Robbie Osman, July 2004
Old issues that have not gone away
After the overt hijacking of 1999 was thwarted, the battle for democracy continued at KPFA. Here's an analysis of the first couple years by Robbie Osman. This letter was co-signed by 35 KPFA staff members in 2004. That was eleven years ago, but these issues have not gone away.
from Robbie Osman
Host of Across the Great Divide
Dear Fellow KPFA Staffers,
An article in the Berkeley Daily Planet tells readers that KPFA is again in crisis. And a widely circulated letter signed by a group of KPFA staffers likens the crisis to that of "the terrible years surrounding the KPFA lockout and shutdown of 1999." Such news will be greeted with dismay and frustration by KPFA's many friends. The station and the network have only recently emerged from that harrowing and exhausting fight for their lives and listeners who rose to the station's defense and to the defense of its mission with immense energy and who stood by KPFA throughout that long and difficult struggle will certainly not welcome the prospect of another.
It is important that listeners and staff members learn what is happening at KPFA and it's important that they have a chance to carefully consider what recent events may mean for the station's future. But by evoking the specter of 'the devastating forces of the previous Pacifica National management' the staff faction's letter misrepresents the nature and origin of the differences and the character and intentions of the people with whom they disagree. The moment demands of all participants that we try to inform and persuade rather than frighten those we address. It is not necessary to pull punches or to minimize points of difference and the example of the near loss of Pacifica should never be forgotten but the signal to noise ratio of that letter is not helpful.
During the Pacifica conflict the defenders of Pacifica's mission challenged and, after tremendous effort, changed the governance of the network and of the stations. At the heart of the changes are new by-laws which were crafted in a long, open, and inclusive, democratic process and which give listener-members significant power in station governance through the Local Station Boards (LSBs). These new by-laws embody the hope that opening station decision-making to listener input and, to some extent, listener control will make the Pacifica stations more responsive to the progressive community and protect them from possible future take-over attempts.
The present conflict at KPFA is a result of resistance from some station staffers to implementing the reforms embodied in the new by-laws.
The signers of the letter fail to note some noteworthy differences between the old Pacifica board and the reformers who seem to have so alarmed them. The old Pacifica board built their power on the disempowerment of the listeners and unpaid staff. The reformers purpose is to bring listener input into the station's processes. The old Pacifica board was distant, unelected, and unsympathetic to - even ignorant of - the Pacifica mission. The reformers are long-time KPFA listeners and staffers who ran in the recent elections for seats on the Station Board hoping to help make the station as effective and vibrant a progressive voice as it can be. One way many Pacifica supporters came to appreciate the nature and seriousness of the threat posed by the old Pacifica board was by witnessing the old board's attacks on and eventually its attempt to eliminate Pacifica's flagship program, Democracy Now! The reverse is true in this situation. The tension between the present reformers and the signers of the letter was sparked by the decision of a reformer majority on the station's Program Council to move Democracy Now! to a better, more accessible airtime (so that listeners who work from 9-5 can hear it).
The old Pacifica board is not part of this dispute. The success of the KPFA community and of the nationwide Pacifica community in overturning their undemocratic rule itself has created new challenges. Our ability to find our way in this new landscape will depend, in large part, upon whether we choose to name the issues or to call names.
What's going on?
We have come to an impasse because some staff, long accustomed to the previous unaccountable ways of making decisions and wary of changes in the status quo, have flatly refused to accept the exercise of listener/board participation mandated by the new by-laws and other agreements which came out of the struggle. One of the staff-elected representatives to the Station Board articulated this view at a recent meeting of the Local Station Board. He told the Board that KPFA was like an airplane. The listeners were like passengers who should expect to pay for their tickets and then remain in their seats leaving the crew to fly the aircraft. It is crazy, he said, to let the passengers into the cockpit. He called the listener board representatives and those listeners who had come to watch the board meeting and to participate in the public comment segment of the meeting 'self appointed guardians with too much time on their hands'. His unconcealed disdain elicited outrage among many listeners but he declined a plea to apologize and his allies on the board refused impassioned requests that they disassociate themselves from his offensive formulation of the proper role of listeners in KPFA's deliberations.
The chief tactic of those who are resisting the democratization of decision-making at KPFA has been to, as quietly as possible, subvert the reforms while paying lip service to democratization. They are not always as open about their perspective as that staff-elected board member was at that unguarded moment but the unfortunate fact is that the airplane analogy is a frank expression of a widely held rejectionist stance.
