Beast of the Month - August 1999
Mary Frances Berry, Pacifica Foundation Chair
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK"
Self-described billing of KPFA radio.
Just what is it about the month of July? A time that represents independence and liberty (in honor of our Founding Fathers' defiance) has instead become a moment for the suppression of the truth. In 1997, Jerry Ceppos, editor of the San Jose Mercury News, climaxed the most vicious assault on honest investigation in the history of journalism by demoting journalist Gary Webb, whose groundbreaking work on the "Dark Alliance" series was attacked by establishment mouthpieces for detailing CIA involvement in the crack epidemic via backing the Nicaraguan Contras. Then, last year, CNN President Rick Kaplan fired April Oliver and Jack Smith, the producers of the CNN NewsStand documentary "Valley of Death", which detailed shocking evidence that the Vietnam War-era Operation Tailwind involved using sarin gas on American soldiers. And now, in 1999, while most of the korporate media (not to mention dubious internet sources) focus unnecessary amounts of energy and space to the relatively unimportant story of the death of John-John, what is arguably the country's most daring radio station faces a serious assault from within.
KPFA, of Berkeley, California, is the flagship station for The Pacifica Foundation, founded in 1949 to aid the pacifist movement. (Pacifica also has stations in Los Angeles, Houston, New York City and Washington.) KPFA is the oldest listener supported FM station in America, and over the years as a vanguard for free speech, it has often been a solitary yet vital voice of exposing that which needed to be exposed. Among the highlights over the years of KPFA and Pacifica: uncovering the U.S. sponsored mass murder in Guatemala (and other Latin American puppets) by American-trained death squads; reporting on the CIA arms, drugs and terror network which was hidden from public view in Nicaragua (including the Mena, Arkansas drug smuggling operation right under Clinton's nose during his term as governor); the involvement with the S&L scandal of figures as diverse as Hillary Clinton and Henry Hyde; highlighting anti-war protests of US actions from Vietnam to Kosovo, as well as continuing coverage of the ongoing US-engineered holocaust in Iraq; broadcasting Patty Hearst (the kidnapped newspaper heiress) denouncing her parents as "capitalist pigs"; and including commentaries from political prisoner and death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. On the national front, KPFA has covered closely the civil rights movement, as well as given gavel-to-gavel broadcasting of political conventions, the Iran-Contra investigation, and this year's impeachment hearings and trial. Locally, they highlighted the Berkeley Free Speech movement, and pushed to end police brutality and block environmental outrages like the Pacific Gas and Electric nuclear plant on Bodega Bay. Culturally, Pacifica has broadcast poet Alan Ginsberg reading "Howl," George Carlin performing his routine "Filthy Words," provided a forum for suppressed intellectual Noam Chomsky to present his views, and became the first station to play music from the Grateful Dead.
Thanks to voicing openly leftist views at the height of the "communist" witchhunt (including the broadcast of Bertolt Brecht and W.E.B. DuBois), Pacifica was harassed and investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the FBI for "subversion." How ironic, then, that after surviving the dark era of political suppression by Hoover and McCarthy, KPFA now faces its worst threat from its own leadership, and the battle, unsurprisingly, is not so much about political ideas as it is about big money and power grabs.
Battles between the Pacifica leadership and member stations are nothing new, but the latest war had its first shot on March 31st, 1999, when Pacifica Executive Director Lynn Chadwick fired KPFA general manager Nicole Sawaya, saying that she was not a "good fit." More specifically, Sawaya was fired for refusing to implement national Pacifica policies. Sawaya's ousting came two weeks before KPFA's fiftieth anniversary.
Considered an independent minded leader, Sawaya was well liked by KPFA's staff and the larger community. Her ousting provoked a huge protest, and showed a contempt for the basic rule of community radio: that it represent the wishes and desires of the community it serves. Pacifica consulted no one beyond its own inner circle before making this highly controversial decision.
The previous month, the Pacifica National Board decided to remove Local Advisory Board (LAB) members from its national governance board. Local advisory boards are the backbone of community radio, meeting once a month to hear the concerns of listeners and volunteers. The move made no sense for an organization whose most popular public affairs program is called "Democracy Now," and, in its own literature, refers to itself as "democratic communications."
