KPFA: The Struggle Continues

by Larry Everest

Revolutionary Worker #1017, August 8, 1999

Last Wednesday night as I was heading over to the headquarters of KPFA radio in Berkeley to check in on the latest, things seemed pretty grim. Thousands of us had been in a toe-to-toe battle with the Pacifica Foundation after it seized this station 16 days earlier on July 13. The Pacifica management--who owns the station's license--had shut the station down, fired key broadcasters, threatened people with armed guards and police. Since then, 94.1 on the dial in the Bay Area had been stale recordings, reportedly piped in from Houston--while out in the streets a growing movement loudly supported the KPFA staff and denounced the foundation's moves.

And now the word had leaked out that the Pacifica board was considering just selling KPFA altogether--and the board vote was scheduled to go down that evening. I got out of my car and joined the crowd of 100 or so at "Camp KPFA"--the 24-7 encampment set up in front of the station. Then I heard the news: Pacifica had retreated big time! Mary Frances Berry, Chair of Pacifica's Executive Committee, had agreed that KPFA's staff could take back the station and begin broadcasting again--with no security guards and no gag rule forbidding them from talking about network matters. My first thought: Woooh! The people have backed those suckers off!

As I'm writing, the struggle to retake the station is still going. The staff of the radio station remain vigilant and wary of the concessions that are being offered. It is still not clear if Pacifica's management has abandoned plans to sell the station. There is still nothing in writing. And some key members of the staff--former station manager Nicole Sawaya and long-time broadcaster Larry Bensky--have not yet been offered their jobs back. And the foundation has announced it is relocating from Berkeley to Washington, DC--far from the eye of the current storm.

And people are pushing hard to keep the heat on. On Saturday, July 31, 15,000 people marched through Berkeley--supporting the staff of KPFA and denouncing plans to gut or sell or conservatize this important progressive radio station.

By the time this article hits the streets, KPFA may be on the air again. And if that happens, new alliances and new mobilizations will have created some favorable new conditions through struggle.

A Deluge of Protest

I don't think Pacifica had any idea what they would detonate when they sent their takeover goons into KPFA. I don't think they really understood how many people valued that station, and how fiercely people want to see breaks and openings in the corporate-government-media monopoly on information and thought.

KPFA has never been revolutionary--much of its programming has been safe, and sometimes boring. But it is a significant alternative radio station--and one of a few major alternative stations in the country. When National Public Radio banned Mumia's "Live From Death Row" commentaries KPFA proudly broke the censorship and aired the tapes. Each time there is a new U.S. aggression in the world, KPFA airs announcements of antiwar actions and opens its airwaves to information and analyses critical of the U.S. government. It has provided openings for all kinds of progressive information and ideas--including occasionally the analyses of revolutionary communists.

KPFA has been an important crack in the official media wall. People relied on it--and when Pacifica tried to destroy it, people poured into the streets to defend it. Hundreds arrived in front of the station within minutes of the Pacifica coup. Day and night there were at least 30 to 100 people camped out in front, shutting down that block to traffic.

People found out that Pacifica was installing an ISDN high-speed phone line to KPFA's transmitter so they could control the station remotely. And dozens of people rushed up to stop this. Several were arrested, bringing the total arrests to 99 in two weeks.

One UC Berkeley student told me "the youth really want to represent" in this battle. I think she'd been doing what lots had: sleeping out one night, going to "Hip Hop for KPFA" another night, making signs other nights, and rushing to the KPFA's transmitter. Many middle class folks--including in the mainstream media--were shocked that a listener-supported network would fire broadcasters for discussing the network's direction--all kinds of people have seen this as a "freedom of speech" issue and have supported the KPFA staff. And interestingly enough--all of this happened without the radio broadcasts of KPFA itself being available to spread the word.

The singer/activist Joan Baez quickly helped pull together a concert featuring herself, Utah Phillips, Spearhead, Dr. Loco and others for July 19--less than a week after the shutdown. 3,500 people showed up.

