Public Comment

Commentary: KPFA’s Tradition of Advocacy is Threatened

By Marc Sapir
Friday April 06, 2007

Nancy Keiler writes (Letters, March 27) castigating KPFA for not covering Barbara Lee-Ron Dellums-Sean Penn at Grand Lake Theater on Mar. 24. I sympathize with Kieler. The current lethargy in coverage of events—government hearings and such—by KPFA results from the tenacious battle that has been going on inside KPFA and Pacifica since listeners and staff defeated the self-perpetuating Pacifica National Board attempted coup under the infamous Civil Rights Commissioner Mary Frances Berry. Berry had every intention of moving the network away from its radical populist roots. Ironically she might still get her way, as the following memo attacking advocacy journalism reveals:  


To: Miguel Molina 

Re: Call to Action on Flashpoints 


While hosting Flashpoints on Thursday 3/15, you urged people to attend the rally scheduled for Sunday 3/18 at Civic Center Plaza by telling listeners to be there. 

Due to issues of liability, KPFA programmers are not permitted to urge listeners to attend an event. If damage suits stem from injuries suffered at an event, KPFA could be held liable for actively urging participation. Last Year, on March 22, following a remote broadcast from a rally in San Francisco, chief engineer Michael Yoshida sent a memo to you and the other producers of the rally asking you to be aware of and prevent such language in future broadcasts. This is a second notification. KPFA program hosts may not actively urge listeners to attend events. This is the case whether during a regular program or a special remote broadcast. Thank you for your cooperation, 

Sasha Lilley 

Interim Program Director 


If KPFA is renowned for anything it is its advocacy journalism—for its support of the rights of oppressed people. From the days of the broadcast of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, KPFA has set its sights on telling truth to power and advocating action by and in defense of the dispossessed and powerless. On a daily basis that advocacy involves urging people to become involved socially and politically in various movements. I listened to the Hard Knock program at 4 p.m. on March 28, and heard Davey D urge his audience to attend an event with Fred Hampton, Jr. the next evening, when Fred would talk about police brutality against the Black community, how the prison system is being used to abridge the rights of that community and other political rallying issues. It was righteous advocacy by Davey D who apparently had not been cautioned by the Interim Program Director.  

With new KPFA “management” targeting both advocacy and a key leftist producer, the internal struggle within KPFA has taken a dangerous turn. Molina was singled out. Equally important, the “rule” used against him, if enforced generally, will spell the end of KPFA. Its audience would dwindle. Yet, once applied to Molina, do the current managers think they can simply not apply it equally to all?  

Sasha Lilley, IPD, a staff Union Representative and activist member of the paid staffgroup has repeatedly ridiculed the elected station Board as nothing but a group of outside provocateurs. Meanwhile, she and her comrades perpetuate internal chaos at the station. In her world she is a staunch feminist, socialist and Marxist. We hear that her father was an English communist and I know her mother is a local activist. But in the sad world we all inhabit today Ms. Lilley is merely the agent of the wrong changes at KPFA: changes moving toward a purge of Flashpoints—one of the programs Molina is attached to—for its open advocacy of Palestinian, Haitian and undocumented rights—and perhaps purges of other radical activists who insist that advocacy is a necessary part of a station founded by people who preferred jail to collaboration with injustice.  

KPFA’s “interim” managers can ignore that Homeland Security is knocking on doors and tapping computers and raiding the homes of Latinos as they blanket attack each elected local station board. But they are playing with fire and with the lives of millions who depend upon KPFA to not back down from its mission to be a voice for the voiceless. The inside core staff controls management. The station board, even when it is united and collaborative, is largely powerless, despite new by-laws. Presently, core staff determines what you hear on the air—what programs get added or subtracted, what hearings, meetings and demonstrations do or don’t get covered.  

