Wednesday, June 25, 2008

KPFK: The Price of Stifling Dissent

In 1999, shortly after Lynn Chadwick replaced Pat Scott as Executive Director of Pacifica Radio, a new phase of its internal war began. Chadwick had begun her radio career as a volunteer at WPFW and served as president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters for more than a decade, receiving the Edward R. Murrow Award for "transforming the organization into an industry leader." But her tenure at Pacifica was tumultuous, especially once the national board gave itself the authority to select its own members – supposedly in response to a Corporation for Public Broadcasting dictate – and major changes in KPFA’s format were attempted. This and subsequent heavy-handed tactics, including a lockdown and alleged union-busting, led to four lawsuits and large public protests.

At KPFK in Los Angeles, after Vince Ivory, a volunteer for 14 years and producer of a “community calendar” show, went to a demonstration outside the building, General Manager Mark Schubb sent him packing. Fernando Velasquez, a producer and programmer in both Spanish and English, got the same treatment for the same basic offense.

Freelance writer Robin Urevich was also “banned,” in her case for writing about Pacifica in an outside publication. She had been a Pacifica reporter for six years and recently won a Golden Mike Award for Best Reporting by a Network. One publication that printed her story was Toward Freedom, the magazine I’d been editing for the past half decade. After outlining the history of the conflict, she acknowledged that programming had become “more polished” in recent years, but argued that the overall atmosphere didn’t allow for dialogue, questions or creativity. She talked about a “siege mentality” in which critics were viewed as enemies.

“The station has paid a price for stifling dissent,” she concluded. “People who came to KPFK assuming they’d be able to report on issues they were passionate about are mostly gone. Newsroom conversation is less about issues and more about where to find a job at the very radio and television outlets that come under so much criticism on the station’s own airwaves. It’s next to impossible to encourage news and public affairs staff to question authority outside the station while suppressing disagreement inside. In short, the ‘world of ideas’ that KPFK promises in station promos is an increasingly narrow one.”

Schubb’s next move was to require that volunteer programmers, even those who produced shows at their own expense, give up at least partial ownership to the station. To remain on the air producers would have to sign what was called a “Y2K contract.” Many refused and had their shows cancelled, including Roz and Howard Larman, who had been co-hosting Folk Scene, one of the station’s most popular programs, for three decades.

For many Pacifica loyalists this was too much. But Schubb seemed oblivious, and further deepened the discontent by providing a tone deaf defense during an interview with The Los Angeles Times. "People use radio like an appliance," he said. "If they find something they enjoy listening to, they'll listen to it. It's a wonderful time slot. Whatever we put there, we'll find an audience."

Another alleged comment cemented his image as a manager out of step with Pacifica’s mission. According to Amy Goodman, it happened during a September 14, 2000 meeting with the network’s general managers. Schubb took the opportunity to repeat a criticism he’d been making for some time, Amy wrote in a memo. His view was “that audiences don’t want to hear graphic details of police brutality before breakfast, or as he said last year ‘before I have my coffee’.”

Schubb denied making the comment, but the news spread like wildfire. Until he was finally put on administrative leave and then terminated in January 2002, whenever picket signs appeared outside the station some of them usually included the image of a coffee cup.

Steven Starr, the Interim GM brought in to replace Schubb, was a New Yorker who had worked with L.A.’s Independent Media Center. This new, Internet and event-driven media model had emerged in 1999 during the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. The Los Angeles IMC was launched to coincide with the Democratic National Convention held in the city in the summer of 2000. By the time Starr was hired, more than a hundred IMCs had been established around the world.

His tenure included a strong fund drive and some promising changes. But he lasted only two months. His replacement was engineer, producer and station operations manager Roy Hurst, another interim choice. About four months later, however, Eva Georgia was selected as permanent general manager. Eva had developed and managed community stations in South Africa, and worked briefly in southern California. She was a woman of color with a compelling personal story and a talent for outreach.

The following year senior producer Armando Gudino became program director, a decision not without its critics. Folk Scene was brought back, though eventually moved from Sunday night to Saturday morning. Fernando Velasquez also returned, now as co-director of the News Department. Robin Urevich worked for a while with Free Speech Radio News and later returned to the station. The station’s broadcast installation on Mt. Wilson was completely rebuilt. And Sonali Kolhatkar, a former Cal Tech computer programmer and astrophysicist active in Afghan women and refugee groups, became host of the local morning public affairs show.

It sounds almost like a fairy tale ending. Unfortunately, Pacifica stories don’t have neat endings and are anything but predictable.

To start, Schubb didn’t leave without a fight. Instead, he filed a lawsuit claiming contract violations, retaliation for alleged whistleblowing, and discrimination. The whistleblowing claims were based on a presentation to the Board in January 2002 during which he charged that grant money earmarked for KPFK’s transmitter was used to cover business expenses. In other words, he accused the organization of defrauding the grantor.

The contract charge centered on a policy in the Pacifica handbook. According to the organization’s personnel manual, he claimed, he was terminated without being allowed the benefit of “progressive discipline,” a gradual process during which he would have been given the chance to mend his ways.

But the most dangerous accusation was that he had actually been fired not because of his management record but rather because he was a straight white male. His evidence was a public comment by National Board Chairperson Leslie Cagan, who was on the search committee for a new WBAI general manager at the time. Cagan argued, “We don’t want to end up with five white men as our station managers. I have nothing against white men, but as a national organization, we cannot have five white men. I might add five straight white men, just to put it out there.”

Both Cagan’s comments and the process used to fire Schubb created serious legal exposure. According to research on California employment cases, every white male who had filed a reverse discrimination case in recent years won a favorable verdict. There was enormous pressure to avoid a runaway jury. Pacifica’s commitment to racial diversity in hiring might prove to be unpopular, especially since a trial would be held in Glendale, a white middle class area near the station. In reality, Cagan had no control over Schubb’s termination. But a jury might see it differently. Insurance could also be a problem. If Schubb’s lawyers could prove that any of his claims were the result of intentional conduct, coverage would probably be denied.

Despite all this, the case dragged on for two years. Pacifica and Schubb finally settled in February 2004. He walked away with a reported $325,000, less whatever he paid his lawyers. Pacifica’s insurer covered much of the total. The experience left the Board and management with tough lessons, especially that any comment made by a board member or manager – whether written or oral, and however offhand – could come back to haunt the organization.

Part Nine of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

Next: Meeting Eva & A Tense Encounter

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