After the immense effort by KPFA listeners to rescue KPFA and Pacifica from an isolated and self-selecting clique it is heartbreaking to hear people who should know better argue that the right to participate in station decision-making cannot be entrusted to people who are 'unfamiliar with radio' (as another catch phrase of the reform-rollback effort has it). This is plain nonsense and it is sad to see that some of the same staffers whose willingness to disempower listeners and unpaid staff did so much to encourage and enable the Pat Scott/Mary Francis Berry/Lynn Chadwick assault on the network have returned to their old analysis of who is and who is not suitable for inclusion in station decision-making now that the threat from the old Pacifica Board seems eliminated.
People untrained in making radio programs should not be engineering call-in shows or asked to edit news feeds. But KPFA's listeners and supporters are capable of making thoughtful judgments about whether those call-in shows are covering issues that are of importance to them and they can make judgments about whether KPFA's newscasters or any other programmers are performing up to their standards.
Democratization is needed for KPFA's future health and effectiveness; bringing the perspective of listener-members into the station's 'internal' deliberations will strengthen our work. When has insularity ever protected a progressive institution? But reasonable democratization is being resisted on the Program Council, at the Station Board, and in the General Manager Hiring Committee that the board has organized to find and vet a new manager. A militant minority of board members backing a faction of station staffers has time and again defied democratically arrived at decisions, disregarded fundamental rules of order, and sought to nullify by-laws-mandated reforms and in doing so have made democratic decision-making all but impossible. Then they point to the mess and invite people to conclude that democracy itself has failed.
The Program Council, Democracy Now! and how we got into this mess
The present rift that divides staff member from staff member and board member from board member first became apparent at Program Council. That is where some station staff began to stonewall the democratization that had been won during the Pacifica struggle and that is where the rejectionists started to cover their actions by misrepresenting the actions of the listener, unpaid staff, and LAB representatives to the Council. It's a long story but it's worth knowing what really happened.
KPFA's Program Council is charged with making programming decisions for the station. In the years leading up to the Great Pacifica Crisis only paid station staff participated it its deliberations and decisions. Today it is, at least in theory, composed of paid and unpaid staff, community representatives who are appointed by the LSB, and LSB members.
Unpaid staff, community, and board reps were brought onto the Council during the time of the Pacifica Wars when the demand for democratization was strong and the necessity of maintaining listener support was inescapable. But once the usurping Pacifica board was defeated such 'members' learned that their right to take part in program decision-making had an absolute limit. Their power to participate in decision-making was recognized only so long as they confined their authority to decisions that did not affect the programs of long-time paid staff.
This became clear when morning programming became an issue on the Council. During the run-up to the war against Iraq questions arose about the scheduling of Democracy Now! DN! is, along with Flashpoints, the station's most popular and one of its most politically hard-hitting programs. KPFA was airing the wartime two-hour version of DN! broken into two parts which the station aired from 6-7AM and then from 9-10AM, which is to say before most people wake up and after most folks who work from 9-5 can listen. A temporary rescheduling of DN! during the crisis was proposed but rejected.
After the fall of Baghdad and after DN! went back to its one hour format the question of when the program should be aired remained in the minds of several of the Council members. Council members who wanted to discuss the question discovered that this issue could not be raised at Program Council. To be more accurate it was possible to put it on the agenda but never possible to get to it. Council members tried for weeks. Weeks became months. Months became many months. After it was inescapably clear that the question was being intentionally kept from climbing to the top of the agenda Council members who felt it was important to discuss the possibility moved and seconded a proposal to begin airing Democracy Now! at 7 in the hope that Robert's Rules of Order would be respected and a motion on the floor could not be avoided. No help. More weeks passed. Cries of misconduct were shined on. The subject was forbidden. Beyond a certain invisible line democratization was a pretense.
When Gus Newport became General Manager the unpaid staff, listener, and board Program Council representatives, begged him to take over as chair of the Council so that the issue could at last come up for discussion. Gus reluctantly agreed. At long last a meeting date was chosen for the discussion to take place and then rescheduled to accommodate the calendars of the Council's paid-staff members. The question of whether to change the time that DN! is aired was to be the only item on the agenda. There would be no more avoiding the question.
The date and time arrived as did the unpaid staff, listener, and board representatives. There were no paid staff. They just didn't show. None of the Council members assembled believed it was a coincidence.
