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Pacifica wars’ end in sight

By Judith Scherr, Daily Planet staff
Friday December 14, 2001

After almost three years of strife, peace may be returning to the five listener-sponsored Pacifica Foundation radio stations.  

The network’s board members and the listeners, local advisory members and “dissident” board members who sued them agreed to a settlement Wednesday in the Alameda County Superior Court. The agreement places the stations in the hands of those who have been fighting for a democratic board of directors. 

“The good guys have won,” said Larry Bensky, who now volunteers as a programmer, having been fired by Pacifica in 1999 as national affairs correspondent. “We accomplished the best deal we could have gotten.” 

“It’s a real opportunity to try to turn the network around,” added KPFA Interim Station Manager Jim Bennett. “Now we can get KPFA back on track financially.” 

The fight that pitted programmers and listener-sponsors of KPFA against the Pacifica Board began March 31, 1999 in Berkeley, when Pacifica management refused to renew the contract of a popular station manager.  

Programmers condemned the action on the air, and management instituted a gag order, demanding the issue not be made public. Programmers ignored the ban and Pacifica fired or banned several of them, eventually boarding up and closing down the station and broadcasting piped-in music. 

Listeners reacted by rallying in the street almost daily, camping out at the station every night and even chaining themselves to the station doors. Their civil disobedience provoked 100 arrests during that summer. One march amassed 10,000 supporters. 

The station re-opened about three weeks after it closed, and the fight moved to the state legislature, where the Joint Audit Committee asked to review Pacifica’s finances – the Foundation had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on armed security guards and a public relations firm that summer.  

And the fight went to the courts – listeners and “dissident” board members sued the “majority” Pacifica board, contending that the board was not adhering to the network’s mission to serve its listener-sponsors, and was acting in an undemocratic manner, including withholding information on the finances of the foundation from board members. 

The clash between listeners/programmers and the board spread to other stations across the country. One year ago, in what is now known as the “Christmas coup” WBAI-NY staff was fired and banned from the station. Democracy Now! the network’s nation-wide news magazine left WBAI alleging harassment by management and is now heard only on KPFA and Pacifica affiliates, and not on the other four Pacifica stations. 

Wednesday’s agreement is the resolution of four consolidated lawsuits, which had been slated to go to trial Jan. 8. It states that the interim board will serve for 15 months and will be comprised of: 

• Five members chosen from the present “majority” board. (They are Marion Barry, former Washington, D.C. mayor, Wendell Johns, a vice president at Fannie Mae; George Barnstone, James Furguson, Burt Lee.) 

• The five members of the present “minority” board. (Tomas Moran and Pete Bramson of KPFA, Leslie Cagan of WBAI-New York, Rob Robinson of WPFW-Washington, D.C. and Rabbi Aaron Kriegel of KPFK-Los Angeles.) 

• Five members, one chosen from each of the five stations’ local advisory boards. (These members will eventually be replaced by persons selected from elected local advisory boards – at present only KPFA elects its LAB.) 

KPFA activists say the current “minority” position will become the majority, since “dissidents” control four out of the five local advisory boards. 

Decisions will be made by majority vote, but that majority must have one vote from each of the three different interest groups on the board, or must garner two-thirds support. If no consensus can be reached, then the board takes the question to Judge Ronald Sabraw of Alameda County Superior Court for resolution. 

While she signed on to the agreement, litigant and KPFA activist Barbara Lubin says she would have preferred that decisions be made by a simple majority vote. But “it’s as good as we can get,” she said. 

Sherry Gendelman, chair of KPFA’s Local Advisory Board, was more upbeat: “We got what we needed to achieve the restoration of the network,” she said. “It gives us the basic tools and structure to pull this off.” 

The alternative would have been to “gamble” on a trial, said Gendelman, an attorney. She said that she thinks any impasse will be easily resolved in Judge Sabraw’s court. 

The board will be charged with writing new bylaws as well as resolving a number of questions the settlement describes as “hot issues.” 

They include the question of returning “Democracy Now!” to all five stations; the question of Pacifica National News stringers who went out on strike, protesting censorship of the news by Pacifica management; the fate of the New York station staff fired and banned from WBAI; the issue of doing an audit and hiring a comptroller; ending gag rules, currently imposed at the four stations other than KPFA. 

Barbara Lubin said she was exhausted from the fight, but cautioned that it’s not yet over. It is still to be a “long, long struggle,” she said, noting that the foundation is $2 - $3 million in debt. 

Interim Station Manager Bennett, who has had to concentrate on keeping the station running – Pacifica is behind paying KPFA’s bills – said that now he can focus on what is important. “It gives us more of a chance to concentrate on radio.” 

Robert Farrell, former Los Angeles city councilmember, a member of the board “majority” and chair of the Pacifica Board until the new board is formally constituted – possibly next week – said he is elated by the agreement. “It points Pacifica in a new direction, toward a new future,” he said. “It will be a challenge to all of us to keep this momentum going.” 

And Bensky said it would give stations across the country an opportunity to hear programming which fulfills the mission of the station, founded in 1949 by pacifists. The fact that people in four listener areas could not hear Democracy Now!, the news reported by the striking Pacific Network News stringers and Bensky’s national perspective, especially during the critical post 9-11 era, “is in direct conflict with the mission of the organization,” Bensky said. 

Turning his attention to Pacifica supporters, he added: “We accomplished this only because of tens of thousands of people who would not give up and would not let us give up. It’s heartening to see how many people get it – free speech has to be fought for. We can’t let it be stolen.”