for Pacifica have recently begun talks with plaintiffs in the three separate lawsuits against the board. But too much has happened over the past two years for those in the Save Pacifica campaign to begin breaking out the champagne just yet.

For those community stations airing Free Speech in lieu of Pacifica, it's their strongest commitment to date about the vast dissatisfaction toward the once-progressive voice of the nation's left wing. The stations are protesting both the quality of the network and the badly dysfunctional Pacifica national board -- a group whose methods have increasingly alienated, frustrated and angered thousands of its listeners across the country.

Those methods include quelling any means of dissent, including most recently the shameful mistreatment of its most popular show and producer, Democracy Now's Amy Goodman. Last month, Goodman was shunted to an auxiliary studio at WBAI in New York, where she can no

longer interview multiple guests on the air. During its most recent three-week spring fund drive, WBAI incredibly removed Goodman entirely from its airwaves. More on that later.

Pacifica's 52-year-old stated mission -- "to promote cultural diversity, contribute to a lasting understanding between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors; and to promote freedom of the press" -- is a stark declaration of why the network as a media organization has always been important to progressives. It's also a written document that critics say wayward board members have grossly trampled on in recent years.

As has been documented in the pages of the Weekly Planet and in progressive journals across the country, The Pacifica Radio Network, the national news radio network spawned after the creation of KPFA in the late 1940s in Berkeley, Calif., has been imploding for the last two years. Some fear the network could be irreparably damaged if the national board continues its train-wrecking ways. The board has been taken over by men and women who seem openly hostile to the mission of Pacifica, and some contend, to the left in general.

All very interesting, you might be thinking right now. But why should you care about all of this?

Because what happens at Pacifica matters if you care about maintaining a progressive independent media in this country. As media critic Robert McChesney wrote in The Nation this February, "For all the talk about the Internet and the digital revolution, radio is the true people's medium." And in the aftermath of the 1996 Communication Act, media concentration -- already a crude reality in the past decade -- has mushroomed in commercial radio in the past five years.

This is mainly due to the gargantuan tentacles of the behemoth Clear Channel Communications, which now owns more than 1,100 stations nationwide (eight in the Tampa Bay market) leading to fewer and fewer diverse voices on air and more radio stations eschewing any type of local news coverage.

The recent change in power in the U.S. Senate, where South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings will now chair the Commerce Committee, may cool the jets of FCC Chairman Michael Powell (Colin Powell's son). The younger Powell has been quoted as saying that he believes that existing FCC law precluding any media company from owning more than one medium in a market is far too restrictive. The FCC is soon expected to examine that rule, as well as possibly loosening a regulation restricting any company from owning a TV station and a newspaper in the same market.

Thus, the Pacifica crises present more than just another mutually destructive battle between warring camps on the far left. Pacifica Radio consists of five stations and several dozen others (such as WMNF) that air most of its national programming. KPFA in Berkeley was created first, in 1949, by Lewis Hill, a broadcaster and conscientious objector in World War II. (The other stations are in Houston; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and New York City).

Currently, WBAI in New York, has been under a state of siege for six months and has been the focus of most of the recent egregious actions by Pacifica management. It exploded during what is now known simply as "The Christmas Coup," when, shortly before 2 a.m. on the night before Christmas Eve last year, Pacifica management changed the locks and canned longtime General Manager Valerie Van Isler and two other veteran employees. That led to outraged staff protests. Twenty-one producers and staff members -- some who had been on the air for as long as 20 years -- were summarily fired or banned from entering the station.

At the heart of the dispute with the Pacifica board lies the belief by staffers and listeners that the network plans to sell its stations. Pacifica has strongly denied that it intends to spin off WBAI or any of its other stations, despite the fact that a change in the company's bylaws was recently floated about that would have allowed only a small, five-member subset of the board to vote on such issues. That change wasn't approved by the full board. But the continuing path the national board has gone down the last two years seems to some to be building to a denouement of some sort.

