War & Peace 

The battle for KPFA and the soul of Pacifica is over. Now the damage assessment begins.

It's over. At long last, after almost three years of the most personal kind of internecine warfare, the great battle between the Pacifica community radio network and its flagship station, KPFA, is over. Sort of.

Calculating the damage of the last 32 months is a heartbreaking chore. The comfortable reserve that had been built up by Pacifica has been wiped out, and the network is now effectively $1.7 million in debt. Pacifica fired dozens of talented reporters, programmers, administrators, and volunteers, and others burned out and quit; all in all, it was an unprecedented brain drain. The trust and goodwill of hundreds of thousands of listeners, both at Pacifica's five member stations and its sixty affiliate stations, has been sorely tested. While many volunteers and civic-minded bystanders rose to the challenge and fought the good fight, countless others will never again allow themselves to hope that a united, progressive community can make a difference in the world. We had lawsuits, legislative hearings, investigations, mass arrests, and slander -- lots and lots of slander.

Now a truce has been declared. Under a settlement agreed to by all parties in an Alameda courtroom last month, four listener lawsuits have been dropped. The Pacifica board of directors has resigned en masse, and an interim board has taken its place, composed of five members from the majority faction of the old board, five members of its dissident faction, and five people elected from the stations' local advisory boards. The agreement, therefore, has effectively given the dissidents at KPFA and New York station WBAI a nine-to-six majority. Within the next fifteen months, this board will have to figure out how to reform itself in order to guarantee that the local stations will be allowed to elect some of its members.

The dissidents at KPFA can rightly claim all this as a remarkable victory: They stared down a board that held all the cards, from the legal right to hire and fire employees to control of the network's purse strings and credit line -- and they won. But there's another, sadder fact about the settlement: In essence, what both parties agreed to do was simply to try to go back to the status quo that prevailed immediately before events at Pacifica suddenly, and almost inexplicably, careened out of control. Over nearly three chaotic years, dozens of people went to jail, a lot of newsprint was used to defame a delicate progressive institution, and Pacifica poured millions of precious, hard-earned dollars into the hands of security firms, lawyers, and public relations outfits -- and all that was accomplished was a shaky reconstruction of what was there in the first place.

You gotta wonder: what the hell was this fight about, anyway?

Or more to the point, perhaps: what the hell were Pacifica's leaders thinking? There's no doubt that the network's directors and executive staff bear most of the responsibility for this conflict, but what were they trying to accomplish when they set this protracted trauma into motion? Did Pacifica executives have any idea what they were doing? Were there, in fact, good intentions paving this particular expressway to hell?

By now, most readers are surely familiar with the chronology of Pacifica's detour into fratricide: How, in the spring of 1999, network officials fired popular KPFA General Manager Nicole Sawaya and then announced to staff reporters and programmers who had a problem with the termination that they could either shut their mouths or lose their jobs. After weeks of brinkmanship by both sides, Pacifica sent armed security guards to board up the station, provoking 10,000 listeners to march in protest. Eighteen months later, network leaders followed much the same pattern at New York's WBAI, with similarly disastrous results.

From the beginning, KPFA supporters have entertained two schools of thought as to what the Pacifica board and then-Executive Director Lynn Chadwick were up to. One interpretation maintains that they had decided the time had come to make a fundamental change in Pacifica's programming and mission. Depending on your point of view, this change could either be described as an attempt to "professionalize" the broadcasts in the hope of boosting the stations' dismal Arbitron ratings, or a bold strike to denude the network of its radical politics, thus eliminating the last reliable voice of dissent in American broadcast media.

Peter Franck, who served as president of the Pacifica Foundation in the '80s, is one who believes that Pacifica leadership was embarked on a campaign to turn Pacifica into "NPR lite." "These people from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting didn't want an independent network to raise questions whenever the US bombs the hell out of a third world country," he says. "It was a fight over the last station in the country that was at all radical. Look how they systematically stripped stations of radical programming. Look at [Pacifica's embattled syndicated show] Democracy Now! No one can fault the show for its quality, but people high up didn't want its programming."

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