California attorney general launches audit of national radio network

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The California attorney general is conducting an audit of Pacifica Foundation Radio — a network of nonprofit radio stations headquartered in Berkeley — to investigate the foundation’s finances.

The audit includes requests for documents that encompass many of the organization’s financial and governance records. Pacifica has until Feb. 17 to provide the attorney general with the documents, according to Margy Wilkinson, the network’s national board chair and interim executive director.

“It’s a healthy exercise to look at all these things and have them examined,” Wilkinson said. “I have serious questions about what went on in the past (before I joined). It is a daunting task for us to get the materials requested but we’re going to do our very best to give the attorney general everything she’s requested.”

The audit comes after a year of controversy, in which Pacifica’s former executive director Summer Reese was fired and occupied the national headquarters for about two months and a coalition of national board members launched unsuccessful legal action against the termination. Although Reese’s supporters alleged that she was fired due to discrimination, some members of the board cited her mismanagement of the organization as reason for the dismissal.

The audit follows a complaint made in March by eight former board members to the California attorney general. The complaint outlines concerns about the organization’s recent hiring and firings, bookkeeping and accountability, including an allegation that Reese was fired at a board meeting without advance notice or all members being present.

However, the attorney general’s office did not disclose why it initiated the audit.

According to Wilkinson, after Reese and her supporters left the headquarters office in May following the court’s granting of a temporary restraining order, some records were missing and others were in disarray.

“We’ve been trying to sort our way through what is essentially chaos,” Wilkinson said.

The audit will greatly affect Pacifica’s stations if it results in the revocation of their licences, according to Carole Travis, chair of the local station board for KPFA. The licenses, Travis said, are very valuable because they allow the stations to broadcast over larger areas than would be allowed under a new license.

“(Pacifica is) a very precious and important network and that’s why many people are really trying hard to meet all the requirements and see to it that we stay alive,” Travis said.

The audit as well as Pacifica’s financial situation are set to be discussed this week at a Thursday meeting.

Contact Sonja Hutson at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson.

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  • AnnGarrison

    I’m a longtime KPFA listener, and a programmer since January 2010. I’ve also been a guest or guest host a few times, on Flashpoints, Project Censored, or the ill-fated Morning Mix. This experience in various roles, and as much in the role of a listener as any other, has made me aware of the enormous potential of KPFA and all of Pacifica Radio. Sometimes that potential is realized, but not nearly often enough. I understand the frustration of many listeners, like that of commenter Jean Peregrine, 15, but I’d like to think there are others who still have some hope, as I do. We should all stop expecting KPFA to be an ever harmonious atmosphere; it is by nature a contentious battleground of competing narrative and voices. I do think it’s reasonable to ask that those arguing for their community’s story, stake, truth or air time in Pacificaland would leave personal attack out of their arguments.

    I can’t remember exactly how the mission statement is worded offhand, but I think most of us understand it as peace, social justice, and sustainable culture. And I don’t mean to leave the music programmers out when I say that. Music programmers remarks about the context that the music they play was created in, and about the context they’re playing the music in now, are some of the most memorable insights shared on KPFA air.

  • John Willkie

    Unless there has been a violation of the FCC’s rules (which is not within the purview of the AG) and even then, only a very narrow subset of the rules relating to anti-trust, this LONG OVERDUE (decades) audit cannot result in a license challenge or revocation.
    Certainly, the chair of KPFA should have be knowledgeable about FCC rules, practice and procedure to understand this. Nor are the licenses valuable in any real sense, as the stations are ALL limited to non-commercial, non-profit status. So, just why would Ms. Travis be quoted saying such claptrap? Is she trying to warn off the AG’s office?
    Pacifica has been in great turmoil for at least a decade. But then, as envisioned by Messrs. Hill and Milam, turmoil was always built into the Pacifica system. In reality, Pacifica battles in recent years seem to be battles between Trotskites and Marxists and between various clusters of “unusual” sexual orientations and minority sub-cultures: in other words, battles between Pacifica’s core audiences.

    • AnnGarrison

      I agree with most, though not all, of what you said there. I particularly agree that turmoil was always built into Pacifica, so people should stop bemoaning the fact that it’s a contentious atmosphere full of competing narratives. Too many people imagine it as some church in which we’re all gonna Kumbaya our way to world peace.

