The only way for listener-sponsored KPFA radio to move forward is to show General Manager Roy Campanella the door, according to the 70 members of the station’s paid and unpaid staff who have signed a letter of no confidence in Campanella.
The letter, claiming the manager created a hostile work environment, was presented at Saturday’s Local Station Board meeting. Some at the LSB meeting called for the return of former General Manager Nicole Sawaya, now station manager at KALW in San Francisco.
But former local and national board member and professional mediator Tomas Moran argued the focus should not be on the individual who leads the station.
“It’s a feudal system,” where programmers defend their territories, he said.
KPFA-Berkeley is one of the Pacifica Foundation’s five community stations. As a result of lawsuits between the governing Pacifica Foundation Board and local stations, resolved about three years ago, the radio network is now run by elected local boards made up of listener-sponsors and staff, and a national board of representatives from local boards.
But democratic governance has failed to ease internal tensions at 56-year-old KPFA, whose diverse programmers pride themselves on delving deep into local and global concerns and showcasing a broad range of music, touched little by other media.
At Saturday’s LSB meeting, attended by most of the 23-member board and more than 80 members of the pubic, seven female staffers called on the board to recognize Campanella’s “unfitness” to run the station.
The women complained of “instances of hostility and gender-based treatment” by the general manager. (Campanella has conceded that he asked subordinates—men and women—out to movies, but denies these were “dates.” The women allege retaliation for their complaints.) This letter was in addition to the letter of no confidence signed by 70 of the 300 paid and volunteer staff.
Moran believes the accusations are relatively minor and should not cloud the larger, systemic issues plaguing KPFA for years. It is likely that Ambrose Lane, interim national director, will mediate the underlying issues, Moran said.
“It’s not just putting out one fire to go to the next,” he said.
The mediation would be transparent and include listener forums.
“It takes courage to put the conflicts out in the open,” Moran said. “It’s going to be painful for the station.”
Areas of conflict include questions of governance: who is in charge? Another issue is the role of independent activism—an individual or group may successfully lobby for a program, but is the activism appropriate? A third problem area is the need for program evaluation. And fundraising questions need clarification: can individual programmers raise their own funds? How should station funds be distributed?
Local Station Board member Joe Wanzala also says mediation is the way to move forward, unless further investigation shows that the general manager’s misdeeds are such that his removal is necessary. Investigating the complaints has become an issue of conflict in itself. “We haven’t done enough due diligence,” Wanzala said.
Oakland attorney Dan Siegel was hired to conduct an investigation. However, Wanzala contends that Siegel, one of the attorneys challenging the Pacifica Foundation during the 1999-2002 station crisis, was an inappropriate choice.
“Some thought he was too close to KPFA,” Wanzala said, adding, “And he’s running for mayor (of Oakland).” The board may decide whether to accept Siegel’s report at its closed-door meeting July 24.
Like Moran, Wanzala stressed that any investigation should go beyond Campanella. “I thought we needed an institutional audit,” he said. “There’s a pattern of the staff resisting efforts by the general manager ... It’s not a question of getting the right person and all will be well.”
The claims of a hostile working environment mask long simmering tensions, he said.
Staff and their supporters who spoke out at the July 16 meeting say the public airing was the only avenue through which they could be heard. (Local Board Member Sepideh Khosrowjah said staff could have addressed the board in closed session, but failed to go through procedures to do so.)
In addition to reading the letter accusing Campanella of creating a hostile work environment, others spoke out individually. “People shouldn’t have to work in an environment of fear,” said Gary Niederhoff, subscriptions editor.
On the other hand, Peter Franck, chair of Media Action Marin, called on the board to work with Campanella. “You should not wait for a Messiah to rescue you,” he said.
But when it was her turn to speak, seventeen-year staffer Jan Etre responded to Franck: “There was a Messiah; her name was Nicole Sawaya.”
Sawaya was a popular KPFA manager in 1999 when the Pacifica National Board removed her. Although Pacifica banned staff from talking about Sawaya’s termination on the air, various programmers did just that. This led to their removal and to the events culminating in the national board hijacking the station and the staff and listeners fighting back on the streets and in the courts.
While one of the staff and community demands had been Sawaya’s reinstatement, she was passed over in April 2003, when the job was given to Gus Newport, who left the post after about nine months.
An unsigned flyer distributed at the Saturday board meeting addressed one of the complaints by the listener-sponsor group, Peoples’ Radio, which charges programmers with refusal to follow management directives.
The flyer said it’s a myth that the staff doesn’t want to be managed. “KPFA workers desperately want good management. That’s why they risked their jobs to protest Sawaya’s termination on the air in 1999. And that’s why they made Sawaya’s reinstatement one of their key demands after they were locked out for doing so. Sawaya’s reinstatement is the only such demand that has not been met since the takeback of KPFA in 2000.”
Sawaya did not return calls for comment.
In a telephone interview, Susan Stone, 25-year staffer who recently left the station to become a mediator, called Sawaya “a bright light.” Stone said Sawaya “made people feel visible and valued. That was something she had a talent for. She even won over diehard critics. It was staggering that she wasn’t brought back.”
Campanella, who sat quietly through the public condemnation—and support—at the Saturday meeting, said he’s frustrated because personnel rules prevent him from defending himself in public. However, he said he’s open to mediation and has begun the process with staff.
“We’ve had one group session. I hope there will be others,” he said, “I’m very sincere about having a healthy dialogue.”
He said that he hoped the mediation would eventually extend to sessions that include the board and himself, then to the board, the staff and himself. “That would be a powerful healing experience,” he said.
Asked if staff would be open to mediation, shop steward Lisa Ballard responded by e-mail: “Roy sent Pacifica’s Zero Tolerance for Violence policy out to the entire staff list, and hours later instigated a fight in our workplace kitchen.”
This was the widely-reported incident between Hard Knock Radio producer Weylan Southon and Campanella. While Campanella admits he called Southon outside to fight, he says he wasn’t being serious; no blows were exchanged.
“We had already been in mediation with Roy for inappropriate behavior and creating a hostile workplace for women,” Ballard continued. “This was the last straw. This is a community of over 300 people, producers, hosts, support staff, engineers. We need someone who will set the bar on workplace safety, who will not escalate conflict. Programmers have been permanently banned from the station for similar behavior. He has only been with us for seven months. It is not a matter of forgiveness or counseling at this point. We made a mistake with this hire and he needs to go. It is evident to a wide cross section of workers, which is why over 70 staffers signed a vote of no confidence.”
As the internal conflict rages, programmer Khalil Bendib says it’s important to put it in perspective. “Six years ago, we could have lost KPFA,” he said. The internal problems are real, he said, “but not comparable” to the earlier crisis.
Still, Susan Stone wonders if the internal conflict won’t escalate and eventually spill over onto the airwaves. “What about the listener in all this?” she asks.