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KPFA staff stalls fall fundraiser decision

By Jeffrey Obser Daily Planet Staff
Thursday October 25, 2001

The standoff between KPFA Radio and its parent Pacifica network tensed up a notch on Tuesday when staff and volunteers decided at a staff meeting to delay a decision on whether and how to hold an autumn on-air fundraiser. 

“Everybody decided just to hang on and to wait and stall,” said Barbara Lubin, a programming volunteer on “Flashpoints” and leader of alternative fundraising efforts since the network shut down the station for several weeks in 1999. 

Pacifica, which holds the license to KPFA and four other stations, and holds its purse strings, last week sent word that it faced financial difficulties if it failed to raise money.  

“We have been told that we need to do a fundraiser and we need to commence our fund drive soon, that we need basically the cash flow in order to meet expenses,” said assistant station manager Phil Osegueda. 

KPFA normally holds four on-air fundraisers every year, and Lubin said the station should be $300,000 in the black right now. Instead, she said, the station is about $100,000 behind in paying its bills.  

Heading to trial with four listener and staff lawsuits to fight the network’s almost three-year campaign to control and radically change KPFA and the network’s four other stations, KPFA staff is inclined to resist sending listeners’ money to help Pacifica pay for “high-priced spin doctors and lawyers,” said Local Advisory Board Chair Sherry Gendelman.The network has spent $2 million from its member stations’ listener fundraising drives on lawyers, public relations firms, and armed guards, since it launched a battle for centralized control of its affiliate stations when it refused to renew the contract of KPFA manager Nicole Sawaya in March of 1999, according to Lubin. 

“I think they’ve used our money to pay for lawyers, to kill us actually,” Lubin said. “To try and bring us down.” 

Nerves were on edge at KPFA late last week when Pacific Gas & Electric sent notice that unpaid electric bills of over $9,500 would result in a shutdown of the station’s electricity on Monday. 

Pacifica has apparently paid those bills, said Osegueda. But the pressure is on to approach the listeners for money – and with KPFA the last remaining holdout against the national board’s designs, the stakes are high. 

Last fall, with the apparent acquiescence of slim 6-5 majority on the  

Pacifica National Board, executive director Bessie Wash fired management and asserted control at WBAI, the last station beside KPFA to hang onto its programming independence. In August, Pacifica severed its relationship with the staff of the nationally-syndicated Democracy Now! news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and still aired by KPFA and other community stations around the country. 

And in September, the board expanded its majority by five new members in a telephone meeting, during which each new majority-selected member was instantly seated and given the right to vote on all the following nominations.  

“They’re willing to lower their standards to increase the probability of getting what they want through procedural trickery,” said Tomas Moran, one of the five “dissident” pro-KPFA board members. 

Those who attended Tuesday’s meeting kept uniformly silent on Wednesday about the content of the discussion, but all those interviewed confirmed the meeting was a difficult one, centered on the question of whether any fundraising decision could provoke Pacifica or, conversely, appease it. 

A letter handed out beforehand by Robbie Osman, a KPFA programmer who was briefly taken off the air by Pacifica in 1999, quoted Ken Ford, one of the majority board members, in the San Francisco Examiner this week as he speculated on how many lower-power alternative stations the network could purchase by selling KPFA and sister station WBAI in New York. 

“We have to face an admittedly frightening situation,” the letter read. “The present board leadership will not be prevented by our agreeing to be ‘good.’ When there are no longer any obstacles to a sale, our being nice will not keep them from cashing in on what they see as a $150 million asset.”  

Three options were on the table in addition to a normal fundraiser (none was chosen): Raise money on the air for an alternate fund not connected to Pacifica; raise funds on the air while telling listeners that their money might help Pacifica’s efforts, or continue to raise money off the air only. 

Six different funds are already taking donations to help KPFA staff and listener lawsuits against the network, which will require lawyers to fly around the country taking some 20 to 30 depositions. 

The legal showdown is due to begin in Alameda County Superior Court on Jan. 7. In four lawsuits against the national network, dissident national board members and KPFA local advisory board members allege that the practices of Pacifica’s national executive committee and board have violated both state law and the non-profit foundation’s bylaws on several counts. They demand that all board members seated since those alleged violations be removed. 

Calls for comment from Pacifica’s public relations firm were not returned on Tuesday or Wednesday. 

Amidst maneuvering to keep Pacifica at bay and tension over being a lonely anti-war voice at a fiercely patriotic national moment, KPFA community members are holding their cards close to their vests, keeping a close eye on the door, and dreading the telephone, Osegueda said. 

“My phone rang (when a reporter called) and I’m like, ‘Is it going to be them?’” he said, referring to Pacifica. 

Moran said he feared that with programmer Amy Goodman out of the way, the board may be ready to make another move.  

“I think they could potentially be ready to take on KPFA,” Moran said, “because they need to put this phase of whatever they’re trying to do behind them so they can start fundraising money with whatever their new constituency is going to be.” 



In other news at KPFA, the station was briefly evacuated and programming ceased Wednesday, when a bomb scare was called into the station at about 5:30 p.m. Police cordoned off the area, searched the building and reopened the station at about 6:30 p.m. Tensions have run high lately at the station, which is broadcasting anti-war programs in a sometimes hostile climate.