Amy Goodman, the signature voice of the network as the host of the daily Democracy Now, has been harassed by station management for close to a year. She has already been fired from Wake up Call, the two-hour morning public affairs show on WBAI that precedes Democracy Now in New York City. Some fear that the harassment of Goodman is an orchestrated attack designed to have her quit or be fired from the network.

In short, the reason that many believe The Pacifica Corp. has behaved in the fashion it has is that the company wants to soften, or mainstream its programming. Critics call it "NPR-izing." Another theory is that the network would love to sell one of its powerful frequencies -- either in New York or in the San Francisco Bay Area, where both stations are on the far left end of the dial (the frequencies between 88 and 92). That space is generally reserved for public/community radio. But is there compelling evidence of that anywhere?

But Amy Goodman says when she hears the argument that Pacifica "should be professionalizing their sound and broadening its audience," as she told a crowd who came to hear her speak recently in Tampa, "we say we're all for that. But why do they try to break down our show, the most popular and effective fundraising show on the network?"

Why, indeed. Why have some members of the board seemingly become hostile to what the core of the network's been about?

There was no such thing as public/ community non-commercial radio before KPFA-94.1 FM was created in 1949, in Berkeley, Calif. Some of the voices heard on KPFA included Pauline Kael, Jessica Mitford and Alan Watts. The early years of KPFA have been described by author Lorenzo W. Milan as a time "for those who felt dispossessed, there was a center transmitting a message, binding us to others who felt our pain and isolation."

The seeds of what has led to the unrest at Pacifica were fostered in the mid-'90s when the network -- led by former Chairwoman Pat Scott -- devised a system that would hold the station to certain ratings or financial support levels to be eligible for Corporation for Public Broadcasting grants. Because of that standard, Pacifica began its own plans to attempt to gain a bigger audience. Scott, in 1995, directed the station managers at the five stations to double their audience by 2000.

At KPFA that meant a purge of some longtime programmers in a bloody and tactless fashion. However, in the world of community radio, where one person's demotion is another's opportunity for a show, most of the KPFA/Pacifica community -- particularly those with jobs with KPFA -- for the most part ignored those charges and backed the network.

An uneasy alliance lasted for several years on both coasts but blew wide open in the spring of 1999.

Nicole Sawaya was hired as Station Manager at KPFA in 1998, and proved to be effective and accessible, a notable departure from her predecessors. Sawaya was liked by the public (she held monthly call-in talk shows) and by the staff.

But apparently, management did not share the love. Some speculate that Sawaya became an enemy to Pacifica management (at this time being led by U.S. Civil Rights Commission Chair Mary Frances Berry) by inquiring about the requirement that KPFA ante 17.25 percent of every dollar that the station brought in back to the network (this number had increased from just 1 percent in the mid-'70s).

Whatever the reason (and Pacifica has never said why), Sawaya was informed in the late afternoon of Wednesday, March 31, 1999, that she need not appear at work the next day, or the day after that. Or ever.

Her contract, which had expired that day, was not going to be renewed. That left KPFA co-News Director Aileen Alfandary with a quandary. Once informed of the stunning news about Sawaya, she was then met by Pacifica management, who told her in no uncertain terms that the Sawaya sacking was not really "news," and should not be broadcast on the hourlong KPFA local news. That began the first Pacifica attempt to censor news -- it unfortunately would not be the last.

Sawaya's firing stunned the San Francisco Bay area-listening audience. A crowd gathered in front of KPFA that evening. In fact, one gunshot was fired above the door of the Pacifica office (which at that time stood just a few feet from KPFA's offices).

That March night would lead to a struggle that only got worse, as time went on. A gag rule on company news was declared.

Weeks later, longtime Pacifica National Affairs reporter and talk show host Larry Bensky broke into his two-hour Sunday morning talk show to discuss the Sawaya firing. He was taken off the air shortly after that. As was programmer Robbie Osmond for comments he made. Suddenly, this beacon of alternative and free speech radio was becoming like something out of the old Soviet Union, with programmers being silenced, terminated and armed guards asking for ID from 20-year plus employees when they entered the station.

