the seizure of $305,000 from KPFA

How the seizure of a radio station in New York led to the seizure of $305,000 from KPFA

by Daniel Borgström
December 17, 2022

A few days ago federal marshals seized $305,000 from KPFA, a progressive radio station in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A court awarded this money to John Vernile, a former Executive Director (ED) of the Pacifica, the parent organization of KPFA and four other sister stations, along with over 200 affiliate stations. Although Vernile held that position for only a few months, he took part in a bizarre incident for which he was fired and became the object of unkind words. So he sued Pacifica for "defamation" of his character; an arbitrator and then a court ruled that he was legally fired for his extreme actions, but in favor of his defamation suit.

That incident happened three years ago. In the morning of October 7, 2019, John Vernile and his team -- which included two rent-a-cops -- raided the studio of WBAI 99.5 FM in New York. Vernile's people evicted the staff, changed the locks, shut down local programming, and turned WBAI into a repeater station.

"BAI," as it's affectionately called by its staff and listeners, is one of the five Pacifica sister-stations. Pacifica is a non-commercial listener-sponsored network where stations supposedly enjoy a certain amount of independence and democratic governance -- in theory at least. Staff and listeners occasionally demand to have a say in how their station is run. But John Vernile seems to have been remarkably unaware of Pacifica's traditions. The result was instant outrage. People at WBAI united in opposition to Vernile. Even feuding factions and longtime enemies who hadn't spoken to each other for years, suddenly found themselves embracing each other to fight a common enemy.

And it wasn't just the staff and listeners of BAI. New Yorkers who were by no means leftwing or related to WBAI saw the move as an intrusion into the city's cultural life. Even the city's mayor denounced it, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams led a rally in support of the radio station.

An op-ed in the Amsterdam News read: "If it smells like a coup, walks like a coup, and looks like a coup . . . it's a coup!" Staff and listeners at BAI called Vernile a "coupster." Perhaps a lot of people saw it that way, but U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson in Los Angeles recently ruled that as "defamation," even though he acknowledged that Vernile was not wrongfully terminated.

There is a saying that victory has a thousand fathers, but fiasco is an orphan. And so it was in this case. Nobody seems to have claimed credit for the idea. Vernile reportedly said he traveled around the country, consulting board members at several of Pacifica's stations. However, it appears that he only spoke with people who agreed with the plan. He did not speak with any of the Rescue Pacifica group here at KPFA, and he reportedly didn't speak with the folks at BAI either.

Was he a bullheaded guy who didn't listen to other opinions? Or was he just a puppet of his faction? I don't know. I never met John Vernile and don't have a first-hand, face to face impression of him. But I would say that his raid on BAI is a classic example of what can happen when only one side gets listened to.

Most of Vernile's team and backers were at KPFA in California. KPFA's power elite supported the takeover of WBAI. KPFA's then general manager Quincy McCoy became Consulting Programmer of a new entity called "Pacifica Across America." That turned out to be a fancy way of saying that Quincy was running WBAI as a relay station -- though not with KPFA's current line-up. He used old stale stuff. Later, when John Vernile needed funds to pay the lawyers that were defending him, Quincy McCoy sent him $80,000 of KPFA's money. The KPFA gatekeepers have claimed that Quincy was required to send that money. Maybe so, but didn't report the expense.

KPFA's LSB (Local Station Board) majority faction who speak for the gatekeepers at KPFA defended Vernile. They're the "SaveKPFA" group, which now goes by several names: "NewDay," the "KPFA Protectors," and "Safety Net," among others.

Of course not everyone at KPFA went along with that. And our affinity group, "Rescue Pacifica," supported the people at WBAI, as did many at other Pacifica stations.

Each of the five Pacifica stations has its own Local Station Board (LSB), and above these five local boards is the National Board, the PNB. A majority of the PNB voted to return WBAI to its own staff, but Vernile and his faction were reluctant to comply, so it was necessary to go through court proceedings and finally get a court order. The takeover lasted a month; then the New Yorkers got their station back, and John Vernile was fired.

