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Air War

[whitespace] Joan Marler Power to the people: KPFA producer Joan Marler addressed a crowd of KPFA backers last weekend at an Ives Park rally and strategy meeting.

Photograph by Michael Amsler

Local KPFA supporters rally for embattled station

By Greg Cahill

HAROLD SCHULZ nodded approvingly at the 200 listeners and supporters of Berkeley's KPFA who gathered Sunday at Ives Park in Sebastopol to discuss ways to recapture control of the nation's oldest listener-sponsored radio station. "It's fantastic," he told the crowd, "this number of people in Yuppieville got off their couches to do something today."

The west county contingent, which often draws comparisons to the liberal denizens of Berkeley, turned out in force to show its backing for one of the few radio stations in the country still committed to airing a radical viewpoint on politics and social issues.

The landmark 59,000-watt station (94.1 on the FM dial)--which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary--is in the throes of a messy dispute between its governing Pacifica Foundation and staffers over labor and programming issues. For the past week, the staff has been locked out--officially, Pacifica executives say KPFA employees are on paid administrative leave, though none has been notified directly. Meanwhile, heavy chains and padlocks bar the doors, and armed police and security guards patrol the facilities day and night. Several people have been arrested at noisy protests in front of the station's offices and outside of the transmitter in the Berkeley hills.

KPFA supporters are demanding that Pacifica rehire general manager Nicole Sawaya, fired March 30 without reason, and reinstate popular programmers Larry Bensky and Robbie Osman, both fired for violating a Pacifica gag rule against commenting on-air about Sawaya's dismissal. Backers also are demanding a restoration of normal programming, an agreement that Pacifica accept mediation, and the firing of Pacifica executive director Lynn Chadwick.

"What should have been an employee-employer relationship . . . has turned into a massive civil rights issue with thousands of people in the Bay Area outraged at the [Pacifica] board's action," Peter Phillips, director of Sonoma State University's Project Censored, noted in a prepared statement. "Chadwick . . . has grossly mismanaged the situation and aggravated the staff and the community to a point of outright revolt."

On Tuesday, several KPFA programmers, including Sonoma County health and fitness expert Layna Berman, conducted live shows on the station's doorstep. At the Ives Park meeting, local supporters also agreed to hold a Sonoma County Action Day on Saturday, July 24, from noon to 5 p.m., in front of the station.

"Organized labor is very concerned about what is happening at KPFA, including the illegal lockout, which is in violation of KPFA staff contracts . . . ," says Mike Smith of the North Bay Labor Council. "I am outraged at Pacifica's callous decision to deprive the community and labor of its voice."

The firing of Sawaya, who supporters say had led the station to its strongest position ever in the Bay Area radio market, sparked the recent labor dispute at the station. But at the core of the squabble is the suspicion by many that Pacifica plans to sell KPFA's signal for an estimated $60 million to $90 million to establish a trust for the chain's four remaining stations. Those suspicions were fueled July 19 when the San Francisco-based Media Alliance circulated a Pacifica memo--from Houston real estate developer and local Pacifica board member Michael Palmer to Pacifica national board chairwoman Mary Frances Berry--noting that Palmer had spoken to a radio broker about the sale of KPFA's north Berkeley transponder, KPFB, and received an appraisal of $750,000 to $1.25 million for the smaller unit.

"The primary signal [KPFA] would lend itself to a quiet marketing scenario of discreet presentation to logical and qualified buyers," Palmer noted. "This is the best radio market in history, and while public companies may see a dilutive effect from a sale . . . [they] would still be aggressive for such a signal."

A Pacifica spokesperson has said the memo was simply speculation and that no serious discussion is under way regarding the sale of the station.

THE CURRENT STRUGGLE for control of KPFA's airwaves is the latest chapter in a long tradition of free speech and civil liberties. KPFA--the flagship of the Pacifica chain--was founded in 1949 by pacifists. It was the only station in the country openly to defy the red-baiting tactics of Sen. Joe McCarthy, was one of the first to discuss civil rights issues, and provided an outlet for UC Berkeley activist Mario Savio and other free-speech-movement organizers. In the 1960s, the station emerged as a powerful voice in the anti-Vietnam War era, and served as an inspiration for the fledgling underground FM stations and the alternative press.

"Without a doubt, the staff and supporters of KPFA know that this is a battle that has to be fought," says College of Marin history professor Walter Turner, producer and host of KPFA's Africa Today. "There's just no option here in the Bay Area in terms of non-commercial, non-corporate radio--this is pretty much it, especially for a station that has a lot of power. There are a lot of voices--[media critic] Noam Chomksy, the discussions on universal health care, political developments in Africa, or the dissension over the recent NATO air campaign in Yugoslavia--that if you don't hear them on Pacifica/KPFA, you probably won't hear them on big, powerful radio stations again. That's not to belittle small community radio stations, because they are essential, but it is to say that KPFA has a 50-year reputation and contacts all around the world. So, it's a very important battle."

Turner adds that recent comments by Pacifica national board members--particularly that the station "caters to 50-year-old white men"--are rife with contradictions. Pacifica officials complain that KPFA has lacked cultural diversity in its programming, but Chadwick fired veteran black journalist Barry Scott. And the station's apprenticeship program, recruiting young men and women of color, is now on hold owing to the lockout.

"These are people [at Pacifica] who don't have a track record of diversity," says Turner, who also serves on the board of directors at Global Exchange, a non-profit agency that sponsors trips by researchers to Africa and the Caribbean.

Bill Patterson, owner of the Powerhouse Brewing Co. in Sebastopol, agrees that the fight for control of KPFA transcends mere programming issues. "When public radio starts answering to the bottom line, then something is terribly wrong," says Patterson, whose business for the past three years has hosted live KPFA broadcasts by R&B pioneer Johnny Otis, a Sebastopol apple farmer. "You lose your liberties one notch at a time."

While Otis has declined publicly to comment on the station's strife, Patterson believes that the three-hour Saturday morning show illustrated everything that's worth fighting for. "In the case of the Johnny Otis Show, everyone listened to that program, from right-wingers to left-wingers," says Patterson, who often answered phones at the show. "I remember one morning when Johnny was bitching that he couldn't find live bait. Within two minutes, the guy from the Healdsburg general store called to let Johnny know that he had live bait in stock. I barely had the phone back in its cradle when another guy called to say that he represented Friends of Live Bait.

"I mean, to me, that's the definition of public radio--not elitist, not high-brow, but for the man on the street. And that's what we stand to lose here."

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From the July 22-28, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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