Monday, April 21, 2008

KPFA: How Campanella Struck Out

Son of the legendary Hall of Fame baseball player with the same name, Roy Campanella II attended Harvard and Columbia and worked as a filmmaker, producer and editor, notably as a programming executive with CBS Entertainment in Los Angeles, before joining KPFA as General Manager in the fall of 2004. Depending on the source of the story, he was either a victim of station politics who attempted to make some modest changes, or an incompetent who hit on female staff members. Either way, the job had been a political football for more than five years by the time he got it.

In 1999, the national board had removed popular station manager Nicole Sawaya, one of the events that catalyzed the resistance. During the “hijack” period, a key opposition demand was her restatement. But when the smoke cleared, the job went to a White “interim” manager, Jim Bennett, who brought back some stability and improved on-air fundraising. After several years, it was passed to former Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport. A veteran Black organizer with 30 years experience and demonstrated leadership chops, he quickly found the situation intolerable and was gone in nine months. “He knew nothing about radio,” his critics complained. Anyway, Bennett returned and held the job for another year until Roy was hired. Some people still wanted Sawaya back – and clearly weren’t impressed with Roy.

Within his first few months on the job, several women charged that he was “unfit,” guilty of “hostility and gender-based treatment,” and should be fired. A letter of no confidence was soon signed by 70 of the station’s estimated 300 paid staff and volunteers, and, at a July local board meeting, he was accused of creating a hostile work environment. “People shouldn’t have to work in an environment of fear,” complained subscriptions editor Gary Niederhoff. But Peter Franck, chair of Media Action Marin, asked the board to work with Campanella, warning that “you should not wait for a Messiah to rescue you.” To which 17-year staffer Jan Etre responded, “There was a Messiah; her name was Nicole Sawaya.”

Roy conceded that he’d asked several subordinates, both men and women, out to movies (he told me that he was merely trying to be generous with comp tickets he received), but denied that he was trolling for dates. Hired to conduct an investigation, Oakland attorney Dan Siegel concluded that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to sustain the charges, yet suggested that the board might want to let Roy go anyway. Predictably, some people said that Siegel, a respected litigator who had helped lead the legal challenge against the Foundation several years before – and a potential candidate for Oakland Mayor at the time – wasn’t sufficiently neutral to be acting as counsel.

After the harassment charges, Roy offered to enter mediation with the staff. But the union had little interest. In an e-mail, shop steward Lisa Ballard noted that within hours of distributing a Zero Tolerance for Violence policy to the staff, he had “instigated a fight in our workplace kitchen.” Basically, it was an argument between Campanella and Hard Knock Radio producer Weylan Southon that spiraled out of control. As tempers flared and chairs were tossed, Campanella called Southon outside to fight. In his defense, Roy later claimed that it wasn’t a serious proposition and no blows were exchanged. But Southon didn’t come back to work for a week, claiming he feared for his safety. Things were moving from bad to worse.

The reason for Roy’s “Zero Tolerance” e-mail was an incident in which a station engineer hurled metal chairs during a meeting of the KPFA Program Council. Former host Bill Mandel was about to get a new show and some staff, for whom Mandel represented the predominantly white old guard, were a bit upset. In a battle for air time, a war had broken out between “listener activists” who wanted to drop programming they saw as moderate and stale, and staff members who felt besieged in a “culture of complaints.”

Some of the staff “are very suspicious of democracy,” charged Stan Woods, a member of People’s Radio, a Pacifica faction representing “listener activists” on KPFA’s Local Station Board. Their opponents had also formed a group, KPFA Forward, which included staff members and their supporters. A large bone of contention was an attempt to change the air time of Democracy Now. Despite backing from the Program Council and Gus Newport, staff resistance had kept the show from moving. “There hadn’t been managerial oversight for quite some time, so the staff could do what they wanted,” said board member and listener activist Chandra Hauptman. “Now that a manager is trying to set up a structure and protocol, the staff is resisting.”

At first, the local board rejected Siegel’s suggestion to remove Campanella. But six month later, when he couldn’t deliver on a new set of performance goals, there was a vote of no confidence by the local LSB and a request to national management to dismiss their GM. According to the new bylaws, both the local board and the ED had to agree to such a decision, or else the PNB would have to decide. As luck would have it, the issue came to a head just as I was hired.

Roy had hired a lawyer and was threatening to sue unless given the opportunity to defend himself or provided with an acceptable settlement deal. Not comfortable with the negotiations, he began calling me in Vermont as soon as he heard I was coming on board. Though he’d probably accept a settlement, his preference, he claimed, was to present his case – even if I decided later to remove him – rather than simply walk away. But Ambrose Lane, who was Interim ED until I was hired, didn’t want to wait, and when I asked him to put the negotiations on hold until I arrived, he declined, instead placing a tight deadline on Roy’s acceptance of the deal.

Upset, I contacted the board. My concerns were that “this will set a precedent, that the process used by the LSB was incomplete, and that the amount involved was substantial and thus might fall within a PNB motion concerning contract negotiation limits.” That Sunday I flew to Berkeley. The next day, my first in the office, the Berkeley Daily Planet reported: “KPFA Chief Steps Down After Troubled Reign.”

This was not the kind of peaceable, cooperative “transition” relationship I’d anticipated. Imposing a deadline that came three days before my official start had forced the issue. Worse, the terms of Roy’s deal hadn’t been seen by anyone except its negotiators, he hadn’t been formally evaluated or allowed to respond, and the station was left without either a general manager or a program director. But as Ambrose saw it, neither the public nor the national board had a right to know the details. He had made an executive decision – the type of last minute action that boards tend to dislike – and left me to find a replacement. Various interested parties quickly lined up for appointments, each offering suggestions and opinions about how urgent it was to fill the post as quickly as possible.

The main proposal on the table was that GM responsibilities could be “rotated” between three middle managers. This sounded unwieldy and impractical, and played directly into criticisms that the staff preferred not to have a real manager at all. As I explained to the board, “If the KPFA community wishes to alter its fundamental structure, that should be worked out over time and not attempted on an ad hoc basis.”

On top of that, there was the issue of how to proceed with Ambrose. When the board offered me the job, they also gave him two addition months to help me get acquainted. So far, I’d received little concrete information, a major headache, and some broad, subjective impressions.

After he refused to delay or discuss the Campanella deal, I asked the board to release Ambrose from his consulting role and use any remaining funds for transition help with technical and programming issues. My plan was to accelerate work on national Spanish language and Hurricane Katrina aftermath initiatives. But when the board met on the phone, Ambrose framed the question as an attack on his “integrity” and warned me sternly never to do it again. His fellow directors, several at the end of their terms and less than eager for yet another parliamentary fight, cut his time but ignored my proposals and, without knowing what it contained, let Campanella’s settlement slide.

Part Four of “Managing Pacifica: In the Bubble.”

Next: Why Pacifica Radio Fights

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