02 January, 2009
Fresno Community Alliance Newspaper - January 2009
The KPFA That Can't Say Yes
By Anthony Fest
This is in reply to the article by my KPFA Local Station Board colleague Conn Hallinan in last month’s issue. I’m a KPFA newscaster and one of the staff representatives on the Local Station Board (LSB). Like Hallinan, I’m not a "neutral" observer, but rather a participant in the struggles at the station. The LSB is divided (quite sharply) into two factions, with Hallinan and I on opposite sides of the aisle. I invite KPFA/KFCF listeners to consider and evaluate both our opinions.
Curiously, Hallinan expressed his views on the state of KPFA without identifying the individuals who actually wield power at the station. This would be somewhat like discussing U.S. politics over the past eight years without mentioning George Bush and Dick Cheney. The current powers that be at KPFA are General Manager Lemlem Rijio and Program Director Sasha Lilley. In my opinion, these two managers also are responsible for many of the problems that now afflict the station.
How did they come to power? Rijio was appointed interim general manager in early 2006 by Greg Guma, at that time the executive director of KPFA’s parent organization, the Pacifica Foundation. Guma says he and Rijio had agreed then that she would hold the job no longer than nine months; he recently wrote on an e-mail list, "I wish she had stuck to the arrangement we had made." Late in 2006, Rijio, in turn, appointed Lilley as interim program director. In September 2008, Guma’s successor, Nicole Sawaya, elevated Rijio to permanent-status general manager. Sawaya acted on her last day on the job at Pacifica (for more about this, see my article, "September Surprise," at mediajusticekpfa.blogspot.com).
As Rijio and Lilley have now been in office more than two years, it’s appropriate to look at what they have and haven’t done.
Certainly, they’ve excelled at instigating conflict and controversy. In January 2007, Rijio cancelled the program Youth Radio, after one episode of the program aired a song containing FCC-prohibited words that the program producers had neglected to edit out. The blue language certainly needed a firm response, given the possibility of the station being hit with a huge fine. But it was hardly sufficient reason to permanently eliminate a program, particularly one tailored for the next generation of listeners.
In August 2007, without any preceding negotiation or discussion, Rijio withdrew management recognition of KPFA’s long-established Unpaid Staff Organization (UPSO). Although most of the station’s paid employees belong to a union, the more numerous volunteer workers ("unpaid staff") were thus left without officially recognized collective representation. By a surprisingly lopsided vote (13 yes, 0 no, 5 abstaining), the KPFA Local Station Board directed Rijio to rescind her action. The Pacifica National Board, which oversees the entire network, passed a similar resolution three months later. Rijio has ignored these directives.
(By the way, Hallinan’s claim that the UPSO’s "criteria for membership violate Pacifica bylaws" is false. See the Pacifica bylaws at www.pacificafoundation.org. The relevant portion is Article Three, Section 1B, which expressly recognizes that unpaid staff organizations may set their own membership qualifications.)
Last summer brought the shocking act of KPFA management summoning Berkeley police to have unpaid programmer Nadra Foster thrown out of the station. Rijio and Lilley were not the ones who called the cops, but neither has apologized to KPFA’s community of listeners, many of whom surely found it disgraceful that an organization founded by pacifists would take such action. An eyewitness account of the police action, from KPFA’s Anita Johnson, can be found at www.blockreportradio.com.
Following the uproar over the police action, management did announce a mediated "healing" meeting for staff. That meeting was set for September 30 but was cancelled one day beforehand and has never been rescheduled.
Meanwhile, about 75 KPFA staff members have signed a no-confidence statement calling for a new general manager at the station. Those signing include music hosts, news reporters and public affairs programmers. Although most of us do not receive paychecks for our work, we do want respect and fair treatment.
Another ominous management action, albeit less well-known, is the effective suspension of KPFA’s Program Council, which is historically the body that was responsible for programming decisions. With members from the paid staff, unpaid staff, the listener community and the Local Station Board, the Program Council was a working example of representative decision making.
But after becoming program director, Lilley disputed the decision-making authority of the Program Council and instead claimed that power for herself. Under her direction, the Council, which formerly met weekly, now has not met for months. Being an organization that talks about democracy, KPFA ought to be able to practice participatory decision making in its own affairs. Instead, the decisions most vital to listeners are now being made autocratically. Rather than becoming more democratic, the station has regressed in the past two years, with top-down commands replacing discussion and voting.
Is management contemplating another 1995-style purge of programmers? Or do they simply want to preempt unwelcome attempts at change, like the 2003 effort to move Democracy Now to a better time slot?
Certainly, adding new local programs seems not to be on this management’s agenda. To date, all they’ve done is take a show (Youth Radio) off the air. Lilley has imported programs from KPFA’s sister stations in New York and Los Angeles, but there have been no new locally produced public affairs programs created during her tenure. Important communities such as African-Americans, Filipinos, LGBT people, seniors and veterans still do not have dedicated programs, and there’s not enough coverage of labor, the environment or the "justice" system and its prisons. Occasionally, there is a notable special program, for example, the coverage of the Winter Soldier assembly last March, which was certainly a vital broadcast. Yet one-time specials are no substitute for a long overdue reevaluation of the overall program schedule and a democratic process for updating it.
As Hallinan notes, money is tight at KPFA these days. However, that need not be an obstacle to enhancing the programming. Most of KPFA’s existing programs are already produced entirely by unpaid staff; these include some of the station’s most popular and innovative programs, such as Voices of the Middle East and Guns & Butter.
With training and dedication, new volunteers can create new shows. Indeed, it is precisely by engaging with the many communities that merit more attention, and by adding fresh programs, that KPFA could help alleviate its financial crunch—by attracting more listeners and more subscribers without expanding the payroll. But adding new community-based programs and programmers is apparently not the intention of the current regime. One staffer says he’s been ordered out of meetings after suggesting that one way to attract more subscribers is to broadcast better programs.
And what has been the role of the Local Station Board in these conflicts? Hallinan’s faction on the board, the "Concerned Listeners," has stood by the present regime almost 100%. But given the record of this management, KPFA/KFCF listeners should ask what it is that the Concerned Listeners are concerned about. Is their goal to promote the well-being of the radio station or only to defend the power of the incumbent management? It’s insincere to call for an end to infighting at KPFA while at the same time supporting those who set off the clashes in the first place.
If the present management could abide by its own words and engage in dialogue and consensus building, instead of issuing directives, KPFA might not be a house divided against itself. But because this management continues to follow an inappropriate command-and-control style of doing business, scores of staff members say the station needs new leadership. Until that happens, the station will likely remain mired in conflict.
But Hallinan and I are in agreement on one matter: It is indeed high time for a discussion about the future of KPFA and Pacifica and how to make the station and the network relevant and important to more people. That discussion should take place in multiple forums, including KPFA’s own airwaves.
Anthony Fest has been a KPFA reporter since 1994. He is also a staff representative to KPFA’s Local Station Board (LSB). He can be reached at ADF55@yahoo.com