A fight, Berkeley-style, over radio's future

A lockout at the oldest public radio station spurs concern that a crusading liberal voice will be silenced.

For half a century, the tiny radio station of KPFA - nestled in the liberal redoubt of Berkeley - has been a voice for civil rights, war protests, and big-business condemnation. But nothing has been more sacred than the idea of free speech.

Now, America's oldest public radio station is in a battle to keep its own voice from being silenced.

Among the eucalyptus hills of Berkeley, KPFA is struggling to control its programming and very identity as one of the last remaining alternative on-air voices.

In one sense, it typifies the plight of small radio stations in an era of increasing media monopolies. But KPFA supporters say it's deeper than that - that the left-leaning, crusading voices of the airwaves are dwindling at a time when conservative programming is spreading.

"People are very worried about the void that would be created," says KPFA co-news director Aileen Alfandary, who has worked at the station for 20 years. "There's lots of right-wing media in this country. Don't we need something on the progressive end? If Pacifica self-destructs, there's nothing to take its place."

After nearly a three-week lockout by its parent network, Pacifica, KPFA staff returned to its dilapidated studio today amid uncertainty about the future of their station. Rumors have been circulating about the station's sale in what has become Berkeley's biggest fight in years.

But at a recent rally of more than 10,000 here to "save free speech radio," it was clear the station's avid supporters will not let it go down easily.

"This is a sacred institution," says KPFA journalist Dennis Bernstein, who was dragged out by Pacifica security guards in an on-air tussle. "In the Bay Area, half the people are activists trying to organize the other half, and this station has been at the center of that. It is the electronic voice of the free-speech movement."

Pacifica owns five stations from Los Angeles to New York reaching about 700,000 listeners nationwide. It did not respond to several requests for comment on its rift with and possible sale of its Berkeley station, but recent reports indicate its plan is to broaden the listenership of all its stations.

KPFA supporters and observers believe the entire network is in turmoil and that the demise of KPFA could mean the demise of Pacifica.

The trouble began when KPFA staffers violated a network gag rule by mentioning the April firing of popular station manager Nicole Sawaya.

The day after the mid-July lockout, more than a dozen California legislators called for a state audit of Pacifica for "a number of actions which may violate its charter and its tax-exempt status," including the network's move several months ago to "disenfranchise" local stations' community-advisory boards that help steer programming decisions.

Staffers cite Pacifica's proud history of breaking stories on the Iran-contra scandal, US involvement in supplying chemical weapons to Iraq, and its award-winning coverage of Chevron's alleged connections with military brutality in Nigeria - as well as the first radio reading of Allen Ginsberg's famous poem "Howl," which prompted an obscenity trial in the late 1950s.

Syndicated media critic Norman Solomon says KPFA is known for "independent, tough-minded journalism without sacred cows in corporations or government, and unabashedly progressive.... Clearly all that is in jeopardy now."

KPFA's grass-roots journalism has elicited potent loyalty. Protests - involving more than 100 arrests - have drawn liberal-radio and free-speech advocates from hundreds of miles away, and a benefit concert featuring folk legend Joan Baez raised $70,000.

"This is the only station I can come to [where] if you've got a proper gripe, they'll hear your gripe," says Jordy Clark, a forklift driver from Berkeley.

Mr. Clark spent his recent one-week vacation at "Camp KPFA," a nightly tent city erected on the street in front of station headquarters. He says he has been arrested twice for civil disobedience.

Berkeley's city council has stepped into the fray, urging Pacifica to resolve its dispute and let KPFA remain.

Bay Area Rep. Barbara Lee (D) also issued a press release stating her "unequivocal support" for KPFA. She added that "the manner in which the Pacifica Board has chosen to address the ongoing problem at KPFA has only exacerbated the dispute."

While both sides continue meetings with federal mediators, the station's future is cloudy as Pacifica entertains the idea of selling the KPFA frequency. Staffers and KPFA supporters are pressing Pacifica chairwoman Mary Frances Berry and other board members to drop any plans of selling the station, and to resign.

Any sale would have to be approved by the Federal Communications Commission. Spokesman Morgan Broman says that although most media buys are approved, "this is slightly different, in that it is community radio serving a niche in the area. And if it was suddenly going to change the kind of service it was providing, that might be a factor" in FCC deliberations.

The FCC, Mr. Broman says, would weigh "what's best for Berkeley and the radio listeners of Berkeley."

"We might still approve [the sale], but you'd be losing a resource that you've had for 50 years," he says. "It's Top-40 station under new ownership."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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