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National Effort to Save Pacifica Radio
by Judith Scherr for the Berkeley Daily Planet | March 27, 2001

Protests that began in Berkeley two years ago against the Pacifica Foundation governing board, which holds the license to five listener-sponsored radio stations, have spread across the country, with demonstrations at New York's WBAI against the firings and bannings of staff and volunteers, pickets at Houston's KPFT and a mass meeting of supporters of Los Angeles' KPFK.

The governing board is fighting back, alleging in a media campaign that "dissenters" are using the tactic of physical assault and death threats as part of their tactics.

Friday evening some 1,200 persons attended a panel discussion on the "Dirty Tricks by Pacifica Execs" in a Los Angeles church.

And on Saturday in Berkeley, about 200 people paid $50 a pop to go to the Freight and Salvage Coffee House to hear the same folks, Democracy Now! radio host Amy Goodman, Dan Coughlin, former Pacifica news director who was fired after talking on air about a one-day Pacifica boycott by various stations carrying the Pacifica News; and Bernard White, recently fired from his post as program director at WBAI.

The event was billed as a fund-raiser for the KPFA program Flash Points, whose host, Dennis Bernstein said he wanted to hire one of the fired New York programmers to work on his five-day-a-week international news magazine.

Bernstein, active in the protest against Pacifica for two years, introduced the topic of the day, fighting back against the governing board: "If there's a fire in the theater and you don't shout, then you must stand responsible for the fire."

At the end of March 1999, popular KPFA station manager Nicole Sawaya was terminated by Pacifica Management. On-air calls for her reinstatement led to gag orders from Pacifica management, followed by the firing of national talkshow host Larry Bensky, the termination of volunteer programmers and an eventual lock-out of station employees and volunteers. Daily protests and a march of more than 10,000 were part of the summerís events, which saw the station re-open, lawsuits filed, but no resolution to the long-term question of how the listener-sponsors get a voice in the governance of the station.

Coughlin blamed the firings and bannings at WBAI, which began in December and have been dubbed the "Christmas coup," on a "political purge," targeting activist programmers.

As news director "I was told to tone down the news coverage," said Coughlin, who was removed from his post in November 1999. He accused the Pacifica management of not wanting the listeners to "hear about our boys dropping bombs and killing babies in Iraq."

Pacifica spokesperson Angela Jones said Monday she tried to get Executive Director Bessie Wash to return a Daily Planet call for comment, but Wash was in meetings.

Goodman told the audience at the Freight and Salvage that she is being harassed by management who argue that calling the network "Free speech radio" is an escalation (of Pacifica-listener tensions)."" She regularly signs off her show saying that it emanates from the station of "the fired and the banned." "There has been tremendous pressure to stop saying that," Goodman said. She said she's filed a grievance with her union, because she's employed in a "hostile work place."

Goodman's complaints called garbage

Board member John Murdock, of Epstein, Becker & Gree, the law firm working on behalf of the Pacifica Foundation fighting the listener, Local Advisory Board and staff lawsuits, called Goodman's complaints "garbage" and said she can talk about anything on the air "except personnel issues."

Murdock added that "If she felt that strongly, she should take her show and go somewhere else."

Dissent has escalated at Pacifica's New York Bureau where some 15 programmers and volunteers have been fired and banned from the station, according to Coughlin. About a month ago, programmer Juan Gonzalez, who had co-hosted Democracy Now! with Goodman, resigned from the show and started what he is calling the Pacifica Campaign. This is a fund-raising drive outside the station, aimed at supporting programs without funding Pacifica itself. The foundation takes 17 percent of funds raised for its operations. Dissidents point out that Pacifica's use of the funds includes fighting two listener-sponsored lawsuits as well as the one filed by fired staff.

"Turn off the water," Coughlin said. "Stop the funds from going to Pacifica."

The Freight and Salvage audience members appeared somewhat divided on the question. Some responded by questioning the wisdom of defunding KPFA, where programmers are not under gag orders. One member of the Local Advisory Board said she would ask the board to support the tactic.

Station manager Jim Bennett said Monday, however, that without station fund-raising, the basic bills would not be paid. He supports raising only the minimum funds needed to pay the station bills. He said he believes Pacifica is using other funds, such as interest on stocks, to pay for costs such as lawyers' fees. More than half of the 17 percent that goes to Pacifica, supports Democracy Now! and national news, he said.

Murdock called the campaign "a shame." He said he did not know how many people had been fired in recent months from WBAI, but "out of several hundred volunteers and staff, there is remarkably little turnover."

Accusations of violence

The Pacifica Foundation has launched its own campaign, a media initiative to show that the dissenters are practicing violence. Executive Director Wash broke into programming Monday morning to say that a female employee at Pacifica's Houston, Texas station had been assaulted by a demonstrator at an event for the station. Board Chair David Accosta read a similar message on the air at about 11 a.m.

Calling the Pacifica campaign, a "bitter campaign of misinformation," a press statement says: "a small group of dissidents who are attempting to unseat Pacifica's National Governing Board of Directors has once again been marred by physical attacks against Pacifica employees." It goes on to talk about charges "filed against protester Edwin Johnston, a supporter of the ëPacifica Campaign,í an anti-Pacifica effort aimed at recruiting Pacifica listeners to not make contributions to Pacifica."

Murdock said Johnston was accused of assault and Houston Police spokesperson John Leggio confirmed that Johnston had been charged with a ìclass Cî assault. The complaint alleged that the suspect had pushed Molly Ganter, relative of station manager Garland Ganter, yelled in her face and then hit Ganter. There were no injuries reported, he said.

Leggio likened a class C violation to a parking ticket. The suspect pays a fine and is not required to go before a judge.

Ganter, who was interim station manager in Berkeley when KPFA staff and volunteers were locked out of the studio, did not return Daily Planet phone calls.

Murdock says the alleged attacks were part of the dissidents' overall tactics of violence. He cited people going into his law firm and refusing to leave, there have been regular demonstrations at Murdock's offices in the east and San Francisco. He claimed the protesters pushed a staffer out of their way, but was unable to say whether assault charges had been filed. "They show up outside private residences," he said. Murdock said he agreed with the right to dissent: "Dissent is a healthy thing, but the right to dissent in a non-violent manner."

Pacifica spokesperson Angela Jones alleged dissidents had made late-night phone calls that included a death threat. She declined to say, however, to whom or by whom the calls had been made, in what city, or if there is a police record of the calls. Speaking at the event on Saturday, fired programmer Bernard White waxed philosophical when speaking about his termination. Quoting Marcus Garvey, he said: "When all else fails to organize people, conditions will."