Fired in 1999 when, as KPFA’s general manager, she stood up to national Pacifica management, Nicole Sawaya will take the position of the boss she battled in the bloody KPFA vs. the Pacifica Foundation Board fight.
Sawaya, who has worked for 13 years in noncommercial radio, was named Pacifica executive director on Saturday. She begins work part time on Nov. 12 and full time Dec. 5.
“She has the combination of skills it takes—radio, political and broadcast skills,” Oakland attorney Dan Siegel told the Planet. Siegel is counsel for Pacifica and interim Pacifica executive director until Sawaya comes on board.
The Pacifica Foundation holds the license to five listener-sponsored radio stations across the country, including Berkeley’s KPFA. Other stations are in New York, Houston, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
When the news came to KPFA, “The station went into a huge festive mode,” Lemlem Rijio, acting KPFA director, told the Planet. “She’s someone who understands and is deeply committed to the mission of Pacifica and can actualize it.”
Sawaya has been station manager at KZYX in Philo, Calif., KPFA and KALW in San Francisco. She has a five-year contract with Pacifica, advertised with a salary scale starting at $80,000 per year.
Rijio said Sawaya would bring stability to the station. Greg Guma, executive director since early 2006, had told the board that he considered his tenure a transitional one, Siegel said. Guma turned in a letter of resignation several months ago; his last day was Sept. 28. He was not immediately available for comment.
The non-renewal of Sawaya’s contract in 1999 heated up the crisis at KPFA, a station already in revolt against Pacifica’s heavy-handed management.
In his book, Easy Listening: Pacifica Radio’s Civil War, historian Matthew Lasar tells of Sawaya’s fight with management over the budget which some believe led to Pacifica’s non-renewal of her contract in March 1999.
“During a 1998 national board meeting, she outraged the national office and much of the governing board by suggesting that if station budget cuts were necessary, KPFA could tighten its belt by reducing its annual tithe to the Pacifica national office…,” Lasar wrote.
Lasar said Sawaya wasn’t like the managers before her. “Sawaya seemed to enjoy KPFA for what it was at least as much as what it could be turned into. For that she won the staff’s undying gratitude,” Lasar wrote.
Retired KPFA programmer Larry Bensky was among those who refused Pacifica management’s gag order at the time and denounced Sawaya’s firing over the air waves, which led to his firing. (He was hired back soon thereafter.)
In a phone interview Monday, Bensky recalled that Sawaya had been part of a “very exciting era” at the station, where collaboration within the station and between stations was in motion.
“I think she’ll have a much more difficult job now,” he said, noting that collaboration among the stations on national programming is “almost nonexistent,” with the only two nationally broadcast programs—Democracy Now! and Free Speech Radio News—originating outside of Pacifica.
With the nation in pre-presidential mode, national broadcasting “is one of the things I hope she’ll focus on,” Bensky said.
Siegel praised Sawaya. “She has a good sense of what radio is and how to do high-quality news and public affairs,” he said.
However, Sawaya may be spending much of her time fighting internal personnel fires, Siegel said. There are battles brewing at New York’s WBAI, Los Angeles’ KPFK, where the general manager just quit, and KPFA, where there’s tension between management and unpaid staff and between management and those who have occupied time slots for long periods of time, Siegel noted.
“Pacifica has to come to grips with losing its listeners and support,” Siegel said. “It has to rebuild, attracting a younger demography and more diversity, racially and ethnically.”
Lydia Brazon, head of the hiring committee for the national board, said there had been seven people who interviewed for the position, but Sawaya’s experience was unique.
“She distinguished herself by her broadcast experience,” Brazon said. “In fact, her entire career has been in community radio.”
Moreover Brazon said Sawaya knows what it means to work with large, changing nonprofit boards of directors. (The national board is made up of members representing locally-elected boards from each of the affiliated stations.) “She understands who we are,” Brazon said.
In an e-mail that circulated widely on the internet, Lasar shares his enthusiasm for Sawaya’s appointment. “This is Pacifica radio’s second chance, folks. It is time for leadership to take notice.”
Sawaya did not return calls for comment.