Charges flip back and forth at KPFK

by Sean Mitchell, LA Times

KPFK-FM (90.7), whose politically minded hosts never shy from tackling controversial issues, is itself the subject of controversy these days, racked by an internal dispute over its general manager.

Amid lawsuits and charges of extravagant spending, racial divisiveness and falling ratings, the directors of the local board of the noncommercial Pacifica station are expected to issue a statement of support for General Manager Eva Georgia, following a recent petition signed by 18 hosts and support staff asking for her removal.

The petition was read aloud at the Pacifica national board meeting held at the Los Angeles Marriott Downtown the last weekend in July, and it cited as grounds for Georgia's dismissal evidence of declining listenership and membership, a recent staff vote of no-confidence, questions about the maintenance of the station's broadcast signal and "mismanagement and unaccountability."

"Nothing short of a change in management will do," concluded the petition, which lamented that KPFK was becoming "isolated and irrelevant in the community." Signers of the petition included longtime show hosts Roy Tuckman, Ian Masters, Jon Wiener, Suzi Weissman and Don Bustany, along with former local board chairwoman Grace Aaron.

The petition came in the wake of two lawsuits filed against Georgia in the last six months by KPFK employees alleging sexual harassment and racial discrimination. (Those cases are pending.)

During the public comment session of the meeting, Christine Blosdale, the station's union steward, reaffirmed the union staff vote of no-confidence in Georgia and told the board that "the morale at KPFK is very low."

But David Adelson, the Pacifica national board chairman and one of the four directors of KPFK's local board, expressed support for her in an interview and said an official statement would be forthcoming. A spokesman for the board said the statement would declare that Georgia "has succeeded admirably, having made historic strides in achieving staff and programming diversity."

Georgia, a native of South Africa, was appointed KPFK's general manager in 2002 following a litigious organizational dispute that shook the nonprofit, left-leaning network for several years and led to the firing of previous KPFK general manager Marc Schubb.

At the board meeting, Georgia responded to the criticism with her own evidence of an increase in listener financial support over the last five years (reaching $3.2 million in 2006), a successful June fund drive and different membership numbers.

Georgia has enjoyed the steady support of the majority of KPFK's 24-member local station board, whose representatives are elected by subscribers and staff under rules established after the so-called counterrevolution of 2002 that re-formed Pacifica's political structure. But her tenure has been dogged by charges of a heavy-handed management style combined with lavish personal spending that has included traveling by limousine on station business and booking two-week hotel stays in Los Angeles during fund drives so she doesn't have to return to her home in Long Beach. Copies of her expense account highlighting such costs have circulated among the staff and been leaked to The Times, with the suggestion from critics that such spending is improper at a listener-supported station "powered by the people," as KPFK's logo reads.

"It suggests a failure to understand the basic concepts of the organization," said Louis Vandenberg, producer of the Sunday public-affairs show "Background Briefing" and a longtime KPFK volunteer.

Georgia did not address the allegations about her expenses at the meeting and did not respond to requests for an interview, but Pacifica chairman Adelson said about her, "It's true that she's a flawed person, but she is far and away the strongest manager in the network," referring to KPFK and Pacifica's other four stations in Berkeley, New York, Washington and Houston.

"I have a lot of compassion for those who are upset," Adelson said, "but the staff almost always despise their manager."

Organizational turmoil is nothing new to KPFK, which, like other Pacifica stations, has gone through regular political upheavals since its inception in 1959, in part a result of its ambitious attempts to implement a durable form of democratic governance.

Adelson, a neuroscientist at UCLA with no professional background in radio, was a key player in the 2002 upheaval started by his lawsuit against the Pacifica Foundation based on the complaint that the national board had usurped its legal authority and was preparing to scuttle the alternative network's tradition of community-based diversity in favor of a more corporate-minded model aimed at increasing the size of its audience through narrower programming. "We've gone with a format that is not directed at maximizing audience," Adelson said in an interview, making clear his preference for "non-market principles."

"If the guy is saying he wants a smaller audience, he should resign as chair tomorrow," said Lila Garrett, host of KPFK's "Connect the Dots." "Our group, which is not a small group but a large group," she said about the petitioners, "want a strong KPFK with as many listeners as possible to help get the truth out about the war and what's going on in the country."

Georgia had previously served as an administrator at a gay and lesbian center in Long Beach after moving to Los Angeles in 1999. She had worked in community radio in her native South Africa during the struggle to end apartheid.

"She made some enemies when she first got here, and she was clumsy in some ways," Adelson said, "but she was able to accommodate people who didn't like her and bring people together who hated each other."

Some who work at KPFK counter that Georgia, who is black, has done little to mend the racial divide that remains a source of conflict at the famously progressive station.

Among the station's varied constituency, Georgia has had the support of "radical people of color," as Adelson puts it, some of whom were "purged" by the previous station management and have returned under her administration, including "Freedom Now" host Dedon Kamathi. She also made way for shows that opened up two new areas of controversy: daily newscasts in Spanish and programs devoted to the idea that the Sept. 11 attacks were carried out by a conspiracy involving agents of the U.S. government.

Ian Masters, whose shows "Background Briefing" and "Live From the Left Coast" have consistently been among the station's top fundraisers, argued that the 9/11 conspiracy programs were destroying the station's credibility, and he advocated for shows being on the air that have proved themselves through audience response and support.

"The new regime sued its way into power on a bogus issue," Masters said, "and their cure for a nonexistent problem has proved to be the real disaster. They've created a universe for themselves with this governing structure so that what goes on inside the corridors is more important than what goes out over the air. Meanwhile, we are the people who keep the place going," he said, suggesting that the signers of the petition represented shows that brought in a lion's share of subscriber pledges.

On Saturday, the petitioners got some good news about the nagging problem of illegal transmitter interference coming from radio station XLNC in Mexico, compromising KPFK's signal. Georgia announced that XLNC will be moving to a new frequency in the fall.

Garrett welcomed that news but said the other issues brought up in the petition remain unresolved. "The struggle is far from over," she said.

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