[sixties-l] The left eats its own at KPFK (fwd)

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Date: Mon Apr 01 2002 - 16:27:23 EST

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    Date: Thu, 28 Mar 2002 13:31:36 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: The left eats its own at KPFK

    Family Feud


    The left eats its own at KPFK

    by Ella Taylor
    March 22 - 28, 2002

    WORD IS OUT THAT I'M WORKING ON A STORY about the latest coup at KPFK, and
    from both sides are massing on my voice mail, my e-mail, my editors' voice
    mail in varying tones
    of panic, paranoia and PR.
    The radio station's interim manager, Steven Starr, worries that the
    opposition is giving me a distorted picture of what's going on.
    A woman who had pitched a KPFK story to the L.A. Weekly a year ago leaves
    me precise instructions on how my piece should be written. A member of the
    newly rejuvenated Local Advisory Board, fondly or otherwise known as the
    LAB, wants to set me straight about the "antics" of Marc Cooper, host of
    the station's most popular drive-time talk show, who was suspended by Starr
    for refusing to raise funds for the new KPFK because he didn't like the
    direction in which it was headed. And my in-box is buried under an
    avalanche of variously furious, anguished or waggish electronic mail from
    the dispossessed, who have taken to calling the LAB and the national board
    "the Branch Pacificans."
    Going in, I imagined I would write a wry, detached account of yet another
    brawl at KPFK, yet another palace coup in the long history of Pacifica
    radio wars. My piece would be about two camps of battle-scarred lefty
    partisans fighting over very little, yet convinced that the Earth was at
    stake. I'd seen such futile wrangles elsewhere, notably in my years as a
    college professor, when people of allegedly higher intelligence fought to
    the death over the protocol of office supplies. It's an old story in any
    hermetically sealed organization where no one outside the zone of combat
    gives much of a damn about the issues or the outcome. But on the
    marginalized far left, whose history is pocked with struggles over
    minuscule differences of policy or procedure, distractions from the task of
    playing gadfly to the powers that be, infighting is second nature. Over the
    years I've taught myself to knit, crochet, and sleep with my eyes open at
    meetings where the agenda was the agenda.
    Except that as I sank into the thick of things, the battle at KPFK began to
    matter, to reveal itself as more than an internal power play, more even
    than a struggle about what counts as good alternative radio. Can it really
    be that the left in Southern California, which apparently helped fuel the
    station's highly successful February pledge drive, is willing to have its
    agenda set by people who give airtime to black separatists who refer to
    other blacks as "paint jobs" and "Uncle Toms," or to a nutball conspiracy
    theorist who got ample airtime in the closing hours of the fund drive to
    persuade us that the CIA plotted the attack on the World Trade Center?
    KPFK's troubles, which stretch back over the years since the station was
    founded in 1959, offer a case study in the widening abyss between two wings
    of the aging American left over the question of whether to go forth into
    the world speaking truth to power, or languish in splendid, and
    increasingly irrelevant, isolation. On one side are the ^A'60s activists who
    have become intellectuals and argue that the left must work from within
    society and refine itself through dialogue and debate. On the other are the
    '60s activists, mostly hard-line Marxists or self-appointed guardians of
    minority identity, who believe that any contact with corporate capitalism
    and white elites contaminates and dilutes the cause.
