Public Comment

New: The Crisis at KPFA

By Matthew Hallinan
Wednesday August 25, 2010 - 11:04:00 AM

Without the intervention of the broader progressive community, KPFA as we have known it, is about to disappear. It is confronted by two serious crises. The first is ‘objective’ – that is, arises from factors outside of the station’s control. The current global economic crisis has hit the station and the whole Pacifica Network hard. While the number of listeners contributing to KPFA has remained steady (perhaps even rising slightly), the amount of individual contributions have declined significantly. Large donations and grant money, in particular, have been sharply reduced. At the same time, costs have risen. In this digital, internet-driven Age, KPFA has to continually modernize its equipment while at the same time providing the basics for its dedicated but woefully underpaid staff. 

The second crisis is self-inflicted. When Pacifica adopted elected Local Station Board elections after the ‘uprising’ of 1999, these Boards have become the focus of power struggles by groups seeking to take control of the various stations. As the members of the Pacifica National Board, the governing body of the whole network, are chosen by the Local Station Boards, the whole governance structure of the system has become a political battleground. For KPFA, the results have been devastating. 

The governing body at Pacifica has grown into a huge, costly bureaucracy that consumes an inordinate amount of money for salaries, national meetings, consultants, board elections, etc. An amount equal to one forth of listener donations now goes to pay for this governance structure. It is estimated that $2.4 million dollars have been spent on various ‘board expenses’ since elections began in 2003. None of this had to do with programming or producing radio. In 1994, 33% of Pacifica’s budget was spent on administrative and Board costs. In 2009, that figure was 52%. 

However, the problem is not just monetary. Only about 10% of KPFA’s listeners actually join the station: of these, about 10% vote in Local Station Board (LSB) elections. The fact that the great majority of listeners and subscribers do not participate, and have no way of finding out what the issues are or what’s at stake in these elections, makes it possible for small, organized groups of activists to win majorities on these Boards. These are people who are not representative of the broader progressive listening community. Narrowly based Boards currently provide a majority of the members to the Pacifica National Board – and the PNB is increasingly intervening to influence the outcome of Local Board struggles. 

A Sad Little Narrative

Last year, a new majority took control of the PNB. Its actions were critical to the ability of the present group that controls the Board of KPFA to attain its one-vote majority. The first act in this little drama was when the PNB over-rode KPFA’s Interim General Manager and allowed the formation of an Unpaid Staff Organization at the station. An UPSO, as it is called, has nothing to do with enabling the unpaid staff to form an organization to defend their rights. That is a given at KPFA. It has, instead to do with determining eligibility in staff elections for the Board. In the bylaws, eligibility of staff is determined by a certain minimum of hours an individual must work at the station. An UPSO, however, is a special category named in the bylaws that allows the criteria for eligibility to be set by the unpaid staff themselves. This makes it possible for each individual member of a large collective that works together on a show that may run for just a half hour a month to acquire equal voting rights with a full-time staff person. This move unfairly redistributed voting power within staff, undermining the representation of the paid staff. The presence of the UPSO and the ability of its director to determine eligibility, gave the present majority slate an extra staff seat on the Board. 

Two more seats were shifted as a result of PNB intervention. One involved something called ‘change of status.’ In the bylaws, anyone who runs for the Board and then, once elected, goes through a change of status that would have made them ineligible to run for that seat, must resign. For instance, one of the members of our slate decided to run for political office. Holding political office is seen as a potential conflict of interest and thus is incompatible with serving on the Board. Our member, as prescribed in the bylaws, resigned. 

A few months later, one of the members of the other slate who had been elected as a listener representative was given a job at the station. They became staff. Listener reps and staff reps are chosen in separate elections by different constituencies - and they do not share identical interests. Members of the staff are not allowed to run for the listener board and vice versa. Our slate held a majority at that stage, and we notified the member that she should resign her seat. The other side appealed to the PNB. The bylaws state that any change in status, ‘for instance, running for political office’ would result in a loss of seat. The PNB decided that ‘running for political office’ was the only change in status that would disqualify a member. We appealed. Why, we asked, would the bylaws say ‘for instance’ if they were meant to apply to only one case? The meaning and purpose of status change is crystal clear in the text. The PNB turned down our appeal, holding that the only change that could disqualify a board member was the one that specifically pertained to our member. 

The third instance involved the removal of a member from the other side who had not attended a Board meeting in a year and a half. The bylaws hold that a Board member can be removed if they miss three consecutive meetings without an excused absence. We told the other side that being absent for a year and a half was no longer acceptable and that we would no longer rubber stamp any requests for excused absences. It was time to attend a meeting or resign from the board. The third meeting after our ultimatum was held in Fresno. If the member in question did not show up, he would be removed. The other side boycotted the meeting to deprive us of a quorum, hoping to thus nullify the meeting and keep us from removing the delinquent member. On one level it worked. We did not have a quorum – much to the dismay of the many listeners from Fresno and the surrounding areas who had come to participate in a KPFA Board meeting. 

However, Roberts Rules of Order, which sets the rules governing Board meetings, specifies that if a meeting is legally set and properly announced, even if a quorum is not attained, it still has legal status: 

“In the absence of a quorum any business transacted …is null and void. But if a quorum fails to appear at a regular or properly called meeting, the inability to transact business does not detract from the fact that the society’s rules requiring the meeting to be held were complied with and the meeting was convened—even though it had to adjourn immediately.” 

The meeting may be opened, the roll taken, and the date of the next meeting set. The rules are designed to keep the absence of a quorum from paralyzing an organization. No other business may take place, but the meeting itself is legally recognized. The member who had missed three consecutive meetings without an excuse was thus no longer entitled to occupy his seat. 

