We received a press release from KPFA today about the layoffs at the station, which recently spurred a tumultuous on-air debate between employees and Arlene Engelhardt, Executive Director of the stations’ parent organization, Pacifica. The release is dated Nov 14, but we just got it a couple of hours ago. We have a call out to the station now…


Pacifica Foundation radio station KPFA 94.1 FM is regretfully reducing its paid workforce from 44 to 35 full- and part-time employees, in order to balance income with expenditures for the fiscal year.

Founded in 1949, KPFA is the first listener-sponsored radio station in the country, but like many other community institutions, it has suffered a serious downturn in donations over the past few years. During Fiscal Year 2009, the station spent almost $575,000 more than it took in. In the fiscal year that ended September 30, KPFA spent $480,000 more than it took in.

Seven employees volunteered to take a layoff package, but it was unfortunately necessary to lay off two employees, the hosts of the Morning Show. The involuntary layoffs were carried out under the seniority provisions of the labor-management contract Pacifica Foundation has with its union, the Communications Workers of America (CWA), with consideration given to crucial positions and special skills.

Reducing KPFA’s workforce from approximately 29.75 full-time equivalents (FTEs) to approximately 25.3 FTEs will cut station personnel expenses by about $320,000 over the remainder of this fiscal year, resulting in a balanced budget.

KPFA will continue to offer a locally produced Morning Show, and its new line-up will be announced shortly. The Morning Show’s focus on local community news and cultural affairs will continue.

KPFA’s staff is represented by the Communications Workers of America Local 9415, which has filed a complaint with the NLRB, alleging violations of union rights. Pacifica believes that certain union members have engaged in violations of the union contract, and is considering what legal action it may need to take.

Pacifica’s policy is to negotiate employment disagreements amicably and as the law requires, in good faith. Pacifica hopes that KPFA can come together and focus on its mission to foster peace and social justice and to provide progressive news during these distressing political and economic times.

Here’s a pretty interesting analysis from Matthew Lasar, who wrote the book Uneasy Listening: Pacifica Radio’s Civil War, chronicling the brutal 1999 conflict between the Pacifica board and station employees.

On Nov 10, Lasar wrote of the current conflict:

…before Engelhardt can make a credible go at KPFA oversight, she’s going to have to learn the rules, most of which apply to the other four Pacifica stations as well.

Rule #1: Nobody ever leaves Pacifica

If you listened to KPFA this morning (Wednesday), you heard Brian Edwards-Tiekert helping Mitch Jeserich do his Letters to Washington broadcast later in the day. He’s not going anywhere. He’s going to stay and fight this.

That’s no surprise. As someone who has been involved in Pacifica politics for thirty years (and written about the other thirty), I’ve seen Pacifica station managers make the same mistake over and over. They dump people, and think their victims will just crawl off, presumably saying something like “Shucks! Oh well. Better polish up the resume and move on.”

Forget it. Take a look at the endorsers of Independents for Community Radio (ICR), the rival slate to Save KPFA (which supports the sustainable budget). There’s one person on the ICR list who has kept up with Pacifica governance for almost a third of a century (he used to be the foundation’s President). Another’s been around for at least a quarter. Heck, a decade ago I used to run into a guy who was canned at WBAI in the 1960s and still was active in Pacifica affairs. He might still be.

In fact, folks at Pacifica radio even stick around after they’re dead. Down at KPFK in Los Angeles, Zen essayist Alan Watts, who was integral to Pacifica politics in the 1950s, is still broadcasting over the weekends.

Why is this? People don’t hook up with Pacifica radio because they’re looking for a “career.” They want something else. So if you are a Pacifica General Manager, before you dump somebody, you have to ask yourself one question. If I fire this person, is s/he actually going to leave?

Rule #2: Your stump speech doesn’t matter – what matters is who is listening

Engelhardt keeps trying to present numbers as the cold hard facts in this story. But at Pacifica radio, the real cold hard facts are people.

Because Pacifica depends to a great extent on volunteer or low paid labor and listener donations, power is broadly distributed across the organization. People have a strong sense of ownership in the network. It was like this even before Pacifica launched its disastrous experiment with elected governance boards, which needs to end as soon as possible.

So as the Executive Director, you may think that you have a great rap about the budget, or the need for more diversity, or relevance, or whatever is in your stump speech. But the people around you have their own equally compelling (to themselves) narratives about what’s going on—reinforced by self-appointed experts in their faction (like me).

Since they’re not going to obediently nod their heads at your every word (or even cooperate with your layoff notices) you have to ask yourself another question. Do I really have enough support at Pacifica to accomplish my current goals?

Remember the great KPFA shutdown of 1999? I tried to convey this to the key players in that drama, Lynn Chadwick and Mary Frances Berry. Purging people left and right, they steadfastly refused to ask the question. They were going to completely overhaul Pacifica radio, they told me. Berry called up and gave me the party line about diversity and relevance. Chadwick took me out to lunch.

I told them the yogurt was about to hit the fan. But they were so impressed with their stump speech that they just pressed on and on, eventually shutting down KPFA in the summer of that year.

The ensuing riot lasted about three years. Today you’d never know they were here. Read the full post.

KPFA Statement on Layoffs, Plus Analysis 16 November,2010Jon Brooks


Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is the host and editor of KQED’s health and technology blog, Future of You. He is the former editor of KQED’s daily news blog, News Fix. A veteran blogger, he previously worked for Yahoo! in various news writing and editing roles. He was also the editor of EconomyBeat.org, which documented user-generated content about the financial crisis and recession. Jon is also a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S. He has written about film for his own blog and studied film at Boston University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College.

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