In the face of mounting deficits, KPFA this month began laying off staff. The cuts come as no surprise; in fact, they’re overdue, considering that the station has been running in the red for several years, in defiance of Local Station Board and Pacifica National Board mandates to bring expenses into line with income. Anger and protest were probably inevitable when the cuts finally came. But by implementing them in an abrupt and seemingly insensitive way, ignoring provisions of the paid staff’s union contract, and loading what looks like a disproportionate share of the pain on one program—Flashpoints—management has succeeded in turning a tough situation into yet another full-fledged crisis for the station.
The first victim of this new cutback campaign was Eric Klein, Flashpoints’ technical producer and engineer, whose half-time position was eliminated with no advance notice on Dec. 7; Dennis Bernstein, the show’s host, wasn’t informed until he went looking for Klein an hour before airtime. After co-host Nora Barrows-Friedman e-mailed station manager Lemlem Rijio seeking an explanation and making the case that the show requires a technical producer, Rijio invited her to “share her concerns” in person. When they met on Dec. 9, Barrows-Friedman argued (according to an account she posted on Facebook) that it was “unreasonable” to expect her to absorb Klein’s work on top of her other responsibilities, whereupon Rijio “casually” informed her that her hours were being cut in half, from 40 to 20 per week, effective immediately.
Then, a few days later, Robert Knight, a New York-based journalist who delivers a short news analysis (“The Knight Report”) at the top of the Flashpoints hour most days, received a letter by FedEx informing him that his contract would expire on Dec. 28.
Knight is not a member of the union that represents KPFA’s paid staff, Communications Workers of America Local 9415, but Klein and Barrows-Friedman are. According to the union’s contract, should staff cuts become necessary, layoffs are generally supposed to be based on seniority. Klein didn’t rank high on the seniority list, but Barrows-Friedman has worked at the station considerably longer than other staffers whose hours have not been reduced. The contract also specifies that “Those who will be laid off shall be notified as soon as possible, normally thirty (30) working days, but in no case less that fifteen (15) working days before such layoff is to take place,” yet neither Klein nor Barrows-Friedman got so much as a day’s notice—even though management has had literally years of advance warning about its budget problems.
Treating employees this way may be par for the course in the corporate world nowadays (see the new George Clooney movie Up in the Air), but even aside from contractual requirements, I think most KPFA subscribers expect better of their station. (Faced with union objections, Rijio later agreed that Nora, at least, will be paid her full-time wages through Jan. 8.)
To Flashpoints’ staff and fans (including me), the recent moves raise a larger issue: has management singled the program out for particularly severe cutbacks? When, after six days of silence, Rijio finally offered an explanation of the cuts in an e-mail message to subscribers and a recorded message now played incessantly on the air, she claimed that “Each department at the station—Programming, Operations, Development, and Administration—is being cut by 20 percent” and “All public affairs programs are being cut across the board and reductions have been made to bring each show’s cost into line with its income.”
So far, Rijio has not responded to requests for details from listeners and members of the station board. But information gleaned from staffers and data provided to the board when it considered the station’s budget last summer cast serious doubt on her claim of even-handedness. Certainly other public-affairs shows have also suffered cuts, but typically in the range of 14-18 percent, measured in paid staff hours.
In the case of Flashpoints, however, with the elimination of Klein’s job, the reduction in Barrows-Friedman’s hours, and the cancellation of Knight’s contract, staffing has been slashed more than 40 percent, from approximately 135 hours a week to 80 per week. (Bernstein works full-time, while “roving producer” Miguel Gavilan Molina and now Barrows-Friedman are each paid for 20 hours per week. Another full-time position was eliminated two years ago.) To the surviving staff, the cuts amount to a deliberate attempt to destroy the show. “There is no way we can survive at this [reduced] level,” Barrows-Friedman wrote on her Facebook page.
That prospect has sparked deep concern among Flashpoints’ intensely loyal listeners, who value the show for its outspoken radicalism—so different from the NPR-like tone of pseudo-objectivity maintained on most of KPFA’s news and public-affairs programming—and its focus on reporting the grassroots realities in hard-pressed communities rarely heard from in most of our media—Palestine above all (including Barrows-Friedman’s moving reports from her frequent trips to Gaza and the West Bank), but also Haiti, New Orleans, immigrant and Native American communities, and recently Honduras.
As word of the cutbacks spread, protest flared. Professors Peter Phillips and Mickey Huff of Project Censored and the Media Freedom Foundation (which just weeks ago gave the Flashpoints crew its lifetime achievement award) published a denunciation of the cuts, complete with supporting statements from such left luminaries as Barbara Lubin and Richard Becker. Arab-American community organizer Eyad Kishawi publicly threatened to organize a boycott of the station. Michael Parenti issued a call to a demonstration in front of the station.
And other prominent radical intellectuals who have appeared on the show—including Howard Zinn, Dahr Jamail, Anthony Arnove, and Richard Falk—signed an open letter declaring that they will “refuse to be interviewed or to allow prior work to be aired, or to give permission for our books, CDs, DVDs and other work to be used as premiums during KPFA’s fund drives” until Barrows-Friedman is reinstated to a full-time position and Flashpoints provided with a technical producer.
So far, there’s no indication that management will back down from its plans, but Flashpoints’ staff and supporters seem determined not to go without a fight.
To express support for Flashpoints, write to general manager Lemlem Rijio at email@example.com and turn out for the next meeting of the new LSB, now set for 7 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 11, 2010 (disregard dates announced earlier) at the Humanist Hall, 390 27th St. (near Telegraph), Oakland.
Henry Norr (firstname.lastname@example.org) was recently re-elected to KPFA’s Local Station Board.