.Cuts and Dueling Protests at KPFA

Faced with huge cuts and the threat of layoffs, KPFA tries — and fails — to form a united front.

There were several protests and counter-protests happening outside of KPFA’s Berkeley station headquarters last Thursday. Most people were picketing parent company Pacifica Radio, which just announced a huge spate of layoffs and program cuts projected for next week. Some people were picketing the protestors, arguing that they should just suck it up. JR Valrey of the show Flashpoints said he has his own protest planned for next week, along with producers from Hard Knock Radio and the apprenticeship program. Adrienne Lauby, an unpaid host of the disability rights show Pushing Limits, said the protest was just taking a turf war and trying to frame it as a union issue. She held up a sign affixed to a broom handle: “I do not support this picket.”

The hot mess at KPFA only got hotter and messier since last December, when former General Manager Lemlem Rigio announced 20 percent budget cuts across the board. Rigio was forced to resign in March, but the cuts went forward, spread out over the course of a year. Under the station’s union contract, management cuts positions it can’t afford, and then the people in those positions get to commandeer the jobs of other people with less seniority. That means a lot of well-liked people and popular shows could be on the chopping block.

It’s been a bloodbath, according to Morning Show host and former local board treasurer Brian Edwards-Tiekert. He and co-host Aimee Allison were cut to 27 hours a week in July. Then, on Monday, Pacifica threatened to sack the revenue-generating show and replace it temporarily with a piped-in broadcast from KPFK in Los Angeles. On Tuesday, Morning Show staffers Allison, Edwards-Tiekert, Aileen Alfandary, and Esther Manilla (who took a voluntary layoff) aired what they said might be the last morning show broadcast ever. They spent part of the show interviewing Pacifica Director Arlene Engelhardt and Chief Financial Officer LaVarn Williams about why they were being laid off. The new group Save KPFA staged a protests Tuesday at 11 a.m.

“I’m on the union side,” Edwards-Tiekert said at last week’s rally, brandishing a piece of paper that serves as KPFA’s equivalent to a worker manifesto. It’s called the 2010 “Sustainable KPFA” budget.

Edwards-Tiekert and other union members think they’ve found a way to salve the $500,000 operations deficits that KPFA posted in the last two fiscal years. Their proposed budget includes ideas like asking Pacifica to pay for shows it syndicates to other stations in its network, using video conferencing instead of flying board members to meetings, and having some union members switch to a cheaper health plan through Medicare if KPFA reimburses the co-pays. The budget also reminds Pacifica Radio that it could save $10,000 in severance costs if the layoffs don’t go forward.

KPFA shouldn’t shoulder the burden of a profligate parent, say Edwards-Tiekert and other union members. “Right now resources are being pulled away from the productive part of the institution, and being put into a wasteful bureaucracy,” Edwards-Tiekert contended. He challenged reporters to search for meetings of the national board on YouTube, and see if anything productive is coming out of them.

But even if those criticisms hold weight, the entire “sustainable” budget only adds up to $250,032 — and that’s if Pacifica employees agree to generously cut their own salaries to help cover a $41,032 reduction in central services. That’s just not reasonable, said national board member Tracy Rosenberg, who also attended the protest.

“It’s a proposal to save $250,000, so there’s a big question called, ‘What about the other half?'” she said. “What I don’t think is a defensible thing is transferring deficits to the national 501(c)(3). That doesn’t make more money materialize — it basically forfeits obligations.”

She pointed out that Pacifica isn’t just a deadbeat parent. It pays the program fees for national syndicates like Democracy Now and Free Speech Radio News, which supplies about 40 percent of the international news content for KPFA. Also, Rosenberg continued, Pacifica receives about $1 million annually from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which it distributes among five stations. “If you bankrupt your parent foundation, not only will you lose all this revenue, but you will endanger the license,” she said. “I mean, if you’re talking about no radio, that’s how you get there.”

Rosenberg added that even smaller cost-cutting measures, like substituting video conferences for business junkets, might not work in the long-run. She travels across the country for quarterly in-person meetings, which usually run eight to twelve hours a day for a whole weekend. It would be hard to cover all that ground in the course of a video conference, she said. And, according to the budget sheet, it would only save about $22,000.

Understood, said Flashpoints producer and occasional East Bay Express contributor Eric Klein. Nonetheless, Klein and other members of the Communication Workers of America argue that Pacifica hasn’t exhausted, or even explored, its other cost-saving possibilities. “KPFA union staff is not saying we don’t need to make cuts,” Klein wrote in a recent e-mail. “We did, we still do. But why did the National Board BLOCK KPFA staffers from voluntarily opting for a cheaper health insurance option to save jobs? Why are the national board members refusing to scale back on their travel expenses to continue to hold face-to-face meetings multiple times a year?”

It’s rare to find a listener-supported, politically conscious radio station at a time when Clear Channel owns the deed to just about everything else on your FM dial. But a lot of arguments arise by virtue of the station’s odd governing structure. Somewhere between a hierarchy and a democracy, it’s unsatisfying to everyone.

Moreover, just about everyone at KPFA, paid or not, has his own little media enterprise. Thus, no less than half a dozen people wrote their own press releases about the Thursday picket. Articles appeared on the BerkeleySide, CounterPunch, and San Francisco Bay View web sites. In the CounterPunch piece, writer Iain A. Boal characterized Pacifica as a kind of “Tea Party of the Left.”

Ergo, the dueling protests at KPFA. Roughly 150 people showed up to the Thursday picket. About half of them were there for the core protest. The rest were there for all kinds of reasons. Union supporters — who included paid and unpaid staff members — wore red T-shirts. Members of the apprenticeship program wore white airbrushed T-shirts. Some argued that this protest wasn’t fair, since the union hadn’t stood up for all the part-timers and non-union staffers who were laid off in December. People had signs with all manner of slogans, from “Trabajos en Justicia” to “Pacifica — you owe KPFA $1.45 million.” Many accused the network of “union busting” or defrauding its five stations. Many sang, banged tambourines, clapped their hands, and said “yeah.” “We’re trying to have a united front,” Edwards-Tiekert said.

Of course, a united front would go against the culture of KPFA.

Supporters Join KPFA’s Union Workers and Unpaid Staff in a Rally Against Cuts from John Hamilton on Vimeo.


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