Stealing Save KPFA

Stealing Save KPFA; erasing history

by Jeffrey Blankfort, Maria Gilardin, Curt Gray, Marianne Torres, & Sasha Futran
September 21, 2010

I have learned that a group that had formerly called itself the Concerned Listeners, a faction in the community that are partisan supporters of the status quo controlling clique that runs KPFA and which oppose accountability and participation of 'outsiders' in the station, is now calling itself Save KPFA. The choice of this name is an ahistoric action that speaks of an arrogant sense of entitlement, and a lack of knowledge or interest in how KPFA has developed and changed through its history as a ground-breaking community radio station.

The sad irony is that the original Save KPFA advanced ideals and goals that were and are in moral opposition to what this current group seems to be supporting. The original Save KPFA championed democracy, transparency, community participation, and accountability for KPFA, as a vital and irreplaceable resource of the Northern California progressive community. The real, original Save KPFA came out of large public meetings held at the Ashkenaz Folk Dance and Music Hall on Berkeley's San Pablo Ave. The meetings were called by a group of listeners and unpaid KPFA programmers in response to station management's unilateral actions to cancel a swath of community volunteer produced programming without notice or discussion. In the Winter of early 1993 there were meetings attended by more than 200 people, both listeners and programmers, and all expressed growing concerns about the direction that KPFA was headed and a fear that the community that both supported and depended on KPFA was being pushed aside.

Those early meetings of hundreds of listeners and activists and a scattering of staff led to more than a year of intense organizing and a harsh education on the widening distance between what supporters of KPFA believed Pacifica was, and the reality behind the image. It was the first time that many had a chance to tell and share with the larger community their knowledge of what was happening behind the scenes, information that was kept off the air and out of the printed program guide, the Folio. Coming together in these early meetings, gaining knowledge by sharing information, developing a more sophisticated understanding of who and what was shaping changes in the radio station that they had supported and relied on for so long, this was one of the beginnings of a nation-wide Free Pacifica movement.

At these town hall style meetings on those rainy Winter nights in the darkened nightclub we learned for the first time about Pacifica's Strategy for National Programming document, that over time called for more and more local volunteer produced programming to be replaced by national programming produced by radio professionals. It also called for Pacifica to go after big money grants to fund all this programming, with a stated aim to become 'partners and players' with the largest corporate foundations such as Pew, Ford, Carnegie and Reader Digest Foundations.

There were plans for a national morning show and a national over-night call-in talk show with big name celebrity hosts. We recognized that this abandonment of local and volunteer produced programming as a fundamental turning away from what makes community radio what it is supposed to be. We called it what it was, NPR-ization of community radio. These plans were moving forward with little or no knowledge or input from listeners or the average programmer.

For the first time in a long time a group of listeners were learning how KPFA really worked. We learned that there was a Program Council that consisted of programming dept. heads that met every week at the station. We learned that there was a local station advisory board that met quietly at the station every month, which should have been a venue for community input, if listeners had been encouraged to attend or even knew it existed. The local board was self-selected and had the power to seat their members on the Pacifica National Board, the real holder of KPFA's license that only met 3 or 4 times a year in different parts of the country. Pacifica was and is a network with 4 other stations that also shares programming with many other affiliate community stations. A lot of the real power to decide the direction of the network seemed to be in the hands of the Foundation's Executive Committee, and smaller power cliques within each station. There was no mechanism for any accountability to the people at the grassroots, the volunteer programmers and the subscribers and listeners.

At the core the station supporters in the public meetings at Ashkenaz loved KPFA and were fighting to defend it, especially its most progressive programming. But they started to realize that their interest and concerns were viewed somehow as a threat by an insular insider culture within the station's management, staff, and local and National boards. Out of the larger town hall style meetings KPFA's new listener activists started to coalesce into the form of the organization named Save KPFA with a smaller, dedicated steering committee. Attempts were made to communicate, to share concerns, to work together with the other stakeholder groups, management, paid and un-paid staff, the station and foundation boards, to both protect and improve KPFA. These attempts were met with a disturbing mix of fear, suspicion, contempt, and disdain so frequently that the impression was communicated very clearly that only compliments were allowed and that any mere listener with a critical opinion was viewed as an enemy of the station as a whole. Not for the last time the listener activists had come together to defend programmers' rights, but programmers did not return that solidarity by supporting the concerns of listeners.

