The Patronage Culture at KPFA

. . . . they seem to be willing to play chicken with the fate of the entire Pacifica network
by Curt Gray

I am writing as a long time union member as well as a long time Berkeley resident. I am a member of local 510 Sign and Display, a union of workers who set up and dismantle tradeshows at the convention centers. I have been my union's past representative to the Alameda Central Labor Council.

I also speak as someone with long experience in local radio, and with a much varied experience in and around KPFA over several years. I was a volunteer programmer at KALX here in Berkeley for 15 years, creating different types of programming, as well as doing multiple other tasks that help keep a station running. I have been involved with KPFA as a listener activist since 1993, and was instrumental in the struggle that gave subscribers and staff membership rights in Pacifica, with voting and representation on a real local station board, where formerly there had been only a self-appointed advisory board.

I helped write the first election rules that allowed subscribers and staff to elect KPFA's local board for the first time. I was elected to and served on the local station board, and had a hand in changing the Pacifica bylaws to give the grassroots programmers and supporters of the 5 Pacifica stations rights as members of the Foundation. I organized a Labor Programming Collective within KPFA to try to expand Labor programming and get more labor activists involved in creating pro-labor programming.

What I am here to say is that the charge of 'unionbusting' is a smoke screen, a PR sales job. Nor is this a repeat of the events of 1999, another misrepresentation. Pacifica is not responsible for taking the Morning Show off the air, the removal of the Morning Show is being played as a pawn in an internal corporate campaign and coordinated job action that is a calculated violation of the union contract. Who is doing this and why?

For decades KPFA has been effectively owned and run by a culture of patronage and exclusivity that has resisted any 'outside' oversight. The patronage has to do with who gets or keeps a show, who gets a job, and who has easy access to the air. A particular clique of people both inside the station as well as influential people in the community benefit from and support and protect this patronage culture. The 'insider' clique that control the division of the spoils extends beyond the union membership, and puts it aims and interests above those 'outside' the clique, including union members. This 'ownership' clique that includes some but not all of the paid staff, some but not all of the unpaid staff, as well as well placed and influential supporters in the community, has had a disproportionate and unhealthy power over KPFA, and has viewed any other organizational form of authority within the station, including the elected station board, the station manager, the foundation board, the executive director, the Program Council, the unpaid staff organization, etc. as a threat that must be outmaneuvered or neutralized unless they are clearly in the back pocket of the clique.

When the Pacifica stations, including KPFA, made the subscribers and workers members of the foundation and started letting these broad constituencies elect station boards with powers of oversight for their stations there was resistance from the start, especially at KPFA. The new, elected station boards were no longer just advisory, but are real station boards, approving the station budget, evaluating and helping to select the station General Manager and Programming Director, and provide community input into station policy. It was inevitable that there would be conflict with the pre-existing patronage culture that had formally ruled the station for so long with only a self-selected advisory body with no real power but to act as a rubberstamp.

This is the real context of the current teapot rebellion of the Morning Show. The clique-that-calls-itself-KPFA is sick of dealing with elections and all the other reforms that came out of the struggles in the years after 1999. When you give people membership rights and elections that leads naturally to a change where subscribers and unpaid programmers on the station board start demanding accountability, transparency, and more community participation. And such basic progressive demands are a fatal threat to even the strongest patronage culture.

Using their control of the air and the good will of the majority of listeners who know nothing of the goings-on behind the scenes, the patronage protectors have managed to maintain a majority on the station board most years since the board became elected. So even after elections started they have kept control of the station, keeping the board from performing its oversight function, forcing out managers that were too independent and handpicking their own to run the station so as to not interfere with their prerogatives.