After discussing KPFA's morning schedule for more than an hour during which those present considered analyses of fundraising results for DN! and the Morning Show, data on how many radios were turned on at relevant times, scheduling logistics and more, Aileen Alfandary, who had been hosting the evening newscast, arrived at the meeting. That meant that the meeting had a quorum. The question was put to a vote.
The Council members present voted unanimously (with one abstention) to air Democracy Now! at 7AM and air KPFA's Morning Show from 8-10AM. This opened up the possibility of using the 5-7AM slot for new voices and wider communities (consideration of an evening or afternoon rebroadcast of DN! to accommodate listeners who had been tuning in at 9 but might not be awake at 7 was understood to follow shortly).
The vote was as much an effort to force the issue onto the table as an attempt to impose a final decision. It said to the absent Council members in effect, if you don't get serious about discussing this issue this vote will stand. There is no reason why the absent paid staff members could not have come to the next meeting and moved to reopen the question. Not one Council member would have refused. In fact, the discussion would have been welcomed. But that would not have suited their purpose. It had been clear for months that opening the question was exactly what they had been unwilling to allow.
Instead they chose to make an issue of the fact that the vote had occurred when they were not present. Today when listeners or other KPFA staff ask the station's leadership how they justify refusing to accept the legitimate decision of the Council they say that it is because the unpaid, listener and board representatives snuck the decision past those who opposed the change at a moment when they weren't looking.
But that won't stand up to the light. The eight votes for the change that were recorded at that meeting represented an absolute majority of the membership of the Council. Even if every other Council member had attended and all of them had voted the other way the motion could have carried. That means that there was no motive for the unpaid staff, LAB, and listener representatives to rush a vote in order to take advantage of a moment when those who might disagree would be denied their votes because they happened not to be there.
When compelled to recognize that reality, the no-show Council members claim that the unfairness of the decision lies in the 'fact' that because the vote took place in their absence they were denied an opportunity to argue their position. But that can only persuade people who do not know that for months they had refused unending efforts to bring the issue to the table and that afterwards they chose not to exercise their power to put the question back on the table.
The fact is that the decision was made with as much open discussion as the paid staff Council members' determination to prevent a discussion would permit.
In the face of the station administration's later refusal to implement the decision of the Council the elected Local Advisory Board (the Local Station Board established by the new by-laws had not yet been formed) voted to recognize the propriety of the decision. At a two-day retreat the members of the Program Council - meeting with then GM Newport - unanimously reaffirmed its democratic composition (that is the inclusion of LAB, unpaid staff and listener members) and its legitimacy as the station's programming decision-maker. Gus Newport publicly recognized the legality of the vote also but he resigned before the change was implemented.
But the change was blocked. Immediately upon rebecoming interim GM Jim Bennett, who had chaired almost all of the meetings during which the topic of moving Democracy Now! was kept from reaching the table, announced that he would refuse to implement the change. After the new Local Station Board was elected under Pacifica's new by-laws it too voted to recognize the right of the Program Council to make such a change and instructed Jim to respect the legitimate decision of the Program Council. The board required that the change take place within four months. The end of that four months is only days away but it is clear that Jim intends to defy this board too.
Thoughtful readers will ask how anyone could expect to get away with such a global refusal to respect fundamental rights and responsibilities.
The crapstorm that is being loosed upon the station and its listeners, the fear mongering, the warnings about ignorant and hostile strangers seeking to micro-manage everything, the wholly fabricated story that the board wants to eliminate music programming, the demonstrably false charge that board members have left the station open to lawsuits, the sensationalized descriptions of normal discussion and questions from board members that turn legitimate and appropriate or even sometimes angry and frustrated statements and questions from the board into 'egregious charges', 'slurs', 'character assassination', 'potentially libelous accusations', 'challenges', 'attacks', 'anti-worker assaults', and 'threats' which 'demean', 'dismiss', 'ridicule', 'harass', and 'accuse' (all of these taken from the letter referred to above) are well suited to cover this and other blatant refusals to play by the rules.
The strategy seems to be to create enough heat and raise a great enough din that staff and listeners alike can be stampeded into reacting in frustration and fear. The hope is that people will be persuaded to accept the suspension of democratic decision-making and return station governance to the 'peaceful 'status quo ante (before 'outsiders' had a voice in KPFA's decision-making structure).
It can come as a surprise to no one that the refusal of the station's administration to respect the decision of the Program Council has caused a controversy that has spilled over into the Station Board. At this moment almost any consideration that comes before the board is measured in terms of opposing sides and weighed in the context of a 'larger battle'.
