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The Grover Norquist Project at Pacifica Radio

by Daniel Borgström Wednesday, Feb. 02, 2011 at 11:33 AM

Whistleblowers as far back as 2005 warned that KPFA's budgets were not sustainable. Why were the warnings repeatedly disregarded?

by Daniel Borgström


If Grover Norquist had been a consultant for the gatekeeper group of paid staff that seems to run things at KPFA, he might've recommended something like: "You should reduce Pacifica Radio down to a size where you can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

As it has turned out, Grover Norquist wasn't needed, at least not in flesh and blood. The members and supporters of the station's power clique have done it without him--they have "starved the beast." Today both KPFA and Pacifica are broke, sliding towards bankruptcy. I can't imagine why the clique is doing this, except to speculate that they might have plans for resurrecting KPFA with outside funding, and with themselves in total control.

The current financial crisis didn't start in the fall of 2010, or that summer either. It's the result of years of living beyond the station's means. Warnings were sounded at least as far back as a meeting in 2005 when several board members expressed concern that there were too many FTEs. I remember asking the person next to me what an FTE was. "A full-time equivalent," I was told, and it was afterwards explained to me that the station was acquiring more paid staff than it could afford in the long run. This was detailed in the local board's Minority Report of September 17, 2005.

In those days the station was doing reasonably well financially. But, according to several local board members, LaVarn Williams, Max Blanchet and Marnie Tattersall (all with solid backgrounds in finance), the cost of so much paid staff was not sustainable. KPFA needed to slow down on the hiring, look ahead, and plan accordingly.

Year after year, warnings from the opposition were ignored, dismissed, disregarded. Those expressing them were sometimes even yelled at. The unsustainable budgets were promoted by the "Concerned Listeners," the slate of board members who represent the station's power clique. The "Concerned Listeners" formerly called themselves "KPFA Forward" and more recently they've again changed their name, now to "Save KPFA." (For the sake of simplicity in what follows, they will be referred to as "CL/mgmt group" or just "CL'ers.")

So the CL'ers refused to acknowledge publicly what was clearly going to happen. Why? An intriguing email from that same month, September 2005, turned up as sort of a one-email Wikileak. It's the email which infamously suggested "dismantling the LSB." An even more foreboding line in that same email read: "How do we make our enemies own the problems that are to come?" The author was Brian Edwards-Tiekert, CL spokesperson and later longtime treasurer of the board.

It wasn't just the bloated budgets that caused the eventual crisis. During those same years, lawsuits against KPFA/Pacifica were poorly handled, costing hundreds of thousands of the listeners' dollars. Attorney Dan Siegel (then General Counsel for Pacifica) is considered a very smart lawyer, so why did he handle these legal matters so poorly?

There was also the CL'ers' unholy alliance with the JUC, the New York group which was then running WBAI into the ground, generating another financial drain on the Pacifica network. Interestingly, those two groups, the CL'ers and the JUC, seemed to thoroughly dislike each other. Their alliance appears to have been one of convenience, a mutual non-aggression pact, the deal apparently being: "We'll shield you from oversight and you shield us from oversight." Mismanagement at both stations bled the network--that was the result. But was it intentional, at least on the part of some of the players, at one or both of the stations?

Several years passed in this irresponsible fashion, but by 2008 the inevitable financial crisis was no longer deniable. Even the CL'ers were expressing concern; Brian Edwards-Tiekert called for layoffs throughout the network. These very necessary cutbacks were carried out at the rest of Pacifica's five stations, but strangely enough, not at KPFA, as we were to see.

It was always difficult, often impossible, to get accurate, detailed information from the management of KPFA. In 2005 & 2006, LSB members LaVarn Williams and Richard Phelps spent a over a year fighting for access to financial records. They won that battle, but the war went on. The power clique did not willingly share information; board members outside the inner circle continued to be denied access to records and information.

The station's then manager, Lemlem Rijio, (whose job it was to implement layoffs, and who never did) was also supposed to attend every LSB meeting and give a report, but she seldom did this either. On one of the rare occasions when she did attend, on March 14, 2009, opposition board members plied her with questions about the station's finances, and she answered evasively. When Staff Rep Shahram Aghamir asked, "How much is being spent on the consultants?" the manager at first tried to avoid the question, then said, "I will send you a confidential email." The confidential email never arrived.

