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Pacifica Network Knows No Peace

The general manager of L.A. outlet KPFK-FM was ousted last week, as programming and money problems escalate.

February 01, 2002|STEVE CARNEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — In their family brawl over control of the left-leaning Pacifica radio network, the combatants have finally crashed through the looking glass, landing in a parallel world that reverses everything they knew before.

A week ago at the Los Angeles outlet of the five-station network, KPFK-FM (90.7), general manager Mark Schubb was placed on administrative leave and told not to return.

He's calling it payback, saying he's the victim of a purge, while the head of the local listeners' advisory board--a group constantly at odds with Schubb--says Schubb was "actively engaged in misleading the listeners" and refused to air certain programming.

"They're clearly on a jihad to purge people not loyal to their faction," Schubb said. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm an employee in good standing."

But Local Advisory Board chairman David Adelson said Schubb lied to listeners about the causes of problems within the network and was disdainful of input from the public via the advisory board.

"I think there's an opening now for some real changes," Adelson said, because a network-wide gag order has been lifted and listeners can hear about the goings-on. Adelson was a plaintiff in one of three lawsuits against Pacifica, alleging that those running the network were squandering money and ignoring the needs of the listeners. Those suits were settled in December, in an agreement that re-formed the board of directors and put a dissident group in charge.

The management change at KPFK is just the latest chapter in the ongoing Pacifica saga. The tiny network, started by pacifists in Berkeley after World War II, has been rocked by turmoil for more than three years.

Members of a dissident group of listeners said they were trying to save Pacifica and return it to its original, progressive politics and programming. They charged that those running the Pacifica Foundation and its five radio stations--the executive director and the national board of directors--were conspiring to turn it more mainstream, discouraging criticism of their political allies.

The popular general manager of the Berkeley station was removed in 1999, causing street protests and unrest that shuttered the station for three weeks. At the end of 2000, the general manager at New York station WBAI was fired and the station locks were changed in what was dubbed the "Christmas coup."

Numerous other longtime employees and volunteers were sent packing at the five stations. And for the latter half of 2001, the network's signature program, the newsmagazine "Democracy Now!" with host Amy Goodman, was forced off the air in a personnel dispute.

"At all levels of Pacifica, we need leadership that needs to move past a history of conflict to a new period of healing and rebuilding," said Dan Coughlin, acting executive director of the Pacifica Foundation.

Coughlin and Pacifica board chairman Leslie Cagan tapped Steven Starr, a longtime member of the Los Angeles Independent Media Center, to be KPFK's interim general manager at the suggestion of the Local Advisory Board.

"He's known in a lot of media circles around Los Angeles," Adelson said, noting that Starr got his start in radio in college and since then has been involved in movies, television and Internet ventures. "He's got a long-standing commitment to democratic media, and he's got experience dealing with talent and egos."

The elements at KPFK are familiar--a station's general manager relieved of his duties, charges of cronyism, a Web site decrying the perceived injustices of the network's governing board and a call for a grass-roots protest involving phone calls, faxes and e-mails. But this time the ones doing the firing were the former dissidents, and those heading for the door are the people the protesters had charged were destroying the network.

The Houston general manager resigned and took a severance package before the newly formed board met in New York in January. At that meeting, the general manager of the New York station, WBAI, was fired and replaced by the general manager who had been fired in the "Christmas coup."

The Washington, D.C., station's general manager was relieved at the same time as Schubb. The management remained intact only at the Berkeley station, which doesn't heed directives from Pacifica headquarters in Washington.

One of the deepest wounds at the network is left over from the infighting between the previous bureaucracy and the dissidents: a $4-million debt the new Pacifica board found itself with, including outstanding bills for expensive lawyers, public relations agencies and security guards.

Schubb has said, even on the air, that Pacifica and KPFK wouldn't be in their current financial trouble if not for the dissidents' fight and lawsuits. Opponents countered that it was the previous board's intractability and unwillingness to negotiate with the dissidents that escalated the fight and ran up the bills.

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