The Takeover of WBAI in New York

A View from KPFA in California

A few days ago (October 7), people from KPFA took part in a shut down of WBAI 99.5 FM, the Pacifica sister station in New York.  This action was done in the name of Pacifica, which owns WBAI as well as KPFA and three other stations, but it was in complete violation of the Pacifica bylaws, and was planned in secret and kept from other board members.  The takeover was temporarily halted by a TRO, but the studio was found in disorder, computers and other equipment were missing, though reportedly later recovered.  Even pictures were taken from the walls.  At a court hearing on October 10th a judge reversed most of the TRO, allowing the intruders to retain control of WBAI’s airwaves and play piped in filler music and material from other Pacifica stations, some of which included a KPFA fund drive.  So KPFA, a California station, held a fund drive in New York — for the benefit of KPFA, of course. (It will be interesting to see if they harvested anything more than ill will.)

The surprise raid was led by Pacifica’s new interim Executive Director, John Vernile, and was assisted by persons from other Pacifica stations.  Although people from KPFA do not appear to have been physically at the scene, KPFA’s general manager Quincy McCoy was named as “Consulting Programmer of Pacifica Across America,” a newly created position.

The idea behind that ham-handed action was supposedly to save the Pacifica network from financial disaster. The financial problems are real, nobody disputes that. None of the five Pacifica stations are doing really well. KPFA has lost over half of its membership during the past two decades, and it continues to lose listeners; its cash flow shows a $433,000 short fall. Ironically, the only Pacifica station showing signs of improvement is WBAI; its listenership has increased. But whatever WBAI’s potential for recovery may have been, it seems pretty well nipped in the bud. No matter how this turns out, it’s going to cost money that Pacifica cannot afford, further dragging the network deeper into the hole.

Even if WBAI could somehow be magically disappeared from the network, a complex host of other problems would remain. Some of these are unique to Pacifica, and some are not. Most non-commercial stations are in trouble these days.

The various reasons seem to be complex. I will talk about just one particular aspect which I’ve seen during my 15 years as an observer of KPFA and now a board member. Namely, that KPFA has for many years been living beyond its means. There’s a huge amount of denial about that; it’s kind of like trying to tell the CEO of a petroleum company that oil and natural gas need to stay in the ground.

I might call this “Denial in Action.” At times it has often looked to me as though this whole insane spending spree were driven by some deliberate force. Can some people really be that incompetent? I often wonder. Well, these are some of my observations going back to 2005. Hopefully this can serve as background to what we’re seeing today. I am of course relating my experiences at KPFA, the Pacifica station where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Warnings were sounded at least as far back as in 2005 when several board members expressed concern that there were “too many FTEs.” It came up during one of the first board meetings I attended, and I remember asking the person next to me what an FTE was. “A full-time equivalent,” I was told, and it was afterwards explained that the station was acquiring more paid staff than it could afford in the long run. That was detailed in the Local Station Board’s Minority Report of September 17, 2005.

In those days the station was actually doing well financially. But according to several board members, LaVarn Williams, Max Blanchet and Marnie Tattersall (all with solid backgrounds in finance), the cost of so much paid staff was not sustainable. KPFA needed to slow down on the hiring, look ahead, and plan accordingly.

Nevertheless, year after year, the warnings were ignored, dismissed, disregarded. Persons expressing them were disparaged, even yelled at. The unsustainable budgets were promoted by “Save KPFA,” the slate of board members who represented the station’s power clique.

That group has used several names over the years, first it was “KPFA Forward,” later “Concerned Listeners,” then “SaveKPFA.” (They currently use the name UIR, “United for Independent Radio.”)

Although SaveKPFA refused to acknowledge publicly that their hiring policy was not sustainable, they seem to have been anticipating a crisis and were prepared to put the blame on others. An intriguing email from that same month of September 2005 turned up as sort of a one-email Wikileak. It’s the email which infamously suggested “dismantling the LSB.” An even more foreboding line in that same email read: “How do we make our enemies own the problems that are to come?” The author was Brian Edwards-Tiekert, who appeared to be SaveKPFA’s chief strategist.

It wasn’t just the bloated budgets at KPFA that caused the eventual crisis. There was also SaveKPFA’s unholy alliance with JUC, the New York group which was then running WBAI into the ground, generating another financial drain on the Pacifica network. Interestingly, these two groups, SaveKPFA and JUC, seemed to thoroughly dislike each other. Their alliance appears to have been one of convenience, a mutual non-aggression pact, one of shielding each other from oversight. Mismanagement at both stations bled the network.