KPFA's most respected voice, Larry Bensky (a 30-year veteran of Pacifica, and winner of the prestigious Polk Award) spoke before the board against the decision, and warned that Pacifica's National Office was becoming unaccountable and out of touch. When Pacifica terminated Sawaya, Bensky took his concerns to his listeners on his regular Sunday program. On April 9th, Pacifica responded by firing Bensky as well.
Rather than merely firing people, Chadwick also hired armed security guards to watch the KPFA station. The excuse given was it was in response to a gunshot fired in the Pacifica national office, offices that are over 3,000 miles away. The security force manhandled and interrogated reporters, and operated illegally by not wearing uniforms and identification and carrying concealed weapons on the premises of a station founded by pacifists.
The KPFA community was justifiably outraged. On March 31st, over 800 KPFA supporters demonstrated against Pacifica in front of KPFA. Then, on May 9th, 2,000 demonstrators gathered at Berkeley's Old City Hall to protest, the biggest listener demonstration in the history of community radio, demanding the reinstatement of Sawaya and Bensky. To show how much they cared, listeners made KPFA's May/June subscription marathon the most successful in its history: over 85% of the 7,000 pledges made "under protest" of Pacifica's actions.
The response from Pacifica? Robbie Osman, a music and commentary programmer at KPFA for over two decades, actively spoke out against the firings on his Sunday program, and his show was canceled on June 18th. The following Sunday, KPFA broadcast silence when his program would have aired. Protests became even louder.
Then, On July 13, Chadwick called a meeting of KPFA staff and distributed a memo titled "Appropriate Conduct." It declared that "Pacifica is committed to enforcing its policies and my previous directives prohibiting on-air or in-the-media discussion of matters pertaining to Pacifica or KPFA management decisions..." The gag order deserved to be mocked, and rightfully was. Dennis Bernstein, host of KPFA's show "Flashpoint," played a tape from a news conference held earlier in the day by a few of the dozen people who had been arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience at the station in June. For his supposedly outrageous act, Bernstein was physically removed, screaming in mid-broadcast, from the newsroom by security guards, and later taken from the station in handcuffs. The abusive treatment of Bernstein was reported live on the air, until suddenly the air went dead. A few minutes later, the station broadcast a taped speech from Pacifica archives. Police then arrived in riot gear and arrested 44 protesters as well as eight KPFA volunteers and staff who refused to leave the premises.
"I'm flabbergasted that I would be pulled from the air ... by people who founded the station to stand as a bastion of free speech," Bernstein would later state. "I believe this is about First Amendment rights. This is an absolute case of censorship." He would then ask, "Is this Berkeley or Belgrade?" Good question, and he's not the only one asking. Hundreds of angry listeners would converge on the station's Berkeley offices for protests the following day - which, coincidentally, was Bastille Day, the French Holiday celebrating the 1789 storming of a prison known for holding political criminals.
Now, the battle is heading towards court, which would be unnecessary if Pacific leadership actually followed the principals that organization was founded under. A suit was file in Alameda Superior Court, accusing the nonprofit Pacifica Foundation of subverting the station's independence. As the lawyer for the community activists Dan Siegel stated, "The lawsuit charges essentially that the board of directors has usurped the power of the membership. It is abusing its authority by attempting to alter the programming and mission of Pacifica." Needless to say, these arguments are quite persuasive.
Certainly, Lynn Chadwick, deserves much of the blame for what has occured: she is the one who fired the KPFA staff members who challenged her abusive authority, she is the one who instituted the gag rule, and she is the one who brought in the gun-wielding security guards. Furthermore, she imported Garland Ganter, the Houston manager of Pacifica's KPFT station, as one of her executors. Previously, Ganter canceled nearly all of KPFT's programming, and installed a nearly all music format, "The Sounds of Texas."
Still, the responsibility for the debacle ultimately rests at the top, and Mary Frances Berry, the Pacifica Foundation Chair and our Beast of the Month, does deserve scorn in manufacturing and creating this crisis. Though she has kept her hands clean from Ms. Chadwick's more dirty deeds, it is clear that the Pacifica board approved of what was being done at KPFA.
