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Issue 41, September 1999

Free Speech Fight at Radio KPFA

    Whose free speech?
    Listener response
    Diversity or sabotage?

Shocked listeners to Californian radio station KPFA heard a broadcaster's screams as he was dragged out of the studio. They were witnessing an escalation of a struggle for the heart and soul of US community radio, involving daily pickets, lockouts, even gun shots. GENE PEPI and PAM NORTON explain the battle for the station that aired the first broadcast from Hanoi during the Vietnam War, covered the black power struggle of the 1960s and 1970s, and Che Guevara's appeal to revolution days before his assassination in Bolivia.

ON 13 JULY broadcast history was made in Berkeley, California. In the KPFA radio studio on Martin Luther King Jr Way, Evening News anchor, Mark Mericle, and investigative journalist, Dennis Bernstein, were pulled off the air while broadcasting the evening news and describing a free speech struggle occurring live in their station. This is the first time in US broadcast history that announcers were cut off the air, while live.

Bernstein was removed by private security guards employed by IPSA, a national firm affiliated with the American Protective Service, specialising in hostile takeover confrontations. They had been hired by the station's controllers, the Pacifica Foundation, in response to a previous confrontation at the station. It occurred as station supporters attempted to discuss with Executive Director, Lynn Chadwick, Pacifica's 'gag orders' and the firing of popular station manager, Nicole Sawaya, and midday talk show host, Larry Bensky.

That same night, station employees and community activists rallied at the studio and started another sit-in. More than 50 people were arrested and carted off to jail by Berkeley and other local police in riot gear. Attempts were made to block the police vans carrying them away. According to local press reports, Pacifica national board chair, Dr Mary Frances Berry, had contacted Attorney General, Janet Reno, at the Justice Department, to pressure Berkeley Police into stepping-up the arrests.

The regular staff were locked out of the station and the transmitter site in the Oakland hills. The IPSA security guards occupied the station and transmitter site to protect the scabs brought in from Pacifica station KPFT in Houston. Regular KPFA programming was cut off the air and replaced by music and interview tapes brought to the station in the previous two weeks. The next day the station windows were boarded over.

  What sparked-off the removal of Bernstein and Mericle was Bernstein's reporting on the arraignment of 13 protesters, brought up on trespassing charges stemming from an earlier confrontation at the station. After his Flashpoints show, IPSA security guards attempted to interrogate Bernstein and remove him. This evolved into an altercation in the station which then spilled over into the news room, where the Evening News was on the air.

Station supporters were also mobilised in response to an exclusive press conference given by Berry. It was held to discuss the release of e-mail correspondence from Houston Pacifica Board member, Michael Palmer, regarding the possible sale of the station. Having a potential value of $65-75 million, the possible sale of KPFA, or other Pacifica stations, was the source of great tension and mobilisation by local supporters of the station.

  top     Whose free speech?

THERE IS NO doubt that censorship was exercised over KPFA staff, news content and public affairs journalists. There is no doubt that Berry, head of the US Commission on Civil Rights, and Chadwick used a 'goon squad' of mercenary private security forces to ruthlessly trample on the union contracts of the paid staff at KPFA and the broadcasting rights of the volunteer programmers.

There is also no doubt that many local, progressive, even radical programmers, particularly those who consistently challenged the status quo and even its Democratic Party form, were purged from the airwaves of KPFA and Pacifica during the last five years and even further back. The question remains, however, whether this KPFA crisis is as clear and simple a 'free speech' struggle as most people involved in it, including the local media, have said it is.

Most political activists in Berkeley and the Bay Area take as their standard of 'free speech' what was achieved in the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s. As a result of that struggle, political organisations, both left and right, were free to advocate their positions and to organise on campus. Everyone had a right to space, to set up a tables, distribute literature, and talk to people. Just how that standard applies to air time on KPFA is the question.

