I hate to say it, but what is going on at KPFA is a lefty version of the Tea Party. People are using the rhetoric of freedom, fairness, workers’ rights and diversity to subvert democracy, diversity and a lot of community programming. And they are determined to destroy probably the most valuable resource the left in this country has. (They're also, in general, good progressive people. I want to say that out front. I am friendly with some of them. But I believe they are good progressive people with a very bad vision for community radio.)
They’re extremely well organized, they are extremely unified, and they have been able to get their talking points broadcasting non-stop on the airwaves. And the people who know the truth and oppose what they are trying to do are either being timid or complacent, keeping their heads down, not organizing, talking in platitudes, wanting to compromise.
And when it is done we are likely to have lost both Pacifica and KPFA.
It’s about workers’ rights.
It is about workers’ rights, but not the right to organize or have a fair contract. It’s about the right of certain workers, who run the union, some of whom are or were managers, to decide who and what goes on the air, without meddling by ignorant community members.
The “union busting” offense that Pacifica committed was laying off people at the bottom of the seniority ladder, rather than people who raise less money in on-air fund drives. This offense is specifically required by the contract and rearticulated by the union negotiators when the contract was renewed last spring. (Tracy Rosenberg, who participated in the meeting where the two possible sets of layoffs were discussed, outlines the choice in an open letter. [I have some issues with Tracy, who has used her positions as both a KPFA rep to the Pacifica Finance Committee and Executive Director of Media Alliance, to wage political struggles against KPFA board members she has conflicts with. Even so, I found the evidence she presents pretty convincing.])
(Note: Pacifica's ED showed terrible lack of strategic sense in the way that the layoffs were done. I disagree with taking the Morning Show off the air before replacement hosts were lined up. If it's true that she has refused to talk with the union leadership, I condemn that, and I strongly disapprove of hiring Folger & Levin, a union-busting law firm, to defend against a lawsuit rather than trying to work with the union. But that doesn't change what I know to be true.)
It’s about democracy.
It is about democracy. The people who are vocally demanding their jobs back and their allies on the local station board don’t believe in it, at least not for KPFA. They insist that board elections are a waste of money. They have openly said that the only role for the elected community leadership is to raise money so that paid staff can make all the decisions about programming. They disparage unpaid staff – many of whom have been at the station much longer than most of them – and paid programmers they feel are not up to their lofty (white) standards of professionalism. (Larry Bensky famously referred to all of us as “clowns” on Michael Krasny’s Forum two weeks ago.) They disbanded the Program Council, the mechanism for community input into the programming grid, and de-recognized the Unpaid Staff Organization, which was established when unpaid staff were kicked out of the union.
Brian Edwards-Tiekert, the principal spokesperson of this “Save KPFA” movement and one of the laid off hosts, was quoted in a recent article as saying, “Fifteen hours of airtime were dedicated to candidate forums for the local board. We spent more time covering KPFA’s election than Afghanistan’s and Iraq's elections combined.” Fifteen hours a year doesn’t sound like too much democracy to me. If that’s more time than we spent on the Iraq and Afghan elections, that might say something about our coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan, but it doesn’t say anything about the value or lack thereof of KPFA elections.
It’s about diversity.
The union is on the warpath because the hosts of the Morning Show were laid off. The person who has been most vocal, and whose job is the reason that there can be no peace (Brian Edwards-Tiekert again), is a white man. He and the people who support him have used the fact that a number of people of color chose to accept severance packages to make it seem that they are standing up for diversity at the station. In fact, at least some of those people of color left because those same people made them feel unwelcome. That’s not conjecture – one of them told me that personally. He said the show he helped to start, Hard Knock Radio, probably the single most unique show on KPFA, is devalued because they can’t raise much money through on-air promotions. They could raise a lot of money through concerts, but KPFA management (not Pacifica) would never agree to front money for security, venues and fliers for concerts, though they frequently put on speaking events, often taking a loss in order to get a recording they can use for premiums during fund drives. When the “Save KPFA” team goes on and on about how the Morning Show raises more money than anyone else, that’s in part a dig at Hard Knock.
