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Pacifica Radio Hopes to Recover Radical Voice

News Analysis* In turmoil more than three years, the network's future stabilizes with this week's agreement.


WASHINGTON — A year ago, after what they called the "Christmas coup," supporters of the listener-sponsored Pacifica radio network felt they were losing their beloved radical voice to a group trying to sell it, or at least make it mainstream and bland. This year for the holidays, it looks like they're getting it back--though some assembly will be required.

An agreement earlier this week settled a trio of lawsuits brought by irate supporters and dissident members of Pacifica's board of directors. The agreement will revamp the board and give the network's passionate advocates a chance for input that they felt they had lost.

The politically progressive five-station radio network, including KPFK-FM (90.7) in North Hollywood, has been rocked by more than three years of infighting that led to staff turmoil and dire money problems. In 1999 management shuttered its Berkeley station for three weeks while thousands of irate fans protested the firings of popular broadcasters. And last Dec. 22, Pacifica management changed the locks at the New York station and fired the general manager and other staffers popular with listeners, who decried the action as a coup. Additionally, an ongoing dispute with management at the Pacifica Foundation, the parent of the five stations, has kept the network's signature show "Democracy Now!" off all but one of the stations since August.

In reaction, listeners withheld donations and boycotted fund drives as the foundation spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on security, legal fees and public relations. There were charges by some staff and the Pacifica radio audience that the organization, founded in Berkeley in 1946 by pacifist Lewis Hill, was in the process of destroying itself through civil war.

Lawsuits were filed, charging the majority members of the board of directors had, among other things, mishandled funds, cut off input from local stations' listeners and held secret meetings. The ruling earlier this week was viewed by the station's supporters as a sign the radio network may be able to return to its roots.

"I am very, very pleased," said Bob Farrell, chairman of the Pacifica board of directors and a former L.A. city councilman. "There just seemed to be a coming together of concerns and interests.

"We have some more dotting of i's," he added, but the change in the board should come "by the end of next week or the week after that. Now the interim board will come together and start forming a new Pacifica."

The agreement calls for the dissolution of Pacifica's board of directors, and its replacement with an interim 15-member board. Of that, five members will be named by the dissident members of the current board, five named by the current board majority and one named by the listener advisory board at each of the five local stations.

The new board has plenty of work ahead, primarily in drawing up new bylaws for the foundation--changes that will ostensibly settle the long and bitter conflicts about how the network is governed, how much input local stations and listeners can have in foundation affairs, and whether any of the stations can ever be sold.

In addition the binding agreement, signed Wednesday and brokered by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw, has the judge casting the deciding vote to break any stalemates.

"This is really a significant day for Pacifica," attorney Adam Belsky, who represented the lawsuit plaintiffs, said after the settlement Wednesday. "I was very pleasantly surprised. This is a tremendous opportunity to restore the foundation to its mission."

The settlement and the future it bodes for Pacifica are "a historic victory" in the "movement for democracy in the American mass media," according to Juan Gonzalez, an award-winning reporter with the New York Daily News, who quit on the air as co-host of "Democracy Now!" in January to lead a reform movement called the Pacifica Campaign. The grass-roots movement picketed the network stations and board members at their homes and offices. They flooded board members, their bosses, co-workers, business clients and others with e-mails outlining what they saw as the latest outrages at Pacifica. And they organized boycotts of station fund drives and businesses run by opposition board members.

Such pressure tactics had some Pacifica leaders scoffing at them as an irrational fringe group, but led others to resign. And when he first became chairman, Farrell was characterized by the dissident group as just another member of the "raiding clique" that wanted to de-radicalize Pacifica, or worse, sell off one or more of its valuable licenses.

In the end, "Farrell chose to change, and he dragged the remaining members of his group to the table, even as they were kicking and screaming," Gonzalez said in a statement. "By abandoning the old bankrupt policies he played a pivotal role in moving Pacifica toward a new era, so I wish to publicly thank him for keeping his word."

When Farrell was named chairman three months ago, he announced he had a "peace initiative" to end the bitter internal struggle that was sapping Pacifica's energy.

Especially after the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent war on terrorism, he said Pacifica was needed as a strong and independent voice championing free speech, civil liberties and peace.

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