In a hotly contested election race that ends Monday, two groups are vying for nine open seats on KPFA 94.1 FM’s Listener Station Board.
The listener and staff vote could determine control of the board.
The board in its current form was created to ensure democratic oversight of the station after an internal conflict temporarily shut the station down in the summer of 1999. During the conflict, Pacifica, the foundation that owns KPFA and its sister stations, locked staff out after employees and others protested plans to sell the station. Yet since the first board members were elected under new bylaws in 2003, infighting about the direction of the station has continued.
“I have been around since 1969, and I have seen many local and national boards,” said Larry Bensky, the host of KPFA’s show Sunday Salon. “The current one is absolutely the least supportive and least constructive that I can remember.”
Several controversial decisions have created a split on the board and People’s Radio and KPFA Forward—the two groups running in the election—are divided along some of the same lines.
Principal among the fights was the decision by the board to order Interim General Manager Jim Bennett to move Democracy Now!, the station’s most popular show, to a different time slot. One of the 10 points of action on the website for the slate People’s Radio is to stick with that decision.
According to Brian Edwards-Tiekert, a reporter with the evening news program, that decision raised questions about the role of the board, prompting many to allege that it was micro-managing.
“The board needs to be there to be a check on management,” said Edwards-Tiekert. “But it needs to stop somewhere. It cannot take on management functions.”
People’s Radio has also taken the controversial stand of demanding that the station’s programming council be democratically elected “with strong listener representation and the authority to make programming decisions by majority vote.”
As it is, explains Susan Stone, a member of the programming council, the group is already one of the “most highly representative bodies we have under our roof.”
“If it got any larger we would probably have to rent a hall,” she said.
Currently, there are community representatives, board members, and several staff on the board. Without the guarantee of staff on the board, some are concerned listener representatives would not have the experience to make informed decisions about programming.
“There is nothing in the bylaws which would indicate that every programming decision would be debated by a group of people who might not know what they are doing,” said Bensky.
Michael Hernandez, an incumbent affiliated with the other group, KPFA Forward, said he questions whether People’s Radio is actually focused on democratizing the station. Instead, he sees their campaign as a power grab.
“What we are coming to is a point where people are divided between letting KPFA be KPFA or making KPFA their statement or bully pulpit; a place where they can make their presentation unopposed and to hell with everyone else,” he said.
Members and supporters of People’s Radio fire back that KPFA Forward is guilty of the same. They insist their campaign, including their demands about Democracy Now! and the programming council, are consistent with the station’s goal to insure that it is democratically run.
“They have their own little turf to protect,” said Michael Lubin, an incumbent board member who is partial to the People’s Radio slate.
He denies the accusations of micro-management. Instead he said he supports both the decision by the board to order the Democracy Now! change, and the decision to democratize the programming council because both decisions are attempts to involve the broader community.
Part of the larger problem, both sides agree, is the vagueness of the bylaw that defines the role of the board. Under a subhead entitled, “Powers and Duties,” the bylaws 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.”
Both sides of the debate point to this section to defend their separate agendas.
On top of the infighting, the election has also had technical problems. The election was originally scheduled to end on Nov. 25. But according to Brian Johns, the election director for KPFA, some ballots were printed and then mailed late. The printing coincided with the national election, which left most printers swamped, he said.
The station is also in danger of not meeting quorum. If they do not get a 10 percent turnout of listener voters, the election will be void and the incumbents will stay in their spots. As of Wednesday, 714 of the 2,831 listener members needed to reach quorum had mailed in their ballots. KPFT, a Pacifica affiliate in Houston, did not meet quorum in their recent election.
The board election, according to Johns, has cost $169,500.