                 A BUNDLE OF BRIGHT-ORANGE PEACE STICKERS adorns the coffee
    table in the lobby of KPFK's offices in North Hollywood. Outside the
    studio, two musicians with exotic-looking instruments wait to begin a live
    performance on the daily music show Global Village. In January, KPFK
    station manager Mark Schubb, along with four other managers at sister
    stations around the country, was placed on administrative leave and then
    fired without formal reason, though various LAB members charge that he has
    separated the station from them and from its "true" audience. In the weeks
    since, the station has raised a record $914,000 in its fund drive -- and
    watched helplessly as its staffing fell apart. Several key staffers and
    volunteer programmers have resigned or been dismissed, while those who
    chose to hang in fire off memos protesting iniquitous decisions on the part
    of the interim management. Meanwhile, much of the dwindling programming
    schedule is plugged with canned local and national reruns, as the
    public-affairs directors scramble to find guest hosts to fill in for the
    What's left of the permanent staff signs off on morning duties, while the
    afternoon program director, Dan Pavlich, contemplates the alarming white
    expanse of his board as he scrapes to fill Cooper's critical 4 p.m. slot
    with guest hosts for the rest of the week. A calm, business-as-usual
    atmosphere prevails after the frenzy of the fund drive, whose volunteers
    were heavily peopled with the "banned and the fired" under Schubb's watch,
    now hoping to get their old slots back. Interim manager Starr, an affable
    man in jeans and sweatshirt who talks with the bushy-tailed bonhomie of one
    who has been dishing out PR for years (he was once an agent), breaks off
    from a meeting with interim part-time troubleshooter Andrea Buffa, who's
    down from the Berkeley station, to tell me that the fund drive exceeded all
    expectations and everything is terrific. When I ask for specifics on the
    projected changes at KPFK and on increased community outreach, the pair
    expand on plans for a slew of "programming collectives," two of which are
    already in the works: a West South-Asian collective, to include Kurds,
    Afghans, Israelis and others ("some experts, some not"), and a youth
    collective. I mention that in several conversations with members of the
    LAB, I've been able to elicit no concrete plans for the future. "Forget the
    LAB," Starr says, and on hearing who I've talked to at the station, he
    intimates that they're the wrong people. He personally escorts me to the
    offices of two employees who are understandably so anxious to hold on to
    their jobs that they witter on generally about "regrouping" and
    "redistributing responsibilities." A third, an African-American who is
    filling in as interim operations director, is torn between real regret at
    the departure of Cooper and others, and fury at Schubb for failing to
    include "a broad range of voices" in programming.
    Meanwhile, the wrong people are telling me that the staff, paid and
    volunteer, is beaten down and barely functioning. The money from the pledge
    drive, even though it was earmarked for the exclusive use of KPFK and is
    supposedly sitting in a local bank account, has yet to filter down to the
    station. So short is ready cash that there's no money for colored markers;
    recently the phones were cut off for a day. More than one employee
    expresses weary frustration at the endless internal sniping on and off the
    air. One predicts that in six months the audience will dwindle into "the
    banned and the fired" and their supporters, the LAB's "true" audience.
                 THIS IS THE KIND OF BATTLE THAT HAS MORE THAN once threatened
    to destroy Pacifica, a tiny network of five stations nationwide that for
    the last 50 years has been the sole broadcast voice of the left, a radio
    equivalent of and collaborator with The Nation magazine. Founded after
    World War II by a group of Bay Area conscientious objectors as a
    listener-sponsored alternative to commercial radio, Pacifica was designed
    to offer a forum for the free exchange of views between diverse groups. The
    network's highs have been high indeed, mostly when competing factions have
    united against a common enemy, McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, Iran-contra.
    Time was when the network also boasted some of the richest cultural
    programming in radio: Film critic Pauline Kael cut her teeth at KPFA in
    Berkeley, which also aired guru-philosopher Alan Watts, and the Beats; the
    network was the first to air Allen Ginsberg's Howl. But in the late ^A'70s,
    as movements on the left grew more fragmented and identity politics
    displaced class struggle on the left agenda, sectarian programming crept
    in, carving up the audience by ethnicity, gender or ideological tendency.
    Listener-sponsored radio was reborn as "community radio," with airtime
    allocated to those mostly unpaid volunteers who could shout the loudest on
    behalf of their ethnic, political or spiritual groups. One KPFK activist,
    according to a piece by John Dinges in The Nation two years ago, actually
    tried to bequeath his air slot in his will.
