Static Interference

KOOP Ponders An Ally's Anti-Union Stance

The Pacifica Radio Network and Austin's KOOP (91.7FM) would seem to be a match made in heaven. Pacifica, which owns stations in Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, and Berkeley, was founded 50 years ago with a mission -- to provide a national radio network that would serve the interests of peace, social and racial justice, and worker's rights. KOOP, a democratically run, cooperative station which went on the air a mere two years ago, was established with a similar mission -- to provide airwave access to interests which have been under-served by radio in the past, including labor. One might expect that relations between the two entities would be one big hippie love-fest.

So KOOP listeners were probably surprised, confused, and a bit up in arms when they started hearing this message at either end of KOOP's daily broadcast of the Pacifica Network News:

Pacifica Network News is produced by a unionized work force with a contract, but the Pacifica Foundation is currently in a labor dispute with unionized workers at WBAI/New York and KPFK/Los Angeles. Pacifica is no longer using a consulting firm listed by the AFL-CIO as a union buster for its contract negotiations with the United Electrical Workers [UE]. Pacifica has said they will negotiate with the UE in good faith with the goal of having a fair contract with its unionized workers, but Pacifica has not withdrawn its attempt to exclude 90% of the workers from union protection or other contract proposals that the workers do not consider fair or equitable. KOOP will continue to monitor the situation.

That disclaimer -- and the fight between Pacifica and the UE that precipitated it -- has been a source of friction between KOOP and Pacifica, and within KOOP's membership itself. (I should know, since, it must be noted, I am a music programmer at KOOP and the newsletter editor for the station). Between a barrage of propaganda from the UE (and a related labor organization called FreePacifica), and near-total silence from Pacifica itself, members have struggled to understand what's going on, who's telling the truth, and who, if anyone, is the villain.

The conflict at Pacifica centers around differing visions of the network's future. Pacifica Executive Director Pat Scott recently unveiled Pacifica's proposed five-year plan for weathering the current attacks on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB); readers may remember the infamous congressional hearings of 1995, in which conservatives particularly singled out Pacifica, labeling the pacifist non-profit as "hate radio." The five-year plan calls for substantial streamlining -- downsizing, if you will -- and for finding funding sources that will make Pacifica less reliant on CPB monies. Some critics fear this plan will force Pacifica to turn to big businesses for funding, and send the fiercely independent (and flagrantly anti-corporate) network spiraling into the type of mediocrity that now plagues NPR and PBS.

An even bigger issue is the way that the streamlining has been handled -- many veteran program hosts have been sent packing, and, according to several current and former employees interviewed by Z Magazine, the work atmosphere in at least two Pacifica-owned stations (WBAI and KPFK) has sunk to "deplorable" because of heavy-handed station managers allegedly throwing their weight around. Any programmer who discusses Pacifica's dirty laundry on-air has been threatened with firing, an odd stance for a network that once had the motto, "Free Speech Radio."

KOOP entered the fray last summer. At a monthly KOOP programmers' meeting, programmer Paul Odekirk, a firm ally of the UE, supplied KOOPers with their first news of the situation, declared it a pressing emergency, and requested that the station take some sort of immediate action to inform listeners about Pacifica's labor dispute with its UE workers. After some hurried discussion, the deejays decided that an "informative disclaimer," which would take no position, would be run.

That sent the issue into a brief dormancy, but it was re-ignited last month when one of Pacifica's so-called "heavy-handed" station managers, Mark Schubb of KPFK in Los Angeles, paid a visit to the KOOP board of trustees. Schubb was in Austin visiting family, and decided a visit to KOOP might clear things up for the station. Unfortunately, his appearance left KOOPers with more questions than answers.

In fact, Schubb's performance was, in the opinion of some attendees, just short of a fiasco. After a failed attempt to bar reporters -- Schubb was informed by the board that all KOOP meetings are public, period -- Schubb spent the rest of the meeting snapping at pointed questions, and behaving in a way which can only be described as defensive. His defensiveness, even when he made good points, painted him as less than trustworthy (although, if his claims of receiving death threats from union sympathizers are true, being a little wigged out is understandable). One wonders why a man who handles stress so poorly would want to take on the pressure of being a station manager at one of America's highest-profile public stations.

