Oakland Local

With its recent street protests, office occupations, and renegade broadcasts, Berkeley’s community radio station KPFA (94.1FM) typifies what people mean when they use the word “Berserkeley.” However, these confrontations are not merely some beatnik brouhaha, but in fact represent an existential threat to the future of community radio, and implicate one of Oakland’s current Mayoral candidates, Dan Siegel.

The most recent dispute is over the abrupt replacement of the locally-produced 8 a.m. show The Morning Mix with a radio program from LA called The Uprising, ostensibly because the new show will generate more revenue during pledge drives. In response to being rescheduled and shortened, the hosts of The Morning Mix held protest rallies outside the KPFA building and took over the studio on May 26 to air their concerns.

According to Andrés Soto, one of the hosts of The Morning Mix‘s five rotating shows, “I was really displeased that the morning mix has become a political football between rival factions…the morning mix, as an expression of authentic community voices, is what deserves to be heard.”

But, according to Richard Pirodsky, the Interim General Manager of the station, “The problem was that even though it had been on the air for three years, only one of the five Morning Mix shows was generating enough listenership and audience to even come close to justifying being in that golden hour.”

Supporters of The Morning Mix are organizing to attend the Community Advisory Board meeting in Oakland this Saturday, as well as hosting a “Save The Morning Mix” barbecue in Berkeley this Sunday, in hopes of pressuring the station to restore the show. While this disagreement and protest may not yet sound worthy of the “existential crisis” label, the story gets much deeper.

The radio station, founded by conscientious objector Lewis Hill in 1949, was the first of what would become the Pacifica Radio network: five stations across the country that are independently operated without any corporate sponsorship. While the accomplishments of this network are many, the predominantly listener-funded, locally-produced shows have struggled to contend with NPR’s corporately-underwritten programs, and with their own ideals of democratic, community-oriented radio.

In 2001, after 3 years of protests and lawsuits following an email leak, the Pacifica board signed a settlement that democratized the governance of the stations, allowing listeners to elect the members of their Local Station Board. Each LSB is comprised of 18 elected listeners and 6 elected staff members. These 24 “delegates” are tasked with forming the annual station budget, filling station management positions, and ensuring the mission of community radio. From these delegates, 4 “directors” are elected yearly to represent their station in the Pacifica National Board, which sets network policy from offices next door to KPFA.

While this settlement was intended to create a truly representative and listener-directed model of community radio, the reality has been more challenging. Chronic budgetary problems (and their disputed “causes”), opposing visions for the future of the station, and abrasive implementation of management and board decisions (as in abruptly firing the former Executive Director Summer Reese, or canceling The Morning Mix), has led to regular confrontations among the various staff cliques, who at this point openly refer to themselves as “factions.”

At KPFA, the central rift is between the Support KPFA — United For Community Radio (UFCR) faction and the Save KPFA faction. UFCR is the more radical, community-oriented group, while Save KPFA is aligned with the views of management and directors, and, importantly, Dan Siegel, who has a long history with the network and, according to savekpfa.org, was a “representative on the Pacifica National Board until he stepped down in January to run for Mayor of Oakland.”

Many of those sympathetic to the UFCR faction accuse Dan Siegel and Save KPFA of bullying, ignoring legal conflicts of interest, and trying to take over the network in order to sell off the East Coast stations. On the other hand, Save KPFA has accused UFCR of union-busting, sabotage, and trying to take over the network in order to, well, just to take it over.

This is where the existential threat comes in. UFCR is afraid that the station is going to lose sight of its community-radio mission to represent diverse and underserved points of view, and that the historic Pacifica network will be dismantled in the process. On the other hand, Save KPFA is afraid that the governance of the station and the network are excessively democratic, to a point where compromise on the revenue vs. community issue is unattainable and that UFCR will lead Pacifica into bankruptcy.

As Richard Pirodsky, the IGM who made the decision to replace The Morning Mix, put it, “they have in some ways been so mission-driven in terms of trying to bring diverse programming that you can’t find elsewhere on the dial, almost to the exclusion of worrying about whether we can afford to continue to do it.”

And this is where the “Berserkeley” side of this situation comes in. Save KPFA currently has enough of a majority with the Pacifica national board to preempt democracy by firing who it wants to fire and cancelling the shows it wants to cancel, leaving UFCR no other options besides protest, occupation and litigation.

There seems little chance of this situation being peaceably resolved, and realistically, this feud poses the greatest threat to the future community radio, but at least we can savor the irony of Save KPFA’s decision to replace The Morning Mix with The Uprising.

19 thoughts on “Is KPFA community radio going extinct?

  1. I have to say, I find this infighting of the pseudo-leftist comrades particularly delicious. The LA outlet of these folks has a measured listening audience of 700. Out of a market size of 12 Million. They truly are only talking to themselves. If they changed their programming to a continuous stream of dogs farting they would have a larger audience, maybe even doubling or tripling it.

    Check out this article about Dan Siegel and how he corruptly manipulates the KPFA enterprise over the years, including a long string of lawsuits that have helped drained the finances of the organization:

    http://sfbayview.com/2014/who-is-dan-siegel-tracy-rosenberg-speaks/

    I had always thought of Dan Siegel as a Marxist, but I didn’t realize he was a Maoist. I would have hoped he was a Trotskyite, it would be more comforting. Maybe secretly he is in fact a Stalinist, as demonstrated by his use of the court system and other manipulations to outflank his opponents and drive in the stake into the brain of the organization, as Stalin had done to Trotsky.

