Copyrighted material

Thousands March for Free Speech at KPFA

by Nicholas Wilson

KPFA Battle Reaches Crisis
with links to latest news
Rally at Sproul Plaza BERKELEY -- "Whose station? Our station!" Chanted thousands of KPFA supporters outside the padlocked radio station in Berkeley, California on July 31, bringing to a dramatic climax a march that drew 15,000 in support of free speech at the nation's first listener-supported radio station.

The day began with an hour-long assembly on the UC/ Berkeley campus at Sproul Plaza, birthplace of the Free Speech Movement in 1964. First to speak was fired 30-year veteran Pacifica Radio national commentator Larry Bensky, who has been dubbed "the Walter Cronkite of Pacifica." Bensky established the key theme of the rally by leading the crowd in a chant of "What do we want? Free speech! When do we want it? Now!"

Driving home the symbolism of gathering in Sproul Plaza, Bensky noted that he was speaking on "this historic day, in this historic place, on these historic steps now named after Mario Savio (a key leader of the Free Speech Movement who died in 1997), who 35 years ago addressed a crowd here and spoke about essentially the same issue we're here to talk about today, which is irresponsible, oppressive power trying to suppress the legitimate free speech and political opinions of the people. That's us!"

"Let's go down and take our radio station back!"
Kindle Peace and Freedom Again Now in its 50th anniversary year. Pacifica Foundation management seized control of the station and locked out its staff on July 13 in a dispute stemming from censorship of criticism of Pacifica.

Speakers included news reporter Dennis Bernstein, whose resistance to Pacifica's armed guards trying to eject him from the news studio was broadcast live. His offense? Defying a gag order from Pacifica management barring discussion on the air or with the media of Pacifica's policies or the March 31 termination of popular KPFA station manager Nicole Sawaya. Pacifica operatives interrupted the evening news program in progress, putting on canned programming and seizing control of the station July 13, locking out the staff, boarding up the windows, and chaining and padlocking the front doors. Several staff members were arrested for trespassing in their workplace that night.

One of the final speakers of the Sproul Plaza rally was Dan Siegel, an attorney who has filed suit against the Pacifica board on behalf of local Pacifica station advisory boards and listeners. Of the Pacifica board, Siegel said: "Through a series of maneuvers which are illegal, they have eliminated the role of local advisory boards around the country to elect national board members. They have made their board unaccountable, and we are going to reverse that in court."

It was Siegel who, as UC/Berkeley student body president-elect in 1969, spoke at a noon rally in this same venue suggesting that people take back People's Park, which had just been seized and fenced off by the university administration. For that he had been charged with inciting a riot, but was acquitted at trial. Today, Siegel adapted his words of 30 years ago by saying, "Let's go down and take our radio station back!"

With that, the huge crowd fell in behind veterans of the Free Speech Movement, the early days of KPFA, and other labor and political leaders for an hour-long, two-mile march through the streets of Berkeley, past the boarded-up and chained radio station to Martin Luther King Park for the day's main rally.

March to KPFA station

"If you think that we will cooperate with you in any way, you are insane"
When the rally began at MLK Park, San Francisco poet laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti spoke of being a participant in early programs on KPFA in the 1950s and '60s.

"I want to remind the national board of Pacifica that the founders' construction of the station was not as an entertainment medium, but as a medium to raise consciousness, protect and expand free speech, promote literacy, and generally to articulate a libertarian, pacifist political agenda. This is just the opposite of what the present national board seems to have as its agenda, which evidently conceives KPFA as an entertainment medium, which is the concept of every other commercial station on the band. The programming the last decade or more has in fact already done just that, lowering the intellectual content and contributing to the dumbing-down of America. But the aim of the station should of course not be to please the lowest common denominator, but to raise the lowest common denominator. To this end, I would propose that the result of this rally be the writing of a new charter for Pacifica embodying these principles -- a new charter which ... must include a guarantee that KPFA will not be sold to anyone, but remain in the control of the listeners who have supported it all these years."

Speaking out at a public rally for the first time since her firing sparked the latest battle over control of KPFA was former station manager Nicole Sawaya. "This isn't really about me; it's much bigger than me...

"...This is the last sliver of public airwaves. Pacifica does not own the airwaves; they are only the stewards of the frequency... These are the people's airwaves, and there's not much left. That's why it is so, so very important. That's why the struggle that is going on resonates throughout the generations, throughout the cultures. We are a media- savvy country, and we know what the media does to our lives and to our community. And we also know the value of progressive media and unfiltered news, public affairs, and the voices of our community. We cannot lose this station. It is not a matter of me coming back. It is a matter of this station staying in the San Francisco Bay Area, right here in Berkeley, continuing to broadcast over 59,000 watts of power, without the chains and b.s. from Pacifica. We have to continue in this struggle. They can not sell this frequency, and it's up to all of us to show them they won't get away with it."

Jamie King of Youth for Socialist Action said he graduated from high school just a few months ago. "In four years of high school they tried to teach me a whole lot of b.s. They told me that the U.S. is the greatest democracy in the world with freedom and equality for everybody. They told me that the U.S. military intervenes all over the world to establish democracy and human rights. But no matter how hard they tried to indoctrinate me with their propaganda, I could always turn on KPFA to hear the truth."

One surprise speaker was San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who said San Francisco stands 100 percent behind KPFA. Against a constant din of hecklers chiding him for his treatment of his city's homeless, Mayor Brown said of the Pacifica leadership, "We must, in one manner or another, replace that leadership so that this station ... can have its clear, uninterrupted voice on behalf of those who cannot be heard otherwise... To have those same journalists arrested when they tell the truth about the prospect of the sale of KPFA is horrible. Our voices must be heard on behalf of those journalists. Our voices must be heard on behalf of a free and independent KPFA, and KPFA must never be sold."

In calling for the ouster of Pacifica leaders, Brown joined a unanimous Berkeley City Council, the national media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), and most of the KPFA staff.

C. S. Soong, KPFA Steering Committee member, said the staff took back control of the station from Pacifica on Friday on their own terms, not on Pacifica's, and he vowed they would use it to carry on the struggle with Pacifica. "Pacifica Board Chair Mary Frances Berry has already begun a campaign in the press to ridicule and smear us, if, as she expected, we did not retake the station," said Soong. "Well Dr. Berry, we are back in KPFA. By our actions in retaking it, we discredit your entire cynical campaign to get the public on your side."

Longtime KPFA activist Barbara Lubin said the battle with Pacifica is not over. She pointed out that Pacifica still has a newly installed digital phone line to KPFA's transmitter which allows them to feed programming at any time from a remote location. She said she still believes Pacifica intends to sell KPFA's frequency, and that a lawsuit is needed to block that action. She asked for donations to Friends of Free Speech Radio to fund such a suit.

As of August 3, KPFA's transmitter was still under armed guard by Pacifica, and programming was being fed from studios in Houston. The KPFA update hotline maintained by Media Alliance in San Francisco said the staff hopes to resume broadcasting local programming by late this week.

Other speakers included United Farmworkers leader Dolores Huerta and 40-year KPFA foreign affairs analyst Bill Mandel, sacked by Pacifica in 1995 in an earlier stage of its push to de-radicalize KPFA programming in search of a larger audience, recycled his famous statement to the House Unamerican Activities Committee in 1960, saying to the Pacifica board: "If you think that we will cooperate with you in any way, you are insane."

Berkeley Police estimated the crowd at 15,000.

KPFA staff members at rally

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Albion Monitor August 5, 1999 (

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