Staff Lock-out at Berkeley's KPFA; Leaked Memo Threatens Sale of New York's WBAI

by Bill Weinberg

Pacifica, the non-profit alternative radio network, locked out staff for three weeks at flagship KPFA in Berkeley in the summer of 1999, effectively closing down the station and sparking local protests. Meanwhile, a leaked e-mail reveals discussion within the Pacifica board about selling off both KPFA and the network's most valuable station, WBAI New York. The plot is thickened by mysterious shots fired in the night at KPFA's studios, and the apparent involvement of figures from high-level federal spook agencies.

The new Pacifica board chair Mary Francis Berry is President Clinton's appointee to lead the US Civil Rights Commission, a body with federal subpoena power now investigating the swath of police violence in New York City. At the February 28 meeting of Pacifica's Berkeley-based national board, Berry and the network's Executive Director Lynn Chadwick pushed through a proposal to centralize all power. Members of the affiliate stations' Local Advisory Boards would no longer have seats on the National Board.

The five affiliates (not counting repeater stations and non-affiliates that use Pacifica satellite feeds) are KPFA, WBAI, KPFK Los Angeles, KPFT Houston and WPFW in DC. Programmers at the New York, Berkeley and Los Angeles affiliates protested the board changes in defiance of Pacifica's so-called "gag rule" barring discussion of "internal" matters on the air.

On March 31, 1999, Chadwick dismissed Nicole Sawaya as KPFA station manager, claiming she was not a "good fit". Under the gag rule, KPFA reporters and programmers were forbidden to discuss Sawaya's termination over the air. That night, gunshots were fired at the KPFA studios, apparently from a passing car. The Berkeley police opened an investigation, and Chadwick hired a private security firm to police the premises.

KPFA Under Siege

KPFA programmers began reporting on the situation--like the rest of the Bay Area media. Chadwick, now directly running the station, made good on her threat to enforce the gag rule. Veteran reporter and political commentator Larry Bensky was fired on April 9. Longtime music programmer Robbie Osman was fired on June 18. Listeners organized protests. On June 21, protestors occupied Chadwick's office at KPFA. She threatened to do a "citizen's arrest" if the Berkeley police did not remove them. Fifteen were arrested.

The climax came with the July 13 arrest of Dennis Bernstein, host of KPFA's investigative news program Flashpoints (formerly of Undercurrents at WBAI). Bernstein had just aired quotes from a press conference held by the arrested protestors on Flashpoints and the nightly news was being broadcast when Garland Ganter, general manager of the Houston affiliate brought in by Chadwick to help manage KPFA, told him he was being placed on "administrative leave." Armed guards appeared to escort Bernstein from the premises. News anchor Mark Mericle interrupted a tape to describe the scene live on the air as Bernstein was manhandled toward the door by guards. Sounds of the scuffle could be heard in the background before Mericle's mike was cut off and KPFA abruptly went dead.

The security men delivered Bernstein to the waiting Berkeley police, who led him away in handcuffs. KPFA was closed down as bewildered listeners spontaneously converged on the station.

Bernstein protested his expulsion and arrest, claiming Pacifica management pulled a bait-and-switch on him: he had been told he could cover what mainstream media were covering about the crisis—and reporters from the Bay Area dailies were at the press conference he was sacked for covering. He also protested that he has not been allowed to reclaim his files from the KPFA premises.

Ironically, KPFA mostly broadcast vintage '60s Marxist rhetoric from the Pacifica archives following the staff lock-out. Nearly 100 protesters (including seven KPFA staff members) were arrested over the following days, and supporters maintained a permanent camp outside the KPFA/Pacifica building.

Despite repeated denials from Pacifica spokesperson Elan Fabbri that they intended to do so, on July 21, Pacifica installed new ISDN telephone lines at KPFA's transmitter in the hills east of Berkeley, allowing management to broadcast a remote signal from outside the Bay Area. Union workers from Pacific Bell--members of CWA Local 9415, like the purged KPFA staff—refused to cross the picket line that station staff mobilized at the transmitter. Pac Bell was forced to send a management person to install the lines, escorted by police.