    In the late ^A'80s, with audience numbers in free fall and many so-called
    loyal listeners tuning in for as little as minutes a week, Pacifica's
    national board began to enact reforms designed to professionalize the
    stations and increase their audiences. This brought loud protests from
    local programmers passionately attached to their soapboxes. Since 1998,
    both the board and its detractors have squandered time, energy and scads of
    money squabbling over the practice of its mission, with one side claiming
    the other was stuck in the ^A'60s while the other accused the board of
    trying to water down Pacifica and turn it into NPR, which had lured away
    not only many of the network's listeners, but some of its liveliest
    broadcasters. Thousands of dollars were spent on lawsuits, public
    relations, and even on security when the brawling became physical. For a
    while, Schubb, who was committed to reform, managed to keep KPFK out of the
    fray. The station doubled its audience, tripled its fund-raising, and
    rebuilt its studio and its transmitters. Though even some of his
    supporters say Schubb's diplomatic skills were not what they might have
    been, he did replace some of the ghettoized programming favored by the LAB
    and its supporters with more cerebral fare that brought the station some
    much-needed sophistication without abandoning its critical edge. The jewel
    in the crown was drive-time public affairs: Cooper's daily show, plus Radio
    Nation, his weekly collaboration with The Nation magazine (He also writes a
    column for L.A. Weekly.); Jon Wiener's, Suzi Weissman's and Joe Domanick's
    early-evening drive-time shows. (Full disclosure: I occasionally contribute
    film commentary on Wiener's show.) And though, aside from the music
    programming, arts coverage remained inexplicably weak for a network that
    once boasted the likes of Kael, Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jon
    Beaupré's early-morning magazine lent the programming a certain urbanity
    and elegance.
    Depending on who's talking, KPFK has either sailed into a glorious new era
    of free speech and accountability to its listeners, or slunk back to a
    chaotic and politically byzantine past. Starr and the LAB are promising to
    reopen the station to community participation, especially minorities, which
    they accuse Schubb and those he nurtured of neglecting. "Mark Schubb, with
    the blessing of the prior Pacifica administration, simply refused to
    fulfill his duty to work with the LAB," says Dave Fertig, the LAB's
    representative to the interim national board. "With resumed community
    involvement and openness at KPFK and Pacifica, I believe the recent
    reckless mismanagement, and the enforced silence about it, is unlikely to
    recur." This line of argument maddens Schubb, who says he hired more people
    of color during his tenure than had ever been hired during the station's
    history, though he freely admits that it's hard to find talented black,
    Latino, Asian or other minority journalists when the pay at Pacifica is so
    lousy. Which goes to the heart of the degree to which identity politics has
    displaced the less sexy but more useful category of economic inequality on
    the far left. Is ethnic inequality redressed, as Schubb interprets it, by
    affirmative action or, as the episode of the black separatists amply
    illustrates, by doling out airtime to anyone ä who happens to have dark
    skin? Schubb is infuriated by the thought that the balkanized programming
    he so painstakingly dismantled will return to KPFK as a result of such
    woolly and condescending thinking about how ethnic minorities use radio.
    "I'm sure," he says dryly, "that if you're a janitor working a 10-hour job
    and then another in some fast-food place, you want to come home and listen
    to the Marxist Struggle Hour or the Latvian Accordion Hour on KPFK."
    Pacifica has allowed such programming to go on, he says, "out of some bogus
    liberalism, some bullshit permissiveness that I think is one of the core
    problems of the left in America. Whoever yells the loudest gets whatever
    they want. At a certain point the smart people just leave, and the angry
    ones run it until it's dead."
