Copyrighted material

Berkeley or Belgrade?

by Dennis Bernstein

KPFA Battle Reaches Crisis
with links to latest news
Dennis Bernstein is arrested (PNS) -- As I sit here waiting to be taken to jail for doing my job as a news producer, I wonder about the future of this marvelous, scrappy and sometimes absolutely terrible radio station called KPFA.

In the name of diversity, this community radio station that championed "free speech" is being systematically dismantled by powers-that-be in Washington who pull the plug on any staffer who dares to question their actions on the air. Is this Berkeley or Belgrade?

My particular offense, apart from being a 50-year-old white male, was to play taped excerpts from a newsworthy press conference held by opponents of Pacifica who had obtained a copy of a highly damaging e-mail. This message, from a Houston-based Pacifica board member to Pacifica Board chair Mary Frances Berry, discussed the possibility of selling KPFA and WBAI, its sister station in New York City.

It was also announced at the press conference that those opposed to the board's moves had begun legal action, and that over two dozen noted writers and thinkers had recorded brief commentaries in support of KPFA staff. I played two of these, including one by death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

This took up 15 minutes of my one hour show.

For weeks now a private security force that must be doubling the station's meager payroll has been overseeing all comings and goings within the station. Two white security guards stand outside the door while I await arrest for -- what? Trespass, I guess. Instead of leaving immediately after being informed I was on "administrative leave" for playing the tape, I sought a moment to gather my possessions and confer with colleagues -- in the news room.

Almost no one here believes the real goal of the storm troopers is to bring new fresh voices to the station. After all, this was precisely the goal of Nicole Sawaya, the station manager, herself a Lebanese American, whose summary dismissal back in February signaled the start of the top down decapitation campaign. Nicole was not only the first person to unify a contentious station staff behind her but hired the first African American program director the station has ever had. She also introduced voices from the ethnic media, as well as ethnic scholars, writers, and journalists through a new program called "The Eccentrics."

The new executive director, Lynn Chadwick, has been firing and alienating people, including people of color, into quitting since she arrived. The African American program director quit to protest the summary firing of Larry Bensky after more than twenty years at Pacifica. Then the African American Morning Show host quit, saying Chadwick and the new board had created an atmosphere too "toxic" for her to take. And the ax continues to fall.

My years at free speech radio have been dedicated to bringing people an alternative version of the news. Over the years, I covered church burnings in the south, hearings on the savings and loan scandal, Aristide's return to Haiti.

But the ultimate experience in giving voice to the voiceless came with the story of Eleanor Bumpurs, a 66 year old grandmother killed because she was late paying her rent. In the course of evicting Bumpurs from her Bronx apartment, police fired two shotgun blasts -- one to her hand, the second, fatal, in her chest. I was able to bring to the airwaves young people who had heard the gunfire through the ceiling -- to let them report the story the way they saw it and so make a mark in their own history, in our history. This is why I have stayed with Pacifica, because it has been a place where the words and actions of the disinherited are heard and taken seriously.

I am proud to go to jail as part of an institution founded 50 years ago by people who had the courage to go to jail for their convictions. I am with their spirit. And I feel sorry for those at Pacifica who have been called in to crush KPFA.

Dennis Bernstein has been a producer for Pacifica Radio and is an award winning investigative reporter

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Albion Monitor July 16, 1999 (

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