Programmer Dennis Bernstein had been speaking in paranoid, apocalyptic tones for weeks after the crises began, frequently saying that he could be pulled off the air at anytime. In short, he was ready for a confrontation -- and he got it when a Pacifica manager brought in from Houston, Garland Gantner, told Bernstein shortly after he finished a show in July 1999 that he was going to be suspended.

Bernstein began running away from Gantner and forced himself near the live engineering booth, where an engineer was working the Evening News Broadcast. The live microphone was then turned on in the control room, as Bernstein crashed into a tape machine that was airing a story. Co-News Director Mark Mericle shifted from his next scripted story to give a play-by-play of Bernstein running away from Gantner, pleading, "Don't you touch me." It was an unbelievable, slightly surreal moment of live radio. Of the thousands that were listening live, over a hundred or so who weren't that far from the station got on their bikes, got on a subway train, ran or drove to the station, where they were then told if they wouldn't leave they would be arrested. That included Aileen Alfandery, a 20-year veteran who was now being told she would have to leave or be arrested ... which she was.

The story was huge for the next couple of days, as a group, sometimes only a couple of dozen, sometimes hundreds, gathered every day and night outside the station, speaking about how the community had to stay together now that the station was off the air.

The three-week lockout, which culminated in a massive demonstration through downtown Berkeley with a crowd estimated between 10,000 to15,000, led to a renewed love affair between the community and the station. But the internal order was completely fractured -- Program Director Andrea Kissack left for the NPR station across the bay, as did several other staffers.

During the late summer of 1999, the California State Legislature held hearings on the Pacifica situation. Pacifica, as per any type of formal (government or otherwise) inquiry, announced at the last moment that they would not attend. Earlier this month, California State Sen. John Burton wrote to Pacifica Chairman David Acosta to ask about reports that Pacifica has used listener-donated money for their own legal fees against listener lawsuits and that they were not sharing financial information with KPFA management.

Three separate lawsuits have been filed against Pacifica in the past couple of years. Recently, a California judge overseeing the different cases ruled that they should all be consolidated into one suit. The trial date has been scheduled for January of next year. One of those lawsuits was filed by longtime KPFA listener Carol Spooner, who has been joined with listeners from the other Pacifica stations.

"We have a long way to go," Spooner says. "This is an uphill fight." Spooner's suit alleges that many of the members of the Pacifica board were elected illegally due to bylaws changes. She's been at it since November of 1999 and is determined to rid dissident board members.

KPFA survived, for the time being, their crises. But the network was beginning to crumble. And the other Pacifica stations made sure to learn their lesson from KPFA. They learned not to allow any dissent to coalesce at the other stations.

In Los Angeles, longtime KPFK and Pacifica reporter Robin Urevich describes how she would be reading in The New York Times about the saga in Berkeley, and how strange that her own station wasn't airing anything about it. She comments: "It was surreal, pitiful and really disturbing that this stuff was all over the news, but somehow the L.A. station's management thought it could shelter its listeners from what I thought was a real debate about the direction and structure of the network."

Frustrated by free speech and any talk about Pacifica and KPFA being squelched, Urevich wrote a piece for Random Length News, a small newspaper in the Harbor area of Los Angeles. A few weeks after the piece came out, KPFK station manager Mark Schubb called Urevich "unethical" and told her that after seven years of work, she was no longer welcome At KPFK. She wasn't surprised. "I knew that I was going to get kicked out because that's what happened to people who spoke up at KPFK."

Urevich works as a freelancer. Her work is good enough for NPR -- and Free Speech Radio -- but not Pacifica.

Former WBAI News reporter Eileen Sutton says of her colleagues at the New York City station, "Most of the staff had not educated themselves about the Pacifica strike". Sutton, who along with many others was banned from the station in the aftermath of the Christmas Coup, says WBAI was vulnerable because many staff and volunteers were not fully aware of the situation engulfing the station and the Pacifica network.

After the holiday firings and lockout, newly hired Station Manager Utrice Leid restricted access to a WBAI local advisory meeting at the station's offices. When participants protested, the police arrested nine people for trespassing.

