Nicole Sawaya was named executive director of the Pacifica Foundation Sept. 29, began her job part time in November, and plunged in full-time in December, all according to an agreement with her bosses on the foundation board of directors.
The Pacifica Foundation holds the licenses to five nonprofit progressive radio stations across the country, including Berkeley’s KPFA FM.
One day in early December, however, Sawaya, the popular KPFA general manager terminated by the national board during the 1999-2001 strife between the local stations and national board, turned in her Pacifica-issued keys, cell phone and laptop and left the national headquarters without a word of explanation to staff or listeners.
While the KPFA audience learns details of the war in Iraq other media don’t cover and hears reports directly from tormented Pakistan or Kenya, listeners are told few details on air of the turmoil inside KPFA and Pacifica National offices on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.
Some questions not covered: What is Sawaya’s status? What are the criticisms of the recent KPFA Local Station Board elections? What’s the story behind the termination of Peter Laufer, briefly a Sunday morning talk- show host?
Sawaya’s Comings and Goings
On Dec. 17, the KPFA Evening News announced that Sawaya had resigned, citing as the source the “Lasar Letter,” a blog written by Matthew Lasar, often called Pacifica’s historian.
However, according to Dave Adelson, chair of the Pacifica National Board, speaking in an interview with the Planet on Wednesday, Sawaya has not tendered her resignation. In fact, she continues “in discussions” with the board, Adelson said.
Citing personnel issues, Adelson said he was unable to elaborate. He said he would have preferred to speak openly on the question: “We fought this whole fight for transparency,” he said, referring to the struggle against the Pacifica Foundation attempts to take over the network in 1999-2001.
Sawaya was apologetic when she returned a Planet call for comment on Thursday, saying it was up to the Pacifica board leadership to speak on the record. She did confirm, however, that she is in discussions with the board. “I’m sorry to be so cold about [discussing] it,” she said.
Lasar’s Dec. 12 post said:
“LLFCC [Lasar’s Letter on the Federal Communications Commission] is dismayed and embarrassed to report that Nicole Sawaya has resigned, following a very brief tenure as executive director of the Pacifica radio network.
“What happened? Without going into all the details, Sawaya found the level of internecine dysfunction at Pacifica overwhelming, and fled her job.
“LLFCC will not conceal its chagrin at this development. The author of this blog had high hopes for Sawaya, but they were obviously too high. Her quick departure reminds us that there are no saviors, no simple solutions to complex problems. And Pacifica radio is always a complex problem.”
Everyone reached by the Planet for this story said they had great respect for Sawaya.
Brian Edwards-Tiekert, a staff representative to the Local Station Board, told the Planet Wednesday that her return “raised our expectations and hopes.” He added, however, that her loss is “an emotional blow, not an operational blow,” as KPFA has stabilized with an interim general manager in place for over two years. (Others, however, are calling for a new, permanent general manager.)
One person who did not want to speak on the record said Sawaya’s weakness is that she wants to please everyone, something not possible at the radio network fractured by ideology and egos.
Local station board elections
After the crisis during which the national board attempted to take over KPFA, bylaws were written to promote democracy. Listener-sponsors would elect local boards, which would elect the national board.
The elections that took place this year were fraught with charges that the process lacked fairness, with People’s Radio supporters contending that station staff worked with the Concerned Listener slate to rig the vote.
Multiple charges and countercharges can be read on the Internet in the Daily Planet opinion pages, on blogs and on Indymedia.
Here, the Planet will focus on the allegation made by members of the People’s Radio slate that former programmer Larry Bensky violated election rules by sending e-mails to a large number of listeners in support of Concerned Listener slate candidates and that he used station resources to do so.
Bensky tells it this way: When he left his Sunday morning show in April, he took along an e-mail list of people who said they’d like to stay in touch. He also retained control of the website www. sundaysalon.org, through which he sends out occasional messages to the large e-mail list.
“My termination agreement with KPFA stated that after June 1 I would pay for that site myself, which I have been doing. (I have bills, and canceled checks.) The site is maintained by a volunteer who has nothing to do with KPFA. The names on my list were and are people … who voluntarily asked to be put on the list. It is in no way a KPFA list, it's a Sunday Salon list, now my property,” Bensky wrote in an e-mail to the Planet.
Bensky said he decided to get involved with the 2007 elections and wanted to alert his e-mail list to his support for the Concerned Listener slate. But before doing so, he said he tried to check with JaNay Jenkins, the local elections supervisor, to make sure that was OK, since he was no longer on staff. (He said he recognized that if he were still on staff, that would violate the rules.)
“I called her and her voice mailbox was full,” Bensky said, adding that he also sent an e-mail query to Jenkins, a copy of which he sent to the Planet on Thursday.
In a separate interview Jenkins confirmed this, saying she had been behind in her work and unable to keep up with phone calls and e-mails, having been hired late—in September rather than June (she was the third person in the position of elections officer).