    Right now there are gifted haters on both sides of the KPFK dispute. Cooper
    calls the LAB "an unelected, unrepresentative lump group of eight people
    whose opinions are no more valid than the opinions of the first eight
    people you get out of the phone book." In turn, he and Schubb are held
    primarily responsible for KPFK's perceived ills and dismissed as agents of
    corporate capital. Cooper has received hundreds of e-mails insinuating that
    he survived the coup in Chile because he's a CIA agent who plotted the
    murder of his own boss, Salvador Allende. And during Schubb's tenure, his
    car sustained $3,500 worth of vandalism when protesters picketed the
    station. The vilification has been mirrored at Pacifica stations around the
    country in lockouts, death threats and letter campaigns on both sides. But
    a casual trawl of the Web sites shows that it's the activists who have the
    edge when it comes to crafting a hate campaign. While Schubb was running
    KPFK, the LAB and ousted programmers constantly disrupted the daily conduct
    of business at the station and held meetings in which Schubb and his staff
    were shouted down and harassed.
    If there's one thing activists know how to do, it's organize. During the
    February fund drive, for the first time KPFK's sister stations banded
    together for a day of fund-raising to save the station's powerful but
    ailing transmitter, and this without the efforts of Cooper, the station's
    most talented fund-raiser. But try to get Starr or the LAB to articulate a
    philosophy of radio and a vision of future programming at KPFK, and you get
    a lot of vague predictions of greater community involvement, increased
    sensitivity to people of color, and apprenticeship programs.
    It seems the antagonism and mistrust between activists and intellectuals
    that has always bedeviled the left never dies. On almost any issue, Cooper,
    Schubb and their volunteer allies at the station, among them Weissman,
    Wiener and Barbara Osborn, who hosts the weekly show Deadline L.A.can think
    and talk the LAB people into a cocked hat. They have a grasp of how radio
    is made and used. They're willing to entertain new ideas and debate those
    who disagree with them, on and off the air. They're witty, irreverent, and
    brimming with ideas and a sense of fun, something that's always been in
    short supply on the Marxist left. Schubb recalls a meeting about cultural
    programming early on in his tenure in which he noted that KPFK had given
    birth to Fireside Theater, Harry Shearer and a whole new world of political
    satire. One protester sprang to her feet and yelled that there were
    horrible things going on in the world and the last thing that was needed
    was more jokes. The activists don't want for sincerity or commitment, but
    as a group they come off as anti-intellectual, dull, humorless and
    hidebound. The new Pacifica board held its meetings in Los Angeles two
    weeks ago, and for sheer lumbering, procedural tedium, the live broadcasts
    out-snored even KCRW's Santa Monica City Council meetings.
                 SEVERAL YEARS AGO I WENT HIKING IN Anza-Borrego with a group
    of middle-aged leftist women like myself, or so I fondly imagined. When we
    stopped to rest, I produced a copy of The New Republic, and was immediately
    hauled over the coals by a woman who professed herself shocked that I would
    lower myself to read such a right-wing rag. I told her I didn't see how I
    could expand my critical thinking if I only read stuff I already agreed
    with. Off she flounced in a huff, leaving me to imagine her reaction had I
    brought along the National Review.
    To me her response was dispiritingly emblematic of the defensive maneuvers
    of a far left that has been spinning its wheels on vulgar-Marxist doctrine
    of the oppressors and the oppressed since the '60s. Cocooned in monastic
    disengagement, its adherents are hanging on for dear life to a set of rigid
    and often obsolete principles so as to avoid contamination by the evil
    corporate empire. Some have embraced a crude identity politics that ends up
    not only condescending to the very people they champion, but perpetuating a
    culture of the victim that includes their own privileged selves. And while
    the intellectual left engages with the establishment, not to say the right,
    Robert McNamara and Pat Robertson have both been guests on Cooper's show,
    and both gave great radio, this group is interested in talking only to
    itself as it relives, over and over, the unexamined life.
