Old radicals in war at hippie radio station

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The Independent Online
IT IS the radio station that first broadcast Allen Ginsberg reading his innovative poem "Howl", that gave the Grateful Dead their first public airing, and that recorded the heiress Patty Hearst denouncing her parents as "capitalist pigs".

From its headquarters in Berkeley, seat of the country's most counter- cultural university campus, KPFA has a 50-year history of ground-breaking investigations, challenges to orthodox thinking on the weightiest foreign and domestic issues of the day, and an impeccable commitment to pacifism and democracy. Or, at least, that is the theory.

Recently, little has been peaceful at KPFA as the staff have come to blows with their boss, the non-profitmaking Pacifica Foundation. Although the cause of the fight remains murky, the result has been a showdown reminiscent of 1968, with ageing hippies vigorously denouncing the evil corporate soul of the station owners, and everyone from Noam Chomsky to Joan Baez throwing their weight behind that good old cause, leadership by the people, for the people.

It has been quite a spectacle. Much-loved presenters and administrators have been summarily fired, demonstrators have gathered in large numbers on the pavement outside, armed guards have taken over the building and riot police have massed in the streets.

The problems began in March, when Pacifica's president, Mary Frances Berry, fired the popular station manager, Nicole Sawaya. Their disagreement appeared to be over the participation of community groups on the KPFA board, with Pacifica wanting to exert more control and Ms Sawaya defending the rights of the listeners whose contributions entirely finance the station.

Two presenters were fired for daring to discuss Ms Sawaya's dismissal on air. Then it was the turn of a reporter, Dennis Bernstein. He too talked about conflicts with management on his programme, only to be hauled, kicking and screaming, out of the studio by security guards. The listeners heard it all.

That was it, as far as the old radicals of Berkeley were concerned. They staged a spontaneous demonstration outside KPFA's offices and even unleashed a couple of pistol shots through a window. Pacifica reacted by calling in the riot police, suspending the entire staff and closing the station.

In the intervening two weeks, 50 people have been arrested and another handful ofstaff has been fired for insubordination. The anti-Pacifica lobby has been heartened by the outpouring of support from politicians, the city council and any number of intellectuals.

"We told Pacifica we want mediation, not facilitation, and that doesn't mean sitting around singing 'Kumbaya'," said Larry Bensky, the first KPFA presenter to be fired. That kind of defiance at last appears to be paying off. Yesterday, Pacifica agreed to reopen the station, let most of its employees return, remove itself from the station's board of management and even consider offers from potential buyers.

But the demonstrators are still not entirely satisfied, and have vowed to keep up their pavement protests because Ms Sawaya and Mr Bensky are not being reinstated. "The same people who led us into this crisis are still in power and are still unaccountable to the community," a KPFA employees' committee said. The revolution ain't over yet, bro.