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Pacifica radio network is returning to its Berkeley roots

The move from Washington is the culmination of efforts by disaffected listeners, who charged the network was going mainstream.

July 12, 2003|Steve Carney | Special to The Times

When the leftist Pacifica radio network packed up its offices and left Berkeley for Washington, D.C. one night in January 2000, critics said it was the most tangible evidence yet that the organization had abandoned its radical roots.

But by the end of the month, Pacifica will be back in Berkeley, where it was founded by a peace activist after World War II and where it pioneered listener-supported radio.

The move is the culmination of several years of protests, lawsuits and boycotts by disaffected listeners who charged that Pacifica management was making the network corporate and mainstream. Their pressure finally ousted the board of directors last year.

"It's one of the last great reform steps of the reform administration," said the network's executive director, Dan Coughlin. "It's symbolic of Pacifica returning to its roots, returning to its mission."

The Pacifica Foundation operates five radio stations nationwide, including KPFA-FM in Berkeley and KPFK-FM (90.7) in Los Angeles, and provides news and public affairs programs to nearly 100 other public stations.

The foundation board fled Berkeley after bitter fights with irate listeners and KPFA staff. Management even shuttered the station for two weeks after removing popular staff, which led to protests outside the station.

When the activists took over the foundation in January 2002, they discovered a $4.8-million deficit, which Coughlin said has been pared to $900,000.

The move to Berkeley cost the cash-strapped network about $200,000, he said, but that was offset by support from KPFA and extra donations from subscribers across California.

"A lot of listeners have stepped forward and basically funded that shift. There was a great outpouring," he said.

Coughlin said the network would operate mirror offices in Washington until July 31, when the transfer of operations to Berkeley would be completed. A bureau will remain at the network's station, WPFW-FM, in Washington.

He said the network's reaction to the war in Iraq and other Bush administration policies has helped Pacifica shift its focus from divisive infighting by "reasserting its traditional mission around peace and social justice programming."

The reservoir of traditional financial support in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as the pool of available producers and programmers that had been left behind make the move's advantages more than symbolic, Coughlin said. He also cited the benefits of the Bay Area's artistic and literary tradition, which he said "will help nurture and help Pacifica grow and strengthen in many ways." (See below for more on changes at KPFK.)


Programming changes

Listeners get pretty attached to their favorite shows and hosts -- some people say it's because of the intimate nature of radio, which can go with you from the car to the kitchen to the bathroom, and which by necessity gets inside listeners' heads more than the passive participation required by television. So they get pretty upset when their regulars go away, as happened during a recent spate of changes at local stations.

KFI, which bills itself as "more stimulating talk radio," was not supporting that claim on the weekends, program director Robin Bertolucci said.

"Our weekends have never kept pace with the meteoric growth Monday through Friday," she said, so the station dropped programs by late-night talk host Lee Klein and consumer counselor Benjamin Dover, and shifted and added other shows.

"We had some people who were bummed about Ben Dover and Lee Klein, but the numbers really dictated those changes," she said, adding that she preferred to replace the Texas-based Dover with a local program, and cited philosophical differences with Klein. She said the move had nothing to do with a recent dust-up Klein had with an African American caller over affirmative action.

Into Klein's 10 p.m.-to-1 a.m. slot Saturday and Sunday nights goes liberal talk host Johnny Wendell, while Dover's 7-to-9 a.m. Sunday slot is being filled by "best of" programs from acid-tongued relationship counselor Laura Schlessinger. Restaurant critic Mario Martinoli begins a 3-to-5 p.m. shift Saturdays. The station's military analyst, former Marine Capt. Dale Dye, gets a permanent time slot, 5 to 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; his program had been plugged in here and there occasionally.

Wall Street analyst Jim Cramer's "MoneyTalk," which Bertolucci described as "finance with an attitude," resurfaces on KFI. The show, which had been a casualty in sister station KLAC's change in December from talk to adult standards, airs 3 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Finally, the station shifted Bill Handel's legal show one hour later, so it now airs 6 to 10 a.m. Saturdays.

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