Ridding KPFA of the peasants

The Peasant War at KPFA
and the Bylaws Referendum

An allegory about the Bylaws Referendum. In a wider sense it's also about the struggle for democracy in progressive movements and organizations which often tend to be taken over by an elite minority

by Daniel Borgström
March 2020

Ridding KPFA of the peasants -- that's what the Pacifica bylaws referendum is all about. It's about a permanent solution to the war of the Lords & Ladies vs. the Peasants at KPFA.

This goes back for many years. Longtime KPFA listeners remember 1999 as the year of the Hijacking, the Lockout, and the massive response. Ten thousand people marched through the streets of Berkeley chanting "Take back KPFA!" and "Save Pacifica!" And the good guys won, or so it seemed for a brief and glorious moment. Nevertheless, since then, for the last two decades, KPFA/Pacifica has tottered from crisis to crisis.

Sadly, this KPFA scenario is a common one in the affairs of humankind. I missed the French Revolution, but I imagine it went much like the one at KPFA in 1999. The Bastille was stormed in a day, but the fight wasn't over. That's probably true of all revolutions: there's a dramatic moment, and then, after what seems like the great and final victory, come months, years, even decades of intense, ongoing strife. Issues get terribly complicated, seemingly arcane, and it gets vicious. Why the eternal conflict? Why the infighting? people ask, wondering why the former comrades can't just be nice to each other and get along.

The upheaval of 1999 began, very much like the French Revolution, with a split among the power elite. Like Louis XVI of France, the headstrong monarch of KPFA/Pacifica quarreled with her courtiers; she even threw them out of the palace, locked the gate, and called in mercenary troops -- rent-a-cops. The disenfranchised nobility, losing their wits and acting out of sheer desperation, allied themselves with dissidents and appealed to the "rabble." The response was huge, and the underdogs emerged victorious. The intolerable monarch was driven out, leaving the kingdom of Pacifica to the triumphant revolutionaries -- a motley assemblage of commoners, peasants and riffraff, together with nobility and bureaucrats from the old régime. Everyone pledged eternal loyalty to the ideals of the revolution, the Pacifica Mission Statement.

At first there was wild jubilation, dancing in the streets, and a huge amount of good feeling. All the worthy people were dear sisters and brothers, in a splendid state of living happily ever after. The blue bloods and bureaucrats from the old régime joined in the celebrations together with their low-class brethren, graciously tolerating the situation, putting a good face on it, and biding their time. The trouble was that the ungracious mob expected to have a say in how the station would be run. So the Lords & Ladies were faced with the daunting task of getting this horde of loud, smelly, cantankerous, meddlesome peasants to leave the castle, go back to tilling the lands, supporting the nobility, and giving up their preposterous notions of involving themselves in governance.

That's been the basic scenario in just about every revolution on record, and KPFA has been no exception to the pattern. Major conflicts and animosities began to surface during the drafting of Pacifica's new constitution, known as "The BYLAWS." Courtiers and bureaucrats from the old régime tried to bend the new document to their liking, intending to preserve whatever they could of their former status and privileges; they did win major concessions. Nevertheless, the dissidents stuck to the democratic vision they'd been nurturing for many long years during the decade preceding 1999, the era of the Hijacking. The traditional motto of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" was updated to include "democracy, transparency, accountability."

So the outcome of the 1999 upheaval at KPFA/Pacifica was a radically new system of radio governance, a "listener democracy." Listener-members who each year donated $25 or more to the station became voters, choosing their representatives to sit on boards overseeing the KPFA station and the Pacifica radio network. In radio governance, this was a revolutionary concept; however the Lords & Ladies found it absolutely revolting.

KPFA's first Local Station Board (LSB) election was held in the winter of 2003/2004, and as spring became summer, the reaction against the Bylaws began. The opening shot was a letter from a patrician lady who declared, "I do think the bylaws are a disaster." Two more such letters were posted that summer of 2004, all of them attacking the new radio democracy.

She and the other outraged blue bloods were the relatively small clique of gatekeepers who ran the station and dominate it to this day. Most were functionaries left over from the Ancien Régime, entrenched for over three decades. Others, their proteges, are fairly new. Most of the unpaid staff, who actually produce most of the programming, are excluded from the ruling clique, as are a few of the paid programmers. They're regarded as part of the peasantry.

There was a time (the good old days) when peasants knew their place. One can sympathize with the plight and anguish of the once proud KPFA aristocrats, courtiers, and bureaucrats, who found themselves sitting shoulder to shoulder with unwashed peasants who have the audacity to ask nosy questions, and worst of all, expect that the station live within its financial means. Peasants can be so intolerably frugal, always wanting to know where their money is being spent.

How the listeners' money gets used, misused, or just plain wasted is an ongoing issue. At times the problem can even be over a lack of spending on certain required items. This January it was discovered that KPFA's managers hadn't paid the property taxes for six years, and the station received notice from the Alameda County tax office that unless paid, KPFA's studio building and antenna tower would be auctioned off. Peasants expressed outrage and called for heads to roll. But the negligent managers had shown themselves loyal and useful functionaries of the station's nobility, so blame was directed elsewhere -- against the bylaws, as always.

KPFA's gentry are not frugal, and the station has been living beyond its means, despite hanging on the cliff edge of financial disaster. They need money, lots of it. The proposed replacement bylaws would make it easier to cannibalize the network. Folks at WBAI 99.5 FM, the New York Pacifica sister station, fear their station will be sold to fund KPFA. Of course KPFA's gentry adamantly deny any such intention, but the New Yorkers don't believe a word of anything the aristocrats say or promise. They remember last fall's attempted coup, that month-long takeover of WBAI with piped in music -- reminiscent of what was done to KPFA back in '99.

Programming is another contentious issue. The patrician gatekeepers of KPFA's airwaves seem to be finding more and more in common with their counterparts in the liberal establishment, and their programming always reflects that trend. . Although there are some excellent shows still to be heard on the air at KPFA 94.1 FM, the station is increasingly echoing and sounding like what we hear on corporate media. The extreme to which this has gone at KPFA was expressed by an alarmed KPFA journalist in an article titled
"We Love the CIA!" -- Or How the Left Lost its Mind

The vision of KPFA/Pacifica's pacifist founders back in 1949 was for a media outlet to oppose imperialist wars both hot and cold. The station stood up to the attacks of the Joe McCarthy era and was a staunch antiwar voice during the Vietnam era. For 70 years it's been a voice for social movements. And that's the tradition we're fighting to continue.

In the French Revolution, as in so many others, the aristocrats were soon back in power. But does it always have to turn out that way? At KPFA/Pacifica the sans-culottes have somehow managed to hang in there for two decades, struggling toward a different outcome.

This is what's at stake in the Pacifica bylaws referendum. Please vote NO.

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DANIEL BORGSTRÖM is a descendent of European peasants who lives in Berkeley and listens to KPFA. He's a member of the Local Station Board, part of the Rescue Pacifica affinity group, and a member of the East Bay chapter of Veterans for Peace.

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Pacifica Fightback for Democracy

KPFA 94.1 FM is one of five stations of the Pacifica radio network 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 250 affiliate stations.

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