For the first forty years of its existence KPFA had very few paid staff. This began to change in the Eighties and the Nineties. In 1995 the unaccountable clique that was running Pacifica purged hundreds of unpaid programmers from several stations, and started a switch from a community based programming philosophy to a more, professional public radio style format that depended on many more paid programmers. Paid staff grew while the number of community members involved in creating programming was cut by half. The union that had represented both the paid and unpaid workers was dropped, the majority of paid staff voted to go with CWA, and the unpaid staff lost the representation and recognition they had had for decades. The patronage culture thought what Pacifica was doing was good for them and they were on-board as KPFA left its grassroots behind and grasped for the brass ring of public radio style careerism. Until the tables turned and Pacifica turned on them and kicked them to the curb just like the unpaid and the grassroots activists before them. It was only when members of the clique's charmed circle were losing their jobs that the clique sounded the alarm and that led to the lock-out and the events of the Summer of 1999.

To win the battle with the unaccountable Pacifica board in 1999 the Powers-That-Be at KPFA needed the community activists and unpaid staff on their side. And what the community wanted was democratic reform and membership status so that no unaccountable group could ever steal KPFA away from the community again. After a long struggle the Bad Old Pacifica board was defeated, and the bylaws were changed to give the stakeholders who supported KPFA a voice in the station. But the patronage clique saw the new reforms as just another enemy, and started fighting the reforms from day one.

After the struggle to save Pacifica and reform it, the number of paid staff started climbing again, as it had before the lock-out. The Powers-That-Be at KPFA managed to keep a majority on the local station board and the Pacifica board. The patronage culture kept swelling the number of paid staff, but the Afghan and Iraq wars kept the subscriber support up for a few years. As the peace movement started to lose traction, and more folks started getting their information from other sources on the internet, subscriber support started falling. But staffing numbers kept trending upward. In the last two years many public stations have had to cut their staffs, the other Pacifica stations have cut their staffs, and the Pacifica foundation has cut its staff. The patronage clique at KPFA has blocked mandated cuts, burned through the station reserves, and tried to encourage Pacifica to lay-off some less favored union members out of seniority order.

Now they seem to be willing to play chicken with the fate of the entire Pacifica network to draw a line in the sand about who 'owns' KPFA. This confrontation over the Morning Show has been cleverly orchestrated. They knew what they were doing when they burned through the reserve and placed two people with the lowest seniority in one of the most popular shows. They are being reckless, and putting their own interests above the whole community that depends on KPFA. The tail is wagging the dog, the clique has too much influence over KPFA and over the CWA local. It has fed the whole community, including the labor community, a false, self-serving line of BS, calling it 'unionbusting' The KPFA union contract calls for no job actions. By using so much time on the air to plead for their personal jobs, they were not doing their job of providing programming. They forced the hand of Pacifica with their on-air job actions. And they have used the union to keep the show off the air, by mandating that no union member would accept transfer to work on the program to get it back on the air. So Pacifica did not take the Morning Show off the air, the patronage clique did, using the union in violation of its own contract.

Don't drink the Kool-Aid, don't fall for the con. There are KPFA workers, both union and unpaid, who are against what the clique is doing but are afraid to speak up. They are endangering both the whole Pacifica network, and KPFA itself to protect a level of staffing that the station can not support. I don't know why these people are dragging KPFA to the brink of bankruptcy for their own narrow self-interest, but I ask, as a Berkeley resident and union member that the Labor commission and the City Council not let themselves be fooled by this false campaign.

December 1, 2010

Staying friends with the Crocodile by Curt Gray

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was a founding member of the original 1993 Save KPFA which fought for listener democracy at KPFA/Pacifica. The name "Save KPFA" was recently appropriated by a very different group, the "Concerned Listeners" (CL'ers), who represent the patronage clique.

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financial data

10 Years of KPFA Finances in TABLE FORMAT

and, presented as a GRAPH, the same data:
10 Years of KPFA Finances GRAPH

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KPFA 94.1 FM is one of five stations of the Pacifica radio network which are located in major cities across the country. The other stations are WBAI 99.5 in New York, WPFW 89.3 in Washington DC, KPFT 90.1 in Houston, and KPFK 90.7 in Los Angeles. There are also about 160 affiliate stations.

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