David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
Los Angeles Newscaster Banned for Criticizing Pacifica
by David Bacon

LOS ANGELES (9/3/99) -- In Los Angeles, freedom of speech took a body blow this week.

Robin Urevich, a well-respected radio journalist who reports for the Pacifica Network News, Latino USA and NPR's California Report, was banned from radio station KPFK by its manager, Mark Shubb. Urevich produces award-winning news segments in the newsroom at the station, which is the Pacifica network's Los Angeles affiliate.

Shubb objected to an article Urevich wrote for a small weekly newspaper in the LA harbor, Random Lengths. Ironically, the article reported earlier instances of censorship, when Shubb took off the air segments of national shows Counterspin and Democracy Now!, which dealt with the ongoing conflict over the direction of the network.

"In Southern California, KPFK listeners could read about the crisis on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, and in other major newspapers. But, they found little information on their own station. Management clumsily tried to keep it under wraps," Urevich wrote.

National media critic Norman Solomon said the censorship shamed the station, which was founded on the principle of supporting free speech. "Any decent news outlet will respect the first amendment rights of its journalists," he commented.

According to Dave Adelson of the KPFK local advisory board, "it's stunning that they would choose to remove a person for publishing an article about matters vitally affecting the community. It appears that the gag rule extends beyond the walls of KPFK to any activity whatsoever."

Urevich's banning is the latest in a series of events which have rocked the Pacifica chain, which includes stations in Berkeley, New York, Washington DC and Houston as well. On July 13, the Pacifica Foundation locked the staff out of the station at KPFA in Berkeley, in an incredible night which saw its two news directors, Aileen Alfandary and Mark Mericle, arrested for trespassing as they sat in the newsroom fielding calls from reporters from coast to coast. Fifty-two others were arrested along with them, including Dennis Bernstein, yanked off the air and suspended after broadcasting a press conference which talked about Pacifica plans to sell the station.

The arrests and lockout galvanized an already-angry community. On July 31, fifteen thousand people marched through Berkeley streets to protest Pacifica's campaign against the station. The lockout was ended a few days afterwards.

But the end of the lockout was more a truce than an end to the conflict. Despite months of denials by Pacifica board chair Mary Francis Berry that there were any plans for KPFA's sale, two day-long conference-call board meetings in early July discussed various scenarios for selling the Berkeley license, or possibly that of New York's WBAI.

The lockout's end has resolved none of the underlying issues in a conflict which now rages in New York and Los Angeles as well. It is unlikely to be settled easily or quickly -- the differences between the foundation and its opponents in the local listening areas are profound.

Berkeley's KPFA is the U.S.'s oldest community broadcaster. Its founders saw it as a free speech forum which could challenge the intellectual suffocation of McCarthyism. In the 1960s and 70s, Pacifica stations gave a microphone to growing social civil rights and anti-war protests.

Programming has always been uneven. Some programmers were long on politics and short on production skills. But a core philosophy has remained behind the sometimes-messy debates: Community radio stations must identify and serve the various diverse constituencies in their local listening area -- those locked out of the mainstream -- minorities, immigrants, workers and labor, gays and lesbians, intellectual radicals and political leftists.

That's made Pacifica different from National Public Radio. Instead of serving the paternalism of a progressive elite, their success has been measured by the base stations built in the communities they served.

In the last decade, however, critics increasingly accused the programming of becoming too leftwing. Those critics, including Berry, believe that creating an alternative media network requires centralizing power over programming and the allocation of resources.

More control over programming required more control over staff. Pacifica managers tried to turn staff programmers into temporary contract employees, hired the American Consulting Group, a notorious firm of unionbusters, and demanded that newly-hired programmers become at-will employees, who could then be fired at any time.

Now Pacifica's budget eats up 17% of revenues collected from listeners, up from 4% two decades ago. It depends increasingly on revenue sources independent of listener contributions. That's always been anathema at Pacifica, which prided itself on the absence of financial strings which could restrict sometimes freewheeling leftwing politics.

It's a far cry from the original vision of community radio.

These are deep-rooted conflicts, and will not evaporate simply because the staff is back on the air in Berkeley. Berry has given KPFA a six-month deadline to expand and diversify its audience of 160,000, or face unspecified consequences, possibly including sale of the station. African-American and Asian/Pacific Islander programmers have criticized her for manipulating the diversity issue. Hiring has been frozen at KPFA, where a number of programmers of color have been terminated or resigned.

The California legislature's Joint Audit Committee held hearings at the end of August, to determine if Pacifica's expenses on the lockout and other actions against KPFA staff, including money spent on guards, public relations firms and anti-union lawyers, violated its non-profit charter. Pacifica refused to attend, and the committee was eventually forced to subpoena the financial information.

Over 25 unions have protested the situation at KPFA, including all Bay Area labor councils, the California Labor Federation, and District Council 57 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME's national secretary-treasurer, Bill Lucy, is a member of the Pacifica board, although he has not yet spoken publicly about the conflict.

At stake in the conflict is more than just an effort to defeat Pacifica's drift to the right. It is a chance to redefine what community radio means. Restructuring Pacifica along more democratic lines could create a real network of stations based in local communities, linked by a common progressive outlook.

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