A listener who politely tried to attend a Program Council meeting to suggest ways to use the station's airwaves to educate listeners about internal station issues, as well as about larger media issues involving the FCC and the CPB, and was suggesting that perhaps the Program Council might benefit from having listener representatives attend, observe, and contribute to station programming decisions was angrily shouted out of the meeting, because " listeners do not belong at Program Council meetings". When members of the new listener group Save KPFA, started attending local and National board meetings the members of these boards seemed disturbed to have actual listeners in the audience at their meetings. Any discussion of the issues raised at the listener meetings was mostly suppressed on station call-in shows and the letter section of the printed program guide, the Folio, making it difficult to include the larger listener community in the discussion.

Through 1993 KPFA's new listener activist movement moved from town hall meetings to taking action. The show of listener concerns at the first noisy public meetings at the Ashkenaz dance club resulted in the threatened programming changes being temporarily withdrawn, and KPFA's verbally abusive and divisive station manager Pat Scott was kicked upstairs within Pacifica. She was replaced by her assistant, and within months the iron-fisted Scott would become Pacifica's next Executive Director. As the group recognized that the powers-that-be within Pacifica were not interested in allowing open discussion or debate of the listening community activists' issues to reach the larger KPFA audience via any free exchange of views on the air or in the program guide, other ideas for getting the word out were tried.

Some Save KPFA activists tabled at progressive events, creating surveys to try to get feedback from KPFA listeners. Some started to set up pirate stations, to create an alternative way to get information out. Listener activists tried to call-in on KPFA shows and wrote letters to the local press about the issues within the station. And we started a mailing list to disseminate hidden information to interested listeners through newsletters. We invited representatives of KPFA management and the station board to attend and address our meetings. There was little interest at the station to acknowledged Save KPFA or the community concerns it represented. In fact, a narrative quickly took hold that alternately trivialized the station's critics as out-of-touch-60s-leftovers, or demonized them as violent and out-of-control.

Save KPFA decided that if KPFA would not allow dialog on the air or in the pages of the Folio that the listener activists would buy an ad in the program guide to address the whole KPFA community, inside and outside the station. One of the activists was moved enough to donate the cost of the advertisement from his inheritance from his recently deceased mother. We filed a fictitious name application, opened a bank account and got a P.O box. The Folio editor assured us that our ad would be accepted. So Save KPFA met and worked on statements to outline our group's concerns, positions, proposals. The group collaborated on statements that called for elected station boards and on-air discussion of internal station issues, for the station to depend on its listeners for its funding, not foundations, to stay a voice for dissent that was not afraid to be critical of the powerful. And to keep the station close to the grassroots community of programmers and listeners who had supported it for decades.

Yet, when we submitted the advertisement and the money, suddenly the station refused the ad without explanation. Immediately Save KPFA created a flier featuring the text of our ad and asking why the station was censoring our Free Speech and distributed it that night at a large public event sponsored by the station. Station management then reversed themselves again, saying that they would not allow us to run the advert as we had designed it, but we could publish it as an 'Open Letter' if we modified and edited it to fit into the space they allowed us in the Folio.

In our 'Open Letter', Save KPFA called for local station boards to be elected by subscribers and staff, and for a regular, listener-run call-in show dedicated to discussing internal KPFA and Pacifica matters. This pressure from Save KPFA caused station management and the local advisory board to very tentatively allow an election among subscribers for a small minority of seats on the advisory board.

Even so, the people controlling KPFA and Pacifica acted out their internalized conflict between the hollow on-air rhetoric promoting democratic empowerment for everyone else in the world, and the need to protect their effective total internal dominance of the station. First management announces the election in the program guide, but no discussion or candidate forums on the air, then they announce that the election is canceled for lack of candidates, even after a handful of listeners submit candidate statements. Then they change their minds, but now the voting period was during the on-air fundraiser, and their policy was to not mention the election while pitching for donations on the air. In the last week to send in the ballots an unenthusiastic recorded message is aired reminding listeners of the advisory board vote. On one morning a paid staff member is reported to shout at a volunteer programmer in the control room, "don't play that when my audience can hear it, we don't want any of those idiots elected to the board." The seeming attempt to stifle the election goes from bad to worse, the actual ballot is the thin newsprint of the back page of the program guide, which the listeners must cut out with scissors, mark their votes, fold and tape the ballot together, and send through the mail. Many of the returned ballots were destroyed, torn to tatters by the Post Office sorting machinery, arriving in the station mailbox in little plastic body bags supplied by the Postal Service.

