KPFA Mayhem

Flying chairs, brain-dead protocol, abusive radio hosts -- and you thought the left of the dial was safe again; plus, Oaktown's top lobbyist is back at it.

There’s a scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian that perfectly encapsulates the turmoil at KPFA, the listener-supported leftist radio station. In this scene, Brian, the main character, approaches some self-styled revolutionaries and asks, “Are you the Judean People’s Front?”

“Judean People’s Front?” scoffs the ringleader, played by John Cleese. “We’re the People’s Front of Judea.”

Of course, the two similarly named groups share similar politics. They just can’t agree to agree and get on with fighting their common enemy. They’d much rather fight amongst themselves.

For a decade now, KPFA has suffered from cancerous infighting between staff, management, and overly involved listeners. The cancer goes into remission every now and then. But it’s back now — worse than ever, some say. Last month, a pair of five-year station vets e-mailed colleagues, saying that “this is the most dysfunctional it has been” during their time at the Pacifica Radio affiliate.

Recent symptoms include an engineer throwing metal chairs at his rivals and a profanity-laced screaming match between general manager Roy Campanella and Hard Knock Radio cohost Weyland Southon. On top of all that, the station is way in the red (guesstimates range from $250,000 to more than $500,000).

Let’s start with the fracas between Southon and Campanella, who joined KPFA only six months ago but already has found himself under attack. Station sources say Southon and Campanella clashed over resources for the former’s hip-hop show. Tempers flared, and the two began cussing each other out. Campanella apparently suggested they take the argument outside — which could be read as an invitation to brawl. They never came to blows, but the Local Station Board — composed of elected listener and staff reps — held a private session last week to talk about Campanella’s behavior.

The chair-throwing incident happened at the May meeting of the KPFA program council amid a heated debate over whether Sovietologist Bill Mandel, kicked off the air a decade ago in an earlier power struggle, should get his own show again. The pro-Mandel forces prevailed, which sent one engineer into a rage. According to witnesses, the engineer flung four metal chairs, one of which ricocheted and hit somebody. Program council member Stan Woods says the engineer also slapped him in the chest. Eventually, the man was restrained. Mark Mericle, KPFA’s news codirector and a shop steward, said the engineer had been disciplined, but didn’t say how. Mericle said some staff, especially “staff of color,” resented what they viewed as the favoritism bestowed upon Mandel, adding that others had submitted program proposals prior to Mandel, yet still have not heard boo. Some thus felt that the council had caved in to political pressure from old white lefty listeners who had lobbied loudly for Mandel’s return.

Those old lefties also tend to be aligned with the Local Station Board’s “People’s Radio” bloc, which many KPFA employees view as antistaff. “They don’t think we’re radical enough,” Mericle says. “We’re not revolutionary enough.”

The last public LSB meeting, a no-deodorant affair at the poorly ventilated Freight & Salvage, quickly devolved into petty bickering when pro-staff board member Rosalinda Palacios mysteriously insisted she couldn’t chair the meeting. Her rivals demanded she explain why. When she refused, a rival member made a motion requiring her to explain herself. After about twenty minutes of procedural circle jerk, Palacios prevailed and got to keep her mouth shut.

During the meeting, agitators passed out a “Community Statement on Violence” at KPFA, which referenced, for instance, the chair-tossing episode. The statement also cryptically referred to an incident in which a “KPFA program host (with a history of verbal abuse and turnover of staff), recently verbally abused a programmer, who left the job under duress.” Sources say the unnamed host is Dennis Bernstein of Flashpoints, and that the latest purported victim of his wrath is Solange Echeverria, who is no longer on the show. Details of their fallout are sketchy. Meanwhile, Noelle Hanrahan, who left Flashpoints in September 2002, sued Bernstein and KPFA two months ago, accusing the radio host of a pattern of abusive behavior toward women at the station.

Reached by e-mail, Bernstein declined to comment on Echeverria’s departure. As for Hanrahan’s old accusations — including one in which she suggested that her colleague once poisoned a glass of water she was drinking from — Bernstein said they had been debunked long ago (see “Do Your Homework,” Letters, 5/1/02). He did offer a more general observation about the state of the station: “I find it deeply disturbing that as the world is burning all around us, once again, the KPFA staff and community has formed another circular firing squad.”

Back in the Oak Tree Again

After a conspicuous six-month absence that coincided with her being investigated by the FBI, Oakland super-lobbyist Lily Hu has resurfaced. City Hall gadfly and scribe Sanjiv Handa spotted Hu last week at an economic development committee meeting alongside an executive for Forest City Development lobbying for a $4.3 million handout from the city for the firm’s already heavily subsidized uptown apartment project.

As first reported in this paper, the FBI is investigating Hu and her former boss, state Senate Prez Don Perata. The snitch appears to have been Hu’s late lover, Frank Wishom, who, before he died in October 2003, reportedly went to the FBI and fed the feds some dirt on his ex. A year later, the FBI executed a search warrant at Hu’s business.

For years, Hu has boasted a rep as Oakland’s most powerful and influential lobbyist, thanks to her close friendship with Perata and Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente. But news of the federal investigation appeared to have thrown cold water on her business. For two consecutive quarters — spanning from October 1 last year to March 31 of this year — Hu did not report any lobbying activities on disclosure forms she filed with Oakland’s public ethics commission. City Hall-watchers speculated that perhaps she was damaged goods and that her clients had ditched her. Her reemergence last week suggests otherwise, although she hasn’t reported signing up any new clients since June of last year. It seemed inevitable Hu would return to work; her legal bills, no doubt, are piling up as the investigation drags on. She might as well go out and make some cash while she still has influence to peddle.


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