Behind the Coup at KPFA

by Matthew Hallinan

In early November, the Executive Director of Pacifica, Arlene Englehardt, seized all power at KPFA, firing the talented hosts of the station’s most popular locally produced program, and replacing it with one of her own choosing. She acted without consulting the Interim General Manager of the station or the Local Station Board (LSB). She didn’t ask to meet with the staff of the station or with the union that represents them. In her rush to fire the hosts of The Morning Show, she violated the terms of the union contract, trampled on KPFA’s democratic system of local control, and created wide discontent and disillusionment among the listeners.

Why would she do this? Why would she take such extraordinary measures and act in such an autocratic fashion? She said it was all about finances. The station was in a cash flow crisis and needed to make drastic cuts. She said had no choice but to do this.

Was there no other choice? A few months earlier, KPFA’s local management, working with the unionized staff, had produced a budget proposal that showed the books could be balanced without making programmatic cuts. This budget was approved by the local station board and forwarded to Pacifica. It involved a number of proposals for reducing the one-way flow of funds to Pacifica – which now absorbs 24% of listener contributions to KPFA. Pacifica made a choice at that point – it rejected that budget without even discussing it with the local KPFA folks.

Then there is the issue of choosing which programs to cut. If finances were the only consideration, why would Pacifica choose to cut the program that raises the most money during the station’s fund drives? Again, Pacifica made a choice – and it was a choice they did not want to discuss.

In December, Ms. Englehardt went before the Berkeley City Council to oppose a resolution that was being considered by the Council. The resolution called on the Pacifica Executive Director to negotiate with the CWA union about the firing process and to enter into mediation with those in the station and on the LSB who are unhappy about the changes she instituted. Ms. Englehardt stated before the Council that Pacifica was opposed to both negotiations and mediation. In other words, Pacifica refuses to sit down and talk with the local folks who disagree with its decisions. Ms. Englehardt says she had no choice: but yet she refuses to listen to any options proposed by others.

Is it really all about money? Ms. Englehardt assures us that the firing of Brian Edwards-Tiekert and Aimee Allison was not a political maneuver, but was based entirely on financial considerations. The SaveKPFA majority on the local station board took her at her word, and called on listeners to pledge the necessary funds to finance the return of the show. Within a short period, the listeners produced $60,000 in pledges – sufficient to cover the costs of the show for the rest of the year. Ms. Englehardt refused to consider that proposal. That is another choice she made.

However, Ms Englehardt is not in this all alone. Anyone who is closely involved with the politics of KPFA knows there is a circle of vocal support for Ms Englehardt’s choices and for Pacifica’s power grab. Indeed, Richard Phelps, a member of the ‘Independent’ faction on KPFA’s local station board, responded to SaveKPFA’s effort to raise pledges by filing a lawsuit against those on the board that supported the pledge campaign. The lawsuit is absurd and will be thrown out. However, it costs the SaveKPFA local station board members money for legal defense and requires an expenditure of time and effort. It is a blatant attempt to intimidate and harass those who are resisting Pacifica’s take over and working to bring the Morning Show back.

Why would Phelps and the other ‘Independents’ on the board support Pacifica’s seizure of power and its dismantling of our democratic system of local governance? Turn the question around. Why would Pacifica want to come in and take over KPFA? The sad truth is that the ‘Independents’ are not ‘supporting’ Pacifica – the ‘Independents’ are Pacifica. They are part of a coalition that currently holds a majority of seats on the Pacifica National Board (PNB). KPFA is not being taken over by some distant, impersonal, Pacifica bureaucracy. It is being taken over by a narrow, authoritarian-minded coalition of individuals and groups who have taken over the PNB. The so-called ‘Independents’ are an integral part of that coalition.

This coalition gained a majority on the PNB about two years ago. Before then, the PNB did not meddle in the affairs of the local stations. Until this coalition took control of the PNB, our local ‘Independents’ had touted the powers of local station boards, championing their rights to make policy and to decide programming issues. They railed against ‘top-down, corporate models of governance’ and talked of ‘community control’ of the station. That was before they realized they were not going to get a majority of the seats on KPFA’s LSB. Sadly, however, their allies throughout the Pacifica system took over other local station boards, and as a result, they were able to get control over the PNB.

Once power had shifted at Pacifica, the ‘Independents’ realized that their best chance for controlling the station was through the PNB, not the LSB. And these folks were quick to jump on the new train. Indeed, our local ‘Independents’ had an epiphany. They now decided that local station boards should have no power: they are simply ‘standing committees’ of the PNB and can be over-ruled on every issue by Pacifica.

However, taking over Pacifica and taking over KPFA is not exactly the same thing. The ‘Independents’ knew that the KPFA community would not relinquish all its rights without a fight. That’s why they started with a coup – a blow. And Arlene Engelhardt’s seizure of power was indeed a real coup. The firing of Brian Edwards-Tiekert was purely political. These folks began their power grab by seeking to get rid of the most forceful opponent they had among the paid staff. They followed this up with an attempt to reverse the results of the staff elections in which SaveKPFA had won a close victory. Court action was necessary to prevent Pacifica from succeeding in this.

They are now attempting to reverse SaveKPFA’s majority on the LSB. There is an effort underway to remove Dan Siegel, one of our strongest voices. Dan, it should be noted, received the highest number of listener votes in the 2008 LSB election. Claiming that his informal advisory relationship to Mayor Jean Quan amounts to an appointment to a political office, the PNB voted last week, without any due process – indeed, without even contacting Dan – to remove him from his seat on the board. Once again, we will be forced to go to court to keep them from reversing the will of the voters.

There is too much at stake here to allow these people to succeed. They would turn the station into a forum for only one narrow slice of the left spectrum. They have taken the formal reins of power and are currently mobilizing all their forces to consolidate their hold over the station. This could spell the death of KPFA as a voice of Northern and Central California’s diverse progressive community. However, we the listeners and supporters of KPFA in the Bay Area, Central Valley and beyond are a force to be reckoned with. We are not about to allow the station we have built and made part of lives to be stolen away.

Matthew Hallinan is a member of KPFA’s local station board.

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