It could become a notable media crime of the century — the killing of the strongest progressive radio station in the United States. Or it may turn out to be a case of attempted murder, ultimately averted by the determined struggle of a vibrant 50-year-old named KPFA.
With its back against the wall, the nation's first listener-supported radio station is fighting for its life. Days ago, sources confirmed what many supporters of KPFA Radio have suspected for a long time: KPFA's parent company, the Pacifica Foundation, is moving toward sale of the station.
The foundation could gain $60 million or more from such a sale. But the loss to much of Northern California — which has received the unique political and cultural offerings of the Berkeley-based station since 1949 — would be incalculable.
KPFA has overcome many big obstacles. During the McCarthy era, pseudo-patriotic zealots tried to shut it down. Financial problems and internal strife often afflicted the fiercely independent station while its unabashed leftist politics and diverse cultural programs clashed with the mainstream mush dominating the radio band.
With escalating ruthlessness in recent months, the Pacifica Foundation — which also owns noncommercial radio stations in Los Angeles, Houston, New York City and Washington — has subjected KPFA's staff to repeated attacks on free speech. Journalists have been harassed and fired for the content of their on-air reports. One evening in mid-July, longtime staffers were among more than 50 people arrested for "trespassing" at the station after management interrupted a newscast in mid-sentence and imposed a lockout.
According to a spokesperson for Pacifica board chair Mary Frances Berry, last Tuesday night she "emphatically denied" that selling KPFA is "an option being seriously considered." But the next day, the latest deception fell apart.
"I take no pleasure in being here today," board member Pete Bramson told a news conference Wednesday afternoon, "but I cannot remain silent while Pacifica's national board holds serious discussions in secret about selling KPFA." In fact, during a phone meeting of the national Pacifica board — only hours before Berry's denial on Tuesday — the board vice chair had proposed taking out a $5 million loan against the value of KPFA's license. And, as Bramson noted, the proposal involved "selling the KPFA frequency, which has an estimated value of $65-$75 million."
In the tradition of gutsy whistleblowers, Bramson spoke openly about the private meeting. He provided chilling details of a discussion in which leaders of the board talked about selling a precious and beloved radio station as if it were a tract of barren real estate.
"We do need our radio station back," Bramson said at the Berkeley news conference. "I call publicly on my fellow board members to do the right thing and give KPFA back to its community." Such pleas resonate with people across the country who have often lost their favorite radio stations to gradual corporatization or outright sale.
Last Wednesday evening, with tensions soaring still higher and a mass demonstration set to fill the streets of Berkeley on Saturday, it appeared that Pacifica chair Berry was suddenly beginning to offer some concessions. The details were murky as the station's thousands of active supporters waited to see her offer in writing.
But one overarching reality remained clear: Whether or not KPFA's staff would be back inside the station's building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way at the start of August, the key issues of the huge dispute were sure to remain.
Can KPFA revive its tradition of free speech and fearless challenge to corporate power on the air? Can the station, after half a century, turn back the authoritarian forces eager to crush its most vibrant characteristics?
The answers that emerge from the struggle to save KPFA are sure to reverberate far beyond the range of the station's transmitters. Several decades ago, across America, the noncommercial portion of the FM band was explicitly set aside for the public — but few of the radio stations that call themselves "listener supported" have been willing to open their decision- making process to direct community participation.
Public radio's evocations of democratic values on the airwaves are undermined when stations treat democracy as a concept that should not intrude past their own front doors. In such a context, the governance of the medium is the message.