The July 31 demonstration of 15,000 was also put together on the fly. "There are so many people working on it it's just mind-boggling," Leslie Kean, an assistant producer of the program Flashpoints, told the RW. "It's just awesome to me how many people all over the Bay Area are working night and day to mobilize for this."

Dennis Bernstein of the KPFA radio show Flashpoints told me, "It has gotten to the point where I can't walk out of my house without a neighbor stopping me and asking me. 'Are we going to save our free speech radio station?' I pull up at a red light and somebody rolls down a window and says, 'how are we doing?' ... I was on with the BBC, I've heard from the Economist in England. We've gotten emails from as far away as Hong Kong."

Pacifica tried to publicly justify its actions. Its management tried to claim that the staff only appealed to "50-year-old white men" and swore that they were just seeking to "diversify" the station's audience. They insisted that they were not planning to sell KPFA and allow it to become some typical commercial radio station.

But they were just scrambling to hide the truth--and most everyone could see that. One Berkeley student said to me, "I basically don't believe anything they say. I think they're just all liars. Their rhetoric has all been public relations. How can you trust anything they say now?" Davey D, a hip hop producer and music host on both KPFA and KMEL, told me, "The youth were always here, so there was a mischaracterization from jump street. People of color were always here, so there was a mischaracterization from jump street."

A New York Times article wrote, "The Pacifica Foundation concedes that in the public relations battle, it is being flattened." Pacifica fired its public relations agent and hired a new high-priced San Francisco firm specializing in damage control, but that didn't work either. That firm quit after 10 days.

Michael Moore, host of TV's Awful Truth, wrote Pacifica head Mary Frances Berry, "You must rue the day you decided to get involved in Pacifica Radio.... you will now be remembered as the individual who sent police in to shut down a newscast!"

The Broader Backdrop

This whole coup at Pacifica is closely tied to forces with very close and high-level connections in the Democratic Party. The Pacifica Board also has a close working relationship with the government's Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which is run by the former head of CIA-directed Radio Marti, and the CPB has encouraged Pacifica's centralization of power and efforts to mainstream its programming.

Mary Frances Berry herself is symbolic of all this. She is an African American woman who serves as the Board Chair of the Pacifica Foundation and Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania. She was arrested for protesting South African apartheid in the 1980s. But she's also been a top government official, first in the Carter administration, and now under Clinton, where she heads the Civil Rights Commission.

Now in the heat of this struggle for control over KPFA, she quickly accuses her opponents of obstructing "diversity"--and this is so typical of the Clinton forces who specialize in combining the politics of cruelty and the economics of imperialism with the rhetoric of inclusion.

For the establishment liberals heading Pacifica, all the functioning and demands of capitalism are simply accepted as "the way things are"--and anything else is "unrealistic." It's interesting to read Pacifica's own 5 Year Plan, because they accurately describe the capitalist pressures operating on them. They note that "Today five global, vertically integrated media companies dominate the information and entertainment economies: News Corporation, Disney, Time-Warner, Viacom and TCI." They worry that Pacifica (despite its national audience of one million) will be "reduced to the media equivalent of a mom-and-pop grocery in a world of Wal-Mart superstores." This report details how Congress has debated "whether the only vestiges of nonprofit broadcasting should be eliminated so that we may have a thoroughly market-driven system," and how after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 they openly attacked Pacifica in order to defund all public broadcasting.

Pacifica was influenced and shaped by the mass struggles of the '60s, and carved out a niche for itself by building a funding base among its listeners. But in a March 1998 interview, Pacifica Executive Director Lynn Chadwick explained that Pacifica's management was now thinking that the time had come to accept corporate or foundation underwriting for the first time. "People on Capitol Hill are encouraging us to quit fooling around, call it advertising and go for it," she declared.

They envision "modernization" along corporate lines--more top-down control, programming based on ratings, and content that will not disturb the flow of corporate ad dollars.

