KPFA 94.1 FM, the Berkeley radio station and linchpin of the liberal Pacifica Radio network, plunged again into crisis Tuesday morning when the staff of The Morning Show locked themselves inside a third-floor alternate studio and began broadcasting during the regularly scheduled timeslot.
Their action comes a day after they were fired by Pacifica’s upper management following a protracted labor dispute.
A remarkable scene unfolded at KPFA’s downtown Berkeley offices around 7 a.m., as Morning Show co-hosts Aimee Allison and Brian Edwards-Tiekert bade farewell to their listeners from a third-floor studio while Arlene Engelhardt, the Pacifica Foundation executive director, entered the main studio on the first floor to heatedly defend her controversial decision Monday to remove three staffers of the popular morning program.
“KPFA is in dire straights,” Engelhardt said as she pointed at a KPFA union steward who was in the studio beside her. “The station is not operating in a sound fiscal manner.”
According to Engelhardt, the station had lost close to $1 million two years ago and a half million dollars during the last fiscal year.
In interviews, both Allison and Edwards-Tiekert called Englehardt's action “political retaliation” after a group of KPFA staffers, led by Edwards-Tiekert, filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over a previous round of layoffs at the beleaguered station. Shortly after the KPFA union issued a press release about their complaint, Allison, Edwards-Tiekert and Laura Privus, a producer, were fired, station staff said.
The firings were not financially motivated because the show, which attracts the largest audience of any locally produced program for the station, was also its greatest moneymaker during fundraising drives, supporters of the Morning Show staff said.
“It wasn’t the show that cost the station any money,” said Mitch Jeserich, the producer of the program “Letters to Washington.” “It brought in twice what they cost.”
In a telephone interview Monday evening, Engelhardt said the show’s exceptional fundraising record was due to its prime timeslot, and explained the wider layoffs as a move of financial necessity.
The Morning Show staff had refused to make cuts for two years in a row and had depleted its reserve fund, Engelhardt said. By cutting the staff, annual costs at KPFA will drop from $2.3 million to $1.6 million, according to Engelhardt.
She added: “Quite simply, they were spending more than they were bringing in.”
Engelhardt said she intended to replace the hosts by the end of next week with on-air hosts from other KPFA shows “who you should recognize,” although she did not name them because they were not yet confirmed.
“We have something in the lineup so we’ll come out as good as we were,” she said. “It will still be a big moneymaker.”
Engelhardt said Monday night she was planning to pipe in programming from the Pacifica affiliate in Los Angeles for Tuesday morning’s show.
When told by a reporter Monday night that KPFA staff were planning a coup, she said: “I have to depend on the fact there’s a certain amount of loyalty to the station. I hope that’s the case.”
It was not.
On Tuesday morning engineers based in both Berkeley and Los Angeles called in sick, opening the possibility for Allison and Edwards-Tiekert to host a renegade program.
The fired staff said the incident had roots in a longstanding conflict with the upper management, which many employees viewed as bloated and wasteful.
The station's union said it would take the matter to arbitration. For now, the co-hosts said they would be off the air beginning Wednesday, Nov. 10.
Some 200 people attended a late morning rally outside the station's offices to protest the firings.
“It’s an organization with a history of strife — it’s part of the brand,” Allison said Tuesday as she peered cautiously over a third-floor railing, expecting security guards, adding: “I think it’s going to get hectic.”