What was the purpose of all this? In part, it may have been philosophical. Berry, who previously was a nationally known civil rights leader, "is basically an authoritarian in her views of how institutions should run," according to one board member. An authoritarian trying to run a democratic institution is a bad combination, as the results indicate. She pushed to extreme Pacifica's trend of centralizing power and taking it away from the local stations. To make matters worse, Berry, who is African-American, tried to inject the race card into an already ugly battle, arguing she was merely trying to increase the station's racial diversity from its white liberal base. Her politically correct defense was shown baseless when the defenders of KPFA's independence included "The Color Purple" author Alice Walker and Mumia Abu-Jamal, as well as the fact that the African-American program director and an African-American Morning Show host resigned to protest recent management firings. "Her manipulation of the race issue in this is an example of how unsuitable she is to run this organization," Bensky would later point out. "She's a megalomaniac who's uninterested in community-controlled radio stations."
There is more to this story, however, and the evidence became quite compelling by the end of the month that there was a bigger source behind the dispute. The real motive, unsurprisingly, may be money. Berry and the Pacifica Board were trying to make KPFA and other Pacifica stations korporate-friendly, and thus reverse Pacifica's long-standing commitment to programming free of korporate strings. According to J. Imani, a member of the local KPFA advisory board, "What they wanted was to purge all the old lefties and get in some music shows and some mainstream, liberal s***. A week after Nicole was hired, they told her who to fire, and she wouldn't go for it. She took a stand against politically white-washing KPFA."
Turning KPFA into another wimpy NPR-PBS clone may have been preferable to the other option Berry and the Pacifica Board were contemplating: selling KPFA and/or other stations for millions. Berry and the Pacifica Board denied such allegations, even after a secret memo by Micheal Palmer (Treasurer-elect of Pacifica) to Berry surfaced detailing such plans, with strong evidence indicating the memo was real . According to sources, KPFA (which has a powerful 59,000-watt signal reaching across Northern California) would have a market value of up to $75 million, and all five stations have an estimated value of $300 million. Berry continued to deny plans to sell off KPFA, up until the day before board member Pete Bramson blew the whistle and revealed that is precisely what was in the works. Bramson stated in a news conference, "I take no pleasure in being here today, but I cannot remain silent while Pacifica's national board holds serious discussions in secret about selling KPFA."
In the end, the latest revelation should hardly come as a surprise: as it turns out, IPSA International, the company that supplied KPFA's security guards, specializes in providing security for companies involved in hostile takeovers and downsizing programs. Nor should it be a surprise that Berry is also the head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. That a Clinton appointee is the mastermind behind the attempted destruction of radio's most unique voices certainly is suspicious. Maybe there's nothing to it: then again, if a Reagan or Bush appointee attempted the same thing during their presidencies, would there be any doubt there was an intentional plan to sabotage?
Whether Berry is part of a deeper plot or not can be debated: what is certain is that she has proven herself unfit to head the Pacifica Foundation, thanks to her autocratic style and shameful deception. There are widespread demands for both her and Lynn Chadwick to either resign or be removed: such demands are highly endorsed by The Konformist.
In any case, we salute Mary Frances Berry as Beast of the Month. Congratulations, and keep up the great work, Mary!!!
KPFK: (818) 985-5735
KPFT: (713) 526-5738
WPFW: (202) 588-0893
WBAI: (212) 209-2900
Pacifica Network News - 1-888-770-4944 ext. 323
Amy Goodman - (212) 209-2800
Sale of KPFA?
915 National Press Building, Washington, D.C. 20045
Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network
Matthew Lasar (Temple Univ Press, 1999)
"Berkeley Station Rocked by Protests"
Michelle Locke, Associated Press July 15, 1999
"Are Pacifica Stations for Sale?"
FAIR NEWS RELEASE: July 16, 1999
"Pacifica Leadership Should Step Down for Good of Network"
"Liberal Radio Station Being Silenced by Clinton Appointee"
"The war over KPFA," Anthony York
"ASSAULT ON RADIO STATION RAISES KEY ISSUES"
"JOURNALISTS INSPIRE SUPPORT FOR COMMUNITY RADIO"
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