A year and a half ago, the clique that runs the union and the station proposed eliminating Women’s Magazine to make room for a weekly “greatest hits” version of Letters to Washington. They did eliminate an hour of Music of the World for the daily version of Letters. In September, the station managers, who were part of that clique, proposed eliminating Hard Knock Radio and Flashpoints. If that had happened, they would not be picketing or screaming about injustice, despite the fact that the programmers on those shows have much more seniority than the Morning Show staff who were laid off.
The producers of Poor News Network, which airs on the Morning Show once a month, recently wrote in an open letter, “Throughout our tenure on KPFA we have consistently faced internal harassment and a varying amount of disrespect from paid staff on the show, saying we were airing ‘too much Spanish’ and/or our people didn’t speak correctly, even to the point that when we were supposed to produce a second show per month, which Andrea Lewis fought with for, it was vetoed in the end for not being ‘professional enough’.”
It’s about local control.
It is. The people who are protesting and picketing at KPFA feel they would be better off independent of Pacifica and the other four stations. They don’t care if people in Houston and DC lose their Pacifica stations, they don’t care if Free Speech Radio News or even Democracy Now can continue broadcasting, as long as they get to keep the money they raise locally. (FSRN and Democracy Now are funded by Pacifica, out of the money they get from the five member stations and the affiliates. People in the know have said that Democracy Now might be able to survive on syndication fees alone, but FSRN never could. It is a source of news that is not heard anywhere else, and a source of income and training for local journalists all over the Global South.)
If KPFA cannot pay its bills and Pacifica cannot raise the money to bail it out, the entire network goes into bankruptcy. This part is rumor, but I am pretty confident of it: that is what the ruling clique hopes will happen. They are amassing a war chest to buy the station by encouraging people to withhold money from Pacifica and put it in a separate fund instead, as was done in 1999. This idea did not spring up only after the layoffs – many people believe the $375,000 check that was supposedly misplaced by the previous General Manager was intended for this purpose.
But there is no guarantee, and in fact it is unlikely, that that is the way a Pacifica bankruptcy would end up. It would be up to a bankruptcy judge who would not be bound by Pacifica’s mission statement or any other concerns. The chair of Pacifica’s board recently wrote, “The outcome of bankruptcy hearings will not be five progressive stations running their own affairs, but more likely two commercial stations and three new Christian radio channels.”
Of course, they may hope to force Pacifica to sell KPFA to them under threat that otherwise, they will take the whole network down. If they succeed, they will not only be free of the “albatross” of Pacifica’s expense (though they will have to assume a lot of expenses that are now paid by Pacifica including insurance, licensing fees and auditors). They will also be free of those pesky bylaws and the democracy they foist on us. They will be able to do away with the local station board and the Program Council and get all us scruffy unprofessional “clowns” off their airwaves.
In the recent board election, the top vote-getter was Mal Bernstein, of the “Save KPFA” slate. In an on air candidate forum, he stated that the “core shows” on KPFA are the Morning Show, Against the Grain, Letters to Washington, Sunday and the evening News. Notice anything about those shows? Notice what that “core” does not include? If he and his allies win this fight, we can assume that what we will hear is more time devoted to shows like those, and less time to shows like Hard Knock, Voices of the Middle East, La Raza Chronicles, APEX and Full Circle.
A friend recently asked me, “Who is organizing for the real left/people of color at KPFA?” The sad answer is, I fear, no one.
No doubt, the KPFA Tea Party (or should I call them the Tiekert Party?) will dismiss me as exactly the type of conspiracy theorist/snake oil huckster they are trying to banish from our airwaves. You may choose to believe them, but keep this in mind: the other Tea Party also denies that its rise has anything to do with racism.