Save KPFA's Grover Norquist Solution
Today's financial crisis at KPFA-Pacifica has been many years in the making. This essay looks at the downhill slide from 2005 onwards as the network went from being financially sound to cliff-hanging disaster.
by Daniel Borgström
If Grover Norquist had been consulting for the gatekeeper group of paid staff that seems to run things at KPFA, he might've recommended something like: "You should reduce Pacifica Radio down to a size where you can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."
As it turned out, Grover Norquist wasn't needed, at least not in flesh and blood. The members and supporters of the station's power clique did it without him—they "starved the beast." By 2010 KPFA and Pacifica were on the edge of bankruptcy.
The financial crisis didn't start in the fall of 2010, or that summer either. It was the result of years of living beyond the station's means. Warnings were sounded at least as far back as in 2005 when several board members expressed concern that there were too many FTEs. It came up during one of the first board meetings I attended, and I remember asking the person next to me what an FTE was. "A full-time equivalent," I was told, and it was afterwards explained to me that the station was acquiring more paid staff than it could afford in the long run. That was detailed in the Local Station Board's Minority Report of September 17, 2005.
In those days the station was doing reasonably well financially. But, according to several board members, LaVarn Williams, Max Blanchet and Marnie Tattersall (all with solid backgrounds in finance), the cost of so much paid staff was not sustainable. KPFA needed to slow down on the hiring, look ahead, and plan accordingly.
Nevertheless, year after year, the warnings were ignored, dismissed, disregarded. Persons expressing them were disparaged, even yelled at. The unsustainable budgets were promoted by "Save KPFA," the slate of board members who represented the station's power clique.
(That group has used several names over the years, first it was "KPFA Forward," later "Concerned Listeners," and eventually "SaveKPFA." For the sake of simplicity, I'll refer to it by its present name.)
Although SaveKPFA refused to acknowledge publicly what was clearly going to happen, they seem to have been anticipating it and preparing to put the blame on others. An intriguing email from that same month of September 2005 turned up as sort of a one-email Wikileak. It's the email which infamously suggested "dismantling the LSB." An even more foreboding line in that same email read: "How do we make our enemies own the problems that are to come?" The author was Brian Edwards-Tiekert, who appeared to be SaveKPFA's chief strategist.
It wasn't just the bloated budgets at KPFA itself that caused the eventual crisis. There was also Save KPFA's unholy alliance with the JUC, the New York group which was then running WBAI into the ground, generating another financial drain on the Pacifica network. Interestingly, those two groups, SaveKPFA and the JUC, seemed to thoroughly dislike each other. Their alliance appears to have been one of convenience, a mutual non-aggression pact, one of shielding each other from oversight. Mismanagement at both stations bled the network—that was the result. At the time it looked like insanity and opportunism, but looking back on it, I do wonder if some of the players had even more sinister motives for letting that happen.
Several years passed in this irresponsible fashion, but by 2008 the inevitable financial crisis was no longer deniable. Even SaveKPFA's Brian Edwards-Tiekert was expressing concern and called for layoffs throughout the network. These very necessary cutbacks were carried out at the rest of Pacifica's five stations, but not at KPFA, as we were to see.
It was always difficult, often impossible, to get accurate, detailed information from the SaveKPFA dominated management. In 2005, board members LaVarn Williams and Richard Phelps spent over a year fighting for access to financial records of the foundation. They won that battle, but the war went on. In 2008 Dan Siegel illegally stopped an inspection. The power clique did not willingly allow access to information; board members outside the inner circle continued to be denied it.
The station's then manager, Lemlem Rijio, (whose job it was to implement layoffs, and who never did) was also supposed to attend every LSB meeting and give a report, but she seldom did this either. On one of the rare occasions when she did attend, on March 14, 2009, opposition board members plied her with questions about the station's finances, and she answered evasively. When Staff Rep Shahram Aghamir asked, "How much is being spent on the consultants?" the manager at first tried to avoid the question, then said, "I will send you a confidential email." The confidential email never arrived. Actually, there was no reason for such information to have been confidential.
For most of the decade up till 2009, the Pacifica National Board (PNB) was dominated by SaveKPFA and its allies, but in that year they were voted out and the new Executive Director and CFO were chosen from the opposition. SaveKPFA then launched a disinformation campaign against the Pacifica foundation. On August 6, 2009 there was a front page article in the Berkeley Daily Planet accusing Pacifica of improperly taking $100K from KPFA. That news leak came from Brian Edwards-Tiekert, the treasurer. But on investigation it was found that no such "raid" on KPFA's money had occurred. The newspaper printed a retraction the following week, but SaveKPFA continued to spread the story, despite its having been exposed as false. Later, Conn Hallinan, who certainly must have known better, since he was the LSB chair, wrote an email accusing Pacifica of "an old fashioned smash and grab" on KPFA's funds.
That was the beginning of an internal swiftboating campaign against Pacifica, in which SaveKPFA worked to conjure up images of 1999, portraying Pacifica as the bad guy, the oppressor and exploiter of KPFA, the beast which must be starved. It was during the 2010 board election that the group took the name SaveKPFA, stealing it from an opposition group of the early 1990s. Members of the original 1993 Save KPFA group were outraged and objected strenuously. But the new "SaveKPFA" continued to use its ill-gotten name.
At the end of 2009 it was discovered that a $375,000 check had been left in a drawer till it expired. KPFA's then General Manager, Lemlem Rijio, took the fall for that. But it seems highly unlikely that she was the only one who knew about that "forgotten" check.
"How could anyone forget a six-figure check!" KPFA activists asked. Some began connecting dots, wondering if it were intentional—that perhaps the SaveKPFA folks were deliberately working to bankrupt Pacifica in order to somehow acquire KPFA. Till then, the likelihood of SaveKPFA deliberately acting in such a reckless manner had seemed so far-fetched that few openly expressed such suspicions. It seemed to us that if SaveKPFA were not actually planning some such scenario, then it can only be surmised that they were destroying both KPFA and Pacifica out of sheer stupidity.
That was 2010. Fast-forward to 2014: SaveKPFA and its allies are back in charge of KPFA-Pacifica, again pushing the network towards financial extinction. It appears that they intend to dismantle the network by selling off some of the five stations — WBAI, WPFW, and KPFT are the most likely to go — cannibalizing the network and drastically reducing community programming and completing the transformation of KPFA into an NPR-lite station.
updated June 18, 2014
financial graphs & articles
10 Years of KPFA Finances in TABLE FORMAT
and, presented as a GRAPH, the same data:
10 Years of KPFA Finances GRAPH
Why are CWA and the "left" trying to take down KPFA? by Carol Spooner
Minority Report Re KPFA Budget Approved By LSB Sat. Sept.17, 2005
A Few Comments on the Financial Crisis at Pacifica by Max Blanchet, January 10, 2011
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Updates, reports & essays about KPFA & the Pacifica Foundation Radio at
UNITED FOR COMMUNITY RADIO
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.