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Newport to Leave KPFA

Friday February 06, 2004

KPFA General Manager Gus Newport announced Monday that he’s stepping down after eight short months at the helm of the Bay Area’s best-known alternative radio station. Newport said personal commitments, including the need to be with his 91-year-old mother who lives in New York, contributed to the decision. 

With local advisory board elections ending Thursday, Newport’s decision comes at a time when KPFA and Pacifica (the parent organization that runs KPFA) are already in the throes of change. After two plus years of internal struggle, KPFA—along with the other Pacifica stations including WBAI in New York, KPFK in Los Angeles, KPFT in Houston, and WPFW in Washington D.C.—is reorganizing its governing structure in an effort to democratize leadership. 

With a commitment to continue advising the station, Newport said a new general manager without outside obligations is needed to steer the station in the time of change. 

“I came to the conclusion that the time was right,” said Newport. “I love [KPFA] but it needs the full attention [of a general manager].”  

Jim Bennett, who filled in as interim general manager for almost three years during the battle with Pacifica over control of KPFA, will step in again until a replacement is found. The new local advisory board, which will be seated next week after the votes are counted, will begin its tenure by establishing a hiring committee. 

Bennett, along with others saddened by Newport’s decision, voices high hopes for a new era of stability as local boards settle around the country. “We basically have to catch our breath [and move on]” he said. 

Others are frustrated by Newport’s decision. Local advisory board Andrea Deflon, a volunteer producer and engineer at the station, said she never thought Newport was right for the job. 

She said others were impressed by his lengthy activist credentials. Newport served as the mayor of Berkeley from 1979 to 1986 and played a leading role as Berkeley’s became the first city in the nation to divest from South African investments. 

After his time as mayor, he led the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a major urban redevelopment project in Boston which has served as the model for other projects across the country. He has held several teaching positions, including one at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  

“The main problem is Gus is a politician, and a good one at that,” she said. “[But] he’s used to having a whole staff under him.” The GM job needed more hands on attention and less delegation, she said. 

“What he’s saying with this decision is just that this is a job [he] doesn’t want to take on, and that’s OK. It’s not causing havoc, it’s just unfortunate, we’re still going forward. We need someone who understands the broader picture, the broader Pacifica notion. We’re up against the Right; we have to be visionary.” 

Local advisory board member Mary Berg agreed with Deflon that the GM position demanded different skills than Newport brought to the job. 

“I’m sure Gus is very talented and could pick it up. But why would a man in his seventies take that up?” she said. The whole process “was unfortunate for Gus.” 

Willie Ratcliff, chair of the local advisory board, said nobody should be hired before the new advisory board is seated. The station was going through too much change to try and recruit a new GM, he said, and Newport got caught in the middle. 

“[Newport has] all the qualifications that are needed. If things were all right he’d still be GM,” Ratcliff said. 

He said part of the problem stemmed from an internal struggle over guidance. 

“[The staff] are afraid that [management] is going to usurp their power, they’re going to have a boss and they don’t like it,” Ratcliff said. “If you can’t get people to work with you than why are you going to beat your brains out, it made him sick.” 

Newport said he did his best to stay out of internal struggles, and stressed that his departure results from a need to attend to personal commitments. “If there was a power dynamic I wasn’t aware of it, I managed to stay above all the fray,” he said. 

Larry Bensky, who served as station manager from 1974-77 and was national affairs correspondent for Pacifica, produces and hosts Sunday Salon. He said KPFA attracts people with strong opinions who are passionate about the struggle to keep KPFA afloat. The ensuing chaos, he said, was too much for Newport. 

“[KPFA] has been a place where people of passion and people who are dissidents tend to gather. There are a lot of strong personalities,” he said. “It’s very hard even at the best of times to manage such a passionate group of people.”  

In the end, Bensky said, Newport’s inability to take control over such a complex media outlet helped the decision to resign. 

“His biggest mistake was not getting more people into positions of management and administration who had radio experience,” he said. “He was confused and alienated and understandably so.” 

Everyone interviewed said they are resolved to see KPFA through the search. Accompanying the chaos and frustration is an air of excitement about the new local boards and the elections for the national Pacifica board that will follow. 

“We are saddened that Gus is leaving; his being here meant a lot to us,” said Bennett. “KPFA beyond a doubt is very fragile, and anything that happens in terms of stability, we have to do our best to keep it afloat.” 

“Gus wanted to make KPFA more powerful and make it a more effective communication tool for the left, and that’s what we have to continue to do. We have to do it in a way that brings us all forward.”