Sep 10, 2015 by

Veteran broadcasters accuse the board of promoting bizarre conspiracy theories as network puts pressure on staff to reduce their hours and pay4181
Close up of radio microphone
Ian Masters said KPFK has frittered away its credibility with ‘discount versions of Radio Havana’. Photograph: Tetra Images/Corbis

Rory Carroll in Los Angeles  the guardian


Feuding and ideological extremism have driven some of the US’s flagship leftwing radio stations to the brink of collapse, according to two veteran broadcasters.

Ian Masters and Sonali Kolhatkar, hosts of the Los Angeles-based KPFK, said its parent network Pacifica Radio, the country’s oldest public radio network, was putting pressure on staff to reduce their hours and pay, leave or work for free, alienating listeners and approaching a point of no return.

“This is the end. They’re running out of road,” Masters told the Guardian. He accused managers and board members of promoting conspiracy theories – including those related to the “truth” about 9/11 and claims about cancer and HIV. “They’ve run this place into the ground.”

Kolhatkar, who hosts a daily show called Uprising, accused KPFK of betraying its progressive heritage and violating a union agreement by replacing paid employees with volunteers. “It’s Walmart-isation. It’s up to listeners to save this network from ruin.”

The allegations were the latest convulsion in a simmering crisis at Pacifica Radio, a network of five independently operated, listener-supported radio stations, including New York’s WBAI, which are known for liberal views.

Founded in 1946 by conscientious objectors from the second world war, the network was an influential outlet for Beat poets, Bob Dylan and Vietnam war protesters but has in recent times suffered from dwindling ratings, in-fighting and financial hemorrhage.

The network’s biggest star – Amy Goodman, host of the independently produced Democracy Now! – is also its biggest creditor. She is owed an estimated $2.1m in unpaid broadcast fees.

Observers trace the travails to 2001 when a group of rebellious listeners and broadcasters took control and instituted an elaborate governance structure of multiple boards, sub-committees and painstaking elections.

The result, according to Matthew Lasar, author of the 2005 book Uneasy Listening: Pacifica Radio’s Civil War, was continuous feuding between rival factions. In a Nation article earlier this year, he compared the network to the “late Ottoman Empire of public broadcasting” and urged progressive outsiders to step in and save it before it was too late.

Kolhatkar, who executive-produces and hosts her daily show, said the “fantasy” of utopian, democratic decision-making was killing the network. “We are reaching the point of death by democracy.”

Mounting debt and dwindling membership has left stations close to bankruptcy, yet at a station where there is a high turnover of staff and acrimony between factions Masters claims board members focus on purging perceived ideological foes and installing friends.

“Occasionally you get decent people on these boards, but they quickly get driven out because of the insanity.”

Masters, an Australian American who hosts the syndicated show Background Briefing, said a “conspiracy/quackery” faction focused on new age hucksterism and conspiracies about 9/11 and so-called chemtrails was in perpetual battle with a “wannabe revolutionary” faction.

“They’ve turned radio into a political bleat club for some Americans on the far left who think what goes on in their meetings is more important than what goes out on the air.”

Masters and Kolhatkar spoke out in the wake of a recent announcement by KPFK’s general manager, Leslie Radford, that to save money three staffers would be laid off and that remaining salaried staff would have their hours – and pay – halved.

“I’ve been put in the position where I volunteer (unpaid) for my own job or get taken off the air,” said Kolhatkar. It was an attempt to purge staff without paying severance, said the presenter. Sag-Aftra, a union which represents actors, artists and journalists, is in arbitration with the station.

The Pacifica Foundation, which is based in Berkeley, California, did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did Radford. In a recent eulogy for a deceased colleague she reaffirmed her commitment to political activism: “KPFK, and I, stand ready for the revolution.”

Goodman was also unavailable for comment.

Pacifica’s radio stations hover near the bottom of Nielsen ratings. WBAI calls itself “radio for the 99%” but is lucky to be heard by 0.1% of the New York radio audience, the New York Times reported in 2013, when the station laid off 19 of its 29 employees.

The LA Weekly reported last year that during an average 15-minute period just 700 people listen to KPFK for at least five minutes versus 8,000 and 20,000 respectively for LA’s other other public radio stations, KCRW and KPCC.

Masters said a station that once competed with National Public Radio affiliates had frittered away its credibility with ultra-leftwing rants – “discount versions of Radio Havana” – plus marketing of quack medical remedies such as curing cancer with baking soda and dietary supplements which supposedly cure Aids; promotions for things like vitamins and homeopathic cures that blur the difference between ads and journalism; and endless fundraisers.

Masters has set up a website detailing some his allegations and is considering petitioning state charity regulators to investigate. He is also considering appealing to the Federal Communications Commission to challenge Pacifica’s licenses, a move which would entail seeking whistleblower protection.

Lasar, the author, said the question now was not whether the Pacifica Foundation will survive but whether survival was the best option for the US’s growing network of community radio stations. “Pacifica has a long history of providing affordable radio programming to community-based signals. But if the organization can’t effectively administrate its five radio stations, maybe it’s time to look at transferring those licenses to independent nonprofits, then giving responsibility for network building to a new foundation not mired in internecine chaos.”


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