The Local Station Board is required by Pacifica's new by-laws to supervise and evaluate the station manager and to approve a pool of candidates when a new manager must be hired. Gus Newport recently resigned as manager of KPFA and the LSB has created a committee to find and vet possible replacements. A nine person hiring committee made up of paid and unpaid staff and LSB members has been selected, the LSB members by a vote of the board and the non-LSB staff members by a vote among the staff.
A shameless effort to manipulate this process has been mobilized. Here's what happened.
A subcommittee of the board (the Personnel subcommittee) - one which was not democratically chosen and which was not given the mandate to recruit and vet a manager by the board or the by-laws - announced that it had changed the make-up of the hiring committee that the board had created. This committee announced that it had 'removed' the chair of the Hiring Committee (who also is the elected chair of the LSB) from the Hiring Committee entirely. No one can maintain with a straight face that the subcommittee has the authority to do this.
The runaway subcommittee 'notified' the chair of the Hiring Committee that they had excluded her from participation in the work of the committee. Inevitably, this precipitated a clash within the Hiring Committee.
There was no possibility that such a move would not force the focus of the committee to change from the work of finding and vetting manager candidates to fighting a dysfunctional internal battle. As of this writing the urgent work of this legitimate, by-laws mandated committee has ground to a halt.
It's fair for listeners and station staffers to ask the following question: if democratization is so adamantly opposed by an element of station staff and if achieving it is going to result in such conflict, is opening up decision-making at the station really worth the cost in effort and hard feelings?
There are at least two reasons why the reforms embodied in Pacifica's new by-laws and the democratization of the station's programming decision-making must be allowed to work.
It is important to make certain that programming decisions support the mission of the station rather than the interests of the decision-makers. That necessity demands that KPFA depend, in large measure, on democratically chosen representatives from the station's listenership and the broader progressive community who have no personal interest in the outcome of programming decisions (beside the interest we all have in empowering, informing, and inspiring a progressive movement), to evaluate and ultimately shape our programming.
It may disappoint, but it should not surprise KPFA's supporters to learn that the station's staffers, people whose voices have become the voices of friends and who listeners may have even grown to think of as the very voices of progressive politics, can be as jealous of their perks and privileges as people in other political and social arenas. But human beings are human beings and we simply must protect our progressive institutions by creating and fighting to defend rules and practices that require that policy and programming decisions be made by people who are disinterested and accountable.
Those of us who produce KPFA's programs and whose power, pride, and perks, may hang on such decisions will have important and useful perspective and information to contribute to such discussions. You can be sure that we will express strong opinions. But KPFA's airtime is a commons to be used in the common interest not a commodity to be possessed forever or to be divided up among the loudest, strongest, most deeply entrenched, or first in line. And for that reason disinterested discussions and disinterested conclusions are what's needed and those will most reliably come from disinterested decision-makers.
After long years of insular practice KPFA's program decision-making has grown to be too responsive to the give and take of the station's internal carrot and stick economy and too unaccountable to the needs of the listeners, the demands of the times, or the requirements of Pacifica's mission. The Democracy Now! question is one example; we run our most effective audience magnet before most people wake up and after many people who work from 9-5 can listen. Even having a decent discussion about changing that proved impossible because at KPFA the demands of turf and power take precedence over the needs of the listeners or the station or its mission.
Here's another example of how the absence of listener input distorts the station's structure and programming and inhibits our effectiveness. Consider this question: why doesn't KPFA have a Public Affairs Department? We have a Music Department, and a News Department, and a Drama and Literature Department. It's possible to imagine a Public Affairs Department that has a staff that is comparable in size to the staff of one of our larger daily programs; let's call it three or four full-time positions divided up among one or two full-time and several part-time paid staffers. The PA Department staffers would not be on-air people but people who had roots and connections in a wide variety of political movements and Bay Area communities. Their job would be to help people from those communities and movements produce many forms of programming: segments for magazine programs, short term series, thematic day long programming, and hard-hitting investigative documentaries.
A PA Department like that could be wonderful for the political ecology of the station. It could bring activists into the station - not just to be interviewed but to become part of KPFA's life and process. But as things stand now it will never happen. The old decision-making structure, controlled, as it was and is, exclusively from within the power elite of the station has not and will not create a Public Affairs Department like that. Starting one would upset the apple cart; actually many apple carts. Only by incorporating listeners, people who are not hoping to get or keep their own program, into governance and programming decision-making can the station get beyond petty turf protection that has (this is truly incredible) left KPFA without a Public Affairs department for years.
