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Schism at KPFK leaves factions warring over programming, fundraising and leadership

March 27, 2010|James Rainey

When they come together Sunday afternoon at KPFK's studios in North Hollywood, volunteers and staff of the radio station will be celebrating the end of their winter pledge drive.

Imagine the event like a gathering for a terribly ill friend. The patient has been removed from life support and will probably live on, but the prognosis for a fully functional life is far from certain.

The gloomy analogy comes to mind after a pledge drive extreme -- even in KPFK's far-out history -- for its great length and its embrace of the conspiracy-addled fringe.

Wonder how the Bush administration arranged for the destruction of the World Trade Center? Curious why the government planes are releasing toxic chemtrails into our atmosphere? Step right up, because for a record 26 days, KPFK-FM (90.7) not only provided answers but offered to hook you up with that sweet DVD set, unveiling the fuller, darker truth. All for a pledge of, say, $100.

February's pledge slog was more than twice as long as pledge drives of years past. It seemed longer and sadder for losing the focus that has returned to its regular programming.

KPFK's listenership has actually crept up in recent months as interim program director Alan Minsky has assigned consistent hosts to some daytime and drive-time slots. With Margaret Prescod in the morning, Ian Masters in the early evening and Mitch Jeserich's bright "Letters to Washington" at 10 a.m., ratings have inched up to 150,000 a week from their average low of about 120,000.

But in the half-century history of the Pacifica Foundation and its "powered by the people" imperative at stations that are now in L.A., Berkeley, New York, Washington and Houston, one putsch follows another and the leftier-than-thou culture seems suspicious of nothing so much as success.

The vast majority of Southern Californians might ask whether KPFK matters at all. Maybe it doesn't, as other nonprofit stations, such as KCRW-FM (89.9 )and KPCC-FM (89.3), offer long blocks of news and public affairs programming, including reports from National Public Radio.

But radio people look at KPFK's potential and a signal that is the most powerful of any FM station west of the Mississippi River -- its 112,000 watts making it audible from San Diego to Santa Barbara -- and can't help but wonder what might be.

The battle over what KPFK should be has become personified in Masters.

The 63-year-old Australian expatriate is a onetime film editor and veteran of the BBC with a deep knowledge of foreign affairs. His smart and probing interviews have been a KPFK feature for nearly 30 years, often providing deeper looks at international hot spots than those in the mainstream media.

In recent days, he interviewed a former head of the Israeli Knesset about the latest Jewish settlements in Jerusalem. He had an arms expert on to discuss the proposed nuclear weapon reductions by the U.S. and Russia. He also has been outspoken in rejecting KPFK programming, and especially fundraising, that he sees as increasingly taken over by fear-mongering and conspiracy theories, like the 9/11 "truther" movement. In a speech a few months ago at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Masters derided fund drives that he said recommend "communing with extraterrestrials and munching mung beans and colonic irrigation and drinking liquid silver and not immunizing your kids is the way to a more sustainable and spiritual Pacifica."

His detractors at the station picketed that appearance. They have launched a petition drive against him and protested Minksy's new "strip" programming for elevating a few hosts over a more diverse crew. Never mind that he has been one of the station's most popular hosts and most successful fundraisers, particularly considering he isn't peddling hokum and health nostrums.

"It seems to me," one member of the vanguard wrote last year, "that Ian Masters does not believe the United States is really that bad."

Just the latest in a series of counterrevolutions in 2002 brought in a general manager and new Pacifica governance structure, with a local station board elected by subscribers and staff. That diversity imperative became paramount, with a broadening of programs that already seemed to represent every minority, gender, sexual orientation and other group.

But General Manager Eva Georgia's reign ended five years later after charges of excessive spending, racial rancor, sexual harassment and swooning ratings.

What remained was an elected board divided between two groups that I'll call the Liberal Pragmatists, who crave predictability, professionalism and bigger audiences, and the Ecumenical Fundamentalists, who want every sub-group given voice with public access TV-style purity.

The fractious divide this creates becomes all too apparent every time the KPFK Local Station Board gets together to try to make important decisions -- most recently including who will sit on the committee that will help select the next permanent general manager for the station.

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