Now people who still work at WBAI say the atmosphere there is "oppressive." Those who disagree with recent management decisions are few and silent. A staffer sadly describes the situation that people can no longer express their true opinion to "their supposed radio comrades." That same staffer said she questions how much longer she can work there.

And WBAI has now picked up on what other Pacifica stations and the network have done with seeming ease during this crisis: Censor the news. When New York Congressman Major Owens was pulled off the air during a live show by Leid two months ago, the angered legislator held a Congressional hearing on the Pacifica crisis. Recently, the New York City Council held a session to discuss the Pacifica situation as well. The meeting was devoted solely to WBAI. Needless to say, WBAI management opted not to carry any portion of that meeting on their nightly news broadcast. Nor was there any reporting on Owens' Congressional hearing about WBAI in Washington.

When a group of Pacifica affiliates in the fall of 1999 opted not to air Pacifica Network News for one night as a form of protest, a short 40-second story announcing that event on the Pacifica news resulted in the news director, Dan Coughlan, losing his job. Disgusted by that vindictive act, soon 11-year PNN anchor Verna Avery Brown quit the broadcast.

Whenever the Pacifica situation has been addressed on the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) weekly media watchdog show Counterspin, affiliates in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., have cut those segments out.

But Pacifica's sabotaging of its own programming may be reaching a new low in its recent treatment of Democracy Now's Goodman.

Pressures from management include not being given press credentials to the Democratic National Convention last August in Los Angeles, after Goodman gave her press pass to Ralph Nader at the Republican Convention in Philadelphia.

Shortly thereafter, Pacifica News Director Stephen Yasko told Goodman that she would need to provide him with a list in advance of guests who would appear on Democracy Now, as well as informing management whenever she would be making public appearances.

Goodman was also threatened by management that if she did not comply with their edicts she could face "disciplinary actions up to and including termination." Goodman then fought back through her union, filing a harassment grievance against Yasko.

Goodman is now said to be barricaded in a tiny office at WBAI and was taken off the air during the station's recent three-week fund drive, another mystifying act considering that Democracy Now has been a leading moneymaker during marathon fund drives.

Independent progressive radio media seems to be an endangered species these days. Recently, an attempt by Working Assets Long Distance to provide a progressive talk radio network bit the dust. Located on a small AM station in Boulder, Colo., the network's best effort at a national audience came via the Internet. But cyber broadcasting through the net is still in its infancy in terms of ears having the chance to listen to it.

National Public Radio -- though not alternative -- has millions of listeners who rely on it for its high quality. But recent moves, such as taking corporate underwriting from Kuwait ("in honor of its 10-year anniversary being freed from Iraq") and the decision to pass on airing audiotapes of live executions in Georgia (broadcasts that individual NPR stations, as well as Democracy Now, did play) underscores that NPR will seldom challenge its audience.

Can Pacifica be saved? When New York Daily News Columnist Juan Gonzalez, disgusted by the treatment of Goodman, quit his part-time gig at Democracy Now in late January, he vowed that he would do whatever it took to rid the network of its wayward board members. As he said when addressing the board in Houston in March at the National Board Meeting, "You don't know me very well. But when I set out to do something, I don't stop. ... And I'm determined to see that some of you are thrown off this board."

Gonzalez has gone on to lead the Pacifica Campaign, an effort to drive out members of the network's board who Pacifica activists feel are too tied to corporate interests and not connected enough with the mission of social justice that was the reason Pacifica was created.

Last month the campaign hit paydirt when Houston real estate executive Michael Palmer resigned from the board, saying he was "blackmailed by harassment." The Washington Post reported that Palmer had also written a memo saying that critics have harassed and physically threatened other board members.

The announcement about Acosta and Van Putten's resignations have seemingly emboldened Pacifica's critics. After that news, Gonzalez wrote, "All of this means we are closer to a victorious solution to the current crisis than we ever have been."

So what next? If the network can't be saved, can there be sufficient funding from the progressive community to insure that noncommercial alternative news journalism has a national home to be played on community radio stations across the country?

Stay tuned.



Mitch E. Perry is assistant news director at WMNF-88.5 FM Community Radio. Contact him at mitch@wmnf.org.

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