Sasha’s memo speaks to the hostile approach, the dominance approach, that could turn KPFA into a weak stepchild of the public broadcasting system. How could KPFA be a useful tool for the GI resisters’ movement, the immigrants’ rights and sanctuary movements, the prison reform and opposition movements, the new sds (already at160 chapters), the Single Payer health care movement, the anti-state torture and death penalty activists, if such edicts are upheld? And even the less provocative but no less important coverage of Congressional hearings, the Barbara Lee event, etc., is collapsing because the station and network are being mangled. Staff’s internal anarchy fronts itself as an internal core-unity protecting the cultural hearth from the ruthless barbarians. They should read J.M. Coetzee to understand themselves better. 

Two managers ago the paid staff obstructed Gus Newport. Faced with that hostility, Gus decided to back off and withdrew his support from a publicly popular minor change in programming that leftist staff and listeners had promoted (moving Amy Goodman’s outstanding “Democracy Now!” to 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. during prime drive time). When staff allies of Gus would not back off the reform at his request, he opted to resign. One manager ago paid staff united to launch a campaign of open defiance to authority six months after they themselves had supported Roy Campanella as the station manager. They blamed the listener majority on the station board for that crisis also. Then this past year the core staff went out and created their own slate of listener candidates for the station board (a clear violation of the intent of the by-laws won by the court case to which many thousands were a party) and succeeded in getting several candidates they endorsed elected. But that doesn’t address the issue of staff non-collaboration with listener communities of interest. Falling listenership will continue unless they begin to collaborate more broadly with radical activism. Nationally, the same kind of turmoil has beset the other Pacifica stations and the Pacifica national office, blocking national programming. It’s a pattern. But why? 

We should assume there are indeed COINTELPRO types operative in this environment. KPFA and Pacifica are the independent media with the biggest public reach in the United States. The more the corporate media is compelled by political crises and class divides to distort reality, the greater the threat independent media’s efforts at “truth telling” becomes. One need only read about the level of NYCPD infiltration of organizations all over the United States before the Republican Convention and the FBI’s thousands of unauthorized cases of spying to realize that there are paid provocateurs operative in every political environment these days.  

The problem we face with KPFA is that when people—both staff and those who are critics of KPFA management and staff behavior—behave provocatively and are unwilling to clarify and negotiate over their differences within the institution, this advances the surreptitious attack on KPFA. When Larry Bensky went live discussing KPFA-Pacifica problems on Sunday, March 25, he proclaimed that listener reps on the board know nothing about radio, or management, and do little or nothing to help support KPFA. Yet LaVarn Williams, a finance expert, was once KPFA’s leader in organizing the 50-year anniversary celebration and fundraising efforts. She sits on both the local board and the National Board and is a dissident. Willie Ratcliff publishes the Bay View Newspaper in Hunters point. Based in his own activism in the Black community and the paper, Radcliff is a highly respected leader. Willie is a moderate man but was often a dissident in the divide over staff intransigence. There are others as well who deserve respect, but who are always lumped together as obstructionists. It’s a travesty especially because one particular staff member representing paid staff on the Board has been the biggest obstacle to amicable collaboration, using destabilizing tactics to prevent open discussions.  

I don’t think our Bay Area community will let KPFA fall. The Bay Area is vibrant and politicized, in part due to KPFA. The listeners aren’t going away. People hostile to social and institutional advances have underestimated this public before and are doing so again. People—of any political persuasion—with an anti-democratic agenda eventually expose themselves as provocateurs and become ineffective. But do we have the time? Important communities and grassroots movements that I mentioned—and our democratic culture—are under attack. New movements from below need access to the public. KPFA is not broadly approaching these growing grassroots resistance movements and inviting them to become elements in regular programming so that advocacy is understood to be the hallmark of the station. Instead there is resistance to advocacy. The antidote is the reversal of Sasha’s warning. Managers who attack advocacy in programming should be replaced by staff—as a confidence-building measure—because KPFA needs to “belong” to its listeners and supporters in collaboration with the staff to weather storms ahead. If staff remains intransigent, they will precipitate a more divisive public response. 


Marc Sapir is executive director of  

Retro Poll.