In short, the fight at Pacifica is part of the larger "cultural wars" that have raged in the U.S.--it is part of the campaign to steamroller everything away before the all-mighty dollar--to impose corporate brand labels and mindless obedience on all forms of media--to chip, erode, dilute, encircle, defund, denounce, and ultimately eliminate all pockets of alternative, critical, or unapproved information. According to Radio4all's website, several Pacifica programmers have been pressured to soften their criticisms of Clinton and U.S. government policy.

In this battle at KPFA, the Clinton-Democrats-in-command are (as they are in the cultural wars generally) an active participant in the slide toward conservatism. Around the KPFA situation (and everywhere else) they insist that anything to the left of them is ineffective and outdated, and that they alone form a viable alternative to the militant right--while all those who follow them find themselves drawn further and further to the right.

Thinking about all this, and about the intense corporate and market pressures on alternative media and arts--I was reminded about a remark by RCP Chairman Bob Avakian about some basic realities that affect the mass media: "In today's world there are only two classes capable of handling the modern productive forces--the bourgeoisie and the proletariat," he wrote.

Bob Avakian wrote: "Ultimately, it is only the proletariat that can utilize these productive forces in a forward-moving way. In a way that leads to the impossibility of a situation where one part of society dominates and oppresses another. In a way that brings into being a true `global village' without the domination of many nations by a few, without national divisions and boundaries at all."

The battle at KPFA is extremely important for the larger war against this system. It is a fight for a radio station that has provided openings in the seemingly monolithic wall of this system's media.

And this battle at KPFA is important--not because it is possible to wrest the society or the media piecemeal, institution by institution, from the global gangsters who now own it--but because there is a larger revolutionary struggle here and throughout the world. And because the oppressed people of the world need each opening, every platform from which to speak, each ally, and each victory against their oppressors--to push ahead into new battles, to counterattack, to prepare for those life-and-death collisions that certainly lie ahead.

The Struggle Continues

There's a lot of unfinished business at KPFA. After damaging the station and running up huge bills for security goons, takeover lawyers, and corporate PR firms, Pacifica may have taken this network toward bankruptcy. The management is warning the staffers that they have six months to increase audience share or the Pacifica Foundation will take "appropriate measures"--meaning they may push ahead with selling the station.

But meanwhile the struggle has energized, awakened and unified many thousands, so the people are in a much stronger position to carry forward the struggle.

KPFA staffer Allison Rolls told me, "The other completely overwhelming aspect of this is the unity that has been created and the ties that have been forged between people who never spoke to each other before. There's a whole dialogue that's been opened about diversity at the station and the role of people of color in all aspects of it. For the most part everyone has come to it with a really open mind and they're saying, `You're right. Things do have to change, and even if that's threatening to me personally a little bit, I'm going to listen to what you have to say.' And we're all going to have to like shut up and start listening to hip hop for awhile. It's not an aesthetic that I adhere to, but these youth have things to say about what is happening, and they are us, and they're all part of what's happening at KPFA."

Jay Imani, a young Black man on KPFA's local advisory board, told me, "Young people recognize how important alternative media is. One of the things we definitely want to see is some way we can get out what young people are doing, how people are organizing, what are the struggles going on that concern young people, such as the criminalization of youth on a mass scale across the U.S., the militarization of the police force all across the nation, and what young people are doing to combat those sorts of things."

Robbie Osman picked up the beat: "KPFA in exile has been a KPFA in healthy transformation. We were in contact with the community in one way, which was that our doors have always been open for people working for progressive causes to come in and use KPFA. But KPFA needs to be young and more vibrant and more open to community influence. And I think that has started to take place. KPFA in exile has been much more genuinely rooted in the community in that way than KPFA was before. And we need to make sure that that's reflected in the way we go back on the air."

As Dennis Bernstein put it at one on the many rallies: "Do we want change? We live for change! From the bottom up, not from the top down. Not from Washington, DC, not from Houston, but from here in the community, from the bottom up!"

Stay tuned.

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