Several years passed in this irresponsible fashion until the recession of 2008. It hit Pacifica hard, and the inevitable financial crisis was no longer deniable. Even SaveKPFA’s Brian Edwards-Tiekert expressed concern and called for layoffs throughout the network. These very necessary cutbacks were carried out at the rest of Pacifica’s five stations, but not at KPFA.

It was always difficult, often impossible, to get accurate, detailed information from the SaveKPFA-dominated management. In 2005, board members LaVarn Williams and Richard Phelps spent over a year fighting SaveKPFA to get access to financial records of the foundation. They won that battle, but the war went on. In 2008 SaveKPFA’s Dan Siegel illegally stopped an inspection. The power clique did not willingly allow access to information; board members outside the inner circle continued to be denied it.

For most of the decade up until 2009, the Pacifica National Board (PNB) was dominated by SaveKPFA and its allies, but in that year they were voted out and the new Executive Director and CFO were chosen from the opposition. SaveKPFA then launched a disinformation campaign against the Pacifica Foundation. On August 6, 2009, there was a front page article in the Berkeley Daily Planet accusing Pacifica of improperly taking $100K from KPFA. That news leak came from Brian Edwards-Tiekert, the treasurer. But on investigation it was found that no such “raid” on KPFA’s money had occurred. The newspaper printed a retraction, but SaveKPFA continued to spread the story, despite its having been exposed as false. Then LSB chair Conn Hallinan, who certainly must have known better, wrote an email accusing Pacifica of “an old fashioned smash and grab” on KPFA’s funds.

That was the beginning of a swiftboating campaign against Pacifica in which the SaveKPFA group worked to conjure up images of 1999, portraying Pacifica as the bad guy, the beast, the oppressor and exploiter of KPFA. It was at that time that the group took the name “SaveKPFA,” stealing it from an opposition group of the early 1990s. Members of the original 1993 Save KPFA group were outraged and objected strenuously. But the new “SaveKPFA” continued to use its ill-gotten name.

At the end of 2009 it was discovered that a $375,000 check had been left in a drawer until after it expired. KPFA’s then General Manager, Lemlem Rijio, took the fall for that and was fired. But it seems highly unlikely that she was the only one who knew about that “forgotten” check.

“How could anyone forget a six-figure check!” KPFA activists asked. Some suspected the “oversight” was intentional and that SaveKPFA folks were deliberately working to bankrupt Pacifica in order to acquire KPFA. Until then, few had openly expressed such suspicions. But after that “forgotten” check-in-the-drawer incident, many of us concluded that if SaveKPFA were not actually planning some such scenario, then it could only be surmised that they were destroying both KPFA and Pacifica out of sheer stupidity.

That was in 2010. Disaster was averted that year, though not without a huge fight. For now, let’s fast-forward to 2015: SaveKPFA and its allies were back in charge of KPFA/Pacifica, again pushing the network towards financial extinction. We discovered that Dan Siegel and another prominent SaveKPFA member, Margy Wilkinson, had secretly created, filed and registered a corporation, complete with articles of incorporation, which they named the “KPFA Foundation.” It appears that Siegel and Wilkinson created this clandestine “KPFA Foundation” for the purpose of privately taking over KPFA’s radio license and real estate assets upon the dissolution of the Pacifica Foundation. In short, it was a plan to steal KPFA/Pacifica.

Strange things continued. In 2015 General Manager Quincy McCoy canceled the summer’s fund drive when KPFA had received two large bequests, enabling the station to skip the drive. It seemed as though the station were suddenly awash in money. However, it turned out that $400,000 of the bequest money was specifically intended for the Pacifica National Office, and was improperly diverted to KPFA by members of SaveKPFA. That wrongful diversion of funds intensified the chaos in a system that was far from robust.

Meanwhile, there’s the matter of the station’s programming, which traditionally had been staunchly antiwar. However, the station has been moving towards the Right, increasingly echoing neoliberal/neocon narratives of “humanitarian” intervention. Several programs have been taken off the air, most famously “Guns and Butter,” which was disappeared along with its 17-year archive. “Counterspin,” “Discrete Music,” and “Twit Wit Radio” have also been taken down and replaced by greatly watered-down fare.

We’ve been waiting fearfully to see which radical KPFA program would be next on the chopping block. It turns out they were aiming for bigger game — they went clear across the continent, all the way to New York, and shut down Pacifica sister station WBAI 99.5 FM.

CORRECTION:

Some errors occurred in the initial paragraph No. 1 and it has been replaced by the author with the current two paragraphs.

Date article published: 12 October 2019
Date correction made: 12 October 2019

Daniel Borgström is a member of KPFA's Local Station Board. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. He can be reached at: danielfortyone@gmail.com. Read other articles by Daniel, or visit Daniel's website.