Oct 1 1999

Selling Off Pacifica?

The U.S. media system has very few places where dissenting voices can be regularly heard, unconstrained by the interests of corporate owners or the censorship of advertiser dependence. There may be no more important exceptions to this rule than the five radio stations owned by the Pacifica Foundation–the Bay Area’s KPFA, Los Angeles’ KPFK, New York’s WBAI, D.C.’s WPFW and Houston’s KPFT. But how long these stations will continue to exist is very much an open question.

Pacifica has long been torn by charges that its national board, led by U.S. Civil Rights Commission chief Mary Frances Berry, is bent on taking the network in a more timid, ratings-driven, commercialized direction. Tensions mounted in February 1999, when the board completed a centralization of power that stripped away any governing role from the stations’ local advisory boards. Further protests were provoked on March 31, when popular KPFA station manager Nicole Sawaya was let go, and when long-time Pacifica host Larry Bensky was fired for discussing Sawaya’s ouster on-air, in apparent defiance of Pacifica‘s “dirty laundry” rule.

But perhaps the most damaging crisis at Pacifica was sparked by the accidental release of an email message from Pacifica board member (and Berry ally) Micheal Palmer–a message indicating that the sale of one or more stations might be on the Pacifica agenda.

“I was under the impression there was support in the proper quarters, and a definite majority, for shutting down that unit [KPFA] and re-programming immediately,” Palmer wrote in the July 13 message. “Has that changed? Is there consensus among the national staff that anything other than that is acceptable/bearable?” After noting that, due to “the best radio market in history,” KPFA could sell for $65 million to $75 million, Palmer suggested that an even “more beneficial disposition would be of the New York signal.”

The Palmer memo blamed Pacifica‘s “slow financial death” on the institution’s “self-imposed constraint on asset redeployment that leaves us cash-starved.” Palmer suggested that the Pacifica board turn to experts–“whether from Wall Street, NPR/CPB, Microsoft or otherwise”–who could teach them about “radio and Pacifica‘s position in it so that informed decisions can be made…. This board needs to be educated, quickly, and to take action that will be far more controversial than the KPFA situation. How can we get there?”

When Pacifica reporter Dennis Bernstein tried to report on this glimpse into the thinking of Pacifica management’s inner circle, he was summarily suspended and taken out of KPFA‘s studio by armed guards. The situation degenerated into a lock-out of the entire KPFA staff and produced the largest protests seen in Berkeley since the Vietnam War.

While Pacifica acknowledged the authenticity of the Palmer memo, Mary Francis Berry took pains to explain that its proposals did not reflect the thinking of the board. “KPFA and all of Pacifica‘s other frequencies are not for sale, and the board is not considering selling any of them,” Berry said in a July 19 statement released by Pacifica.

But that assurance was soon contradicted, when Pacifica board member Pete Bramson came forward after a closed board meeting to say that, yes, the board was considering and had discussed selling KPFA. In a statement released July 28, Bramson said that Pacifica board vice chair David Acosta had

proposed selling the KPFA frequency, which has an estimated value of $65 to 75 million…. With a small portion of the proceeds of the sale of KPFA, Acosta proposed that Pacifica set up another Northern California station–perhaps in Palo Alto, which Mary Berry said might be a friendlier city than Berkeley. A possible Palo Alto station would have only a fraction of the potential audience that KPFA currently can reach.

Bramson added that Berry “called me a fascist thug for disagreeing with her.”

In 1997, when Berry agreed to chair Pacifica‘s already troubled board, she issued a caveat:

I also do not, though, intend for this organization to destroy my reputation. If it ever appears to me that being associated with this organization is about to destroy my reputation for credibility, for candor, for honesty, for responsibility and integrity, then I will resign. I’m telling you that right now.

Berry’s conditions for stepping down appear to have changed. She reportedly told a group of WBAI staffers (Flashpoints, 8/25/99): “If you want me to stay, I will go. But the minute you ask me to go I am here forever.”