The Coup at KPFA

Revolutionary Worker #1015, July 25, 1999

"I hear him argue as the goons with guns pull him from his chair,
As they drag him from his desk and arrest him for reporting forbidden news...
You cannot drag each of us screaming from our desks,
You cannot fire each one of us. We are too many.
This is our radio station, our city, our street."

University of California student
at KPFA rally, July 14

Listeners tuning in to KPFA radio's 6:00 evening news on Tuesday, July 14 were shocked. A few minutes into the exposure program Flashpoints, they heard the host Dennis Bernstein talking in the background. "I'm nervous. I'm afraid you're going to hurt me. I'm afraid you're going to shoot me." Suddenly newscaster Mark Mericle, his voice shaking, came on: "We interrupt the story... on HMOs because Dennis Bernstein...has been put on administrative leave for his playing of a press conference concerning the crisis here at KPFA.... The guards that Pacifica has placed in KPFA are trying to drag him out of the studio."

Then there was silence. The Evening News had been taken off the air, and when broadcasting resumed several minutes later taped speeches from KPFA's archives were being played.


The Pacifica Foundation, which owns KPFA, had staged a pre-planned coup to rob KPFA of its independent, oppositional edge.

The shockwaves from this foul move spread quickly. Within moments of the on-air confrontation, hundreds of KPFA supporters were gathering on the streets around the station.

Inside, Dennis Bernstein, surrounded by security guards, refused to leave and sat down. Other KPFA staff refused to leave and were joined by dozens of people from the community. Pacifica called in the Berkeley police. Demonstrators filled the air with angry chants: "It's our station!" "Shame!"

The confrontation lasted until midnight as police dragged people from the station. 53 people were arrested, including Bernstein, seven KPFA staffers, and 45 supporters.

The next morning Pacifica locked out the station's 25 paid union staff and 150 unpaid staff, and was running the station with two management scabs. In the afternoon, some 1,500 people demonstrated against the takeover, including author Alice Walker, poet June Jordan, and anti-war activist Daniel Ellsberg. Hundreds marched down University Avenue and confronted riot police. The next day, another 400 to 500 people demonstrated. And protests are continuing.

Many thousands throughout Northern California--from radical youth to more mainstream middle class folks--feel something unique and important is being stolen from the people.

Something Quite Unusual for the Mass Media

The Pacifica chain of radio stations was the first U.S. radio network supported by listener contributions--not corporate advertising or foundation money. Over 50 years Pacifica has grown to include KPFA-Berkeley, KPFK-Los Angeles, KPFT-Houston, WBAI-New York, and WPFW-Washington, DC.

Tens of thousands of listeners have relied on KPFA. If you wanted to know about the protests against U.S. wars in the Balkans or the Gulf--you wouldn't hear about it on the TV news, but you would on KPFA. When the prison commentaries of Mumia Abu-Jamal were suppressed on National Public Radio (under pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police), it was KPFA and other Pacifica stations that broke the silence and aired the tapes. In the Bay Area, many people used to jump in their cars at rush hour, to catch Dennis Bernstein's Flashpoints as it came on--where you could get all kinds of radical analysis and revealing information that just wasn't available in any other mass medium. KPFA's programming was an opening for all kinds of alternative news--and a wide spectrum of analysis that even at times included revolutionary communists like Carl Dix.

However, over this last decade, Pacifica top management have worked systematically to transform the station--to wipe out radical programming, make the broadcasts "safe" and system-friendly. They have been fought by many Pacifica staff and thousands of listeners.

In February, Pacifica prohibited local advisory board members from serving on its National Board, ending all local representation. Then, on March 31, Pacifica's Executive Director Lynn Chadwick abruptly fired KPFA's popular station manager, Nicole Sawaya. Since then KPFA staff and supporters have organized a wave of demonstrations, pickets, rallies, concerts, and e-mail and phone blitzes making Pacifica's actions a national issue.

Pacifica and its Board Chairman Mary Frances Berry claim they are maintaining KPFA's progressive tradition and actively seeking a more "diverse" listener base. And they accuse their critics of creating a "climate of violence, hate, racism and misinformation."