Pacifica prepared to broadcast the signal from KPFK Los Angeles over the KPFA transmitter until a new local staff could be assembled. KPFA supporters said if KPFK acceded to this, it would become "scab radio." KPFK manager Mark Schubb is already known as "The Gagmaster." Segments of the national Pacifica news program Democracy Now and the media watchdog show Counterspin that covered the crisis at Pacifica were censored at KPFK, KPFT and WPFW. These last two stations now broadcast little more than music and Pacifica satellite feeds.

KPFA's repeater station KFCF in Fresno agreed to start broadcasting Dennis Bernstein's Flashpoints--but he could still not be heard over the airwaves of his hometown Berkeley, historic birthplace of the Free Speech movement.

Following weeks of daily protest and statements of solidarity with the locked-out staff from Bay Area labor unions and national media watchdog groups, the national board agreed to mediation with the KPFA staff. At the end of July, the board agreed to allow the staff back in—but the wiring had been ripped out of the control room, and it wasn't until August 5 that free KPFA returned to the air.

The crisis is far from over, and the limits of free speech on KPFA's airwaves are still being defined. Pacifica is refusing to drop charges against those arrested. Berkeley municipal court judge Jennie Rhine has recused herself from arraigning the 53 protestors. Rhine, a close friend of former Pacifica executive director Pat Scott, was formerly a Pacifica national board member.

The Pacifica board's February 28 power grab is being challenged in the California courts by members of the local affiliates' advisory boards, who say the move is illegal under state law. The suit also seeks to enjoin the board from selling any Pacifica station or spending subscriber funds on armed security agencies or public relations firms.

The California state legislature opened hearings on whether the Pacific Foundation should be audited, and in August, under imminent threat of subpoena, Pacifica finally agreed to turn over financial records to the legislative investigative committee. Pacifica is also in an unseemly public squabble with the city of Berkeley over whether the foundation should be reimbursed for the cost of the security firm. Berkeley police chief Dash Butler maintains that Pacifica has cost the city money by sparking the crisis, not the other way around.

The Privatization Agenda

On July 13, the same day Bernstein was arrested and KPFA went off the air, Andrea Buffa, director of the San Francisco Media Alliance who had been arrested at the KPFA protests, received an e-mail from Pacifica National Board Treasurer Micheal Palmer, a Houston real estate developer. The e-mail was addressed to Mary Francis Berry, and had apparently been sent to Buffa in error. It openly urged the sale of both KPFA and WBAI.

Palmer wrote: "I was under the impression there was support in the proper quarters, and a definite majority, for shutting down that unit [KPFA]... Has that changed? Is there consensus among the national staff that anything other than that is acceptable/bearable?"

Arguing that economics demand the sale of an actual affiliate rather than a repeater station, Palmer next unveiled his real agenda: sale of WBAI. "[A] more beneficial disposition would be of the New York signal as there is a smaller subscriber base without the long and and emotional history as the Bay Area, far more associated value, a similarly dysfunctional staff... It is simply the more strategic asset."

Palmer also recommended bringing in "experts (whether from Wall Street, NPR/CPB, Microsoft or otherwise) to get a strong reality check."

The origin of the e-mail was confirmed by the Institute for Global Communications, Palmer's access provider. Pacifica management denies that any sale is planned.

Liberal Union Busting

Palmer's "privatization memo" was aired repeatedly over WBAI. So were the final seconds of free KPFA broadcast (with Bernstein's arrest in the background). The "gag-rule" is openly flouted at the New York affiliate, especially on the overnight talk shows. BAI workers in United Electrical Local 404 issued a statement in solidarity with the KPFA staff. During the KPFA lock-out, the "dysfunctional" staff of WBAI ran the only free station in the Pacifica network.

This defiance may spark the showdown with rank-and-file that has been building since the push to "mainstream" Pacifica began in 1995, when KPFA staff were purged and the national board mandated that all affiliates must run satellite feeds produced by the national network.

