A radio station divided: national headquarter occupation is sign of greater discord

Alvin Wu/Staff

Alvin Wu/Staff

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On the bottom floor of a Downtown Berkeley radio studio, hosts of Berkeley’s free-speech radio station KPFA revive the spirit of Malcolm X and denounce critics of climate change. In between segments, they urge listeners to donate money to the financially frail station.

But just next door, where the network’s national headquarters is located, the upper management of the station founded on pacifist ideals was not at peace. From mid-March to mid-May, the national board’s ousted executive director, her mother and her supporters occupied the building, only occasionally leaving headquarters. According to court documents, the incident started with bolt cutters and ended with a temporary restraining order.

Berkeley’s KPFA is the flagship station of the five-member national network, Pacifica Foundation Radio, whose headquarters was the site of the former executive director’s occupation up until a week ago.

For years, the network and station have undergone managerial turnover. Pacifica has struggled to stay afloat financially, especially at its New York station, where the network fired two-thirds of the station’s staff in August of last year. In Berkeley, KPFA is concluding its spring pledge drive.

But tensions run deeper than just finances. Employees and those affiliated with the national network describe two distinct factions within Pacifica’s national board of directors. A similar division exists within KPFA’s local board, as well as within the station itself.

The most recent tension arose after the majority group within Pacifica’s national board voted to terminate the employment of the now-former executive director, Summer Reese.

At KPFA, staff members describe a divide between paid and unpaid workers. The latter generally support Reese, while the former tend to side with the majority on the national board.

“We’re all supposed to be here for a reason, and when you see that division, it’s just sad,” said Maria Negret, KPFA’s business manager.

Nine members of the national board — who formed the minority group that supported Reese — filed a motion in Alameda County Superior Court for a preliminary injunction against the employment termination. Twelve other members — the majority group that fired Reese — filed a cross-complaint requesting a temporary restraining order to remove Reese from the national office after she had entered the premises by using bolt cutters on a padlock.

Ultimately, the injunction was denied, and the temporary restraining order was granted.

Most staff at KPFA were barred from entering the national office, Negret said, adding that morale was low in the station up until last week, when Reese voluntarily left headquarters after the court decision.

Tracey Rosenberg, who served on the local and national boards and calls herself a supporter of Reese’s, alleged that Reese’s employment termination was an episode of discrimination because her religious beliefs prevented her from producing a Social Security number.

“What happened was reckless and irresponsible,” Rosenberg said. “When anyone has been doing a job for that long, you do a systematic review of their performance, which wasn’t done.”

Reese served as interim executive director of Pacifica for about a year. In November of last year, she signed an agreement that offered her the position as executive director for a three-year term, provided that, among other terms, she completed a background check. Court documents show that the background check was not completed in time.

In late January, Reese signed an employment contract that would place her in the position permanently, but the contract contained several terms that were “significantly and materially different” from the November agreement, according to Judge Ioana Petrou’s court decision last week.

In addition to Reese, the contract was signed by Heather Gray and Richard Uzzell, the board’s acting chair and secretary, respectively.

Barbara Whipperman, a member of the local board, called the January contract “phony.”

“The board never authorized Gray or Uzzell to enter the January agreement, the board never ratified that agreement, and in fact the majority of the board expressly rejected the January agreement,” Petrou wrote.

Gray said that she drew up the January contract because the one offered to Reese in November did not contain information such as severance-package details. Gray added that she consulted with the human resources department as she drafted the contract and that she did not recall prior contracts requiring board approval.

“All of a sudden, the board fired Summer at a subsequent meeting, and it was unbelievable to me,” Gray said. “If you were a board member, you wouldn’t have appreciated that, either.”

For some board members and KPFA employees, though, the employment termination was less of a shock.

“Summer Reese’s performance is really open to significant questions,” said Don Goldmacher, a member of KPFA’s local board. “From my vantage point, she was tyrannical.”

Margy Wilkinson, chair of the national board, said that Reese did not fulfill the requirements of her position. Wilkinson pointed to Reese’s support of Gary Null, a talk show host who advocates alternative medicine and has in the past denied that HIV causes AIDS. Reese supported Null, Wilkinson said, because he was adept at raising money for the New York station.

Rosenberg said Null mainly “talks about vitamins” and has been extremely successful at fundraising.

“Pacifica is supposed to be open to alternative points of view, even when they’re controversial or not popular,” Rosenberg said, adding that Null’s programming predates Reese’s position as interim executive director by decades.

Rosenberg said that Reese did nothing to precipitate her firing and that when Reese cut the lock to the national headquarters, she simply thought that she was going to work. Although Rosenberg did not occupy the building along with Reese’s other supporters, she said that she stopped by several times to say hello. The facility looked the same as it always did, Rosenberg said, except for a couple of new posters.

Goldmacher, however, called the occupation of the national headquarters “shenanigans.” After the court ruling, Goldmacher said, the network breathed “a big sigh of relief.”

For now, the national board has a new interim director, Bernard Duncan. On June 3, the next court date, Reese and other parties will enter more documents into evidence regarding the preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order.

Kimberly Veklerov is the executive news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @KVeklerov.