As the mounting financial crisis became ever more apparent, the CL'ers began a disinformation campaign against the Pacifica national office. On August 6, 2009 there was a front page article in the Berkeley Daily Planet accusing Pacifica of improperly taking $100K from KPFA. That news leak came from Brian Edwards-Tiekert, the treasurer. But on investigation it was found that no such "raid" on KPFA's money had occurred. The newspaper printed a retraction the following week, but CL'ers continued to spread the story, despite its having been exposed as false. Later, Conn Hallinan, who certainly must have known the facts, since he was the LSB chair, wrote an email accusing Pacifica of "an old fashioned smash and grab" on KPFA's funds.

That was the beginning of a swiftboating campaign against Pacifica, in which the CL'ers are working to conjure up images of 1999, portraying Pacifica as the bad guy, the oppressor of KPFA, the beast which must be starved. In the recent 2010 election, the CL'ers even stole the name of an opposing group from 1993, and called themselves "Save KPFA." Members of the original 1993 Save KPFA group were outraged and objected strenuously. But the CL'ers are still using their new ill-gotten name.

At the end of 2009 it was discovered that a $375,000 check had been left in a drawer, left to expire. KPFA's former General Manager, Lemlem Rijio, took the fall for that. But it seems highly unlikely that she was the only one who knew about that "forgotten" check.

"How could anyone forget about a six-figure check!" KPFA activists have been asking; and some began connecting dots, wondering if it were intentional--that perhaps the CL/mgmt folks were deliberately working to bankrupt Pacifica in order to somehow acquire KPFA. Till then, the likelihood of the CL'ers deliberately acting in such a reckless manner had seemed so far-fetched that few expressed such suspicions. But as the spring of 2010 became summer, and then autumn, more and more connectable dots turned up. For example, we learned that during the last two years they spent the remaining $780,000 of the station's cash reserves rather than implement the layoffs.

Finally, in October, the new Executive Director of Pacifica, Arlene Engelhardt, stepped in and took the necessary action on layoffs. Some of the newscasters and show hosts--the core of the station's power clique--openly mutinied and launched an on-air campaign against Pacifica, attacking Ms. Engelhardt, trashing the network, and encouraging subscribers to withhold donations. They openly boasted of receiving non-donation pledges totaling $25K, eventually $55K. In effect, a defunding drive.

Much has happened during the two months since then, more than I can possibly fit it into this article, so I'm skipping numerous significant events including the LSB election, a series of rallies, forums, a canceled fund-drive followed by a successful one, a resolution taken to the Berkeley City Council, court appearances, a new Morning Show, a new general manager, and more. I'll talk about all that in a later article. Meanwhile, the CL'ers' intense and well-organized PR campaign against Pacifica continues as KPFA totters on the edge of bankruptcy.

So what do the CL'ers (now "Save KPFA") want? In their campaign statements, they present themselves as the champions of transparency, accountability, and democracy--the exact opposite of what they have been practicing all these years. More consistent with their practice is Matthew Lasar's call for a return to the system that was in place during the hijacker regime of the 1990's; in June 2010 he wrote: "I'd like to see governance go back to something like what it was around 1998--smaller, self appointed local station boards." Lasar is a high profile CL supporter who signs his name "Matthew Lasar, Pacifica historian" and is lauded as such by the CL'ers.

The CL'ers have recently become quite open with their desire to break with Pacifica. That would be their opportunity to rid themselves of the checks and balances, put a final end to any vestige of transparency and accountability, and openly run the station as an undisguised oligarchy. No elections, no Program Council, no UnPaid Staff Organization, and no more involvement from the community, except for financial support. While this might seem a more efficient way to run the station, it would open the door to corruption and manipulation by wealthy interests.

Exactly how the CL'ers might've planned to go about acquiring a bankrupt KPFA is less clear. Bankruptcy would result in the sale of the five Pacifica stations, including KPFA. The KPFA signal is reportedly worth $200 million, and such a sum would be difficult to raise. Some have speculated that the CL'ers might've made an arrangement with a major corporation to take over the station on the condition that they be left in charge. Or perhaps the CL'ers are "playing chicken" with the fate of the Pacifica network in the expectation that Pacifica may be willing to give them a deal on the station.

The CL'ers PR campaign is sophisticated and highly effective. They've invested a lot of time and effort in this. If they were not planning some such scenario, then it can only be surmised that they have been destroying both KPFA and Pacifica out of sheer stupidity.




Scenarios of bankruptcy & sale of Pacifica stations
--by Steve Brown, WBAI

Why are CWA and the "left" trying to take down KPFA?
--by Carol Spooner


10 Years of KPFA Finances in TABLE FORMAT

and, presented as a GRAPH, the same data:

A Few Comments on the Financial Crisis at Pacifica
--by Max Blanchet, January 10, 2011

Minority Report Re KPFA Budget Approved By LSB Sat. Sept.17, 2005

Also please see the articles at

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