Behind the Layoffs at KPFA Radio

Friday, 19 November 2010 12:10 By David Bacon, Labor Notes | Report | name.

In a move eerily reminiscent of events a decade ago that kicked off the long struggle over control of the Pacifica listener-supported radio network, Pacifica Foundation executives moved to take control of its Berkeley flagship station, KPFA. Layoff notices were given to the staff of its popular drive-time program, the Morning Show, November 8, terminating them on the spot with no notice, or even the normal boilerplate language explaining eligibility for unemployment or COBRA benefits.

The show's two co-hosts, Brian Edwards-Tiekert and Aimee Allison, lost their jobs. Assistant producer Esther Manilla, a steward for the staff union, Communications Workers Local 9415, took a voluntary layoff to save the jobs of others. Producer Laura Prives was also laid off, but when it became obvious she had more seniority than other staff still working, her layoff notice was apparently rescinded.

Two hundred listeners came out for a spirited demonstration in front of the station at midday to oppose the layoffs, as even more had done the previous week when layoffs had been threatened.

Arlene Engelhardt, executive director of the Pacifica Foundation, which holds the licenses for the five Pacifica stations (KPFA in Berkeley, WBAI in New York, KPFK in Los Angeles, WPFW in Washington, D.C., and KPFT in Houston) arrived at the station with the foundation's financial officer, LaVarn Williams, the next day. The layoff was so sudden they had no program to put in place of the Morning Show. The supposedly-terminated staff then interviewed the two, along with the union’s stewards, for the next two hours, questioning them about the layoff decision on the air.

The following day, however, Engelhardt and Williams were more prepared. They ordered the station's engineer to download the satellite feed for the Uprisings morning show from KPFK in Los Angeles, and broadcast it in place of KPFA's own program. For over a decade, KPFA’s Wednesday Morning Show has included a half-hour segment devoted to labor. When the producer (myself) and two organizers from the Longshore and Warehouse Union arrived to do the report, Engelhardt refused to put us on the air, saying that the Morning Show and its labor segment had been "preempted."

Since then, KPFA has continued to broadcast the Los Angeles program in place of its own locally-produced Morning Show. Sonali Kohatkar, host of Uprisings, stated on the air her support for the laid-off KPFA staff, interviewed Edwards-Tiekert, and even Engelhardt herself.

Seniority Rules

For more than two decades, the union contract at KPFA has included station-wide seniority for paid staff. Station managers and program directors can change or eliminate programs, but any staff member whose job or program is eliminated can use seniority to bid on other jobs. The union has filed unfair labor practice charges and grievances against Engelhardt and Pacifica, saying they violated the contract by targeting individuals on the Morning Show staff for termination.

A large part of the station's audience has also protested the layoff. They argue that the Morning Show raises a great deal of money in on-air marathons and that attacking the program and its staff threatens the income that supports the station. Many listeners think the Morning Show is just good radio and want it back.

The layoffs and the seizure of control over KPFA's programming raise important questions about the station's funding base and the amount of money going to the Pacifica Foundation every year. But behind them are even larger questions about the rights of workers, both paid and unpaid, in progressive institutions, and debates over the nature of community radio.

Nature of Community Radio

There is no question that KPFA’s budget has taken a hit in the economic crisis, as has that of almost every other station like it. Its funding comes almost entirely from listener subscriptions and donations, so when listeners don't have as much to give, income shrinks.

To meet the shortfall, some staff at the station cut their hours months ago so their co-workers wouldn’t be laid off. Pay at the station is low to begin with. Cutting hours means that for many staff members, income shrinks below what they can realistically live on. After hours were cut for one staff member, Nora Barrows-Friedman from the evening investigative news show Flashpoints, she had to leave.

Two days after the rally opposing the Morning Show layoffs, more listeners held a protest over possible cuts directed at other KPFA shows, including the hip-hop show Hard Knock Radio, the apprentice-produced show Full Circle, and Flashpoints. Weyland Southon, Hard Knock's executive producer, took a voluntary layoff, as did the labor beat reporter for the news department, Max Pringle, and staffers Lewis Sawyer, Renee Geesler, and Vini Beacham. All are people of color, as are Allison and Manilla. The layoffs, voluntary and involuntary, are having a disastrous effect on the racial and national diversity of station staff, and because of that, on the station's connection to communities of color in northern California.

The annual budget for KPFA is about $4 million. In the past two years it didn't raise all of that, falling short by about $750,000, by some estimates. The station used its reserves funds to make up the difference, but those reserves are now gone. Because of cutting hours and jobs, this year the deficit is projected to be less, but it's still there.

Under the bylaws that give it ownership of the station licenses, Pacifica Foundation has the power to order further cuts by forcing the station manager to implement them. Pacifica terminated an earlier manager, Lemlem Rijio, last year. The next acting manager, longtime programmer Amelia Gonzalez, is leaving rather than carry out Pacifica's mandates. The following interim manager, Ahmad Anderson, told laid-off staff he’d been required to give them termination notices on Engelhardt’s orders. Pacifica executives and its national board have just chosen a new permanent manager for the station, Amit Pendyal.