The announced purpose of the takeover was to save money. WBAI was losing more money than Pacifica could afford, so Vernile and his team decided that Pacifica could save money by eliminating the managers and staff of WBAI and making it a relay station. The problem with that logic was that even running it as a relay station cost money. A major long standing expense was the antenna. Unlike KPFA which owns its own antenna, WBAI has to rent one, and it was through no fault of WBAI that some very unwise people running Pacifica two decades ago signed an incredibly bad and costly deal to rent an antenna for WBAI. So during the takeover the antenna costs continued. The difference being that the station's staff were no longer there to hold fund drives and raise money.

An email from Ken Gale on the day of the takeover, Oct 8, 2019, said: "Pacifica has taken down all WBAI archives. This seems to be an act of hostility, not a cost-saving measure. They also timed their move for the second week of a fund drive that was going well, replacing programs that were raising money with California programs that do not."

Being new to Pacifica, John Vernile may not have thought that through. But his NewDay/Protectors/SafetyNet team were long-time KPFA and Pacifica people who should've known.

So the idea of turning WBAI into a relay station to save money doesn't seem very logical; some observers have suggested that there were other motives, that Vernile's crew simply wanted to trash WBAI and get rid of it, maybe sell it. Interestingly, this year the same people (NewDay/Protectors/Safety Net) petitioned the FCC (Federal Communication Commission) to deny renewal of WBAI's broadcast license. Not only that, but their majority faction at KPFA (on May 21, 2022) passed a resolution in support of the petitioners requesting the denial of the license renewal.

Is there more? Yes, there certainly is. On December 8, 2020, members of that same majority faction (NewDay et al) petitioned a court in Los Angeles to put Pacifica into receivership -- bankruptcy. Had the court approved that request, the entire network, including KPFA, would've gone into the hands of a corporate lawyer and who knows where from there? Fortunately, we do sometimes get justice in the court system, and that was one of those good days. But think of it: although the recent loss of $305,000 is certainly a disaster, the loss of the whole the network into receivership would've been far worse.

Considering that there are no other progressive networks in the US beside Pacifica, a loss of WBAI in New York, a major metropolitan media "market", would be an irreplaceable loss.

NewDay's lawyer for the receivership petition (Dec 2020) was Attorney Stephen Jaffe. And by some coincidence, Stephen Jaffe is also the attorney for John Vernile in his "defamation" suit. A coincidence? Some questions should be asked.

Three of the witnesses who testified in support of Vernile's defamation claim were NewDay people from KPFA.

Pacifica's attorney, Arthur Schwartz, is appealing the $305,000 seizure. But strangely, the chair and vice chair of KPFA's LSB, Christina Huggins and Fred Dodsworth, have demanded that Schwartz abandon the appeal. Huggins is one of the petitioners who asked a Los Angeles court to put Pacifica into receivership in 2020.

The seizure of the money is being reported on KPFA's airwaves, and it should be. But like other news, it needs to be covered accurately. Unfortunately, some programmers are blaming Pacifica, telling us that's where the problem is. In a way, that's true. But it misses the fact that people from KPFA's inner circle gatekeeper group -- the ones associated with SaveKPFA/NewDay/theProtectors/SafetyNet -- are the very ones who teamed up with John Vernile and promoted the events which led to this lawsuit. Although John Vernile was the face of the takeover at WBAI, it was the NewDay people who did the leg work. They have considerable influence on events at Pacifica.

Attorney Schwartz knows this appeal will be a steep hill to climb; he said so himself. But if this ruling stands, Pacifica could be hit with endless numbers of lawsuits. Every manager that KPFA ever had could probably make a case -- rightly or wrongly -- that he or she has been a victim of "defamation." At the same time, in any democratically run society or radio station there has to be transparency. Lawsuits and even just the threat of lawsuits can put an end to transparency, and the end of democracy at Pacifica.

If we lose this case, it could have a major negative impact on the future of our First Amendment rights -- which seem to be under constant attack these days.

December 17, 2022

Labels: , ,