Where implemented, the results of Pacifica's mainstreaming plans have been clear. A former programmer at KPFT-Houston wrote, "There is no longer a single public affairs program rooted in the Latino community.... There is now one hour of feminist programming each week. Peace Pipes and Visions, the Native American program, is gone. The Atheist program is gone. The Vietnamese program is gone. The Chinese program is gone. The Pakistani program gone. Only one Black program remains today at KPFT and an African music program.... Today the policy is `English Only."'

Secret Agendas and Pre-planned Coups

Mary Frances Berry has stated "there is no conspiracy or secret agenda at Pacifica." However the truth came out after the group Media Alliance was mistakenly sent an e-mail in which Pacifica management discussed taking over KPFA. In this e-mail, Houston real estate developer and Pacifica National Board Treasurer-Elect Michael Palmer said he understood there was "support in the proper quarters, and a definite majority, for shutting down that unit and re-programming immediately."

Pacifica imposed a "gag rule" on their staff--forbidding anyone from discussing Pacifica management decisions on the air. Several people were fired for informing KPFA about these important controversies--including long-time broadcaster Larry Bensky and veteran music programmer Robbie Osman. Dennis Bernstein was suspended when Flashpoints broadcast news of the Palmer e-mail.

Pacifica has also cynically tried to paint the people's struggle as "violent"--in order to put security guards in place for the takeover. And it used the "violence" issue as an excuse to turn over some 2,000 protest e-mails and voice mails to the Berkeley Police--supposedly for "psychological screening."

Hand of State Policy

"Without the open mike which has become the hallmark of the Pacifica network, the radical sparks that fire whole communities will be marginalized to the narrow bands of micro-radio if not vanished all together."

Political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal,
writing from death row

KPFA, and Pacifica nationally, has served as a rare platform for radical and progressive information within the mass media. It is not surprising at all that powerful ruling class forces want to simply stop these operations.

Mary Frances Berry is an African-American with a reputation as a civil rights activist, so some have been shocked at her role in the coup at KPFA. But in fact Berry has served on President Clinton's Civil Rights Commission and her actions at KPFA closely serve the interests and agenda of powerful forces within the U.S. government. Pacifica's Board has developed tight ties to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting whose President, Robert Coonrod, was previously the deputy director of the Voice of America (VOA), an open propaganda arm of U.S. imperialism. At Berry's request, high-level members of the Justice Department called the Berkeley police urging more aggressive handling of demonstrators at KPFA.

There's also a powerful financial motive at work for a Pacifica Board seeking to rid itself of having to rely on a progressive listener base for funding (and perhaps to become rich bureaucrats themselves). In his e-mail Palmer claims that KPFA alone could be sold for $65 to $75 million. As one staffer put it, "This is a movement from community radio to commodity radio."

Broad Support

As we go to press the battle is getting sharper by the day--with broad support for the KPFA staffers among the station's listener base. This shows the hunger that so many people have for alternative viewpoints and oppositional analysis--including some people in prominent positions within mainstream institutions. Pacifica's assault has prompted many well-known people to speak out, including Dean Edell, a nationally syndicated TV broadcaster, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll, and actor Peter Coyote.

Hundreds of people--including poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and June Jordan, author Alice Walker, and three Berkeley City Council members--have signed a "notice of termination"--for "firing" Pacifica Executive Director Lynn Chadwick. A series of radio testimonials in support of KPFA have been recorded by Mumia Abu-Jamal, Alice Walker, people's historian Howard Zinn, folksinger Joan Baez, poet Adrienne Rich and others. A lawsuit has been filed against Pacifica's actions by members from several Pacifica Local Advisory Boards, and a coordinating committee of paid and unpaid staff at KPFA plus community members has been formed and is demanding mediation of the dispute. The fury of the protests has even prompted a number of local government officials to speak out against Pacifica's actions--including the Mayors of Berkeley and seven other East Bay cities, 16 state legislators, and an Oakland congresswoman.

Pacifica's Board appears committed to its reactionary agenda. Even more struggle by many thousands is needed to force them to back off--by exposing Pacifica, and by raising the political cost to those ruling class forces who have been pressing Pacifica's actions forward.

People are urged to get involved by emailing Save Pacifica at or calling 510-464-4629. Check out the website

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)