Sustainable Budget

To avoid further cuts, the staff union proposed an alternative "Sustainable KPFA" budget. Essentially, it would save $250,000 per year by cutting the amount of money the station pays Pacifica Foundation. It would charge Pacifica rent for offices at the station it now uses for free, hold national board meetings by phone instead of flying members in, share programming costs, amortize money the station already owes that the Foundation wants paid at once, and even put eligible staff on Medicare instead of negotiated benefits. One further proposal would cut the salaries of Foundation staff itself.

Engelhardt and Williams refused to consider the alternative budget. While they haven’t yet provided documentation showing how much they make, Engelhardt recently said her salary was $90,000 plus benefits. The Foundation also employs several other staff and retains an expensive San Francisco law firm. Recently Engelhardt told the union that Pacifica was hiring an additional law firm to represent it in labor relations.

Earlier Fight with Pacifica

All of this is reminiscent of the struggle ten years ago between local stations, especially those in Berkeley, New York, and Los Angeles, and the Pacifica Foundation, then directed by Mary Frances Berry. In the years leading up to the confrontation, Foundation expenses expanded dramatically as it began producing syndicated programming and requiring the stations to carry it.

The then-self-appointed Pacifica board isolated and fired dissenters who wanted more local control, and who discussed the issues on the air, including those working on national shows like Pacifica Network News. When staff in Berkeley tried to let listeners know about the conflict, they were forbidden to discuss it on the air. Staff members were disciplined for trying, including Morning Show hosts, national correspondent Larry Bensky, and even myself, an unpaid labor show host.

Finally, Flashpoints host Dennis Bernstein was dragged from under his microphone by security guards for violating the gag rule, dozens of staff and listeners were arrested for “trespassing” by remaining at their jobs, the staff was driven from the station, and armed security guards locked the doors.

The lockout led to confrontations at other stations. Amy Goodman, then morning host on WBAI in New York, was driven from the station there by harassment. She began doing her show from a remote location, and Democracy Now! was born.

Free Speech Radio News was also born as an alternative to Pacifica Network News, by stringers and other independent journalists who went on strike against Foundation censorship. The original strike committee included Aaron Glantz and Vanessa Tait in Berkeley, Eileen Sutton in New York, and Robin Urevich in Los Angeles. Today both Democracy Now! and FSRN are independent shows, with subscribers far beyond the five Pacifica stations.

Eventually, popular pressure, a huge march in Berkeley, lawsuits and even a California legislative hearing forced Berry to resign. The lockout ended. Pacifica stopped producing national shows, and its staff and budget shrank, at least for a while. In the discussions that followed, new bylaws were adopted for the Foundation and the local stations, creating an elected Foundation board and elected local station boards.

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Vying Groups

The elections that followed, however, became arenas in which competing factions and groups vied for control of those boards. There have been endless debates, especially on the Berkeley and national boards, about a host of issues, including race, paid/unpaid status and type of programming. But one basic dividing line was drawn between groups that supported the station staff and those who did not.

Paid staff themselves, who are represented on the KPFA board, have supported more than one slate, as have unpaid staff. In the last year, the coalition supported by most staff, at one time called Concerned Listeners and now called Save KPFA, gained a majority on the local station board (although they haven’t yet been seated) but lost it on the national board.

Engelhardt and Williams are aligned with an opposing group called Independents for Community Radio. The staff majority and their board supporters believe that the two have used the fiscal crisis to target opponents on staff who have challenged them in board meetings, and to gain control over the station.

Before the most recent election, Save KPFA accused Engelhardt of meeting with board members from the Community Radio group and discussing a target list of staff members to be terminated, including the Morning Show staff.
Engelhardt and Williams, and their allies in the Community Radio group, have justified their actions as an effort to use fewer paid staff and return to what Engelhardt describes as an earlier era of "volunteerism."

The union and staff fear that essentially means wholesale elimination of jobs and replacement of paid staff with unpaid staff. Many unpaid staff are also worried that the station itself will take a financial and political hit, endangering their own ability to broadcast.

Weyland Southon, who took a voluntary layoff as co-founder and producer of Hard Knock Radio, told the internet news site Oakland Local: “If KPFA becomes strictly volunteer-run, I guarantee there will be no diversity on KPFA airwaves. Working people will be ghettoized in late night slots and the upper classed and privileged few will dominate the prime daytime slots. Production standards will nosedive and the resulting programming will not resonate with audiences that require more than some talking heads pontificating on soapboxes. If this is the end game, people of color and other disenfranchised communities will lose big.”

Paid and Unpaid

KPFA did, in fact, have a much smaller staff decades ago. Most on-air programs were produced and hosted by unpaid programmers, supervised by paid administrators. Paid staff did the engineering and technical work and managed the subscription and fundraising operations. KPFA has always had one of the best news departments in radio, with coverage produced by a combination of paid and unpaid reporters, managed by one or two paid news directors.

During the ferment of the ’60s and ’70s, music, drama and literature, and public affairs departments were supplemented by others for women and third world people, connecting the station to the radical political movements of that era. Many community stations around the country, especially in smaller communities, still use variations of this model, depending in large part on their financial resources.

