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