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Shadow Falling on beacon of Independent Radio


This summer begins with a large shadow hanging over one of the nation’s

pioneering radio stations. Half a century after listener-supported KPFA took

to the airwaves in the San Francisco area as a unique experiment in media

independence, the battle raging over its future is ominous — yet inspiring.

KPFA Radio provides an eclectic mix of progressive political news and views

along with an array of cultural offerings. At a time when "public

radio" routinely means a mish-mash of cautious mainstream programming,

the station is an enduring symbol of feisty community radio. That’s why you

should care about KPFA’s fate, even if you’ve never been within earshot of its

transmitter.

The owner of KPFA is the Pacifica Foundation, which also possesses

noncommercial FM stations in four other cities (Los Angeles, Houston, New York

and Washington). The foundation’s governing board has gradually consolidated

power during this decade. The board fills its own vacancies. While demanding

accountability from staff and volunteers, the members of the board are

accountable to no one but themselves.

In late March, a crisis exploded at KPFA when Pacifica abruptly fired

station manager Nicole Sawaya, a leader who had unified the station’s diverse

staff and volunteers. Immediately after the firing, Pacifica’s executive

director Lynn Chadwick tried to prevent the station’s news department from

reporting that it had occurred.

Chadwick wrote a three-sentence memo to KPFA’s news staff. "I am

directing you not to air a story about Nicole’s termination," the memo

said. "This is not a news story. Airing this story would be a violation

of Pacifica policy."

The memo was preposterous — and deeply contemptuous of the most basic

precepts of journalism. The attempt by the Pacifica Foundation’s executive

director to suppress the story was unprecedented. During nearly two full

decades of working at the station, Mark Mericle, co-director of the KPFA news

department, had never seen anything like it. "In 18 years," he

recalls, "no one ever ordered us not to cover anything."

KPFA’s news staff faced a dilemma. The firing of the popular station

manager — an action with far-reaching implications for listeners — was

clearly newsworthy. But the network’s most powerful executive had ordered that

the story not be covered. What to do? Play it safe or adhere to journalistic

principle?

The news staff chose principle, reporting the story in full on the

station’s widely heard evening newscast. Later in the spring, coverage

continued as Pacifica’s top officials reached new heights of arrogance.

Answerable only to the Pacifica board, Chadwick claimed that she was merely

trying to enforce a network policy against airing internal matters. But

management’s selective enforcement of the nebulous gag rule had a transparent

purpose — self-serving censorship.

When news spread to the airwaves of other Pacifica-owned stations,

management lashed out in retaliation. On April 4, a 30-year veteran of

Pacifica’s airwaves — journalist Larry Bensky — spoke out while hosting his

live national program "Sunday Salon." Chadwick reacted by firing

him.

The sad story could have ended there, with KPFA employees opting for

silence and the network’s management tightening its grip. Instead, a wonderful

thing happened: Staffers and volunteers kept speaking up, eloquently and

emphatically, on the air.

Listeners responded with a torrent of faxes, e-mails and phone calls

backing Sawaya, Bensky, and the beleaguered staff and volunteers. Hundreds of

people repeatedly gathered outside the KPFA building in Berkeley to rally in

support. Local civic groups and labor unions passed resolutions in solidarity.

Pacifica’s next move came on June 8, in the form of a memo from Chadwick to

"all KPFA staff and volunteers." The memo warned: "Pacifica

expects all KPFA employees and volunteers to refrain from discussing or

raising Pacifica management decisions on any Pacifica or KPFA broadcast."

In effect, Chadwick threatened mass firings if people didn’t hold their

tongues in front of station microphones about the most serious threat to the

station’s integrity in its 50-year history. "Any future violation of

Pacifica policy and this directive may result in disciplinary action, up to

and including termination," she declared. "We do not want to take

this step, but will if necessary."

The ongoing crisis at KPFA and protracted conflicts with unionized workers

at other Pacifica-owned stations indicate that managers in Pacifica’s upper

echelons are imitating the arrogance found in executive suites of commercial

networks.

Yet all is not lost. To hear brave souls behind KPFA microphones — risking

their jobs and future access to the airwaves on behalf of free-speech

principles — it is possible to hope that integrity can prevail in today’s

media world.

___________________________

Norman Solomon’s latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive

Media."

 

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