Fight for Free Radio and Berkeley's KPFA Ends With More Listener Say

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The decade-long battle for free radio that had Berkeley's KPFA-FM on the front lines for several years has ended, and though the listener-sponsored station survived, its supporters are now left to assess the damage.

And the initial assessment is bleak, Pacifica's flagship station KPFA and its four other affiliates collectively $2-3 million in debt from a two year long battle against their parent network's board of directors.

Many employees and listeners of the Pacifica Foundation's radio station objected to the board's handling of the network, and grew increasingly alarmed as it veered off course from what they saw as its mission to provide "a venue for alternative ideas." The network was also becoming unresponsive to listeners, they said.

The board even prevented dissident employees from entering the radio stations at which they worked. Shows were pulled off the air and employees were fired by the board's majority as it struggled to maintain control of the network.

In Berkeley, KPFA employees were locked out of the station in 1999 and the listeners in KPFA's 59,000 watt coverage area clambered to their defense.

The two week lockout culminated a two-month battle over free speech and free radio that featured some of the largest demonstrations in Berkeley history and nearly 100 arrests. The protests drew the support of the Berkeley City Council, as well as state and federal representatives.

"The struggle to save Pacifica was really one of the first that showed the power of the new electronic means of communication to organize activism," said Sherry Gendelman, chair of KPFA's local advisory board.

The lawsuit between listeners and the board, filed that summer, was settled last December. The settlement outlined an interim governing board for the foundation comprised of five representatives from both the board's original majority and the dissident workers, and one representative from each of Pacifica's stations.

Though the legal battle was long-lived, Carol Spooner, the newly appointed secretary of the national board and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said it was worth the fight.

"We got what we wanted," she said.

With the resignation of some of the more controversial members of the national board last fall, it seems there are calmer waters ahead for KPFA and the other stations in Los Angeles, Houston, New York City and Washington.

The new board met just over a week ago in New York City, with the former majority now reduced to a small minority of the board.

Staffs that remained barred from their stations were reinstated, and managers who had blocked the employees were fired, setting the stage for the return of the original programming for which Pacifica is known.

The new board also took control of the foundation's finances and initiated an audit to assess the extent of the non-profit organization's debt.

But the dissident employees and listeners, now in control of the board, must pay off the several million dollar debt incurred by the old board while it defended itself against the listeners in court with a high-profile team of Beltway attorneys.

Although KPFA is financially healthy, and has never had trouble raising money, some of the money raised for the station may be directed to the network's other stations that were left in a state of disrepair, Gendelman said.

"Money will be a problem, if not for our station, for our network," she said, characterizing the financial problem as a crisis. "We are certainly going to participate in making up the deficit."

Gendelman said KPFA's home on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way is in need of repair and its studio needs new equipment.

But after those improvements are made, she said the station will begin to compile a "war chest to expand staff and programming."

"We have come out of a long battle. The staff held on but really were depleted by attrition. We have to take time to repair ourselves," Gendelman said. "Hopefully then KPFA can emerge as a powerful influence in the Bay Area and reflect the progressive politics of its community and serve the mission of Pacifica."


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