Free Speech for Sale?

At 6 p.m. on July 13, all hell broke loose at KPFA, the progressive radio station in Berkeley, California. Dennis Bernstein had just finished broadcasting Flashpoints, his public affairs show, and news director Mark Mericle was in the announcer's booth, reading the intro to a story on patients' rights that was cued up on a tape machine in the adjacent control room.

"I look up and I see Dennis Bernstein being pursued by four or five armed guards," Mericle recalls. "The guards are big, beefy guys and they're using their professional weight to push Dennis into the corner. They push him onto the tape machine, so that my lead story is knocked off the air."

Mericle shoved his way through the guards to restore the tape, but it was knocked off twice more, at which point, he says, "The only thing I can think of doing is going back to the announce room on mike and telling listeners what is occurring." Meanwhile, an engineer turned on a mike in the control room, so listeners across the Bay Area could hear the guards hustling Bernstein out while Mericle narrated the live action.

"Those are my personal papers!" Bernstein could be heard saying. "Don't go into my desk!"

Also present was Garland Ganter, a management employee of the Pacifica Foundation, which owns KPFA, WBAI in New York, and three other radio stations nationwide. When Ganter realized the tussle was being broadcast, Mericle says, "He goes to the first floor and throws a switch and takes the newscast off the air and begins playing tapes." But some listeners were already driving to the station, and before the night was out, four KPFA employees and 49 others had been arrested for trespassing, when they refused orders to leave the station.

The next day, employees arrived to find the station closed, its windows boarded up and the front doors chained shut. Later that day, as hundreds of protesters converged on the spot, the Berkeley police department sent a riot squad to protect the station. The foundation suspended all KPFA employees, and across the country left-wing activists began sounding the First Amendment alarms.

So what's going on? Is the lockout, as KPFA defenders see it, an attack on the free-speech principles on which the station was founded 50 years ago? Is it, as Pacifica claims, merely an employment dispute that involves staffers' defiance of a policy that forbids them to discuss internal matters on the air? Or could the free speech issue be just a red herring, introduced by Pacifica board members to divert attention while they carry out a secret agenda, which involves selling off either KPFA or WBAI, the most powerful transmitters in the five-station network?

Conspiracy or not, Pacifica seems to have resorted to overkill as it tries to meet the challenge of running a public broadcasting network in an age when government funding is scarce. At the core of the controversy is Dr. Mary Frances Berry, an African American who was appointed to head the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights by Bill Clinton in 1993. In 1997, she became chair of the Pacifica national board, which controls broadcast licenses for five FM radio stations: KPFA, WBAI, WPFW in Washington, D.C., KPFT in Houston, and KPFK in Los Angeles. The foundation's assets are estimated at $200 million.

Over the last 50 years, the governing model of the foundation has shifted from worker-driven anarchy to democracy to the top-down style of a private corporation. Some of the changes preceded Berry, such as the foundation's gradual increase of its tax on local stations from 5 percent to a whopping 17.5 percent. But the most extreme changes can be laid at Berry's feet. For example, last February, the national board gave itself sole power to elect new members. Whereas before, members of the local stations' advisory boards could sit on the national board and elect half the board members, the stations are now completely excluded from the foundation's decision-making process.

The next power play involved the dismissal of KPFA general manager Nicole Sawaya on March 31. Sawaya was popular with staff, but less so with management, of whom she was an outspoken critic. Without consulting the staff, which has traditionally had a say in the selection of station managers, Pacifica executive director Lynn Chadwick appointed herself interim manager and promptly sent a memo to the KPFA news department forbidding them to report on Sawaya's termination. Gunshots were fired into Pacifica offices that night, an investigation of which is pending.

Before long, two more KPFA programmers violated the gag rule: Larry Bensky, who was fired April 9, and Robbie Osman, who was fired June 18. On June 21, protesters gathered outside Chadwick's office, demanding the reinstatement of Sawaya, Bensky, and Osman. Although the protesters were peaceful, Chadwick exhorted the police to have 15 of them arrested.  

Two days later, KPFA's Aileen Alfandary reported that Berry used her contacts in the Justice Department to find out how the Berkeley police were handling the June 21 protesters. According to KPFA, Berry called associate attorney general Ray Fisher, who called Joe Brann, a Justice official who runs a program that helps fund local police departments. Brann then called Berkeley police chief Dash Butler to ask about the KPFA protesters. (Justice Department spokesman Dan Pfeiffer confirms the chain of calls but insists Brann and Butler were longtime acquaintances having an informal chat.)

Toward the end of June, a KPFA steering committee was formed to deal with the crisis. The Communications Workers of America, the union that represents KPFA staffers, asked Pacifica to involve the steering committee in any negotiations. Berry's response: bring in the security guards. On July 12, she called an invitation-only press conference, at which she repeated her charge that the problem with KPFA is the aging white men who make up most of its listeners. KPFA defenders call this nonsense; indeed, since Berry began branding KPFA racist, she has received letters from dozens of people of color, including Angela Davis and Alice Walker, who beg to differ. (To be sure, management has some legitimate concerns: with its 59,000-watt channel, KPFA could reach an audience of 6.5 million; its current listenership is about 200,000.)

The fuse finally blew on July 13. That day, Chadwick called a meeting, repeating her intention to enforce the gag rule. Around the same time, KPFA supporters began to publicize an e-mail from Micheal Palmer, the interim treasurer of the Pacifica national board, in which he advocated the sale of KPFA or WBAI. That afternoon, Dennis Bernstein ran a KPFA update on his public affairs show, which gave Pacifica the excuse to throw him out and take over the airwaves.

What happens next? By the end of last week, representatives of the local boards had sued Pacifica, and 15 California legislators were calling for a Pacifica audit by the state. Having spent $80,000 to police KPFA, the city of Berkeley was pressuring Pacifica and the union to settle the dispute, while the parties bickered over the choice of a mediator.

On July 16, as Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting called on Berry and Chadwick to resign, KPFA defenders pointed out that Pacifica has not exactly demonstrated good faith in the bargaining process. In the words of one Pacifica critic, "The analogy is, 'I have a gun to your head, would you like to mediate?' "

The KPFA situation has received little national press, despite a plethora of on-the-record sources, many of whom contributed generously to this article. But Matthew Lasar, author of Pacifica Radio (Temple University Press, 1999), notes that the media coverage in the Bay Area has been very sympathetic.

"The closer you get and the more you know what a wonderful and unique thing KPFA is," says Lasar, "the more you understand what a tragedy this will be if the Pacifica Foundation just wipes it off the slate of history."

Pacifica chair Mary Berry and spokeswoman Elan Fabbri did not return calls for comment. On July 19, the parties agreed to a federal mediator and Fabbri issued a statement attributing the disruption in broadcasting to "an unauthorized takeover of the air by some members of KPFA's staff."


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