The Pacifica Radio Network has always been a flagship of free speech, inviting listeners to participate in everything from filing to programming to decision-making. But now the executive committee has abandoned democracy in favor of the worst kind of corporate secrecy. Go to the Pacifica web site and click on the link to ‘executive staff and board,” and you will get a message that reads “the requested URL . . . was not found.” They won’t tell you the agenda, and they won’t say who’s calling the shots.
Anti-Pacifica sentiment came to a head late last month, when the network abruptly terminated several employees of its WBAI affiliate in New York and literally began locking listeners out of the station. The WBAI mess is widely blamed on Mary Frances Berry, as was last year’s lockout at the Berkeley affiliate KPFA. Berry, who stepped down as chair of the Pacifica national board last October, left behind a despicable legacy: She has run the radicals out of the network and brought in the sycophants.
To be sure, Berry appointed several African Americans to the Pacifica board in the past year. But instead of choosing liberal scholars or activists or community radio professionals, Berry went “straight to corporate America,” says Dan Coughlin, who was pushed down from national news director to WBAI producer and has recently resigned. On the current board, he says, “You’re getting businessmen, privatizers, and anti-union lawyers, and the political and economic context that they come from is completely the antithesis of what Pacifica has stood for for 50 years.”
Ideological reversals. A new top-down style of corporate management. Board meetings behind closed doors. No wonder Pacifica lovers are in open revolt. Either the new management has no idea what they’re doing—or they’re a very cynical bunch. The network, which includes stations in Washington, D.C., Houston, and Los Angeles as well as Berkeley and New York, has been called “cash-poor but asset-rich.” That is, its stations generate less than $10 million in annual revenues, but the broadcast licenses are worth an estimated $500 million, with New York and Berkeley worth the most. Could the fog surrounding Pacifica be a strategy designed to cover up a takeover?
In September, national board members Robert Robinson and Rabbi Aaron Kriegel filed suit against the national board, demanding that the executive committee be removed altogether. They contend that Berry didn’t know what she was getting into, and left behind a board packed with cronies and yes-men who have done little to improve the network.
“We have to stop what’s happening, because Pacifica is being dismantled one station and one program at a time,” says Robinson, a member of Pacifica’s local board in D.C. “As you descend into chaos and conflict, you run the risk that somebody is going to introduce a measure and totally effect a corporate takeover. Then Pacifica will no longer be in charge of its own assets—and those licenses are going somewhere else altogether.”
Robinson is particularly incensed by the lack of accountability on the part of Pacifica’s executive committee. For example, he says, they are either too “lazy” or “incompetent” to keep minutes of meetings, and they put people on the governing board “totally without scrutiny.” He says Berry put together a claque who “will vote for whatever leadership suggests,” adding that some of them were elected by the national board on a conference call without a review of their résumés.
The managers who are calling the shots are mostly in Houston and D.C., the stations that have posted the most recent growth. Last January, the Pacifica Foundation moved its headquarters from Berkeley to Washington. At the end of February, Berry handed off her job to David Acosta, a Houston accountant who once casually proposed the sale of KPFA. At the same time, Pacifica executive director Lynn Chadwick was succeeded by Bessie Wash, a loyal station manager at WPFW in D.C.
Last October, Berry stepped down. She continues to run the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and to act as a Pacifica consultant. While she was succeeded at Pacifica by Acosta, her real mouthpiece is John Murdock, a health care litigator in the D.C. office of Epstein, Becker & Green, a firm that prides itself on union busting, among other things (www.ebglaw.com). Says Robinson, “It became clear as soon as Murdock came on that Berry had hired him as her personal legal representative.”
As chair of the board governance committee, Murdock has been wielding his power, nominating new board members and quietly rewriting the bylaws. He is said to be a friend of Berry, “very vocal” and “willing to do her bidding.” Some say it’s a conflict of interest for one of Murdock’s partners at Epstein, Becker to be defending Pacifica in pending litigation in which Murdock is a named defendant, but the firm denies any conflict.
Ken Ford is vice chair of the Pacifica Foundation and a program manager at the National Association of Home Builders, a D.C. group that champions deregulation over the rights of the disabled and the environment (www.nahb.com). Pacifica treasurer Micheal Palmer is a vice president at C.B. Richard Ellis, a booming real estate brokerage with offices in Houston, where Palmer is based, and in 44 countries including Mexico (www.cbrichardellis.com).
Acosta, Ford, and Palmer are the titular heads of an inner circle that tends to agree on every vote. The block includes longtime board members Frank Millspaugh and Andrea Cisco of New York, and Robert Farrell of L.A. Then there are newcomers Karolyn van Putten and Valerie Chambers, who were recruited by friends on the board. Two surprise names were added last February: Murdock and Bertram Lee, a D.C. minority entrepreneur (and business partner of the late Ron Brown) who was instrumental in buyouts of a CBS-TV affiliate in Boston, the Denver Nuggets, and WKYS in D.C.
The national board also includes the so-called dissidents: Leslie Cagan, Beth Lyons, Pete Bramson, and Tomas Moran. The dissidents who sued, Rob Robinson and Rabbi Aaron Kriegel, have been asked to leave and were recently excluded from conference calls. In September, Murdock proposed two more board members. One is Francesco Rocciolo, a Citibank vice president who advises rich Italians on their investments; the other is Luis Wilmot, a telecom lobbyist in Texas. Professionals? Yes. But Mumia supporters? Not likely.
No doubt still more strangers will crash the party when the board meets in Houston at the beginning of March. But Robinson warns that if Murdock and company continue their efforts “to throw the dissidents off the board and destabilize station operations, we’ll use every resource we have to stop them.”
Murdock, Ford, and a publicist for the Pacifica Foundation did not respond to calls for comment on Friday.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 16, 2001