Last Wednesday afternoon, radio journalist Aileen Alfandary stood on the sidewalk in front of the building where she has worked for many years. She looked out of place. The deadline for the KPFA evening news was fast approaching — but all the doors were locked.
I asked Alfandary to describe what had happened to her the night before. She replied with a quiet voice: "I was arrested on charges of `trespassing’ in a newsroom where I’ve worked for 20 years."
Some of her colleagues were also among the more than 50 station supporters arrested on the night of July 13. The owner of the Berkeley, Calif., station — the Pacifica Foundation — had ordered KPFA employees to choose between journalism and job security. They chose journalism. Now they’ve been locked out.
To make matters worse, the foundation also owns major noncommercial radio stations in Los Angeles, Houston, New York City and Washington. For several months now, with a flurry of officious memos, foundation authorities have demanded adherence to a "gag rule" against covering Pacifica-related issues on the air — issues crucial to future possibilities for free-speech radio.
With a signal that reaches most households in Northern California, KPFA is the oldest listener-supported radio station in the United States. Its mix of wide-ranging news and public affairs programs along with diverse cultural offerings has earned fierce loyalty.
All across the country, hundreds of public radio stations are now paying close attention to the conflict between KPFA and Pacifica. Can a public radio station truly function with the significant democratic participation of listeners? Or must a few unaccountable people be in a position to dictate basic policies?
Because KPFA has tremendous public support in the San Francisco area, the Pacifica Foundation keeps discovering that it can’t intimidate the paid staff, unpaid volunteers or listeners. Since early spring, one firing after another has only strengthened the resistance.
During KPFA’s on-air pledge drive in May, more than 85 percent of the approximately 7,000 contributors formally notified the station that they were pledging under protest to express opposition to the foundation’s top-down policies. But the de facto referendum seemed to make no impression on Pacifica’s leadership.
On July 13, management decided to put down its iron heel. The foundation’s executive director called a sudden meeting of KPFA staff and distributed a memo titled "Appropriate Conduct." It declared that "Pacifica is committed to enforcing its policies and my previous directives prohibiting on-air or in-the-media discussion of matters pertaining to Pacifica or KPFA management decisions…"
Hours after distribution of the memo, the daily "Flashpoints" public-affairs program went on the air. Most of the 60 minutes were devoted to discussing issues of journalism and racial diversity in America. Then came a segment that included tape from a news conference held earlier in the day by a few of the dozen people who had been arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience at the station in June.
At 6 p.m., as usual, "Flashpoints" ended and the KPFA evening news began. After a lead story about health care proposals in Washington, anchor Mark Mericle moved on to read a report about the latest developments in the dispute between KPFA and Pacifica. Suddenly, listeners heard "Flashpoints" producer and co-host Dennis Bernstein yelling his protests as security guards surrounded him.
Moments after going off the air, Bernstein had been told that he was being placed on "administrative leave." Bernstein refused to go quietly. Reporting live, Mericle began to inform listeners about what was happening in the studio a few feet away.
Then, in mid-sentence, the air went dead. It spluttered, and Mericle’s reportorial voice returned. But only for a few moments. The air went dead again. When sound returned in a couple of minutes, the station was broadcasting a taped speech from Pacifica archives.
I’ll never forget how chilling it was to hear this real-life drama — of journalistic courage and management suppression — as it occurred, live, on the radio. It sounded totalitarian.
Bernstein declined to obey orders to leave the studios where he had worked for so long. Likewise, when a newly arrived management operative (just flown in from Houston) ordered news department co-directors Mericle and Alfandary to get out of the newsroom and leave the building, they declined to defer to his illegitimate authority. Arrests came later that night.
The battle between KPFA and Pacifica is far from over. It’s a struggle with profound implications for public radio. Much hangs in the balance.
Staff, volunteers and listeners continue to gather in front of the KPFA building on behalf of community radio and social justice. Often, their numbers are so large that they spill out onto the street. Appropriately, it is named Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
Background information is available at www.savepacifica.cjb.net