New Storm Over Pacifica

A call for peace between warring sides at the progressive radio network may only make matters worse.


(This is a corrected version of this article.)

In an unprecedented twist in the bitter struggle at the Pacifica radio network, a group of 42 prominent progressives signed a letter this week calling for a truce between management at the alternative broadcast network and workers at its flagship station in Berkeley — but in doing so, they may have only escalated the conflict.

“I’m looking for peace,” says filmmaker Saul Landau, the letter’s author and a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank. While the letter calls for reconciliation, it also castigates the network’s critics for “Pacifica bashing” and calls a recent strike by free-lance contributors to the Pacifica News Network “unconscionable.” Other prominent signers include Oakland mayor Jerry Brown, actors Ed Asner and Mike Farrell, and David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation.

“I keep asking (Pacifica critics), what is the strategy?” says Landau. “How are we going to get past this? And I hear accusations: They did this, and they did that. I say that may be so, but what’s the strategy to move on?”

Many KPFA supporters, though, see the letter more as a call to arms than a call for peace. “It’s not conciliatory,” said Andrea Buffa, executive director of Media Alliance and a vocal KPFA supporter. “It’s a veiled attack on Pacifica critics.”

The dispute has proven deeply divisive within the progressive community. The conflict began with the abrupt dismissal in March 1999 of Nicole Sawaya, the popular general manager at KPFA, which shocked long-standing employees and listeners. When Larry Bensky, a KPFA talk show host sometimes called the station’s “signature voice,” criticized the dismissal on the air, he was fired. KPFA staff cried censorship.

Listeners and supporters picketed the station, drawing national media attention. The level of vitriol escalated in July when “Flashpoints” host Dennis Bernstein was pulled off the air and forcibly removed from the premises for airing a news item that Pacifica management deemed critical of itself on his show. The following month saw a lockout of station staff by Pacifica management, live programming replaced by taped shows and music, and nonstop demonstrations. Names like Joan Baez, Noam Chomsky and others chimed in to support the protest.

Landau says he was impelled to write the letter after the conflict’s latest flare-up: In early February Dan Coughlin, news director for Pacifica National News, was removed from his duties after running a piece that addressed a conflict between Pacifica management and 16 Pacifica affiliates. A group of news free-lancers for PNN called for a work stoppage in protest. Pacifica said Coughlin was moved for other reasons.

While affirming the free-lancers’ right to disagree with Pacifica management, Landau charges that, “They do not have a right to cloak their grievances in the language of a bona fide labor dispute,” traditionally a powerful symbol among those on the left.

Striking Pacifica free-lancer Robin Urevich disagrees. “Many strikes don’t have to do with working conditions and wages, but have to do with workers’ ability to have some control over their work,” she says. She compares the striking free-lancers to nurses who strike out of concern that patients get good care.

Landau says he’s simply out to calm the debate. “This is an act of faith — faith in the reasonableness of people on both sides,” he says.

That’s not how it sounds to Nicole Sawaya, the former KPFA general manager whose dismissal started it all. She credits Landau with good intentions, but says, “Now is not the time to join hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.'” She puts the blame on Pacifica management, saying KPFA’s efforts to negotiate “have been rebuffed every step of the way.”

Though the letter decries the “veritable war on Pacifica” which “could lead to the death of the only alternative radio network progressives possess,” Landau insists that the letter does not support management. “Pacifica made terrible mistakes. I don’t think (in the letter) I’ve said anything good about how the board has handled things,” he says.

As the free-lancer strike continues, the February 27 meeting of Pacifica’s board in Washington promises to be acrimonious, amid charges that new nominees for the board are continuing what Pacifica critics say is a trend toward stacking Pacifica’s board with non-progressive, corporate-friendly members.