Here's the other reason that we can't let democratization be rolled back. The old board's effort to remake Pacifica, to fire the audience and use the stations to build a new, more mainstreamed radio empire, or to sell one of the stations and fund heaven knows what grandiose scheme did not suddenly appear in the Spring of 1999. It first took root in changes in station decision-making which disenfranchised KPFA's listeners and unpaid staff and made local decision-making subject to national oversight. KPFA's core paid staff should have, but failed to, whole-heartedly resist efforts to disempower listeners and unpaid staff. Only when the usurpers thought that the community had accepted their powerlessness did they feel strong enough to try to hijack the network altogether. That's why the attempts to discredit and disempower the LSB are short-sighted and dangerous.
An effective, empowered, and locally elected LSB is all that the by-laws provide to protect the stations from another take-over from Pacifica Central. The lesson that we were forced to learn at immense cost is that an empowered listenership is the most reliable guarantor of the station's and the network's progressive mission. A staff and listenership which will accept a disempowered LSB has, practically speaking, accepted that legitimate power ultimately resides in Pacifica Central. We should not step onto that slippery slope again.
The station is at a crossroads. Finding KPFA's way safely forward will require the vision and the courage to risk taking a democratic path. The democratic decisions of the Program Council, the necessary work of the Manager Search Committee, and the legitimate authority of KPFA's long fought for elected Station Board ought to be respected. If they are not respected they will have to be fought for. The alternative is rule by an oligarchy with turf protection, personal privilege, and spin control, occupying the place where co-operation, open discussion, and mission driven decision-making, should be. The end result of taking that path will not be good for KPFA or its listeners and especially not for its mission.
Yours very truly,
Nick Alexander: Unpaid Staff Organization Representative
Juan Amador: La Onda Bajita/Radio Del Barrio Aztlan
Mehmet Bayram: Voices from the Middle East and North Africa: Middle East Radio Project Collective (MERP)
Dennis Bernstein: Flashpoints
Dogpaw Carrillo: La Onda Bajita/Radio Del Barrio Aztlan
Solange Echeverria: Flashpoints
Bonnie Faulkner: Guns and Butter
Arihua Ferriz: La Onda Bajita/Radio Del Barrio Aztlan
Omar Flamenco: La Onda Bajita/Radio Del Barrio Aztlan
Nora Barrows Friedman: Flashpoints
Jasmin Garcia: La Onda Bajita/Radio Del Barrio Aztlan
Leah Gardner: Pushing Limits
Miguel 'Gavilan' Molina: Flashpoints
Nauthal Gonsalo: La Onda Bajita/Radio Del Barrio Aztlan
Lisa Gonsalvez: La Onda Bajita/Radio Del Barrio Aztlan
Miguel Guerrero: La Onda Bajita/Radio Del Barrio Aztlan
Peggy Hecker: Pushing Limits
Robert Knight: Flashpoints
Esin Kunt: Voices from the Middle East and North Africa (MERP)
Norma La Brava: La Onda Bajita/Radio Del Barrio Aztlan
Adrienne Lauby: Pushing Limits
Sandra Lemus: La Onda Bajita/Radio Del Barrio Aztlan
Ventura 'Mr. Chuch' Longoria: La Onda Bajita/Radio Del Barrio Aztlan
Falcon Molina : La Onda Bajita/Radio Del Barrio Aztlan
Leroy F Moore, Jr: Pushing Limits
Robbie Osman: Across the Great Divide
Miguel Perez: La Onda Bajita/Radio Del Barrio Aztlan
Malihe Razazan: Voices from the Middle East and North Africa: Middle Eastern and North African Perspectives Collective (MENAP)
Pedro Reyes: La Onda Bajita/Radio Del Barrio Aztlan
Jan Santos: Pushing Limits
Doyle Saylor: Pushing Limits
Mina Sepher: Voices from the Middle East and North Africa (MERP)
Sue Supriano: Steppin' Out of Babylon
Barmak Saemian: Voices from the Middle East and North Africa
Gulden Yazgan: Voices from the Middle East and North Africa (MERP)
Steve Zeltzer: Labor Collective, Middle East Radio Project
Also, please see Robbie Osman's 2010 essay The Value of Democracy at KPFA