08 October, 2008



Monday, October 6, 2008

“Goodbye, goodbye! And here’s a job for you.”

Perhaps she didn’t speak those exact words, but the Pacifica Network’s departing Executive Director, Nicole Sawaya, used her very last day at work to appoint a General Manager at Pacifica ’s oldest radio station, the Bay Area’s KPFA. In an email sent out late in the afternoon of September 30, Sawaya announced she was appointing the divisive Lemlem Rijio to permanent status as KPFA General Manager. Rijio already held the job on an interim basis, but by appointing her as permanent-status GM, Sawaya ignored a call by scores of KPFA staffers for new leadership at the troubled station.

Under the Pacifica Bylaws rules for filling management positions, the Executive Director is empowered to select a station General Manager from a pool of candidates submitted by the Local Station Board. Sawaya chose Rijio from a pool of eleven candidates, without interviewing all eleven.

Rijio was appointed interim General Manager in the spring of 2006 by Greg Guma, the Executive Director at that time. Guma recently said that he and Rijio had agreed that Rijio would hold the interim GM job for a maximum of nine months, then return to her previous position as Development Director. Writing to a radio email list, Guma said, “I wish she had stuck to the arrangement we had made and returned to the job she originally had.”

Later in 2006, Rijio appointed Sasha Lilley as Program Director, a job that had been vacant for years. Although both Rijio and Lilley occupied their jobs only in interim status, they soon began taking unprecedented actions to expand their own power. Lilley told the members of the station’s Program Council that she, not the PC, would make programming decisions (contrary to a ruling by KPFA’s governing body, the Local Station Board). In January 2007, without consulting the PC, management took the program Youth Radio off the air because one episode of the show included a song containing FCC-prohibited words that the show’s producers had forgotten to edit out. Youth Radio never returned. Under Lilley’s direction, the Program Council, which formerly met weekly, now rarely meets at all. This past June, a community representative to the Program Council resigned, complaining that, “there's no ongoing body of work visibly connected to an actual programming process.”

In the summer of 2007, Rijio surprised the station’s unpaid staff members by announcing that management was withdrawing its recognition of the Unpaid Staff Organization (UPSO) as the official representative of the unpaid staff. Unpaid staff are the majority of KPFA staff and produce the majority of the station’s programs. KPFA’s Local Station Board and Pacifica ’s National Board subsequently passed motions ordering management to re-recognize UPSO, but Rijio has ignored those directives. While most of KPFA’s paid staff are unionized, the unpaid workers now have no official collective representation. UPSO was not engaged in any negotiations with management at the time of the derecognition; given its timing, management’s only plausible motive was to claim authority over the unpaid-staff voter list for the LSB elections later that year (but, although some unpaid staffers did not receive ballots in that election, dissatisfaction with management had already become sufficiently widespread that reform candidates won two of the three staff seats anyway).

The Rijio/Lilley administration has sometimes taken to censoring programmers, not for their language but for program content. In some cases the intent appears to be to keep the KPFA audience from hearing about inside-KPFA controversies. In March of this year, the First Voice Apprenticeship Program and Full Circle presented a Town Hall meeting in Oakland to discuss issues of media control (including, but not limited to, KPFA). Management ordered that the event not be aired live; on a later date, when the producers had a recording of the Town Hall ready to broadcast, management edited out part of the recording. In July, management told Flashpoints not to put its financial correspondent Catherine Austin Fitts on the air; the explanation given was that there’d been a listener complaint that required an investigation, but Fitts returned to the air in September, and management provided no public explanation of what the investigation was about, or if there had actually been one.

But on August 20, 2008, an event occurred that marked a new low in management behavior. On that day, KPFA Business Manager Lois Withers called Berkeley police to evict programmer Nadra Foster from the building. Foster is best-known to KPFA listeners as “Your Brown Sista” on the program Elemental Roots. On August 20, Foster was working in a studio when Withers entered the room and told her to leave; Foster refused (Withers’ insistence that Foster leave the building apparently stemmed from an argument the two had had several months previously). When police arrived, they forced Foster to the floor, injured her arm, and took her away in a “wrap.” In addition to the injuries she suffered at the hands of the police, Foster faces charges of resisting arrest. Management emails sent to staff in the days after the incident referred to Foster as an “unauthorized visitor” who “threatened a KPFA employee.”

The use of police violence against the young African-American woman shocked the KPFA community. KPFA staffers have circulated a statement condemning the police action; the statement has been signed by many well-known progressive organizations and individuals, including authors Michael Parenti, Norman Solomon, and David Barsamian. However, even weeks after the incident, Rijio wrote, “As far as I know, KPFA/Pacifica has not done anything wrong.”

Meanwhile about 75 KPFA staff have signed a “no-confidence” statement calling for the replacement of Rijio as General Manager. Those signing include music programmers, public-affairs programmers, news reporters, and graduates of the station’s Apprenticeship Program. The statement notes that, although Rijio herself did not call the police, “Her shift of KPFA’s culture away from one of collaboration and mutual support helped create the climate leading to the tragic and unnecessary police arrest of unpaid staff member Nadra Foster.”

Management’s most noticeable response to the arrest was the announcement that a more elaborate security system would be installed in the building, and that staff would be issued individual entry cards (although programming collectives were to be issued only three cards, even if a collective had more than three members). In the face of questions and complaints, management then backtracked and put the plan on hold, though not, apparently, cancelling it permanently.

In the aftermath of the widespread outrage over the police incident, Rijio sent out an email inviting staff to attend a September 30 meeting with management and a facilitator, “so we can work together to resolve our conflicts and move forward together in a positive direction.” But on September 29, Rijio sent another email cancelling the meeting; no new date was set.

On September 30, instead of the staff meeting, came the announcement of Rijio’s appointment as permanent General Manager. Sawaya wrote, “I have every confidence in her ability to keep KPFA strong and forward moving during turbulent times!” But by ignoring the concerns of the staff and appointing Rijio, Sawaya has instead insured that KPFA will continue to be an arena of conflict rather than an institution that embodies the pacifist beliefs of its founders.

- Anthony Fest

    Media Justice KPFA
    mediajusticekpfa @ gmail.com