New Crisis at KPFA Could Push Pacifica Over the Edge

by Randy Shaw on March 29, 2010

A decade after KPFA supporters took to the streets to prevent a corporate takeover, the station’s future – and that of the Pacifica Radio Network it financially supports – is at risk. A dysfunctional governance structure created in the wake of the 1999 struggle has resulted in the recent firing of KPFA’s General Manager Lemlem Rijio’s following a 12-11 vote. The discharge fulfilled an October campaign promise by those running for KPFA’s Local Station Board, and the narrow vote highlights the intensifying civil war that has plunged the entire Pacifica Network into a deep financial crisis. The vast majority of KPFA’s unionized staff has signed a letter opposing Rijio’s firing (which management deems a resignation), as an alternative network that Lew Hill founded as a workers collective now finds paid staffers and volunteers hosting shows with virtually no say in governance. The tragedy at KPFA and Pacifica is another chapter in the ongoing story of organizational dysfunction on the left.

Internal struggles at Pacifica Radio have gone on for years, but now they have placed the Network’s survival is at risk. A governance structure created in hasty response to the planned corporate takeover of the station in 1999 has proved utterly unworkable, with a small minority of listeners now controlling decision-making while the voices of most paid and unionized staff are ignored.

From Sawaya to Rijio: The KPFA-Pacifica Conflict

A longstanding problem at Pacifica is that KPFA effectively subsidizes the entire network. Officially, Pacifica stations are required to pay 20% of their income to the national office, but New York City’s WBAI – which has run up massive deficits – has been exempt from paying anything. KPFA listeners are subsidizing a broad range of national Pacifica operations beyond the 20%, and the national leadership has frozen $150,000 in KPFA donations to support its own line of credit.

In 1999, KPFA General Manager Nicole Sawaya was fired for raising questions about the amount of money donated to the station by listeners that was being siphoned off by the national Pacifica network. Now General Manager Lemlen Rijio has been forced to resign after raising similar concerns, and after a recent election where the ultimately winning slate pledged to terminate her upon taking power.

So rather than address the serious financial problems besetting both KPFA and Pacifica, the Local Station Board has succeeded in forcing out the most successful General Manager both programmatically and financially – and Pacifica’s only female station manager – that it has had since Sawaya’s departure.

Only a truly dysfunctional organization could take such action.

And this dysfunction is part of a governance structure whereby an elected Board controls virtually all decision-making. An elected Board where, in KPFA’s case, a candidate receiving 300 votes out of 140,000 listeners and 20,000 members – has more say in running the station than longtime paid and unpaid staff.

Recall how the political left justifiably denounces the credibility of elections in countries where only a small percentage of the potential electorate votes. KPFA hosts routinely condemn such false pretenses of real democracy, and the U.S. government’s frequent claims that “this is what democracy looks like.”

Well, that’s exactly how most KPFA program staff sees the “democratic” governance process at the station. But their opinions no longer matter, as the narrow majority elected by the small turnout now has been powered to make all decisions, including the firing of the popular and effective Lemlem Rijio.

The $$$ Cost of Dysfunctional Governance

The financial cost of Pacifica’s maintaining a dysfunctional governance system that allows a small minority to control the network is staggering. At a time when donations are down, costs are up, and radio must battle the Internet for its audience, one would like to think that Pacifica would spend all available money to maintain listener loyalty.

Instead, Pacifica has spent an estimated $2million since 2002 just on governance and holding elections for the 128 seats on local and national boards under the system it created in 2002.
This massive investment has not only created an electoral process that continually produces few voters and small turnouts, but it has spawned personal attacks, internecine warfare, and the undermining of Rijio and other program managers.

Rijio is the fifth Pacifica manager who has been fired or forced out in recent years. One wonders why any highly qualified candidate would take a position when any decision they make can cost them their job by a 12-11 vote.

Pacifica’s expensive and undemocratic governance structure now threatens to bring down the entire network. A network that brought Amy Goodman to the national airwaves, and that has long covered activist struggles and promoted progressive events otherwise ignored by the mainstream media.

Pacifica either gets a new governing structure – which requires a vote by 10% of the membership – or continues toward insolvency.

Organizational Dysfunction on the Left

The internal conflicts that threaten Pacifica’s survival are all too typical on the left.

Consider the demise of San Francisco’s long established New College, which provided undergraduates with a progressive education, law students with a non-corporate alternative law school, and the entire progressive community with meeting and event facilities. While under attack from the right, New College dissolved due to internal conflicts among its progressive staff and administration.

Or recall the deep split within the Green Party over its 2004 Presidential nomination process, a division from which the Party never recovered. Greens readily find fault with the Democratic Party, but have proved incapable of surmounting their own internal divisions to create a viable alternative.

And then we have SEIU.

SEIU ushered in the Barack Obama presidency by placing its third largest local, SEIU-UHW, in “trusteeship” (the legalistic term international unions use when they oust leaders that workers elected.) Like the Pacifica Board that “democratically” ousted Rijios, SEIU insisted that the decision to impose trusteeship against UHW was made through the democratic processes of its Executive Board.

Progressive organizations love to criticize others, but many do not like internal debate. Because SEIU could not accept that one of its large locals had a different approach to bargaining and toward worker input in union decision-making, the union has spent tens of millions of dollars battling its former UHW leadership (now operating as NUHW) rather than spending such massive sums on organizing new workers.

SEIU even found reason to declare war on UNITE HERE, its closest ally in the Change to Win labor federation it formed in 2005. Since last April, SEIU has spent millions of dollars in member dues trying to steal members from UNITE HERE, and even many SEIU staff remain unclear why they are fighting a union that until 2009 was SEIU’s closest labor ally.

So what’s happening at Pacifica is not unique to the left, but it remains a tragedy. The threat to KPFA’s future is as grave as in 1999, and this struggle can only be won if those who have not been involved to date start taking action now, before it is too late.

Randy Shaw is a longtime KPFA listener and the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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