At KPFA and other Pacifica stations, the number of paid staff producing programming, and especially hosting shows on-air, has increased over the years. On KPFA, paid staff now host and produce, in addition to news, the Morning Show, Against the Grain/Living Room (a noontime public affairs show), Hard Knock Radio, Flashpoints, a Saturday morning show, and a Sunday morning show. One nationally syndicated show, Letters to Washington, is produced and hosted by paid staff in Berkeley.

In addition, syndicated programming produced outside the station includes Democracy Now!, a rebroadcast of Uprisings on Saturday morning, and a syndicated show on economics from New York. The Foundation pays hundreds of thousands of dollars for Democracy Now! and parcels out the bill among the stations. It is currently five months in arrears on its payments. (Democracy Now! staffers have made statements supporting the laid-off staff at KPFA.)

As the hours, especially the high-listenership hours, used by programs produced by paid staff increase, there is less time available for programs created and produced by unpaid staff. That can have an impact on programming from the station's listener base. Hard Knock Radio was a product of the lockout and its aftermath, when the station made a commitment to open a space for programming produced by young people of color of the hip-hop generation, who played a critical role defending KPFA.

KPFA has had an apprenticeship program for over two decades, to train young people, especially from communities of color and working class communities, in basic radio skills. But as generations of apprentices have graduated, there has been less and less available airtime in which they can put those skills to use.

Paid staff at the station and many listeners point to the fact that they have the skills to produce professional-sounding programs and reportage. But arguments that only paid staff can produce high-quality programming sometimes sound arrogant to unpaid staff who have been doing that for years.

Variety of Programs

The station does have a large variety of programming that reflects the social movements in communities throughout northern California, produced by both unpaid and paid staff. Current programs produced by unpaid staff include Apex Express by Asian-Pacific Islanders and La Onda Bajita and La Raza Chronicles from the Latino community. The station has had programming from the LGBT and disability rights communities for many years. Terra Verde is a well-known program among environmental activists, and two shows discuss health issues. Walter Turner has hosted Africa Today for over a decade, Gregg McVicar produces Bay Native Circle, a weekly show on Native American cultural affairs, while another collective produces Voices from the Middle East. While the station’s many music shows are less overtly political, many reflect the cultural movements among young people and communities of color.

KPFA produces three news broadcasts and several news headlines spots every weekday, and news shows on the weekend. The news department has always had a mix of paid and unpaid staff members. That has given it the staff needed for such extensive coverage, taking advantage of the flexibility and added people-power afforded by the many unpaid journalists who produce stories. Any union or community organization in northern California with a picket line or press conference expects the station to send a reporter even if no other media outlet does. As a result, people listen to KPFA News to find out what’s happening in the social movements of their own communities.

It is hard, however, for communities to become directly involved in producing programming for the station. The debate over how to develop strong community programming, and therefore community support for the station, has gone on for a long time. It grew intense after the last lockout and led to important initiatives. One was Hard Knock Radio. At another point, Flashpoints did its Friday evening broadcast remotely from San Francisco's Mission District, and brought on as co-hosts Francisco Herrera, a well-loved singer and cultural activist, and Renee Saucedo, a respected immigrant rights leader. The station broadcast live several community events, provided live coverage of marches, especially when the Iraq war started, and covered national hearings, including Iran/Contra and Winter Soldier.

Out of Control

The current confrontation threatens to spiral out of control, as it did ten years ago. If the Foundation continues to take money from the station while more staff lose their jobs, increased conflict is inevitable.

Recently Anderson, presumably at Pacifica's direction, cancelled the upcoming on-air fundraising marathon. Given that the station is already in dire straits, canceling the marathon will deepen the financial crisis, even as Pacifica spends more money on lawyers to fight the station’s staff. Such a course, and the spiraling conflict, threaten to reduce listener support, jeopardizing not only paid jobs at the station, but its financial viability.

The union argues that during an economic crisis administrative costs should be cut before programs, which are what listeners pay for. It calls for local control over programming and the station, respect for the contract, and not using layoffs to target staff members for political reasons. Whether or not its alternative Sustainable Budget would solve all the station’s financial problems, it would help preserve jobs and programs.

Resolving the issues around the station's relationship with the communities around it, and examining the structure of the staff and programming, need creative and constructive discussion among paid and unpaid staff and listeners. That will not happen while the Foundation hires lawyers to fight the union, lays off programmers, and seizes control of programming.

Ultimately, the repeat of this conflict between the Foundation and the station calls into question the role of the Foundation itself. Thirty and forty years ago, it was simply a legal vehicle for holding the licenses and had no staff or other functions. In an era when there's not enough money to operate the station, it's hard to justify large amounts going to Foundation overhead. Reducing its budget, and lowering its salaries and hours to the level at the stations themselves, would certainly help get past the current crisis.

Using scarce resources to terminate staff jeopardizes KPFA and ultimately undermines Pacifica itself.

David Bacon is a labor journalist and photographer in the Bay Area. 

Last modified on Friday, 19 November 2010 12:12