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Dispute Heats Up Between KPFA Board and Staff

Friday July 30, 2004

Only months after electing a new Local Station Board, Berkeley’s KPFA radio station is again facing heated internal debate reminiscent of that which consumed the station back in 1999. 

According to some employees the issue has been festering for months, but it became public after a long list of paid and unpaid staff members sent an open letter to the Local Station Board (LSB) detailing their concerns about the board. In the letter, staffers allege that LSB infighting has “spilled over into attacking KPFA staff to such a degree that the workplace is rife with fear, anger, compromised productivity and the lowest morale since 1999.” 

The LSB was originally devised to prevent a re-run of what protesters called an attempt by Pacifica (the non-profit that oversees KPFA and its affiliate stations) to mainstream the station. But since its inception, said signers, the LSB has only made things worse.  

Specific allegations in the letter include: 

• “Some staff on the payroll prior to 1999 have been accused of being saboteurs from former Pacifica Executive Director Pat Scott’s regime who continue to block progress and continue in taking down the station…” 

• “The LSB chair [Riva Enteen] asked that a now-resolved internal staff issue be broadcast far and wide to the public via e-mail, even though it was a personal and union matter beyond the purview of the LSB.” 

• The LSB chair [Riva Enteen] referred to the KPFA general manager [Jim Bennett] as the “kiss of death,” as part of her criticism of his “ineptness at fundraising.” 

• Some members of the LSB have sought to cut music programming even though “the LSB does not have a mandate to make programming decisions.” 

The signers interviewed say their biggest concern is that when examined, the problems all seem to point to an attempt by the LSB to micro-manage, something they say the LSB swore up and down they wouldn’t do when they ran for their seats.  

In the letter, signers said they do not blame the problems on every single person on the board and said there are those who are trying to find a reasonable solution.  

“These people ran on their various campaign platforms not to micro-manage, but [instead] to foster a spirit of collaboration and to have respect for all who work at KPFA,” said Susan Stone, the director of the Arts and Humanities department and one of the people who signed the letter. 

When asked if the issue had turned into a power struggle, one signer who wished to remain anonymous said, “I wouldn’t put it exactly that way.” He then added, “But I don’t know if [board members] fully understand their position on the board.” 

“I think these kinds of actions put the station in jeopardy in a few different ways. The board’s role is not to micro-manage the station, they don’t have the skills to micromanage the station. If they try they are going to make some really big mistakes,” the signer said. 

Not all the staff signed the letter. Instead, several staff members signed a separate letter to “make is clear that not all members of the union/paid staff are of the opinion that the mentioned board members are problematic.” 

According to Brian Edwards-Tiekert, a reporter with the station, many of the problems crystalized earlier this year over a vote to change some of the morning programming. He said the issue became so polarized that it divided the LSB to a point where the staff were able to predict how each faction would vote on every issue. 

At stake was a proposed change in the morning programming schedule to move the station’s most popular show, Democracy Now, from a 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. spot to just one show at 7 a.m. The change was so controversial because it had the potential to affect the station’s most important fund raising period during each day, the slot right after Democracy Now. 

As it is now, Democracy Now goes over-schedule after the 9 a.m. show during fund drives with a live call-in from host Amy Goodman. Her call-in usually eats up half an hour of the world music program that follows. But according to Edwards-Tiekert, that call-in generates the most donation calls during the entire day and the world music program generates comparatively few. 

If Democracy Now were to be moved to 7 a.m., and went late during fund drives, it would eat up time from The Morning Show, which is second only to Democracy Now in generating funds. 

A decision to make the move was originally approved by the Program Council, which makes schedule decisions, but it was never implemented during previous General Manager Gus Newport’s tenure, nor under current Interim General Manager Jim Bennett. The issue came to a head when the LSB voted to go over Bennett and order the changes, giving the staff four months to implement them. 

Going over Bennett’s head raised concern among the staff, said Edwards-Tiekert, because while the LSB is involved in the decision making process, it is not supposed to have the only say. Although the by-laws for the LSB are somewhat vague, Edwards-Tiekert said concerned staff who opposed the decision are pointing to one section in particular that relates to problems they’ve raised. 

Under a subhead entitled “Powers and Duties,” the by-laws say the LSB has the power, duty and responsibility “to work with station management to ensure… that station policies and procedures for making programming decisions and for program evaluation are working in a fair, collaborative and respectful manner to provide quality programming.”   

When contacted by the Daily Planet, LSB chair Riva Enteen refused to comment, but instead referred the paper to Jeffrey Blankfort. Blankfort has never held a paid staff position at the station, but is a long-time activist involved in KPFA struggles. 

Blankfort called the allegation of micro-management completely unfounded and instead characterized the staff who signed the letter as a “junta” trying to control the station without outside input. 

He said the LSB instead is “charged by the listeners with running the station,” and should have the power to do so or will be “doomed” to being nothing but a “rubber stamp” for staff decisions. 

One of the anonymous signers disputed that, again citing the by-laws as saying the LSB is supposed to work with the station, not run it.  

According to Marla Cornelius, the training director for Compass Points, a non-profit organization that provides consulting, training and technical assistance to other non-profits, there are no clear rules that define how a board is supposed to interact with a non-profit but there are dominant models. 

Generally, she said, the main function of a board is governance, or ensuring that a nonprofit fulfills its mission. Broadly, boards act as supporting bodies that oversee the director, help raise funds, make sure the organization acts consistently with its non-profit tax status, and help with strategic planning. 

“They are supposed to be supporting the organization,” she said. “What that also means is that there is a trust ... that staff know what they are doing. And it’s the board’s job to hold them accountable but not so much to micromanage.” 

Her organization teaches workshops on the relationship between the board and nonprofit directors called “How to lead and when to follow.” 

“There are certain roles and responsibilities for each party,” she said. “Some are more appropriate for one or the other.” 

Both sides agree in theory that a strong new general manager will help the station steer clear of its current problems but they dispute the process of going about hiring one.  

Blankfort and other complain that the “larger KPFA community has not yet been invited to be part of this process, and needs to be.” 

Some of those who signed the letter concerning the LSB said those who have tried to step forward were immediately attacked. 

“When those people step forward there is an automatic shooting gallery that seems to take place which puts too many people on staff in a defensive position and distracts us from moving forward,” said Stone. 

The whole affair, said Stone, besides creating controversy on the inside, is preventing both parties from doing their jobs. Those who spoke to the paper said they were worried that they were spending more time on internal affairs than in getting the news out and producing programs for the station, a leading alternative news source. 

At the same time, other signers criticized board members for failing to perform some of their duties, particularly their job as fundraisers.