Those who were on a KPFA staff
e-mail list received an e-mail from the elections supervisor explaining election rules, but Bensky hadn’t been on the air, except for a couple of quick appearances, and so was not on that staff list.
Soon after he sent out the e-mails in support of the Concerned Listener slate, Bensky was informed by the interim station manager that National Elections Supervisor Casey Peters had banned him from the air for several weeks for violating the rules.
Neither Peters nor Jenkins contacted Bensky directly. “I never got an e-mail or phone call,” Bensky told the Planet. “They at no time tried to ascertain the facts.”
People’s Radio responds
Richard Phelps, KPFA local board member and part of the People’s Radio group, told the Planet on Wednesday that the elections had been run by management in “collusion” with the Concerned Listeners slate.
Whether Bensky had received the memo on the election rules from management and whether he had been able to contact the elections supervisor about the rules was irrelevant, Phelps said, arguing that Bensky had been with the station during the time the new bylaws were written and had been through several election cycles. He should have understood the rules, Phelps said.
Moreover, when the national elections supervisor penalized Bensky by banning him from the air, Bensky was allowed on the air by local management, Phelps said. “Management ignored the penalty,” he said.
Responding for KPFA’s station management—the interim KPFA general manager is on vacation—Interim Program Director Sasha Lilley said that local management has nothing to do with whom radio show hosts invite to be on the air.
Neither management nor programmers knew about the ban, Lilley said, underscoring there is a clear separation between the station management functions and overseeing the elections.
Lilley forwarded an e-mail to the Planet written to the interim general manager from National Elections Supervisor Casey Peters on the question:
“My apologies of issuing this late in writing. On Friday, Nov. 16, I issued a verbal ruling that Larry Bensky will not be allowed on Pacifica airwaves or websites until after my term of office as National Elections Supervisor ends in 2008, for his Fair Campaign Provisions violation and his refusal to cooperate with the remedy. [Turning over his e-mail list to other candidates.] That INCLUDES rebroadcasts of Mr. Bensky's programs…”
Beyond the various specific election complaints made by People’s Radio and its supporters, the question of management downplaying the elections is key to what is happening at KPFA, said Phelps and Bob English, a defeated People’s Radio candidate who made a formal complaint to the elections supervisors.
Phelps said that management’s goal, like that of the Republican Party, is suppressing the vote through “benign neglect,” ignoring the elections on the air.
“Two weeks before the crafts fair [a major KPFA fundraiser], every hour, or every other hour they would be pushing the crafts fair on the air, but two weeks before the ballots went out, I heard very little about the elections,” Phelps said, noting, moreover that during a two-week fund drive there was a blackout on election coverage.
“They don’t want the listeners involved,” Phelps said.
When they did promote the elections, by playing one-minute promotional pieces by candidates, they played all 21 of them in a row. “The person at the end couldn’t be heard,” Phelps said.
Responding, Lilley said that the station promoted the elections by frequently calling on listeners to become subscribers before the deadline so that they could vote in the elections. Further, she said, programmers did live promotions of the elections, which are more effective than prerecorded Public Service Announcements.
English and 25 others, including board members and listeners, sent National Elections Supervisor Peters a formal letter of complaint on Dec. 5. In a follow-up letter they wrote: “We requested you either delay certification of the KPFA listener election pending complaint investigation and remedies or apply a substantial penalty to the vote tally appropriate to balance the effects of the primary established violations.”
However, certification has been completed, according to Peters. The only option at present would be for those who say they were disenfranchised to go to court—which is what has happened at the New York Pacifica station, WBAI.
Peters told the Planet on Thursday that he hopes, because of the many problems with elections at various stations, that the national board will look seriously at election reform.
Peter Laufer terminated
The termination of Peter Laufer, the programmer who replaced Bensky, has turned into another KPFA-related uproar. Laufer told the Planet on Wednesday that he was fired “gracelessly and capriciously via telephone while on vacation in New York, two days after I acted as facilitator in Berkeley for a KPFA event with Naomi Wolf and Daniel Ellsberg.”
Laufer said he has filed a complaint citing discrimination through an attorney with the Equal Employment Occupation Commission.
“I was fired because I am white,” Laufer told the Planet, arguing that station management wanted a person of color in the slot.
“I do magnificent work; I’ve won every award that exists,” Laufer said, noting that in his career he’s worked at every level in the broadcast industry—programmer, manager, consultant.
Laufer said he is currently piloting his Sunday morning program on 960 AM, the Clear Channel station that runs many of the Air America programs.
Lilley declined to respond, citing confidential personnel issues.
Despite the ban imposed on him, Larry Bensky spoke on Thursday evening’s KPFA news, analyzing the results of the Iowa caucus. The news anchor announced that Bensky would be on the Friday Morning Show to do the same.