A budget crisis at KPFA led to a staff reduction in November 2010. A controversy about the cuts ensued and has divided the KPFA community. The three months of controversy have revealed some of the substantive differences between those who propose different solutions.
1.. KPFA Listener Support and CWA union contract
The main source of revenue for KPFA is Listener Support. Aside from the fixed overhead there are two main expenses, Salaries and Benefits and Payments to Pacifica (which pays for central services such as FCC license, audit, insurance, and distribution of programs like Democracy now and Al Jazeera).
Because revenues are dependent upon Listener Support which varies with economic conditions, the union contract acknowledges the fact that the management might need to “reduce workforce due to …. economic necessity”.
2. Ten Years of KPFA finances and the November 2010 layoffs.
The US went through a boom and bust cycle between 2001 and 2010 and KPFA Listener Support went through a similar cycle. Between 2001 and 2005, Listener Support doubled and the station added many paid staff, but between 2005 and 2010, Listener Support declined just as dramatically. The station made corresponding cuts in its payments to Pacifica; however, the station did not make cuts in Salaries and Benefits.
In October of 2006 the Concerned Listeners (aka SaveKPFA) won the majority on the LSB and held that majority through 2007-2009. Brian Edwards-Tiekert served as the board treasurer during 2007-2009. Under their oversight, KPFA has been operating at a deficit since 2007, and has lost a total of $1.5 million over the four years from October 1, 2006 through September 30, 2010. The station was headed for a financial train wreck.
In November 2010, the Pacifica Board, which is responsible for the entire network, finally stepped in and made the necessary cuts. All in all seven people took severance packages and two people were laid off.
3. The CWA (Communication Workers of America) response to the cuts.
However, CWA union and SaveKPFA board members challenged the cuts. Matt Hallinan of SaveKPFA, claimed that the “books could be balanced without making programmatic cuts” and that the problem was “one-way flow of funds to Pacifica – which now absorbs 24% of listener contributions to KPFA”.
The numbers from the annual audited budget belies both of Matt’s claims. A sustainable budget is one in which the expenses are in line with real income. As the ‘Listener Support’ declined sharply between 2005 and 2009, there was no reduction in ‘Salaries and Benefits’; however, ‘Payments to Pacifica’, which is 17% of Listener Support, were reduced, and Pacifica laid off most of its staff two years ago.
Matt Hallinan also claimed that the “firing of Brian Edwards-Tiekert was purely political” and “violated the terms of the union contract”.
The layoffs followed the union contract which says: “In cases where skill, ability, knowledge and job performance are all equal, or could be equal in the opinion of the Employer after reasonable orientation and training, seniority shall prevail”. The contract also gives bumping rights to laid-off members, and last month Brian exercised his bumping rights and returned as a paid staff member of the News Department.
4. KPFA community response to the cuts.
Understandably, many people accepted CWA and Matt Hallinan’s claims and called for the return of the laid off workers and the Morning Show.
Others realized that Pacifica indeed was in a financial crisis and saw the cuts as unfortunate economic necessity.
5. The differing visions for KPFA Pacifica.
Although some have tried to cast the conflict as a union management one, it also revealed differing visions for KPFA and Pacifica.
One side called for KPFA to be independent and free of Pacifica Network in local affairs.
The other side believes that effectiveness of Pacifica network derives from the interdependent stations that share national programming like, Democracy Now, Free Speech Radio News, and Al Jazeera.
One side believes in “professionalism“ and that the running of the station should be left to unionized paid staff, which is why when Concerned Listeners (precursor to SaveKPFA) last had the majority on the Board, then General Manager Lemlem Rijio derecognized the Unpaid Staff Organization and disbanded the Program Council.
The other side believes that locally the station should have many independent diverse voices from the community to be part of the station in producing and deciding on the programs.
In fact the crisis brought out the strength of KPFA, which is the skill and dedication of both its listener members and unpaid staff which constitutes 2/3 to 3/4 of the KPFA workforce who, seeing the financial challenges facing the station stepped up to put on the ‘The Morning Mix’ show.
Mary Berg of Sunday’s ‘A Musical Offering’ commented: “This show thoroughly carries on the fine tradition of KPFA, which started as an educational station, in 1949. Its concept, unique in all of radio, was to offer not money for a few but a priceless opportunity for everyone with the passion and love to put in the hard work and be on the air. Over and over, throughout all the years, we have heard the miracle repeated as myriad new voices, tentative and hesitant at first, continue to be transformed into deft, accomplished ones - each unique - and all doing really good radio. This miracle happens again now on "Morning Mix". It never fails to be deeply moving.”
Progressives should look closely at what has happened over the past three months and think carefully about which approach really serves the progressive community and furthers the goals of independent media which must first and foremost be financially viable in order to remain independent.