KPFA: Playing Russian roulette with all the chambers loaded

Understanding KPFA Issues: Part II

by Carol Spooner

For the past six months the people behind “KPFAWorker/SaveKPFA” have run a relentless, dishonest and destructive PR campaign – both on and off the air – against KPFA and Pacifica over the layoff last November of two KPFA staff members: Brian Edwards-Tiekert and Aimee Allison, the former co-hosts of KPFA’s Morning Show.

Once proud KPFA has become the subject of ridicule in community radio circles across the country for all its dirty laundry, aired by the so-called “professionals” who have shot their reputations to hell and aren’t employable anywhere else at this point.

KPFA was functionally bankrupt as of Sept. 30, 2010 – they had almost $200,000 more in outstanding debts than they had cash and pledges receivable to pay them with. They had lost $1.5 million over the previous four years. They had borrowed money from Pacifica’s smallest station, KPFT in Houston, to meet the Sept. 15 payroll.

Painful choices had to be made. Under these circumstances, Pacifica Executive Director Arlene Engelhardt offered all KPFA staff a voluntary termination package. Six staff members initially took it. Most KPFA staff work part time, so that reduced the “full-time-equivalent” staff by 4.1 – for an annual savings in salaries and health benefits of about $245,000. (The base union wage is $20.20 per hour, and it goes up $20 per month for every year of seniority. All staff working half time or more receive full health benefits.)

That wasn’t enough to balance the budget. They needed to cut the salaries and related expenses line by about $500,000 – or about 4.25 more “full-time-equivalents.”

I honestly don’t know what I would have done in Pacifica Executive Director Arlene Engelhardt’s place, and reasonable people can differ about that. I don’t think she cut enough, but I wasn’t the one taking the heat and the responsibility for it.

After the voluntary terminations of six of the “behind the scenes” technical, production, operations, administrative, and management employees who keep the place running – there really wasn’t anywhere to go for more cuts except programming.

So the choices were The Morning Show (Brian and Aimee, plus producers Laura Prives and Esther Manilla), Letters and Politics (Mitch Jeserich), Against the Grain (CS Soong and Sasha Lilly), Living Room (Kris Welch), Hard Knock Radio (Davey D and Anita Johnson), Flashpoints (Dennis Bernstein and Miguel Molina, plus technical producer Eric Klein), Saturday Morning Talkies (Kris Welch), The Sunday Show (Philip Maldari), the News Department (Aileen Alfandary, Mark Mericle, Christopher Martinez, Rose Ketabchi and John Hamilton) and the Music Department director (Luis Medina).

In order of seniority, those staff members are

  • Kris Welch, Living Room and Saturday Morning Talkies host and producer
  • Aileen Alfandary, News Department co-director
  • Mark Mericle, News Department co-director
  • Philip Maldari (union steward), Sunday Show host and producer
  • Dennis Bernstein, Flashpoints host and producer
  • CS Soong, Against the Grain host and producer
  • Luis Medina, Music Department director
  • Davey D, Hard Knock Radio host and producer
  • Anita Johnson, Hard Knock Radio host and producer
  • Christopher Martinez, News Department reporter
  • Sasha Lilley, Against the Grain host and producer
  • Esther Manilla (union steward), Morning Show producer
  • Miguel Molina, Flashpoints host and producer
  • Brian Edwards-Tiekert, Morning Show host
  • Laura Prive,s Morning Show producer
  • Eric Klein, Flashpoints technical producer
  • Mitch Jeserich*, Letters and Politics host and producer
  • Rose Ketabchi, News Department tech
  • Aimee Allison, Morning Show host
  • John Hamilton, News Department reporter

*Mitch is probably higher in seniority due to his time as KPFA News Sacramento reporter prior to Christopher Martinez, which isn’t taken into account in this seniority list.

Eight of them worked half time, five worked full time, one worked less than half time, and five worked between half and full time.

The union contract does not require that layoffs be done by strict seniority. The employer can skip over critical or unique positions or skills. But seniority does give a laid off employee the right to “bump” a less senior staffer out of their job in the same department if, in the judgment of management, they have the skills to do the job. Union stewards can assert seniority “bumping” rights over any other position in their department.

With the voluntary severances, the News Department had already lost Max Pringle and Hard Knock Radio had already lost Weyland Southon. Flashpoints had lost Nora Barrows-Friedman when her hours were cut earlier in the year. Flashpoints, Letters and Politics and Hard Knock Radio are national programs aired on Pacifica affiliate stations across the country. CS Soong and Sasha Lilly had already had their hours cut earlier in the year.

Any more hours cuts or layoffs in any of those programs were not possible without cancelling the program. So at least one program had to be cancelled.

What would you have done?

Engelhardt chose to cancel the Morning Show. She involuntarily laid off hosts Brian Edwards-Tiekert, Aimee Allison and producer Laura Prives. Producer Esther Manilla then chose to take the voluntary severance package so that Laura could stay on. That resulted in 1.55 full-time-equivalent staff laid off involuntarily.

