The (latest) battle of KPFA

Fight over content, money erupts into recall campaign

Protesters march outside the Berekely radio station.

If you're a member of KPFA, the progressive Berkeley radio station, you'll be receiving a ballot in the mail shortly with one issue at hand: the recall of Tracy Rosenberg. She's an elected member of the Local Station Board, and her critics want her removed from office.

Rosenberg is also the former chair of the Finance Committee at Pacifica Network, the nonprofit that owns KPFA. And she has become the face of a conflict at KPFA that is about issues much bigger than Rosenberg herself. The petition to recall Rosenberg accuses her of stealing an email list of KPFA supporters, of election fraud in a 2011 Local Station Board election, and of orchestrating the cancellation of the station's beloved Morning Show. But there's a deeper issue here: How should the famously fractious KPFA handle a downturn in financial support — and should the station rely more on volunteer programming and less on paid professional staff? How will the station, which is an essential part of the Bay Area left, face a changing media landscape?

As the staff at KPFA—administrative and broadcaster, paid and unpaid, union and non-union—try to answer these questions, most of them with a real commitment to progressive radio, they are also mired in a political dispute that's been draining for everyone involved.

KPFA has a long history of providing news and critique that supports progressive efforts and questions the status quo. But, like most businesses, it took a hit in the 2008 financial crisis.

That came a decade after some dramatic governance changes. In July 1999, Pacifica put all the local staff on administrative leave and brought in staff from Houston affiliate KPFT to run the station. In response, hundreds protested in the streets, and the establishment of a detailed democratic governing structure came out of the dispute. Soon after, listener donations took off—parties on both sides attribute this to an increased demand for progressive content in the wake of 9/11 and the war on Iraq. But around 2007, KPFA started to use up the last of its reserves.

According to data provided by the station, listener contributions peaked at more than $4 million during fiscal year 2005, and then began to level off. By 2010, donation income was back below $3 million —still more than 2001 levels. As donations dropped significantly during those five years, salaries and related personnel expenses continued a slow and steady increase, and KPFA managed to avoid outright staff and programming cuts.

That is, until September 2008, when the hosts and producers of the Morning Show were laid off and the show cancelled.

According to the recall campaign, the lay offs were retaliatory (the Morning Show staff had criticized Pacifica management on the air). According to defenders, canceling the Morning Show was a necessary budget decision. The recall campaign argues that the dire financial situation has stabilized after the Morning Show was cancelled; the recall people say that the local board had already balanced it through buyouts. The recall crowd says donations have gone down; the other crowd, they've shifted, but remain about the same. According to Brian Edwards-Tiekert, one of the forces behind the recall effort, "At the start of the dispute were these retaliatory firings a year and a half ago. It became a recall because of how they dealt with it."

The Pacifica Foundation has partnered with KPFA since they were both founded out of anti-war movements in the late 1940s, but their relationship has evolved over the years. As it stands, KPFA and Pacifica's four other member stations pay yearly dues to the foundation; Pacifica, in turn, provides program that is syndicated over many stations such Free Speech Radio News and Democracy Now!

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