Monday, June 23, 2008

Pacifica Radio: Roots of the Revolution

The Pacifica Foundation obtained the best site on 5600-foot Mt. Wilson above L.A. to run over 110 kilowatts of radio power, enough to reach six million people, in the late 1950s. Its new station, KPFK, would have the strongest FM signal in Southern California, reaching from Santa Barbara and Los Angeles to the Mexican border and San Bernadino mountains.

From the start it was a bold and innovative operation. One of the early fundraising events was a Renaissance Pleasure Faire at which people dressed in period costumes. Pacifica ultimately broke off its relationship with the weekend event due to financial losses and outside pressure, but there were hundreds of imitators in the succeeding decades. Two years after the station’s 1959 launch it won a Peabody award for excellence in broadcasting. The following year it broadcast women’s history profiles of Dorothy Healey and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, later used during US Senate hearings to buttress charge that Pacifica was a communist front organization. In 1974, General Manager Will Lewis was jailed for refusing to give the FBI tapes of Patty Hearst that had been provided to the station by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

After Pacifica’s first executive director, Sharon Maeda, attacked the station in the early 1980s and tried to secure corporate underwriting from Exxon, KPFK’s scholarly program director, Clare Spark, fired back by reading a resolution drafted by herself and other Program Directors on the air. But Spark also preferred the traditional dialogue and culture-based interpretation of Pacifica’s mission to the more recent protest orientation. The network and its stations should focus on "people who write books," not "people who write bumper stickers," she said. The argument foreshadowed the struggle to come over control of programming and the direction of the network.

The match was truly lit when Pat Scott became KPFA General Manager and then Executive Director in the mid-1990s. Joining NFCB President Lynn Chadwick on a Corporation for Public Broadcasting task force, she backed the idea that community radio should be more ratings-driven. As far as many Pacificans were concerned, that was bad enough. But Scott went further, issuing a communique to all stations. On behalf on herself and the national board, she said that anyone who wasn’t willing to help the board reconfigure local programming to increase audiences was “advised to resign.” It became known as the “my way or the highway” memo.

Two weeks later, the broadcast schedule at KPFA was dramatically changed, including the cancellation of established shows. The fight climaxed four years later in a lockout and massive protests. Scott’s next move was a surprise takeover of KPFK and changes in station management. That came to be called the “Wednesday Night Massacre.” A listener-activist group calling itself the Pacifica Accountability Committee was formed, drawing support from L.A. and Berkeley. But their early efforts to write and push for new bylaws were ignored. Financial records were moved to Washington, DC in 2001, once discovery began in the then-pending lawsuits to remove directors for breaches of fiduciary duties.

A central figure in the struggle was KPFK General Manager Mark Schubb, who held the job from 1995 to 2002. Considering the volatility of the period it was a remarkably long tenure. Schubb was both respected and feared, and became known for sulking, slamming doors, and imposing programming changes. His loyal cadre – later known as the “Schubbistas” and their own label, “The Third Faction” – included Marc Cooper, who had been national news director until he was fired for confronting the national board in 1983 and later returned as a controversial on-air host at KPFK. Cooper served as Schubb’s informal consigliere for the rest of the 90s, and “The Third Faction” became famous for making extreme accusations about its opponents.

One of the early casualties was Lyn Gerry, KPFK producer, engineer and union shop steward. After a confrontation with Schubb over labor issues and other matters in 1995 she was fired and “banned.” But Gerry didn’t walk away quietly. She became a Pacifica activist and used the Internet to help organize the growing resistance. Other casualties of Schubb’s drive to remake the programming grid were Blase Bonpane, a well-regarded programmer fired – apparently without explanation – after 25 years on the air, and Loraine Mirza, a news staffer and host of Islamic Perspectives, who allegedly injured her back while removing boxes full of research without help after she was terminated.

In 1996, Schubb issued a directive ordering programmers and board operators to immediately cut the feed if anyone discussed “dirty linen” on the air. Noncompliance would result in “permanently being removed from the station.” The phrase dated back to the 60s, when “abusing the air” to discuss internal disputes was first prohibited. Two decades earlier the manager of KPFK had been fired for violating the “dirty linen” rule. But until Schubb’s memo it hadn’t been strictly enforced.

Disgruntled Pacificans saw this as a virtual Gag Rule. Anyone – employee or volunteer – who said anything about an internal disagreement would be automatically and promptly shown the door. For the next six years Schubb’s rule remained in place, with especially dire results at KPFK and WBAI. It took a revolution and a court order to end the practice. After a while Schubb got a nickname – The Gagmaster.

Part Eight of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

Next: The Price of Stifling Dissent

Post a Comment