    Don’t you see how electing Dan “Comrade Leader” Siegel to mayor of Oakland would add to the entertainment value? Who will he appoint to be his Minister of Information? Only Mao would know. I am looking forward to my new $60,000 house Dan promises everyone in Oakland and my new $15/hour job that doesn’t require me to work.

  2. Pingback: Published @ Oakland Local: Is KPFA community radio going extinct? |

  3. Pingback: METRO | Marlo Blue : Pacifica Radio on the brink | The Rag Blog

  4. Underlying the vast majority of the disputes at KPFA and the other Pacifica stations is the simple issue of air time. Everyone wants it, no-one wants to give it up, and so far there are just 24 hours in a day. And no-one has the right to a permanent spot on the dial.

    The Pacifica network is in a very delicate financial situation. Its New York station, WBAI, has been unable to pay its bills for years and requires about two million in yearly subsidies from a network with total annual revenue of about $15 million. KPFA Berkeley and KPFK Los Angeles have consistently been the two solvent stations. To survive the Pacifica stations must broadcast high quality programming aimed at its progressive audience, especially during “drive time,” when most people listen and when most funds are raised.

    The majority on KPFA’s local board believes that the station is relevant only to the extent that people actually listen to it and like what they hear enough to donate. Management made the reasonable decision that having five programs of unequal quality sharing one of the most important broadcast hours in the week was not working – listening audience and revenue were
    down.

    KPFA now has a strong and diverse morning line-up from 6 am to 11 am Monday through Friday. The Morning Mix hosts have been given other spaces on the schedule. Overall the station’s programming presents a very diverse line-up of professional and volunteer programmers; news, public affairs, and the arts; programs that appeal to specific audiences; new and old voices. I hope people will give it a chance to work.

  5. Thank you Dan Siegel for filling us in on your role in the KPFA controversy. I think you would agree that exploring your role in KPFA and Pacifica provides Oakland voters an opportunity to see you in action so that we can evaluate how you would behave as our mayor.

    But there are a few things about what you say that seems to not line up easily with other information sources.

    For example, you say that KPFA and KPFK are the successful stations, unlike others, particularly WBAI. “To survive the Pacifica stations must broadcast high quality programming aimed at its progressive audience, especially during ‘drive time,’ when most people listen and when most funds are raised.”

    But I did a little checking and found that the listener count at KPFK was about 700. That’s in a market of about 12,000,000 people. Compare that to KQED, which is in a market about half the size of LA and has a listener share measured in 100,000′s. That makes KQED at least 1,000 as popular as KPFK. So is KPFK really your idea of a successful station? Isn’t listenership a good indicator of quality of programming (at least for public radio listeners;))? What does that say about the two stations you site as successes as to their ability to produce “high quality programming?”

    The other issue that you have not mentioned, and which bears directly on what we could expect from a mayoralship of Dan Siegel: the level of litigiousness and use of court actions to manipulate the city’s governance.

    The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey interviewed Tracy Rosenberg, who is (or was) the Treasurer of the Pacifica Radio Board and says she has worked closely with you for 15 years. JR Valrey has written many books including the ever popular “Block Reportin” and is a prolific film maker including “Operation Small Axe.”

    I would say that if Ms. Rosenberg has reached that level of authority at the Pacifica Radio Board and that many years of working closely with you, then surely her observations would be important to consider in predicting exactly how you would operate and behave as mayor.

    Specifically regarding your inclination toward litigation and your intentions to use the courts to accomplish your desires:

    “[Dan was responsible for] suing or defending the foundation at least a half a dozen times in the past decade. If that sounds like a lot, then it is.”

    “Dan has felt little compunction about filling any and every position within Pacifica, and often two or three of them at the same time, in defiance of most commonly understood precepts about conflicts of interest. As corporate counsel he handled about a half a dozen lawsuits…[which] cost Pacifica significant settlements.”

    “He negotiated and signed off on the 2007 Democracy Now contract that many place at the heart of the network’s financial crisis and which certainly accounts for two thirds of the institution’s debts.”

    “In short, it’s a history that can be characterized as using any means necessary to try to keep institutional control in the hands of the small faction he favors.”

    “[Dan and his clique] have acted as an echo chamber for a narrative that KPFA is the best Pacifica station, subsidizes the rest of the Pacifica network, is run by ‘real professionals’ and basically manages itself – i.e., no outsiders needed or wanted.”

    “Dan has been a major funder of the Save KPFA efforts, which have included adding expensive “slate card mailers” to the local board elections – making it very hard for genuine grassroots candidates to run without raising thousands of dollars to support their candidacies – sponsoring alternative fundraisers to divert funds away from KPFA to protest management and program changes Save KPFA did not approve of, and filing and participating in numerous lawsuits to change the outcome of decisions by placing financial stress on the nonprofit parent.”

    “The addition of the extra-curricular slate mailings turned the elections into a rich man’s game, and Siegel has proven that $10,000 can get virtually anyone elected to KPFA’s local station board. Siegel has consistently used his law firm to advance the interests of his favorite paid-staff-allied board members and worked to actively discourage more grassroots participation in KPFA.”

    “His legal work has probably cost Pacifica millions of dollars over the past decade and has been designed to financially pressure the organization into acceding to the narrow demands of the Save KPFA factional slate or face dire financial consequences.”

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