Stringers call three-month strike against newscast

Originally published in Current, Feb. 7, 2000

Charging that Pacifica has "censored" news about its internal disputes, 41 stringers who say they have filed reports for Pacifica Network News started a three-month strike against the nightly program on Jan. 31.

Pacifica declined to recognize the strike. "PNN is unionized, and its bargaining unit represented by AFTRA," said PNN News Director Mark Bevis in a statement, "There is no strike underway, as boycotters claim." Bevis said charges of censorship are misleading. "Every news organization decides what to publish or broadcast; that is called news judgment and should not be swayed by ... 'boycotters' insisting on what should be covered."

The striking freelancers said they would be willing to work for the network again if Pacifica ceases "acts of censorship," permits fair reporting about internal Pacifica news, reinstates Dan Coughlin as news director of PNN, and hires a female journalist of color with "a proven track record of being committed to progressive causes" as PNN anchor.

On the six-point list, they also demanded that Pacifica respect the independence of each station's news division, but told the network to force its Los Angeles station, KPFK, to reinstate Chicano Radio and CounterSpin.

The strike organizing committee includes New York freelancer Eileen Sutton, Los Angeles freelancer Robin Urevich, KPFA Sacramento correspondent Aaron Glantz and KPFA Sunday anchor Vanessa Tait.

Pacifica moves to D.C.; anchor leaves in dispute

Originally published in Current, Jan. 24, 2000

By Steve Behrens

Pacifica Radio has begun moving its national office from the Left's greatest haven to the city where pragmatism and compromise rule—an undetermined location inside the Beltway.

The move comes at a sensitive—perhaps precarious—time in the progressive network's volatile history, after protests by many of its affiliate stations and messy departures of key on-air staffers, including Pacifica Network News anchor Verna Avery-Brown.

Pacifica is working with former ABC medical correspondent George Strait to reorganize its national production effort, says Executive Director Lynn Chadwick. Strait left ABC's Washington Bureau last year after 22 years with the network.

The only one of six staffers in the national office who is moving east, Chadwick is working in someone's home in a Washington suburb while others wind up business in Berkeley and she finds office space in the D.C. area. For Chadwick, the relocation completes a round trip—in 1995, she moved the National Federation of Community Broadcasters from D.C. to San Francisco.

Chadwick, who has a dark streak in her sense of humor, laughs knowingly at the Washington Post's pointed observation about the move: "Last summer there was a 10,000-person free-speech march against Pacifica in Berkeley. Here in the District of Columbia, WPFW has been relatively unbothered. Do the math."

"Berkeley has not been friendly to the Pacifica national office," agrees Chadwick. "It's just a fact." But she says the Pacifica Board approved the move this summer, and she lists other reasons to explain the decision.

It's easier to participate in communications policy discussions in Washington, where policy is made, she said, and it will help to be near Pacifica's Washington Bureau, its major national production hub. The network also moved its satellite operations to D.C. last summer. While Pacifica's tape archive and finance office remain at KPFK in Los Angeles, she says, "it would make sense for all national operations to be in one place." She wants to create a single human resources office for the five-station chain, for instance. Chadwick said the national office may camp out initially at WPFW in Washington, but says it doesn't want to overcrowd its quarters.

The view from Chadwick's critics in Berkeley is more political. Sherry Gendelman, chair of the local advisory board at Pacifica's former flagship KPFA, says the national office "snuck out of town in the middle of the night," bringing in a moving truck without announcement on the evening of Jan. 5.

"I think they want to be inside the Beltway," says Gendelman, a civil rights attorney in San Francisco. "There was more support for their ideas inside the Beltway."

Chadwick and her predecessor Pat Scott, backed by the Pacifica Board and chairman Mary Frances Berry, say they want to strengthen Pacifica programming and built the relatively small audiences of its five stations. But they have run into stalwart resistance from volunteer programmers—particularly at KPFA and New York outlet WBAI—who defend the chain's traditionally diverse, volunteer-produced programming and reject the use of ratings to measure success.

Pacifica "has been doing our darnedest to put out a quality product and maintain reliable satellite operations. ... That's my objective, not to deal with the Media Alliance," said Chadwick, referring to a San Francisco group whose press releases and Internet dispatches relentlessly pound Pacifica with accusations.

Critics say that Pacifica, already wounded by bad press and internal conflict, is now weakened on the air as well. A disenchanted national staffer says Pacifica is "crippled" by the loss of signature voices Larry Bensky and Verna Avery-Brown and a shrinking production effort. The national production staff is down from 16 to 7 with the cancellation of Bensky's Living Room program and Jerry Brown's talk show, the staffer said. Avery-Brown, anchor of Pacifica Network News for a decade, "agreed on a separation" from Pacifica in December, according to Chadwick.

In a protest against Chadwick's removal of News Director Dan Coughlin, Avery-Brown had stayed away from work since early November. "I thought Dan was treated quite shabbily and without cause," Avery-Brown says. She detects that Pacifica is drifting toward the political mainstream, though mostly because of management's indifference. "I don't think there's any grand strategy to it." As for Bensky, Chadwick fired him in April after he violated the chain's longtime unwritten rule against discussing internal "dirty laundry" on the air.

Coughlin's situation is not as clear, either in cause or outcome. Chadwick abruptly transferred him to an undefined planning job on Nov. 1, and he has been on leave since then. She says Pacifica is "organizing a position" for Coughlin and is still in discussion with him about it. Chadwick has denied that Coughlin, too, was penalized for violating the dirty laundry rule; he had written a brief item for PNN Oct. 27, five days before his removal, reporting on a one-day boycott of Pacifica's programs by 16 of its 60-some affiliate stations.

Some of those stations remain concerned about Coughlin's removal.

In a "rent strike" against the network, WORT-FM in Madison, Wis., is putting its quarterly program fees into an escrow fund rather than paying them to Pacifica. WORT objects to "the apparent censorship implied in Dan Coughlin's reassignment," according to a statement aired regularly in Madison. In addition, WORT complained in a Nov. 18 letter that programming on Pacifica's Washington-based Ku-band satellite service "has been frequently interrupted, unpredictably cut off and often simply not delivered" at scheduled hours.

The letter asked Pacifica to contact WORT to resolve the issues, but Pacifica has not replied, says Norman Stockwell, operations coordinator. "That was three months ago, and we haven't heard a word."

Other stations that participated in the Day Without Pacifica protest are similarly alienated.

Jean Palmquist, a former Pacifica manager who is now station manager at WMNF in Tampa, says the staff there favors a rent strike as well, and has proposed it to WMNF's board.

"We have sent letters and e-mails to Lynn and Mary Frances Berry and have never gotten any kind of response," says Palmquist. "They seem to not care what their affiliates think."



To Current's home page

Earlier news: Transfer of newscast chief Dan Coughlin revives protests against Pacifica management, December 1999.

Outside links: web sites of the Save Pacifica movement, with numerous documents, photos and accusations, and of Pacifica Foundation, with rebuttals.



Web page created Feb. 15, 2000
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2000