The turn-of-the-century battle cry “Whose station? Our station!” echoed through Berkeley streets as KPFA listener-supporters fought in daily demonstrations for control of the left-leaning flagship Pacifica radio station. The resistance to an attempted takeover by the national board was won in the courts where, among other guarantees, local listeners got the right to elect local station boards.
With nine of 18 listener board seats up for grabs this year (there are also three openings for the six staff spots elected by paid and volunteer staff) only 1,499 of some 26,000 eligible listener-supporters had cast mail-in ballots by mid-week; 2,603 members or 10 percent of the ballots must be returned by Nov. 15 to validate the election.
Many of the candidates are divided into two distinct slates: the Alliance for a Democratic KPFA (http://www.allianceforademocratickpfa.org) and the Concerned Listeners for KPFA (http://KPFAlisteners.org). Eight candidates are running as independents.
Each slate has lined up an impressive list of endorsers spanning the left political spectrum; both slates are demanding more extensive outreach and better programming. Each underscores the importance of hiring a long-term general manager and program director.
The Concerned slate grew out of a Media Reform Committee of the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club, though none of the candidates are Wellstone members.
The Alliance grew, in part, out of People’s Radio (http://peoplesradio.net), a group under whose banner a number of current board members ran in the last elections. People’s radio is supporting some, but not all, Alliance slate candidates and two independents.
Staff vs. listeners
Part of the difference between the two slates is the extent to which listeners or staff have a voice in control of the station.
“There’s a clique of people running the station,” said Alliance candidate Sasha Futran in a phone interview with the Daily Planet.
Alliance candidate Henry Norr, an occasional contributor to the Daily Planet and former S.F. Chronicle columnist, points to the short tenure of the last two general managers: “The staff, especially senior staff, drove out the last two general managers,” he said. “That’s not to say they didn’t have their faults, but staff seized on their mistakes. Staff didn’t want to be managed.”
Norr said he isn’t “calling for anyone’s head,” but working at KPFA “is not a lifetime appointment.”
“People don’t want to give up air time,” Futran said. “They don’t want new programming.”
But Conn Hallinan, a member of the Concerned slate and a Daily Planet columnist, condemns what he calls the Alliance slate’s “relentless assault on the staff.” While the Alliance slate often speaks of an “entrenched staff,” many new staff have been hired over the last few years, he said.
In defense of the staff, Concerned slate candidate Phoebe Anne Sorgen called the staff “underpaid and overworked.” While the Alliance calls the staff “entrenched,” Sorgen points to new programming since 2000 that includes Hard Knock Radio, Against the Grain, Saturday Morning Talkies, Voices of the Middle East, Pushing Limits, Countdown 2006, Guns and Butter, and Rock and Rebellion.
The board and programming
The Alliance slate is highly critical of KPFA programming. “There are a few very good programs and a lot of dead air-space,” Futran said. (The Alliance slate has supported freelance labor programmer Steve Zeltzer, first in his attempt to get more air time for Labor Collective programming and second when he was denied the status of a listener in his attempt to run for the board in that capacity.)
Norr said he wants to hear more debate of controversial subjects, such as “the 9/11 business.”
But Sorgen of the Concerned slate slammed the Alliance for getting into the “nitty gritty details,” contending they “think the board’s job is to determine programming.”
However, she continued, “The board’s job is not to determine programming. That’s part of the reason we haven’t hired a program director—all the infighting about Democracy Now!”
The Democracy Now! fight has dragged on for several years and is related to the Program Council decision (the Program Council is made up of listeners and staff) to move the popular public affairs magazine Democracy Now! from a 9 a.m. to a 7 a.m. slot. Instead it airs at 6 a.m. and at 9 a.m. Alliance slate members find this unsatisfactory.
“The program council approved the change; senior staff at the Morning Show did not want change,” Norr said. The General Manager was not able to make the program change happen. “This is not a way to run a radio station,” Norr added.
The Alliance platform demands more programming reflecting the diversity and changing demographics of the listening area, focusing more on young people and immigrant communities.
Norr says the current programming is driving listeners away. “If we’re not reaching people, something is wrong,” he said, calling for more listener input into programming and rigorous program evaluation.
Hallinan argues that while overall radio listenership has dropped 14-15 percent, KPFA has been steady, which, he said, shows the station is doing well.
Still, national programming should be rejuvenated, Hallinan said, and outreach should be directed to people who don’t agree with KPFA. “The station is talking too much to itself. Sometimes I think it is preaching to the ministers,” he said.
Further, he said the station needs to expand coverage geographically. The South Bay is growing, but KPFA has little coverage there. “And most of the listeners think that the Coastal Range is a wall that beats back barbarians,” he said.
Both slates have lined up impressive lists of endorsers. The Concerned slate is backed by activist and UC Santa Cruz professor Angela Davis, Peter Olney, organizing director for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Norman Solomon, media critic, Larry Bensky, Sunday Salon host, David Bacon, labor journalist and KPFA programmer, Darryl Moore, Berkeley City Council member, as well as the Alameda County Central Labor Council.
Backers for the Alliance for a Democratic KPFA include Renee Saucedo, attorney and civil rights activist; Gray Brechin, historian; Dennis Bernstein, KPFA staff and host of Flashpoints; Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet; Krissy Keefer, Green party Candidate for Congress; Jack Heyman, ILWU Local 10 and Roy Campanella II, former general manager.
In addition to Hallinan, retired UC Santa Cruz journalism professor and Sorgen, member of Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission, the Concerned slate includes cultural worker Andrea Turner, youth advocate Ernesto “Tico” Chacin, Oakland community activist Tina Flores, Pacifica Board Vice-Chair Sarv Randhawa, environmental educator Erik “Witatakae” Oberg, and Fresno LSB member Mark Hernandez.
And in addition to Futran, a 25-year radio journalist, and Norr, fired San Francisco Chronicle technology reporter, the Alliance slate includes: civil rights activist Regina Carey, public service worker Bob English (of Vallejo), electoral reform activist Dave Heller and 30-plus year Pacifica supporter Akio Tanaka.
Information on the elections and candidates, including downloads of KPFA’s question and answer sessions with the candidates is at: www.kpfa.org/elections/2006/