In 1996, after then-Pacifica Executive Director Pat Scott gave herself a raise to $70,000 and drew up a new labor contract withdrawing non-paid staff at Pacifica stations (the overwhelming majority at KPFA and WBAI) from collective bargaining, the network hired the American Consulting Group (ACG) in anticipation of labor disputes. The AFL-CIO calls the ACG professional "union-busters," hired by RJR Nabisco, Union Carbide, General Dynamics, Dupont, Sony, Coca-Cola, TRW, the LA Times and other firms to outmaneuver striking workers or attempts to organize the workforce. In 1997, a National Labor Relations Board decision mandating union representation for non-paid staff at BAI was appealed by Pacifica.

Federal Spooks in the Shadows

The involvement of federal spooks in the crisis has caused some to speculate that the shots fired at KPFA are a COINTELPRO-type government provocation.

Pacifica has turned over 2,000 listener letters and e-mails to the authorities investigating the shooting. Letters protesting the closing of KPFA are now in the hands of the Berkeley police and possibly FBI.

On June 23, the KPFA News broadcast allegations that Mary Frances Berry had personally called Attorney General Janet Reno to pressure the Berkeley police to crack down on the protests. Berkeley Police Chief Dash Butler admitted to a KPFA reporter that Reno aide Joe Brann had called him "to inquire why Berkeley police didn't more aggressively pursue arrests against protestors outside of Pacifica's offices." Brann is director of COPPS, the Justice Department program that awards funds to local police departments. Chief Butler said Brann told him Reno had asked him to call after being phoned by a friend about the situation. When asked if that friend was Berry, Butler said that "may have been the name mentioned by Brann."

IPSA International, the elite security firm hired by Pacifica to police KPFA, boasts on its web site of that its "law enforcement professionals" are recruited "from local, state or federal agencies." IPSA pulled out of the KPFA/Pacifica building when the staff returned, but remain in control of the transmitter in the Berkeley Hills. (IPSA specializes in "professional management of workplace violence" and "hostile terminations" through a strategy of "controlling the environment" to reduce the "frequency for armed intervention.")

Columnist Alexander Cockburn reports in The Nation that Berry and Chadwick worked out their plans for Pacifica's restructuring under the direct "guidance" of Robert Coonrod, president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which, together with listener memberships to affiliate stations, provides Pacifica's budget). Coonrod, who apparently threatened to withdraw funding if "reforms" weren't made at Pacifica, is former deputy director of Radio Marti, the federal government's Cuba destabilization program.

"Politically Correct" Masquerade

Whether the mysterious shots were fired by provocateurs or mere yahoos, the Pacifica crisis is beginning to smell like a federal strategy to shut down or gut the nation's strongest alternative media voice. Of course this can only be done by a liberal administration--and in the name of "diversity."

Pacifica mouthpiece Elan Fabbri was recently replaced with an expensive San Francisco public relations firm, Michael Fineman and Associates. The savvy "spin" is that Pacifica is attempting to broaden the listenership of affiliates too long dominated by middle aged white guys. Dissidents like Bernstein and Bensky are easily portrayed as aging white lefties.

However, in the August 1995 purge of KPFA staff in the name of "professionalism," shows on Latin America, Indian struggles, gay rights, women's issues and labor were all cancelled, along with Spanish-language programming. Similar purges were executed at the LA and Houston stations.

Veteran activist Angela Davis and author Alice Walker have spoken out in support of the locked-out KPFA staff, and the protesters represent the full spectrum of Berkeley's diverse community. A successful Berkeley Community Theater benefit for Friends of Free Speech Radio, the listeners' group that supports the KPFA staff, drew Joan Baez and Utah Phillips. Even the media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR, producers of Pacifica's Counterspin) have called for Berry and Chadwick to resign.

Under the leadership of the late Program Director Samori Marksman, WBAI's programming and staff became intensely multicultural—while Pacifica mandated the station broadcast the syndicated talk show of Jerry Brown, a middle-aged white guy who is former governor of California and has since become mayor of Oakland. Marksman, a pan-Africanist and Marxist, died of heart failure at the age of 51 on March 23, 1999, four days after an explosive meeting with Chadwick over the Pacifica board structure changes.

September 1999