Friday, June 27, 2008

Pacifica Radio: Tea & Tension at KPFK

Eva Georgia never had a honeymoon period. Within six months of her appointment as General Manager at KPFK in Los Angeles some people were mobilizing to have her removed. Critics charged that she had exaggerated her accomplishments in South Africa, as well as her academic credentials. She was accused of reckless spending and giving herself a raise. As she struggled to make changes some volunteers and board members called her dictatorial and questioned whether opening up time for more Latino-oriented shows would work.

Financial performance appeared to back up her strategy. Listener support jumped by more than half a million during her first year, and although it dropped in her second it rebounded in 2005. KPFK’s on-air fund drives became the most successful in the network. The same thing couldn’t be said about listenership, however. After a strong recovery in 2003, Arbitron ratings pointed to a decline. Even Eva’s critics felt that the rating service didn’t accurately reflect Pacifica’s audience. And it didn’t take into account new listeners who were using the Internet. But the trends for public radio weren’t encouraging, and despite successful work to make KPFK sound more hip and youthful the overall picture suggested that fewer people were giving more money and a new audience had yet to be captured.

The programming grid was certainly eclectic. Each weekday morning began with a bilingual newscast, followed by Democracy Now!, Sonali Kolhatkar’s Uprising, and a diverse mix of local voices. Arts, cultural and health programs – a different focus each day – filled the afternoon, followed by more political offerings produced by various collectives and personalities. After the local evening news and Free Speech Radio News’ internationally-focused round up, shows on women, gays, labor, the Middle East and legal issues preceded a Latino block and some late evening music. Roy of Hollywood, a KPFK staple for decades, ruled the roost from midnight to four. Some of the talk and opinion was over the top, but there was certainly much diversity.

When I called ahead to arrange a visit in February 2006, Eva wasn’t especially eager to meet. Given the weird start of our relationship I couldn’t blame her. She had gone after the top job and almost had it when this “white guy” from Vermont appeared out of nowhere. Her opponents had used every criticism over the past four years to undermine her support. There were even unsubstantiated rumors that she hit on her subordinates. She had a right to be suspicious and a bit aloof.

Instead, Program Director Armando Gudino shepherded me through the first floor studios and offices. He was a big man with an easy-going manner and sharp sense of humor. The staff was busy but seemed friendly enough. When we reached the newsroom only one person was inside, a member of the Free Speech Radio News collective. Armando waited at the door and Fernando Velasquez, the station’s co-news director, peaked in from behind. I walked over and introduced myself.

“I want to talk to you about FSRN,” she began. I already knew that the news collective felt that it wasn’t being paid enough. Begun by striking Pacifica News Network stringers in 2001, it had eventually replaced Pacifica Network News and grown into an independent news gathering organization with about 200 correspondents worldwide. FSRN wanted a contract with Pacifica (I led negotiations that produced one signed seven months later), better pay for its stringers, and, perhaps down the line, re-integration. But it also wanted to maintain editorial control, the freedom to cover or air whatever the group chose. The operative word was autonomy.

“Good,” I replied. “I want to talk too. To begin with, I have a question. What does autonomy mean to you?”

I knew we couldn’t go into depth, but I was curious about how much independence FSRN really wanted and whether the group was open to increasing collaboration with other Pacifica news operations. If re-integration were to happen the issue would have to be addressed.

Instead of answering she got angry. I was intimidating her, she said, and she didn’t want to talk to me anymore. The reaction was a shock. I glanced back at the two men behind me. They looked away and edged out of the room.

Moving back, I grabbed a chair and sat down. “What’s wrong?” I asked. She didn’t want to discuss it. “If I said something that bothered you I apologize.” She turned away. I waited silently for a few moments, hoping she’d reconsider. But it was easy to see she was seething, so I said goodbye and left.

The station tour continued. However, before I left the building to meet with Eva for a cup of tea, I received word that the FSRN member was deeply offended and might file a complaint. This seemed strange. Producer Alan Minsky, a new member of the National Board who represented staff at the station, took me outside to offer some perspective. She was a good journalist and a nice person, he explained, but probably felt that being asked a question about FSRN by her “boss” was threatening. She might have felt surrounded by three men, he speculated.

It made sense, sort of. We had entered the room without advance notice, three men of “authority.” I stood rather than immediately sitting down, with Armando and Fernando behind me. Perhaps she saw it as an ambush or expression of male dominance. But even if I hadn’t been sufficiently sensitive about the dynamics, threatening to file a grievance seemed a bit extreme. It occurred to me that perhaps I was the one being sandbagged, somehow set up for an encounter that would provide an excuse to claim that the new ED was an abusive chauvinist. Or was I just internalizing Pacifica’s paranoid undercurrent?

“I’m not going to become the issue here,” I said. “If she goes ahead with this maybe I should just get in my car and head back home.”

Alan managed to calm me down. Just wait and see, he advised. “You can do some good here,” he said.

When I sat down with Eva she said basically the same thing. Her own experience was that people inside Pacifica often exaggerated problems and spread vicious rumors based on lies and distortions. Personally, she wasn’t sure how much longer she could take it. If I quit, I suggested, maybe they’ll give you the job. As far as I could tell, she seemed qualified.

“No,” she answered. “They’ll never let me have it. And after what I’ve been put through I wouldn’t take it even if they asked.”

I wasn’t sure I believed that. Eva was apparently ambitious and certainly charismatic, a natural leader. But after four years under fire she was showing signs of wear. If that’s what happens when you take a controversial stand – or just ask the wrong questions, I thought, how long could I possibly last?

Part Ten of Pacifica Radio: A`Listening Tour

Next Week: PRA, Elections and Civic Media

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