Public Comment

What’s At Stake in the KPFA Election

By Henry Norr
Friday November 09, 2007

For the average KPFA listener, it’s not easy to understand what—if anything—is really at stake in elections for the Local Station Board, nor how to select and rank candidates. They’re divided into myriad slates and factions, all passionately denouncing one another, but they’re all experienced progressives, and at a glance their platforms and platitudes sound pretty similar. And beyond the official election pamphlet, the station itself isn’t doing much to help voters understand the issues: There’s been only one, poorly publicized in-person candidate forum, and as of this writing, more than three weeks after the ballots were mailed, KPFA had yet to begin airing the recorded pitches candidates were asked to make weeks ago.  

So are the elections just another of those circular firing squads the American left is so famous for? If so, it would make sense to do what most listener-subscribers do: toss their ballots in the recycling bin, or perhaps just vote for the names you recognize or candidates endorsed by people you respect.  

That response would be a mistake, though, at least if you are among those who think KPFA and Pacifica could be a more dynamic and effective voice for peace and justice. Behind the sound and fury, this election involves serious issues about the direction of the station and network. And while they’re ostensibly about governance rather than programming (because the Local Station Board itself doesn’t make programming decisions), these issues are directly related to what goes out on KPFA’s signal—which is to say, how well it functions as a voice for social change. 


A bit of background 

The current bylaws were adopted in the wake of the crisis that came to a head in 1999, when the Pacifica national board, increasingly out of touch with listeners and local staff, moved to “hijack” the network, evidently with the goal of converting it into a more mainstream, corporate operation. A broad alliance of listeners and programmers managed to recover control of the network. The bylaws they eventually put in place were intended to create a system of governance that allowed for strong management, but obliged it to take into account the views of both listeners and staff (paid and unpaid). 

Unfortunately, the listener-staff alliance has largely unraveled, at least at KPFA. (There are similar dynamics at the other four Pacifica stations, though the particulars differ.) Many staff members, particularly but not exclusively paid staffers, have decided they don’t like the system of governance embodied in the bylaws. Instead, they have, with considerable success, promoted a model in which power is shared (albeit sometimes uneasily) between the paid staff and managers drawn from their own ranks, while listeners and unpaid staff are largely frozen out of decision making.  

The question the KPFA community now confronts is whether to accept this trend or to make a renewed attempt to implement the letter and spirit of the bylaw—to leave the station in the hands of a self-perpetuating in-group or to push forward to a model in which listeners and the unpaid staff, as well as the paid staff and managers, have a real voice 

KPFA’s current management—Interim General Manager Lemlem Rijio and Interim Program Director Sasha Lilley—are bright and energetic, and in my opinion they have some good ideas for improvements. On the other hand, they have made it clear that they have no use for anybody they don’t control. Specifically: They routinely ignore the LSB (Lemlem is an ex officio member and is supposed to give a report every month but hasn’t attended for months). Sasha suspended the Program Council (a group made up of herself and various other managers, plus representatives from the unpaid staff, the board, and the community) for months, and now that it has reconstituted itself, she wants it to do nothing but fill out online forms. And Lemlem moved to “derecognize” the Unpaid Staff Organization (UPSO) exactly at the moment when that group was pulling itself together after a long hiatus. 

For sure, the station and the network need strong managers—no one thinks they can be run by committee. The question is whether we should have strong managers who consult only among themselves and an oligarchy of paid staffers, or whether all the station’s constituencies can have seats at the table. 


Governance and programming 

The connection between governance issues and what goes on KPFA’s air isn’t entirely obvious, but after a year on the LSB and six months on the Program Council (during most of which it was suspended), I’m convinced the link is very real. On the one hand, the people who want listeners and unpaid staff to have a real voice in the direction of the station tend also to want more community news, activist voices, and vigorous and open political debate, including about “touchy” issues like Zionism and the Israel lobby, 9/11, and the role of the Democratic party vs. third parties. (None of this equates, as the Concerned Listeners group and some others would have you believe, to some kind of ultra-left takeover.)  

On the other hand, most of the management and staff who want to run things for themselves seem to be afraid of anything that departs from “professional” radio norms or that might offend the left-liberal crowd. 

Lemlem and Sasha tried, for example, to enforce a policy that would prohibit programmers from inviting listeners to turn out for demonstrations—Miguel Molina got written up for saying “be there” about a perfectly legal antiwar rally—even though their own lawyers eventually admitted that there are no legal or regulatory grounds to ban such “calls to action.” Lately, after the LSB approved a resolution I submitted calling on management to set up a simple system for political activists to get demonstrations and other events announced on the air, management took a disturbing step in precisely the opposite direction: they added an outright prohibition on announcements of demonstrations and rallies to the station’s guidelines on public-service announcements. 

And look what happened when Larry Bensky quit: many of us thought that offered a great opportunity to try out some sharp new voices on Sunday morning, but management, with no consultation with the Program Council or anyone else, handed the Sunday slot to Peter Laufer, a guy who sounds as if he’d be right at home on mainstream radio—which is where he has spent most of his broadcasting career.  


Your choices 

If you’re comfortable with decisions like those, go ahead and recycle your ballot, or vote for the Concerned Listeners slate, which is fully committed to backing the current interim management. But if you think listeners and unpaid staff deserve a role in KPFA decision making, and if you want the station to be a stronger voice for peace and justice, then you owe it to yourself to vote for candidates who support those goals. My choices: Joe Wanzala, Chandra Hauptman, Tracy Rosenberg, Attila Nagy, CC Campbell Rock, Steve Conley, Richard Phelps, Stan Woods, Gerald Sanders, Mara Rivera, and Dave Heller. (For an explanaiton of these choices, see TK.) 

However you vote, do it soon—ballots must be received back at the station on Nov. 15. 


Henry Norr is a member of KPFA’s Local Station Board and Program Council.