Layoffs hit KPFA, protests go on-air

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The fight over staff cuts at Berkeley’s KPFA-FM has moved from the streets to the airwaves. A Nov. 8 decision by Pacifica Foundation Executive Director Arlene Engelhardt to dismiss the staff of the KPFA Morning Show — the local program that earns the most financial support from listeners — came under immediate fire. Engelhardt proposed to replace the morning news staple with another program from Pacifica’s Los Angeles outlet, KPFK.

The KPFA Morning Show team — Aimee Allison, Brian Edwards-Tiekert, Laura Prives and Esther Manilla — were ordered off the air after Monday’s program, but they managed to mount a “renegade broadcast” on Tuesday Nov. 9 to discuss the lay-offs and the station’s financial troubles. (Story and link to show audio here.)

Former KPFA host Larry Bensky, who fought a similar battle to stay on the air more than ten years ago, came out of retirement to publicly challenge the terminations, appearing on both KPFA and KQED, the NPR News station in San Francisco. “I would have loved to stay out of this morass,” Bensky said, on this morning’s edition of KQED’s Forum. “These people, who have an audience and credibility, are among the few journalists left in Pacifica, ” he said. The decision to take the Morning Show team off the air was a “short-sighted and foolish thing to do, and against Pacifica’s principles.”

Engelhardt, who signed on as executive director less than a year ago, said Pacifica had to enforce financial discipline on KPFA, which has burned through its financial reserves and had to borrow money from another station in September to meet its payroll. “There just plain isn’t any cash anymore,” Engelhardt said on KQED’s Forum. Three Pacifica stations are in “pretty severe financial distress,” she said. “Everything I’m doing is aimed at my best effort to make sure all five stations stay on the air.”

But Engelhardt struggled to defend layoffs of Morning Show staff, who were among seven KPFA employees to lose their jobs. She said the Morning Show team had engaged in “so much one-sided skewing that makes for very bad radio.”

KPFA’s union workers have alleged the dismissals were retaliatory against staff who were openly critical of Pacifica national leadership. The Communications Workers of America bargaining unit filed a complaint of unfair labor practices against Pacifica management on Nov. 5.