Our next meeting was held after the LSB elections. Before seating the newly elected members, the current chairperson of the Board (a member of our slate) opened the meeting and called for the roll – which is the only legal way a meeting can be opened. As a result of the UPSO, the other side had gained a staff member from the election. They had also gained one listener board representative from the election. Without the participation of the delinquent member, however, our side would have still hold a majority (of one) on the Board. The other side refused to allow the roll to be taken, knowing we would not recognize the person who had missed three consecutive meetings. 

At that point they presented a letter from the Pacifica Counsel expressing the opinion that the meeting in Fresno had no legal standing and that the member still had possession of his seat. The legal basis for this opinion was drawn from the Brown Act – a legal code that pertains to governmental bodies and that has nothing to do with the body of law governing non-profit corporations. The letter was a complete sham and we refused to recognize its authority. 

At that point, the other side walked out of the meeting and went to another place to hold a separate meeting. Their meeting had not been previously announced and did not meet the conditions specified in the Pacifica bylaws for a legally constituted meeting. 

However, we did not want to see the Board split and we wanted to avoid the possibility of a legal suit that might prove costly to Pacific and KPFA. We offered to put the issue of the legality of the Fresno meeting and the eligibility of the contested member to a neutral arbiter that would be acceptable to both sides. The PNB was once again dragged into the dispute by the other side. It refused to recognize the legality of our meeting, declaring the other side’s meeting to have been legally constituted, in spite of the fact it met none of the criteria stated in the bylaws. With the PNB’s backing, the minority had become a majority and had successfully pulled off a coup. They were now calling the shots. We were told if we did not attend the meetings called and organized by the new ‘majority,’ we would begin to accumulate unexcused absences and, after three meetings, would be removed from our seats. Rather than initiate a costly law suit, we decided to bide our time until the next election. 

Where Are They Taking KPFA?

What I have recounted above is just a small portion of the kind of dishonest political maneuvering I witnessed over the past three years. It’s ugly, and unpleasant when it happens to you – but in and of itself, this kind of behavior would not threaten the survival of KPFA. While it results in a dysfunctional and unpleasant Board experience, the Board itself has largely lacked the power to directly interfere with the day-to-day functioning of the station. By gaining control of the PNB, however, the new forces taking over the Boards are in a position to break through the firewall that had separated them from the operation of the stations, and can begin to directly assert control over the management of the station. 

Let us look at what the new Board majority has done since it came to power in January. While I cannot detail certain events that happened at an executive session of the Board (which are covered by a confidentiality agreement) suffice it to say that KPFA’s General Manager was forced to resign. This was supposedly connected to the misplacing of a check from a donor for $350,000. The real facts are much more complicated, and in the end, no money was lost. However, that issue had nothing to with the resolution of the other slate to get rid of the GM. She had acted as the ‘firewall’ preventing the board from micro-managing the station and interfering with programming. It should be noted she was a valuable fundraiser, and had introduced innovative programs intended to make KPFA appeal to a wider audience (Letters From Washington, Winter Soldier Hearings, Copenhagen Conference, etc). From the very beginning, before anyone knew anything about the lost check, removal of the GM was the glue that held the opposition slate together. By accident, a member of our slate received an email from a member of the other slate, calling for them to stop squabbling among themselves and remember the need to ‘stay united’ in order to get enough seats to accomplish their ‘two primary purposes:’ getting rid of the GM and electing two of the three KPFA Board reps to the PNB.  

Once the GM was gone and they had strengthened their majority on the PNB, they could move their full agenda forward. This would be to establish a set of rules that would allow them to manage the station through the Board. 

First they established a Programming Council - whose membership would be strong on Board appointees and unpaid staff, and weak on unionized, professional staff. They then passed a resolution that gave the Board any final say if there were a conflict between the Programming Counsel and the station’s Program Director. Programming decisions had been removed from the radio professionals and placed, ultimately in the hands of the majority of an elected Board made up of people with no radio experience, lacking detailed information of how programming decisions would impact staffing issues, union contracts, budget considerations, etc. Placing such decisions in the hands of an elected Board will produce chaos and instability at the station. Every time there is a shift in the political composition of the majority of Board, programs could be dropped and adopted on the basis of whatever the political whims of that particular majority. 

However, this is not the final goal of this Board majority. They have introduced a resolution that would place any personnel matter that would involve expenditures over $15,000 to be decided by the Board. $15,000 is less than ¼ the cost of a full-time programmer. This would essentially place all personnel decisions in the hands of the Board. 

The best way I can think of to describe what’s happening at KPFA would be if School Boards took over and began to run individual schools. It’s great to have and the parents and the public involved, and ultimately they are the one’s that set the goals of the school system and evaluate the results. But they are not educators. They should not be determining the details of curricula, hiring and firing individual teachers, and telling them the best way to do their jobs. 

The ultimate goals of these folks are political. These people do not represent broadly based movements and have no practical agenda for how to bring about the changes we need in this country. Many espouse fringe conspiracy theories and hold ideas that have never garnered significant support – even in the left. There is nothing wrong with that – and they should have a place within KPFA’s eclectic mix. The problem is that these folks want the whole enchilada. They see KPFA as their vehicle to gain a voice that will make them major players on the left. The real effect of the consolidation of their control over the Board will be the destruction of a radio station that we, in the broader progressive community, need now more than ever.  

We chose the name Save KPFA for our slate. We did that in all seriousness. The future of this invaluable resource for the left is at stake.