Schubb's visit appeared to be an attempt to downplay the controversy. For example, he assailed the wording of KOOP's disclaimer, contending that there is no labor "dispute"; rather, he says, Pacifica is involved in "contract negotiations." (The union, of course, would take issue with that -- isn't an argument over terms during contract negotiations considered a dispute?). Still, this disagreement over wording of the disclaimer highlights a tendency of which both sides could be accused -- employing semantics disingenuously.

UE point-man Lyn Gerry, for his part, has been sending e-mail to KOOP to update Austinites on the situation -- and his messages tend to be a bit heavy-handed, as well. A clear example: One that preceded Schubb's visit was titled "Pacifica managers attempt to gag KOOP-FM." That's absolute nonsense. Schubb did indeed request that KOOP discontinue the disclaimer, but he couldn't "gag" the station if he wanted to -- KOOP is merely a subscriber to Pacifica news, and owned solely by its members. At worst, Pacifica could only discontinue doing business with KOOP.

More central to the dispute would be Gerry and his comrades' description of Pacifica's stance on the bargaining agreement as "union busting." As the disclaimer states, Pacifica wants to remove representation of 90% of its workforce from the union negotiation unit -- what it doesn't say (although Gerry has been up front about it in his letters) is that the 90% are volunteer workers. While that may be a point of disagreement between the two sides, it is hardly union busting -- as Pacifica executive director Scott accurately stated in a letter, "The inclusion of volunteers in a union bargaining unit is an anomaly practically unknown outside of Pacifica."

(A poorly worded defense of that point by Schubb may have cost him big points with KOOPers at the meeting -- when some criticized such an exclusion as wrong, Schubb asked "Why? They're just volunteers." That didn't sit well with a station that is almost nothing but volunteers, and is designed so that the volunteers have as much or more power than the two paid staffers. Schubb was quick to apologize for the faux pas.)

UE claims that its charges are supported by Pacifica's hiring of American Consulting Group (ACG), the "union-busting" firm mentioned in the disclaimer. This is also debatable -- while the hiring of ACG was a PR disaster, Scott claims that the firm was only to advise Pacifica on aspects of labor law. One can hardly blame Pacifica for wanting to hire the best advisors possible, but they certainly violated the left-wing tenet of putting your money where your values are.

The effect of all this has been to rile up passions at KOOP. Such debate could ultimately prove healthy for the mini-democracy, but right now it is causing divisiveness. KOOP programmers Odekirk and Joshua DeVries (host of Working Stiff Radio, a labor issues program) have called for KOOP to take an official stand on the side of the UE, arguing that it is mandated by KOOP's mission statement to speak for the underserved. Other programmers, including this reporter, are wary of such a move, fearing that it would violate KOOP's pledge to present a diversity of views and dissenting opinions.

Whatever the outcome, one thing is promising: No one at KOOP seems to favor dropping Pacifica's broadcast. That's a good sign -- the left has practically no representation in the national media, and it needs to hang on to what little is has. Pacifica is not The Man, and frankly, its five-year plan is too vague to indicate that it will become so. Perhaps if the warring factions at Pacifica can control their tempers and engage in reasonable discussions with one another -- it should be reemphasized that both sides are contributing to the antagonism -- then KOOP attentions can be focused on the real villains in our world.


Caveat Lector

News came out earlier this month that the UT Department of Journalism might lose its accreditation; predictably, this sent student journalists at The Daily Texan, many of whom are journalism majors, into a minor tizzy, worrying that perhaps their degrees would be held in lower esteem than those from other universities. Overlooked in both the front-page story and accompanying editorial in the Texan was a much larger point -- whether a journalism degree is worth anything at all.

Although the profession of journalism has a fair share of non-journalism majors, the mainstream press, via the dailies, is driven by those with actual J-school degrees. That may have more to do with the internship and networking relationships between J-schools and major papers, however, than with any particular educational background. And what have the graduates of our nation's journalism schools given us? A press which: consistently condemns the human rights abuses of communist/socialist governments, but rarely mentions those of capitalist ones and completely ignores American complicity; rarely acknowledges the existence of labor, except perhaps in Labor Day stories which usually focus more on hot dogs and fireworks; acts as though campaign contributions are a mere side issue in politics, rarely pointing out the connection between who gives what and how representatives vote; and overwhelmingly quotes white males, disproportionate to their percentage of the population.

Advice to students thinking about applying to J-schools: Take up writing instead.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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