Public Comment

Suggestions for Saving KPFA and What's Wrong Now

By Mal Burnstein
Tuesday December 07, 2010 - 01:36:00 PM

I read your editorial on KPFA [last week]. Aside from your gratuitous swipe at Tom and us old lefties (of which Tom is not one), I thought it was an excellent picture of the confusion that the casual listener/supporter may have when hearing of the fighting and turmoil at KPFA. It is a valuable lesson for those of us wrapped up in the infighting! 

Let me see if I can step back a little and answer some questions you, and others like you, may have. I will really try hard to stick to facts, eschew adjectives and not spout opinion wherever I can. Full disclosure, I am a newly elected member of the KPFA local board, and a member of the SaveKPFA slate. Thus, I have an obvious bias, but I will strive mightily to be objective. 

Yes, KPFA is in financial straits. That is mostly the fault of the economic downturn, though the local board and station could have done more to raise funds off-air and cut costs. But, it is what it is, and crying about the past won't get us very far. So, what to do about that, and who should be involved in the decisions? And what has been done so far, why, and by whom? 

Some cuts must be made. Everyone agrees on that. The first step was voluntary buy-outs of personnel; that was done. After that, the two sides differ widely. Our side, SaveKPFA (SKPFA), proposed a budget derived from management and staff that would have necessitated laying off 2-3 staff (or the equivalent). The local board approved that budget. The other side, Independents for Community Radio (ICR), supported a budget that would require far more staff layoffs. Everybody wants the station to survive. Pacifica Foundation, the parent organization, adopted the ICR-supported budget for KPFA without any examination of the alternative budget. ICR had, until the last election, a majority on the local board, and has a majority on the Pacifica board. The SKPFA-supported budget called for Pacifica to share the financial burden with KPFA: reducing the cost of national meetings, crediting KPFA for the value of the rent of the Pacifica offices in the KPFA building (like Pacifica does for KPFK in Los Angeles for the Pacifica Archives), and allowing KPFA several years to repay money ($100,000-150,000) owed to the foundation rather than requiring it be paid in one year. It should be noted that, as a long range matter, Pacifica owes KPFA almost $1.5 million, and KPFA recently lent Pacifica money for the Washington station that has not been repaid. 

The Pacifica Executive Director, Arlene Engelhardt (AE), has commenced actually running KPFA in effect, at least as far as finances, programming and personnel are concerned, entirely cutting the interim General Manager and Assistant General Manager out of the loop in this area. As a first step, AE eliminated the Morning Show staff, firing the two on-air hosts Aimee Allison and Brian Edwards-Tiekert) and the crew. That show, with those hosts, brings in the most money of any show, more than three times the total cost of the show. Those hosts and crew are being paid through December 8 but were taken off the air on November 9, and not allowed to work despite their willingness to do so. That show has been replaced with a feed of programs from Los Angeles (KPFK). At the time the Morning Show was removed from the air, AE has said she will replace the Morning Show with new hosts within 10 days, but so far -- more than three weeks later -- has not. 

The union representing the fired employees has grieved the firings as violations of the union contract; Pacifica has denied that and has hired an anti-union firm to represent it (at an additional charge to the KPFA budget). 

AE canceled a two day fund drive scheduled for November without explanation, and without an alternate source of fund raising for KPFA. Brian Edwards-Tiekert is one of the more successful fund raisers for the station. A fund drive was scheduled for mid-December, but no planning for it has been done. And AE has done nothing to raise money off-air, despite a budget adopted with her support that was based on the expectation of significant monthly contributions from major donors. 

There are many other issues -- and accusations -- dividing the "sides," but I hope I have listed the main points that non-participants would notice and care about. 

From the facts recited above, the following questions may be asked: 

1. Could not there have been some compromise over the budget decisions? I.e., how much actually needed to be cut? How much should Pacifica have contributed to the shortfall, in view of the much greater sum that Pacifica owed KPFA over a long period?
2. In deciding what to cut, did the show bringing in the most revenue need to be the first target of the axe? Did the union contract require that step?
3. What happened to the principle of local control? Why is AE making all the decisions without the input of local management?
4. Why are we now without local programming in the key morning hours (7-9a.m.)?
5. What happened to the November fund drive in a time of financial turmoil for the station? And why is there no planning for a December drive? It's almost as if AE wants to lose more money and make more cuts to the station personnel. 

I'm sure there are proposed answers to these questions; but there will be answers to the answers. I will leave it to the readers to draw their own conclusions. 

Mal Burnstein