Air Traffic Control: An Ousted Pacifica Executive Occupies Her Own Office

A woman who answers the door at Pacifica Foundation Radio headquarters in Berkeley regards all outsiders with a wary, withering stare. “Who are you here to see?” she asks. “And do you have an appointment?”

Visitors aren't to be trusted. Any plain-clothed passerby could be a mole for the enemy group next door.

Pacifica, a network of five community radio stations scattered throughout the country, has been “under hostile siege” — in the words of its ousted executive director, Summer Reese — since March 13. That was the day the network's board voted for her dismissal. Shortly thereafter, somebody padlocked the front door of Pacifica's national offices, which is next door to Pacifica's local affiliate KPFA, where a lot of Reese's political enemies work. Reese broke it with a bolt cutter on Monday morning, March 17. She's been camping out in her own office ever since.

“We have people taking shifts, day and night,” Reese says, sitting primly at her desk on a Thursday morning, two weeks after her ouster. Skylit, decked with clean stacks of paper and a vase of daffodils, it betrays little about the surrounding bellicosity; meanwhile, air mattresses scattered throughout the building paint a somewhat more sobering picture. In the past week, rivals from KPFA have shut off the water, attempted to change the alarm code, tried to freeze the network's bank account, and jostled employees at the door, Reese says. Yet she and her staff continue to hold their vigil right next door.

This morning, Reese is sorting through emails while five staff members attempt to conduct business as usual. She's spent the week garrulously chattering to reporters about the recent coup d'etat. She continues to collect the $105,000 annual salary guaranteed by her Pacifica contract.

“Right now we're protecting the mothership from being overthrown,” Reese says, explaining that she's spent the last 18 months attempting to bring the network's finances in line with the operating costs of the five community stations. Pacifica board member Jose Luis Fuentes, who brought the motion for Reese's removal at the March 13 meeting, says he's not at liberty to discuss personnel matters, but Reese believes she was fired for political, rather than performance, reasons.

That argument certainly seems plausible, given the network's long history of internal skirmishes, lockouts, and power grabs. It turns out that this leadership scuffle is just the latest plot twist in an ongoing community radio turf war.

On the national level, two political blocs are fighting tooth-and-nail to commandeer Pacifica's five-station network. The delineations between these groups are so slippery that they elude even the people involved. Both are left-wing, both are fervent, both effusively tout the virtues of listener-supported, noncommercial radio. The majority party seems to be pressing for regime change at Pacifica. The minority has been accused of turning the network into a repository for 9/11 Trutherism. To an outsider, though, it's hard to see any distinctions at all.

Whatever the case, each bloc has an ideological satellite at Berkeley station KPFA. The majority group, SaveKPFA, helped push Reese out; its rival, Support KPFA: United for Community Radio, wants her reinstated. (If the names “SaveKPFA” and “Support KPFA” suggest a narcissism of small differences, rest assured that choosing a name like “Don't Save KPFA” wouldn't have been a good move.)

For the past several weeks, internecine radio conflicts have flared up at the brown building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, where daily programming putters along at KPFA while, next door, Reese and her staff are embattled — they've held down their office squat for two weeks and counting. According to Reese, the KPFA news department installed a security camera on a balcony overlooking Pacifica's doorway; one Pacifica employee has her husband squire her through the door every day to avoid altercations. On March 24, a beat cop had to intervene in a heated argument that had erupted on the sidewalk, ostensibly over a paper shredder.

Supporters of the erstwhile executive have filed eight briefs with the attorney general and threatened litigation. Reese says she'll seek a court injunction to curb the “completely illegal” action of what she considers a rogue element on the board. Krispy Kreme donut boxes languish on her office tabletops; daffodils slowly wilt in their vases; staffers glance nervously out the windows. By all appearances, she's not going anywhere.

It turns out this isn't the first time that KPFA has occupied itself.

In 1999, Pacifica elected not torenew the contract of KPFA's popular general manager, Nicole Sawaya — a move that severely unsettled the already fractious community radio station. In the weeks that followed, a motley group of protesters set up camp outside the station's headquarters to decry unfair labor practices. Pacifica's then-executive director, Lynn Chadwick, had 14 people arrested for blocking the doorway and hired armed security guards to protect the network's six-member staff. Chaos ensued, in the form of daily protests outside the station, competing press conferences, folk music concerts, poetry readings, picketing outside the offices of Pacifica's damage-control PR firm, and an on-air tussle between radio host Dennis Bernstein and the security guards, who protesters described as “armed goons.”

The months-long fiasco led Oakland attorney and current mayoral candidate Dan Siegel — who is also Fuentes' boss at the law firm Siegel & Yee — to file a lawsuit that compelled Pacifica to change its bylaws and its electoral process. Thus, the mostly self-appointed board was replaced by a more democratic leadership structure: Each station was guaranteed a 24-member local board whose representatives would be elected by listeners, via a costly and cumbersome mail-order ballot system.

Even Siegel bemoans this state of affairs. “It's this huge expensive mailer process that's devolved into having slates, instead of individuals, who contend for these positions,” he says. Meaning the different factions in Pacifica's community radio network essentially operate as political parties. (In Berkeley, SaveKPFA and Support KPFA appear to be the big players; scattered between them are such dark-horse groups as “People's Radio” and “Voices for Justice.”) The board itself is so giant and top-heavy that meetings often skid into long, meandering debates over procedure. Reese says it's just the right amount of people to split into opposing cliques.

What's resulted is a complex game of inside baseball that's held the network captive even as it teeters toward financial ruin. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has withheld more than $1 million in grants to Pacifica for failing to provide financial reports. Reese says the network is so beset by employment lawsuits that it has to buy expensive insurance policies to shield against them. Last year it got rejected by 30 carriers.

Parsing through decades of community radio battles requires a level of diligence that few historians have — and a high tolerance for persnickety conflicts. Take, for example, a picket outside KPFA in November 2010, after station management announced 20 percent budget cuts across the board. Most people in attendance were protesting the cuts themselves, but a few were protesting the protesters: Pushing Limits host Adrienne Lauby waved her own sign, attached to a broom handle: “I do not support this picket.”

Reese says a lot of the splintering occurs between paid staff and unpaid volunteers, who want equal voice in programming decisions. Helping matters not a bit, she says, is the fact that most board members are voted in for their activist credentials rather than their knowledge of accounting and finance.

“If you say you are about to overthrow something and are marching in the street, you're going to get elected faster,” Reese says, momentarily dismissing the protest culture that she also embraces (given that occupying one's own office elevates protest to the level of performance art). Her solution, like that of many previous revolutionaries, is to reinstate an oligarchy that might actually get things done.

Siegel, who roundly supports Reese's ouster, agrees on at least one count: Pacifica is far too encumbered by its own commitment to democracy. There's just too much.

But, he cautions, Reese isn't really doing much to help. “Unfortunately, there are only two ways to resolve a dispute like this,” he says. “One is for the parties to agree. The other is to sue.” By barricading herself in an office, Reese has made all forms of negotiation exceedingly difficult.

Reese argues, to the contrary, that she's just a passionate supporter of community radio, intent on protecting the network from “vultures who are trying to destroy it.” Indeed, there's actually quite a bit of money at stake; if Pacifica were to liquidate its assets entirely, each broadcast license alone would net tens of millions of dollars.

Yet it's unclear whether Reese's crusade matters to the radio-listening public, given that most Pacifica stations have trouble breaking into the lowest percentile of radio ratings. Reese says that, ideally, she'd like to redirect the board's resources toward programming and technology, rather than intra-station political squabbles. Perhaps she can tackle those things during the office occupation.

Tags: , , , ,

Related Stories