KPFA has so little respect for the election that ballots are collected in an open unsealed mail cubby where they spill out onto the floor like so much trash near the front door. When the time comes to count the votes, ballots are found scattered underfoot down the hall, blown by a draft from the street. None of the candidates or any representatives are allowed to watch the count. It is announced that not enough votes were cast for the election to be valid. The votes are not counted, and where the ballots wind-up is a mystery. Mention is made that some voters had written comments on their ballots, but the ballots disappear without being further examined. In an announcement in the next Folio, the listeners are told that there were not enough votes, but that the advisory board might seat some of the candidates on the board anyway. But that was not a true intention, and none of the election candidates were ever spoken to about sitting on the advisory board, even though they continued to attend the monthly meetings as members of the audience.

In the same period, the station staff had been demanding elections for the staff's own representatives to have a couple of seats on the station advisory board. The station staff voted and elected Maria Gilardin, an un-paid staff member who was a leader of Save KPFA and one of the few staff critics of Pacifica's leadership and policies to be one of the first station staff representatives on the board. But before Maria could take the seat she had been elected to fill, she was banned from all Pacifica properties without any appeal on trumped up charges of inciting violence at a Pacifica National Board meeting in Los Angeles. The KPFA station staff seemed to meekly accept the effective gutting of their vote by the Pacifica board without protest.

These and other events are the legacy of Save KPFA in the year of 1993 at the beginning of the long struggle to democratically reform Pacifica and try to bring some accountability to KPFA and the network. It is the foundation of what became a movement and where many hard facts about the reality of Pacifica were learned. SAVE KPFA IS PART OF PACIFICA'S HISTORY, AND THAT HISTORY STILL MATTERS NOW. It is a history that is preserved in Mathew Lasar's book about the Pacifica struggle, Uneasy Listening, and on websites and e-mail lists.

In 1995 Pacifica moved ahead with its plans to transform itself into a professional media organization by purging hundreds of volunteer programmers from the Pacifica stations, some of whom had donated their time and work to build the network for decades, before being tossed aside as Pacifica tried to become more respectable. In response to the mass purge of programmers the leadership of Save KPFA started a new organization, Take Back KPFA! TBK! carried on the struggle to reform Pacifica and KPFA for the next few years as similar organizations sprang into being at the other Pacifica stations, and a truly national movement evolved. Take Back KPFA! has its own history and accomplishments, and the struggle to reform KPFA and Pacifica continued to be difficult. And just as Save KPFA from 1993 led to Take Back KPFA! in 1995, when events started to build in 1999 towards Pacifica's corporate take-over and the KPFA lock-out, members of Take Back KPFA! helped form a new organization with its goal right in its name, the Coalition for a democratic Pacifica. The CDP was and has been a frontline organization in bringing about the elections for the KPFA Local Advisory Board, and pushing through the new reform bylaws for Pacifica that made subscribers and staff members of the Pacifica Foundation who elect station boards with oversight powers.

This history is too important to be allowed to be forgotten or erased. It is a story of a long exhausting struggle for needed progressive reform in the face of every kind of underhandedness, mean-spiritedness, hypocrisy and deceit. The long fight for elections within Pacifica was finally won, but the same internal struggle for control of the stations and what sort of stations they will be continues. The difference is now those conflicts are out in the open light of day, because elections necessarily lead to more openness. And most unfortunately, there are still those in and around KPFA who hate that openness, and want to keep 'the audience' at arm's length.

Clearly, not only is this history at risk of being erased, but the democratic reforms themselves are under attack. The same culture within the station that feared listener activism and opposed any accountability or oversight has continued to try to undermine the new democratic structures. The status quo faction works to protect the station's patronage culture by using their power within the station to recruit and elect slates of candidates that work to keep the democratic structures from functioning as they were meant to. For the last few years, the anti-reform slate has called itself the KPFA Concerned Listeners, now, in order to confuse and to hide from its own record of voting to block accountability, it has taken the name of Save KPFA.

We, members of the original Save KPFA's steering committee strongly object to the use of our name. We have not endorsed this election slate, nor were we asked. We believe that the use of our name dilutes its historic meaning, and is likely to confuse some voters, who may believe this slate stands for the same things we did. We demand that this election slate stop using our name, or at least take steps to let any voters they have contacted know that it is separate group and not endorsed by us. We ask Pacifica also to take reasonable steps to make clear to subscribers that this election slate is a separate entity, and not related to us or our positions in any way, and certainly not endorsed by us.

Jeffrey Blankfort
Maria Gilardin
Curt Gray
Marianne Torres
Sasha Futran


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