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Pacifica under scrutiny on Hill

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet staff
Wednesday May 16, 2001

Activists in the movement to save listener-sponsored radio took their message to the halls of Congress Tuesday, when “dissident” Pacifica Foundation board members, fired staffers and banned volunteers spoke to members of the Progressive Caucus, in an informal hearing. 

Opening the hearings which he had called, Rep. Major Owens, D-Brooklyn (N.Y.), told caucus members that the Pacifica stations “fill a community gap for a significant number of citizens who...are poorly served by the mass media.” He also pointed out that the stations are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission and the Internal Revenue Service, and therefore ought to work “in accordance with their original government-approved purpose.” 

Those speaking out at the hearings, co-sponsored by  

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, alleged that the Pacifica  

Governing Board was no longer faithful to it’s stated mission. 

Pacifica radio, founded in Berkeley by pacifist Lew Hill in 1949, is a grouping of five listener-sponsored stations. Its governing board holds the stations’ licenses. Conflicts between Berkeley station KPFA and the board grew heated in March 1999 when Pacifica’s executive director terminated a popular station manager – activists alleged because she asked too many questions about finances – then fired or banned programmers who talked about the termination on the air. The board eventually shut down the Berkeley station, to which activists reacted with daily demonstrations, one as large as 10,000 people. 

At Christmas time, several staff at New York’s WBAI were similarly fired without warning; a number of other programmers and volunteers have since been banned from the New York station and a gag order has been enforced to varying degrees, prohibiting the staff from speaking about the situation. 

Pacifica spokesperson Angela Jones did not return calls. 

Owens had a personal reason for sponsoring the informal hearings: There was a March 5 incident at WBAI in which Owens, invited to participate in a WBAI talk show, had his microphone turned off by the station manager. 

In the following days, on the floor of Congress, Owens talked about the “weird and frightening experience of being gagged by a radio station manager in my own home city of New York.”  

Pacifica boardmembers had been asked to attend the session, but instead sent a person to read a brief statement. She was not authorized to respond to questions. Signed by Executive Director Bessie Wash, the statement asserted that the Pacifica Governing Board alone manages the stations. “It is ultimately responsible for essential station functions,” and not the Local Advisory Boards or local station personnel. 

Much of the impassioned testimony, broadcast over KPFA but not over any of the other Pacifica stations, got to the heart of the conflict within the governing board. 

Rob Robinson, board member from Washington, D.C.,’s station WPFW, asserted that the terms of Board Chair David Acosta and Vice Chair John Murdock expired and that the executive director has not been evaluated, even when she “permits harassment and incivilities occur to members of Congress.” 

Thomas Moran, who represents KPFA on the board, told the caucus that he had been unable to get Pacifica’s financial statements since October. And where he has seen the statements, he said he has been unable to get clarity on what the line items mean.  

“Money has been spent outside of Paciifca’s mission,” he said, naming “spin doctors, lawyers and armed guards.” 

Similarly, banned WBAI volunteer programmer Mimi Rosenberg talked about the Local Advisory Board’s attempt to find out how the station’s money was spent. “There was an infusion of capital from a trust of $2 million,” she said, but the board did not know from where the money had come. Further, it did not know where the station has invested its funds. “There’s not a line by line breakdown,” she said. 

Fired WBAI Program Director Bernard White talked about the numerous staff people who had been fired and the volunteer programmers who had been banned from the station. “Not only the people who work at the station have been victimized, so have the listeners,” he said. Calling on the caucus members, he said: “I hope you will raise your voice in opposition to this hostile takeover.” 

There was also a representative from the Houston Station who had once done a show geared to Native Americans, but had been taken off the air, along with other programmers whose shows were directed to the growing minority populations in Houston.  

Lee said the comments had shown her that the conflict between the governing board was not isolated to KPFA. “This is happening nation wide,” she said. 

Similarly programmer Larry Bensky, who now volunteers after having been fired from his paid public affairs post, agreed that taking the hearings to the national level was critical. 

In a phone interview, after his on-air anchoring of the hearings, Bensky pointed to the cumulative effect of several events: these hearings, the hearings last year before the State Joint Audit Committee and subsequent rulings by the Attorney General’s office permitting a lawsuit naming the Pacifica Foundation to move forward. 

“It’s not the end; (the Progressive Caucus) intends to investigate,” he said.