While the struggle at KPFA is all about free speech, it is also about who gets control of this alternative media outlet, especially who can be programmers and what programming content is permissible. 'Ex'-Democrat Jerry Brown can have airtime an hour a day, five days a week, in the guise of a progressive talk show, to set the stage for his own political campaign. But there are no comparable openings for Green Party candidates, Dan Hamberg or Audie Bock, for the Peace and Freedom Party, or the Progressive Left Slate in San Francisco for that matter.

Berry has stated that there is no such thing as free speech on radio because no racist, sexist or homophobic speech can be allowed at KPFA. What is not openly stated is that Pacifica has extended this control into no free speech about any left-of-centre, anti-Democrat sentiment. KPFA's free speech alternative radio has not been open to all alternative movements nor has it consistently maintained a highly diverse programming community on air.

Significantly, several elements of the Democratic Party have taken an interest in retaining control of the alternative radio station. Democratic Party Mayor of Berkeley, Shirley Dean, came to the defence of KPFA at the benefit concert (while simultaneously keeping full police contingents at the station), and even free speech 'scab' San Francisco Mayor, Willie Brown, spoke out at the 31 July mass rally. A large group of Democratic Party state legislators have also called for hearings into the financial status of Pacifica.

Who is KPFA really struggling with at Pacifica? Not surprisingly, other elements of the Democratic Party, like Berry, Chadwick, and wealthy members of the Pacifica Board, such as Palmer, who want to turn KPFA into a cash cow for their non-profit broadcasting empire. This ain't no conspiracy, it's just business as usual.

KPFA listener-supporters would have more voting rights if they were stockholders in a corporation. At progressive, 'listener-sponsored' Pacifica they have no voting rights because part of Pacifica's five-year plan to 'diversify' and 'broaden member stations' audience' includes cutting-off any meaningful input from the stations themselves or the community at large.

  top     Listener response

FOR TWO WEEKS, the streets in front of the studio and major thoroughfares in the area were blocked repeatedly by crowds of demonstrators. Daily protests of more than 300 people took place at the station throughout the lockout. The various demonstrations were organised by different constituencies, such as hip-hop audiences, people of colour, Latinos and Chicanos, and trade unions. Emphasis has been placed on people of colour and youth, with one march proceeding through the nearby predominately black communities of South Berkeley and North Oakland, which at its peak drew upwards of 700 people. The 19 July benefit concert with Joan Baez at the Berkeley Community Theater drew a capacity crowd of over 3,500 people.

Protest peaked at the 10,000-strong rally on 31 July, which featured speakers such as Sawaya, who was revered by staff as the most popular station manager ever. Sawaya unified the staff and consistently hired people of colour and women to increase diversity at the station in her 18 months on board. She also fought the tendency of Pacifica's national administration to use up ever larger amounts of money derived from local station fundraising. Her dismissal occurred just two weeks before the fiftieth anniversary of the station.

Other speakers at the rally included news reporter, Nick Alexander, investigative reporter, CS Sung, and young speakers from various movements. Larry Bensky, and Dennis Bernstein were cheered loudly by around 3,500 protesters who stayed for the rally in Provo Park, in downtown Berkeley.

However, even at the rally the Democrats got a lot of airtime, ostensibly in support of KPFA's cause, but mostly in support of their own political careers and campaigns. Faux San Francisco mayoral candidate, Tom Ammiano, spoke fervently in favour of free speech. Mayor Willie Brown, not on the scheduled list of speakers, arrived at the rally in his usual black limo. Booed and hissed loudly by a significant portion of the crowd throughout his speech, Brown called, in a very strained voice, for the resignation of the Pacifica Board. Progressive Left Slate San Francisco mayoral candidate, Lucrecia Bermudez, however, was not allowed to speak. (Bermudez, a working-class and immigrant rights activist, won 24,000 votes - 14% - in city-wide elections last year. Her candidacy in November's mayoral race is backed by a coalition of immigrant and civil rights campaigns, including Labor Militant, the US section of the Committee for a Workers' International).

  The irony of Brown's participation at the KPFA rally for free speech, and democratic process within the station and between Pacifica and its member stations, is that he supported the San Francisco Newsrack Ordinance, which would effectively ban the distribution of newspapers like Frontlines - a free San Francisco-based journal, campaigning 'for a progressive majority'.

