Public Comment

KPFA, A Year Later – A Reflection

By Akio Tanaka
Wednesday November 09, 2011 - 09:41:00 AM

Between 2001 and 2006, there was a dramatic increase in Listener Support at KPFA due to the expanding economy and interest in the Iraq-Afghan War. KPFA added many paid staff during this period; however, between 2007 and 2010 Listener Support declined dramatically as the whole economy crashed. 

Payments to Pacifica were reduced to reflect the decline in Listener Support, but similar cuts to Salaries and Benefits were not made, and in the fall of 2010 KPFA faced insolvency. The Pacifica Foundation, which is fiscally responsible for the network of five stations, stepped in and made cuts in staffing. 

Initially, Pacifica offered voluntary severance to all employees. Seven people accepted the offer, and in the end, two people were laid off, Aimee Allison and Brian Edwards-Tiekert. Edwards-Tiekert had seniority bumping rights which he did not exercise until several months later. 

The layoffs were done in accordance with 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”. 

Following was the seniority of the paid hosts of Public Affair shows in November of 2010: 

Kris Welch - Living Room & Saturday Talkies Host/Producer 

Philip Maldari - Sunday Show Host/Producer 

Dennis Bernstein - Flashpoints Host/Producer 

CS Soong - Against the Grain Host/Producer 

Davey D. - Hard Knock Radio Host/Producer 

Anita Johnson - Hard Knock Radio Host/Producer 

Sasha Lilley - Against the Grain Host/Producer 

Miguel Molina - Flashpoints Host/Producer 

Brian Edwards-Tiekert - Morning Show Host 

Mitch Jeserich - Letters & Politics Host/Producer 

Aimee Allison - Morning Show Host 

If one single show was to be cancelled based on seniority, it was going to be either the Morning Show or Letters & Politics; however, Communication Workers of America (CWA) claimed that the layoffs violated the terms of the union contract and filed three grievances with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and asked for an arbitrator to rule on reinstating Edwards-Tiekert and Allison to the Morning Show. These claims led many labor supporters to voice solidarity with the CWA and to believe that in fact there had been management misconduct. 

In February of 2011, Brian Edwards-Tiekert did exercise his bumping rights and returned as a part-time news reporter. In April, the NLRB issued an advice memo dismissing one of the three CWA grievances and CWA withdrew the two remaining grievances. In July, the arbitrator ruled against Allison’s reinstatement. 

Pacifica was vindicated on all counts associated with or having to do with labor issues. Unfortunately, as in any conflict, partisan rhetoric prevailed and continues. 

Some claimed that the layoffs were not necessary and that there had been union busting on the part of Pacifica. They also claimed that layoffs were politically motivated. 

Some claimed that Pacifica was trying to take over KPFA and make it an all-volunteer station. 

Some claimed that Pacifica was taking too much. Audited budget reports show that Payment to Pacifica is pegged to Listener Support, so if Listener Support goes down Payment to Pacifica goes down proportionately. 

Some tried to conflate professionalism with paid positions; however, being a paid staff does not confer competence, and it is generally agreed that there are many unpaid staff that are thoroughly professional. 

Some tried to cast the cuts as a management-union issue. KPFA is not a traditional corporation where management can make tradeoffs between wages and other expenses (e.g. dividends). At KPFA all the income goes to fixed expenses or Salaries and Benefits, so if the revenue goes down and there are no reserves, there must be cuts to staff. 

The reason this conflict arose is because there are real underlying differences at the station. 

One is historical. In 1997 CWA became the station union and the unpaid staff lost representation which exacerbated the divide between the paid staff and the unpaid staff. In 2003, in response to the attempted takeover of Pacifica by a group headed by Mary Frances Berry, new bylaws were put in place which called for a democratically elected Local Station Board. This understandably introduced an element of uncertainty for many of the established staff. 

Another has to do with assuring the income stream. Naturally, the station would like to see a steady source of income and one way to do this is to appeal to more affluent audience. Some are wary of shows which they fear offend some audiences or appeal exclusively to less affluent and/or narrower audiences. 

All this came to a head in the fall of 2010. While it is understandable that people want to keep their jobs and it is the union’s duty to help keep those jobs, the layoffs in 2010 were the consequence of the extraordinary boom and bust cycle of the preceding decade. 

KPFA must find a way to continue to raise adequate revenue and produce uncompromised progressive programming. 

One lesson from the recent boom and bust cycle is that the station should maintain a paid staffing level that is sustainable over the long term and not subject to economic ups and downs. As always, the most reliable way to keep an even income is to broaden the listener support. This can be best achieved by relentless efforts to produce good programming. Ever improving and relevant programming is bolstered by a strong apprenticeship program and lively, ongoing evaluation of programs. When a new person joins the station, whether a worker or a manager, the old timers must all extend a hand to help the new person become part of the KPFA family. 

Pacifica Executive Director Arlene Engelhardt and KPFA Interim General Manager Andrew Phillips and Interim Program Director Carrie Core all deserve our thanks for stepping into a very difficult situation and managing with dignity and generosity. 

Akio Tanaka is an Oakland resident and a member of the KPFA Local Station Board.