August 23/30, 1999
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The temblors around Ground Zero Berkeley, otherwise known as station KPFA, seemed to be diminishing, but there were lingering aftershocks. The passions aroused, the grudges unleashed are very real. It all started with a series of heavy-handed moves by Pacifica's board under Mary Frances Berry, which provoked the staff and in time sparked listener protests, culminating in a 10,000-person rally in Berkeley on July 31.
But the board had already capitulated two days earlier. Nevertheless, rumors were flying about sinister plots by management to sell KPFA. (The board majority has rejected a proposal to do that--at least for now. Incidentally, another report, here and elsewhere, about RadioNation being used as "scab" programming on KPFA is untrue. Pacifica station KPFK told host Marc Cooper early on that there were no such plans. Cooper, in turn, made it clear that under no circumstances would RadioNation allow itself to be used for that purpose.)
Our hope is that, with the lockout ended, the staff will go back to work--not only the work of running a radio station but the work of participating in the mediation of outstanding issues with the Pacifica board and of devising a plan for KPFA's future that preserves its unique political and cultural identity. Berry promised KPFA staff programming autonomy and lifted the "no dirty laundry" rule prohibiting airing of the station's grievances, which provoked the trouble. Consider the laundry aired; the staff can now show that it is not adamantly opposed to new programming and professionalism in the cause of expanding the station's audience. Management can demonstrate that it is not intent on "firing" the present listenership, which is no more limited to aging white males than is Mary Frances Berry a fascist.
It is to KPFA's great credit that it could elicit such passionate support from its listeners. But you can't run a radio station from the street; slogans are no substitute for ideas. Strikes or lockouts always leave a residue of bitterness, which both sides should start working to assuage. Whether the resignations of Berry and executive director Lynn Chadwick are essential to this process is doubtful. A more useful course would be for the present board to make a formal commitment that it will sell no radio stations without consulting the listeners and staff. It could also pledge greater staff participation in decision-making. For the long term, it seems advisable that the Pacifica board be expanded or reconstituted with members of stature and credibility who will reflect the interests of all stakeholders--staff, station managers and boards, listeners. Under the present structure, the Pacifica board is an unaccountable, self-perpetuating body. The drawbacks of this setup were amply demonstrated in the recent crisis.
The role of listener-supported radio in our society has never been more crucial. The conglomeratization of commercial radio continues to squeeze the marketplace of ideas. Commercial radio is increasingly treated by its owners as a money machine. Even National Public Radio--along with PBS television--is bending toward corporate sponsors. Pacifica is the last bastion of the precept, enshrined in the FCC Act, that the public airways are a public trust. All parties must now work to preserve it.
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