      • John Willkie

        I was a contributor to KPFK/Pacifica News in the 1970’s. My politics was quite unlike that of most KPFK show hosts, but tended to listen to KPFK much more than any other available station, and always went to the trouble before moving to make sure I could receive KPFK when moving. (I live more than 100 miles from the transmitter site.) Mostly, I enjoyed the breadth of contemporary music and the morning classical music shows and the news casts, with stories not reported elsewhere and marginal viewpoints seldom heard elsewhere.
        In the 80’s, living in Washingtoon DC, I listened to WPFW, but tended to not like the music much, despite being entertained by “The ‘Bama” who seemed to have the run of the station.
        I’ve also met with the co-founder of KPFA/B when he lived in my town.
        The only issues I see with Pacifica is that as a tax-exempt charity, there have been too many stations that too often have had allegations of financial irregularities that nobody (no “adult”) has ever investigated. 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 00’s, 10’s. WBAI, KPFA/B, WPFW, KPFK. Sometimes — but not always — these come in the wake of proposed or actual programming/programmer/management changes.
        The AG’s office is charged with supervising non-profits and charities. Seldom does the AG’s office perform financial audits of charities. A public audit of Pacifica is long overdue. I have no dog in this fight: my business is not in radio broadcasting and I live hundreds of miles from Bezerkely.
        I have significant doubts — based on what has come before — that even if the AG’s audit finds financial irregularities — even significant financial irregularities — that the Pacifica board will do much to fix the situation.
        The stations are valuable to their listeners and the small numbers of people who listen to them. For a check on financial value, look into what Minnesota Public Radio paid (after a bidding war) for KPCC Pasadena last decade. It was significant money, but was a pittance compared to the price for purchasing a commercial FM station in the Los Angeles market.

        • AnnGarrison

          Why would Minnesota Public Radio buy KPCC Pasadena?

          • John Willkie

            Pasadena Community College decided to move on from running a radio station. KPBS San Diego (San Diego State University) thought it would be nice to have a third station (their second one is in the Imperial Valley, about the same distance from San Diego as Pasadena). MPR outbid SDSU, ostensibly to start a regional production center to rival NPR’s West Coast branch. Since then, I haven’t heard much about MPR’s West Coast programming; shortly after buying KPCC, they cut staff and programs. Not unpredictably. Lesson there.

        • AnnGarrison

          As to whether or not the Pacifica Board will do much to fix the situation, I doubt they’re going to have a choice if there are significant financial irregularities.

          • John Willkie

            Possibly, but the AG is suddenly running for the US Senate in 2016, and the office is not unknown to engage in politics under her and before. The Bay Area is her “power base.”
            Let’s assume they do a proper exam. Let’s assume they find bad things. The office would have to go to court to remove any members of the Pacifica board. if they find enough bad stuff and a few smoking guns, they might even consider criminal charges.
            Kamala Harris does not have a legacy of political independence. Perhaps that will change.

    • AnnGarrison

      Also, I agree that the AG’s audit cannot result in the loss of licenses. That is the FCC’s realm, and KPFA LSB Chair Carole Travis must know that. I can’t help wondering whether she might have been misquoted.

  • Jean Peregrine

    Pacifica and its five member stations (KPFA – Berkeley, KPFK – Los Angeles, KPFT – Houston, WPFW – DC, and WBAI – New York) have been an absolute disgrace and an embarrassment to progressive (or any other) values and their claims of ‘free speech’ for many, many years.

    They have been consumed by fractious, vicious, eternal internal warfare for literally decades, with the inevitable result that their listenership and their financial support have ceased to exist. Despite claims of ‘community’ ‘free speech’ radio and the invocation of their past of many decades ago, the reality is that they survive overwhelmingly on the basis of peddling quack-cures, interventions with ‘spirit-beings’ and the like in infomercials which they laughably claim are ‘donations’ of ‘listener-support’.

    There have also been innumerable credible statements from staff that there is a total lack of financial controls, at the five member stations and at the national office, with ‘books’ being thrown together hastily many months late or not at all, with numbers often found miraculously in mid-air, and with many mysterious omissions, and equally mysterious characterizations.

    It is in fact inconceivable that any sound review of Pacifica’s and the member stations’ financial and regulatory affairs will have any other result than at the very least the appointment of a special master to determine whether or not it is possible or practical to restructure their affairs or to reach the conclusion that it will be necessary to strip Pacifica of its nonprofit status and/or place them in receivership and place the station frequencies up for auction – ideally to worthy nonprofit use.

    The simple fact is that Pacifica and its five stations cannot survive a proper audit and investigation.