This is the same Willie Brown who said that democracy would best be served by him having no opposition candidate in the coming mayoral race. His appearance at the rally was another attempt by a severely discredited candidate to use the 'left'. In fact, it parallels Berry's attempts at justifying her autocratic actions against KPFA as necessary measures to increase diversity at the station.

  top     Diversity or sabotage?

BERRY CLAIMED TO be promoting change at KPFA in an attempt to bring racial diversity to the station. This has been denounced by almost every person of colour involved in this struggle, prominent among them authors Alice Walker and Angela Davis. Berry did bring in a diverse army of white male private security guards from IPSA, among them former CIA and FBI agents.

Reportedly, the security guards cost more than $10,000 a day, an appalling abuse of listener financial support. KPFA staff and programmers have denounced the de-diversifying tactics of the Pacifica Board and Chadwick, beginning with the dismissal of Sawaya, a Lebanese-American sacked because she did not 'fit in' with the Board's goals.

If this sounds contradictory, a closer look at Berry will reveal her real motivation. Berry is a renowned African-American civil rights attorney and law professor. A friend of ex-President Jimmy Carter, President Bill Clinton and Janet Reno, Berry is a Clinton appointee to her position as head of the US Commission on Civil Rights. Her goal appears to be to depoliticise and commercialise all Pacifica stations, as has already happened at Houston and Washington DC.

On the midday Living Room show, hosted by Kris Welch on Thursday 5 August, Frances Beal of the Black Radical Congress stated that Berry was chosen to 'clean house' and 'transform the station into a liberal, Democrat voice', rather than a voice for people of colour, the poor and other voiceless constituencies. According to Beal, Pat Scott, former KPFA General Manager and then Executive Director of Pacifica Foundation, actively pursued Berry for Chair of the Pacifica governing board because of her reputation as a 'ruthless, take-no-prisoners appointment'. Berry had no relationship to Pacifica prior to that.

This points to a well-organised plan to disempower and ultimately purge current programmers, and to replace public affairs and call-in shows with censored and sanitised national programmes and more mainstream music shows, to prepare for corporate funding. There is evidence of the systematic sanitising of programming at Pacifica's Houston and Washington DC stations. Raul Renteria, former programmer at Houston's KPFT, described at the July 14 rally how the Houston station went from a 14-language station to English only, from a highly diverse programming staff to a mainly country and western musical format.

  True to her devious purpose, on 29 July, two days before the mass rally in Berkeley, Berry made an announcement that the staff should return to work and start broadcasting again, in an apparent effort to defuse the mounting negative press against Pacifica's national board and popular support for KPFA nationwide and internationally. This announcement was made through the press, completely circumventing the mediation process then taking place.

KPFA staff balked at this ultimatum by citing the need to repair the damage done to studio facilities and the neglect of the transmitter during IPSA security guard occupation of the station. Estimates are that the damage done and the tactics pursued by Chadwick and Berry will cost KPFA and Pacifica $500,000. KPFA staff and supporters openly suspect Pacifica of attempting to bankrupt the station by emptying its coffers to pay for the IPSA security guards, lawyers, and high-priced spin doctors and by returning listener pledges during the lockout. Berry's return to work dictat also placed staff under the gun to improve ratings in six months.

As the station came back to life on 5 August, the staff were addressing the issue of diversity by having people of colour and young people on many, formerly, less diverse shows, beginning with steering committee member, J Imani, on the early morning programme. Kris Welch shared the mic with Miguel Molina, from Friday night's La Onda Bajita low-rider show, on her Living Room show. During evening programming, graduates of the KPFA broadcast apprenticeship, including young people of colour and women, stated that while they were grateful to have the opportunity to participate in the free training programme, it was very difficult for those same apprentices to get time slots longer than half-an-hour and at any time other than late night or very early morning.

The on-air struggle to rebuild KPFA had taken its first tentative steps.

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