I would have laid off more. Whatever you would have done, the “KPFAWorker/SaveKPFA” crowd has not been telling the straight story to help anyone to make an intelligent assessment of what Engelhardt decided to do. Instead, they’ve been putting out twisted distortions, half truths, false innuendo, outright lies and slander.

A lot of people will have to pay for that deception – not just staff who will lose their jobs in more layoffs, but all of us who rely on KPFA and Pacifica and could very well lose it.

KPFA is much more than one program or two program hosts, whether or not you liked the Morning Show or loved Brian and Aimee.

The Morning Show format was decades old. Much of KPFA’s programming had become old and tired before the layoffs last fall. Listenership had dropped by over 25 percent in the past few years; that’s why the layoffs were necessary. Most of my old friends said they never listen anymore, and young people weren’t tuning in either.

With KPFA in precarious financial condition – teetering on the edge of bankruptcy – fomenting a listener revolt was reckless, to say the least, if not sinister.

With KPFA in precarious financial condition – teetering on the edge of bankruptcy – fomenting a listener revolt was reckless, to say the least, if not sinister.

With an extra added five-day fund drive in December, the station came through the first half of this fiscal year with $68,000 more in income than expenses – not enough to pay its $190,000 in past due debts from last year, but at least not more in debt.

But with this latest May fund drive the obviously predictable has happened. Many listeners were so turned off by all the dirty laundry and nastiness or so angry about the layoffs, or both, that they chose not to donate. Instead, they are calling into the KALW fund drive and saying they “used to” donate to KPFA.

After this fund drive is over, there will not be enough cash to get through July.

Are the people behind “KPFAWorker/SaveKPFA” surprised by this? If so, they are profoundly stupid.

Was it too much to ask that the paid staff might have worked together with the unpaid staff to make the best of the layoff situation and helped to pull the station through its financial crisis?

Maybe even might have worked together to support and develop new morning programming? Might have stepped up to the plate and pitched in to help ease and explain the necessary transition in morning programming to the listeners?

Where were the long-time programmers? How come they didn’t get on in the morning to help out the volunteers who were doing their utmost? Instead, the union notified Arlene Engelhardt that no union member would appear or help with the morning drive time programming. It’s a mystery at what union meeting this resolution was adopted, and the union later disavowed it. But Davey D was the only union staff member with the guts to help the Morning Mix out occasionally on the air, despite union opposition.

Where were Kris Welch and Philip Maldari? They used to do the Morning Show together. You’d think they might have stepped up to help out. Or Dennis? Or Mitch? Or CS? Or Sasha? At least Dennis wasn’t trashing the Morning Mix volunteers and I’ve heard he was supportive behind the scenes.

But how many times did you hear Aileen Alfandary and the News Department or Mitch or CS or Sasha or Kris or Phillip or Mark complaining about the layoffs and undermining the Morning Mix volunteers who were working for free to save the station and with it their paid colleagues’ jobs?

But really, the whole “KPFAWorker/SaveKPFA” strategy has been transparent all along: rile up some listeners with manipulative and inflammatory rhetoric and discourage them from donating to the fund drive and then pressure the station manager to put Brian on the air in the morning to “save” the fund drive, urging his supporters to call in and pledge their previously withheld money – thus “demonstrating” that KPFA cannot survive without “miracle worker” Brian Edwards-Tiekert.

The whole “KPFAWorker/SaveKPFA” strategy has been transparent all along: rile up some listeners with manipulative and inflammatory rhetoric and discourage them from donating to the fund drive and then pressure the station manager to put Brian on the air in the morning to “save” the fund drive, urging his supporters to call in and pledge their previously withheld money – thus “demonstrating” that KPFA cannot survive without “miracle worker” Brian Edwards-Tiekert.

But, unfortunately, all Brian’s “vast support” isn’t enough to save this sabotaged fund drive. Too many listeners are apparently just too disgusted by now to care.

That risk was obvious to any reasonably intelligent person all along. In fact, the people behind “KPFAWorker/SaveKPFA” have been playing Russian roulette with ALL the chambers loaded.

They’ve shot themselves in the head, as well as the entire staff and all of us who care about KPFA. It remains to be seen how many have been mortally wounded. Because of their sabotage of the fund drive, there will have to be more layoffs, and whether KPFA and the Pacifica network can survive is in doubt.

Despite all its flaws, KPFA could again become a beacon for what is true and beautiful and important in life in a darkening world. It could if it is willing to let go of the past and change radically.

But despite all its flaws, KPFA could again become a beacon – a reality fix, a place to confirm that you are not crazy for not believing in the racist war machine and the economics of empire and consumption and oppression – for what is true and beautiful and important in life in a darkening world. It could if it is willing to let go of the past and change radically.

Carol Spooner, who served on the Pacifica National Board from January 2002 through January 2005 and on the KPFA Local Board from April 2000 through April 2005, was founder of the Committee to Remove the Pacifica Board and lead plaintiff on “the Listeners’ Lawsuit” from July 1999 through December 2001. She can be reached at wildrose@pon.net.