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Once-fired Coughlin named Pacifica’s executive director

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet staff
Tuesday January 15, 2002

... And they lived happily ever after. 

Don’t believe it happens? Even hard-nosed cynics at Berkeley’s KPFA radio are saying such endings are possible. 

At a weekend Pacifica Board Foundation meeting in New York, former Pacifica Network News director Dan Coughlin – fired for airing a 30-second news piece on protests at the network – was named executive director of the foundation. 

Fired programmer-turned-volunteer Larry Bensky was brought back onto the paid staff at KPFA and fired or banned staff and volunteers at Pacifica’s New York station, WBAI, are coming back to work.  

The station headquarters, moved from Berkeley to Washington, D.C. in the heat of the clash between the local station and national management, might come home to the offices adjacent to KPFA’s office at 1929 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. This will be discussed during the March board meeting in Los Angeles. 

In a phone interview Monday, Bensky applauded Coughlin’s hiring.  

“This is a major, positive step,” he said. “It signifies a return to Pacifica’s basic mission.” 

KPFA, the oldest of the five listener-sponsored stations, was founded in Berkeley in 1949 by Pacifist Lew Hill. But the Pacifica Foundation Board was taken over several years ago by people who did not have Hill’s vision in mind, according to Bensky. The board changed its bylaws and became self-perpetuating, no longer including representation from the various local advisory boards.  

A popular KPFA station manager was terminated in 1999, causing listeners and programmers to take to the streets and the airwaves in protest. The movement to make the board more democratic and accountable to listeners spread across the country. Lawsuits were filed and recently settled through mediation in an Alameda County courtroom. 

“It’s an amazing turn of events,” said Coughlin, 38, speaking on Monday from New York.  

His goal? “To restore accountability, the democratic process and transparency to Pacifica.” 

The board is in the process of changing into one in which at least five of the members will be elected by local advisory boards of the five stations. “Pacifica will become the first national media organization to be democratically run,” Coughlin said. 

The new executive director, whose interim position is in place for just 60 days, has a daunting task before him. “The organization is functionally bankrupt,” he said. The former board is thought to have squandered its listener-generated funds on lawyers to fight the listener and staff-sponsored law suits, security guards to keep those fired and banned out of the stations, consultants and public relations firms. 

“The rebels have come down from the hills to find the (bad guys) have looted” the treasury, he said. 

But Coughlin said he’s ready to face the challenge, noting that KPFA came out of its crisis stronger than ever. 

An outstanding question, yet to be examined by the board, is whether the headquarters will be brought back to Berkeley. “In our view, it’s an essential part of the process of justice and reconciliation,” Coughlin said.