    Marginalization has the virtue of keeping the marginalized honest, in a
    limited way. But it can also cramp the mind and narrow the spirit, creating
    a siege mentality that's defensive, sanctimonious, mistrustful of change
    and suspicious of political maturity. If there's one Pacifica radio show
    that exemplifies the best and worst of the American far left, it's Amy
    Goodman's popular Democracy Now, which is broadcast nationally out of WBAI
    in New York. Goodman is unflagging in her pursuit of corporate and
    political malfeasance at home and abroad. She is incorruptible, unimpressed
    and unintimidated by power or authority, which is why she's one of the few
    interviewers who've ever been able to fluster Bill Clinton. And she's
    excellent at providing a voice for the wretched of the Earth, from Ohio to
    Afghanistan. But one doesn't turn to her show for open debate about leftist
    thought. On almost any issue, she will trot out verbatim speeches of a
    small circle of like-minded friends, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael
    Parenti, Cornel West. During KPFK's fund drive, Goodman rebroadcast a
    tortuous speech by West in which he contrived to read into the bombing of
    the World Trade Center a parallel with the oppression of blacks in America.
    Admittedly, this is more dotty than harmful. More seriously, when Goodman
    rightly scolds the commercial media for their distortions, she's not above
    replacing those distortions with others of her own. As the conflict in the
    Middle East escalates, she routinely reports Palestinian casualties, which
    the mainstream media have also been doing for some time, while
    ostentatiously omitting those on the Israeli side.
    So diligently has Goodman internalized her identification with the
    oppressed that she has come to believe herself to be one of them. When it
    comes to the Pacifica wars, Goodman is hobbled by a whopping martyr complex
    that plays on the air as the irritating whine of the career victim. Thus
    WBAI, from which she was exiled for five months in a dispute with the old
    Pacifica board, became "the station of the banned and the fired." This
    continued throughout KPFK's mid-February fund drive, when her show (which
    had not been broadcast here while she was fighting with the board)
    sometimes aired three times a day, in which she peppered her energetic
    pitches with requests for cash to help restore a "plundered network."
    Goodman has played a key role in shaping the on-air narrative of oppression
    worked up by KPFK's new regime during the fund drive. If that wasn't dreary
    enough to listen to, the station also saw fit to boost the fund drive's
    final hour by peddling the video of Mike Ruppert, a defrocked cop who
    sought to convince us that the CIA was behind the attack on the World Trade
    Center. Dave Adelson, a LAB member who told me he saw no reason to condemn
    the hateful rhetoric of the black separatists on the air even though it
    made him "cringe," nonetheless leaped to interrupt a Grateful Dead show and
    excoriate programmer Barbara Osborn for the crime of paying tribute to
    Cooper and asking listeners to call in their response to his suspension.
    Starr, who was initially seen by the opposition as a nice fellow who was in
    over his head, is by now so thoroughly in the pockets of the LAB that he
    allowed this intrusion. When the public-affairs programmers, led by Beneath
    the Surface's Suzi Weissman, handed him a forthright letter of outrage over
    the Mike Ruppert debacle, he responded that, in the context of a rebuttal,
    the program made "compelling radio." Thus does the loony left come full
    circle and join hands with the meshuggeneh right. If confirmation were
    needed of what Christopher Hitchens has called the "ardent confusion" of
    the ultraleft, this is it.
    The sad part of all this is that there is nothing visibly new about the new
    regime at KPFK. It's a classic and possibly terminal case of the divorce of
    thought from action in that part of the left that refuses to grow up. All
    the signs are that, now the first flush of victory is over, the station is
    sliding back to the vapid populism that distinguished it before Schubb
    arrived, when programming was carved up by putative interest groups and any
    nut or bigot with a grievance could grab the airwaves if he or she yelled
    loud enough. Programming collectives, which bring people together solely on
    the basis of their ethnicity, age or gender, can only aggravate such
    separatism. Someone has to be responsible for making good radio that won't
    bore listeners to death. In the unlikely event that a new manager with
    vigor and vision is hired, he or she will have his hands tied behind his
    back if he tries to lift things out of the uncertainty and confusion that
    already prevail at the station. "We were here for the listeners," says one
    employee sadly. "Now we're here for us."

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