BY PAUL DERIENZO | Summer Reese, the executive director of the Berkeley-based Pacifica Foundation, was fired on March 14 in a closed session of the Pacifica National Board. No official reason was given for the firing, which was announced two hours after Reese publicly announced that she had paid the overdue severances of the majority of WBAI’s employees laid off in a financial crisis triggered in part from damage from Superstorm Sandy.
Reese’s firing is related to a recent election to the board of members of an opposing faction. After a bitter factional struggle in 2001, an expensive and unwieldy election system for board members was put in place. The latest election changed the makeup of the P.N.B. with 12 of the new members voting against Reese and 10 in favor. The new board members claim that they are not required to recognize Reese’s three-year $315,000 contract with Pacifica because it was signed by the previous board.
Summer Reese, although a California native, has a connection to the Lower East Side. In the 1980s as a teenager she was often seen in the neighborhood at protests for the homeless and squatters, and around 1989 briefly stayed in a teepee soup kitchen erected in La Plaza Cultural, at E. Ninth St. and Avenue C.
Reese is a friend of mine and I have always supported her career and hope her the best in this struggle. However, the problems faced by Pacifica and WBAI are much greater than the fate of one manager in a revolving door of 11 national managers over the past decade. WBAI, for example, has gone through at least five program directors in the past two or three years.
While this fight reflects an internecine battle between factions at the Pacifica stations in Berkeley and Los Angeles, it may have a direct effect on WBAI. However, lately WBAI’s financing has come under control, with the layoff of most of its staff and a move to cheaper digs on Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn. Yet, according to Reese, there are powerful forces in California who are pushing hard for a sale of WBAI to bring in funds to endow the California stations.
Reese referred in particular to a Bay Area attorney named Dan Siegel, currently a candidate for mayor of Oakland, who told her directly that he would “sell WBAI to save KPFA,” the Berkeley station.
Reese said that a sale of WBAI could bring in between $50 million and $90 million. According to board member and Reese supporter Tracy Rosenberg, there is a “rumor” that “a small segment of the board has been in negotiations with an entity associated with Comcast news channel MSNBC to take over WBAI’s license.” Rosenberg maintains that while impossible to verify, she believes the rumor is true.
According to a media release Monday morning, Reese and a small group of supporters removed a padlock installed at Pacifica’s offices the previous day and “informed staffers that business would continue as usual.” Rosenberg claims the firing was illegal because of the three-year contract held by Reese, adding that she has “no doubt” that the board was planning to fire Reese for political reasons. She pointed out that a recently elected KPFA board member and employee of the law firm of Siegel and Yee named Jose Fuentes Roman had brought up the motion to terminate.
According to Rosenberg, a first attempt by Fuentes to fire Reese failed in February. She added that Fuentes has never been a programmer or board member of KPFA, yet made the motion to fire Summer without ever talking to her. There was reportedly no discussion among members during the telephone conference call meeting when Reese was fired. Also since Reese’s contract was signed a few months ago, she has not had her scheduled annual performance review yet.
Rosenberg also claims that nearly $80,000 “in missing event revenues” at KPFA has been “identified” and that KPFA administrators had refused to turn over the station’s books for an annual audit the morning Reese was fired. As of Monday, Margy Wilkinson, the chairperson of the Pacifica National Board who had been appointed interim executive director of Pacifica, was sitting in the network’s offices in a tense standoff with Reese and her supporters.
Wilkinson has said that, “The board took an action that it felt was reasonable and necessary, and we’re not in the business of disclosing information about personnel issues to the public.”
In New York the WBAI local station board is also deeply divided. A former program director, Bernard White, was fired three years ago and lost a subsequent employment discrimination lawsuit against Pacifica. His supporters on the board have spoken out against Reese on several occasions, and White has expressed his desire to see WBAI sold. In an interview, White said, “It’s not really a bad idea — WBAI could sell for $350 million, and you can take $100 million and create a smaller radio station, and take the $200 million and buy smaller radio stations.”
WBAI veteran programmer Gary Null is a supporter of Reese and he said during his Monday show that he believes the new management will remove him from the air. Null has often decried “mismanagement” at WBAI and claims that thousands of premiums provided to listeners in return for donations have never been delivered.
A news release on the Web site of Null’s Progressive Radio Network claimed that insurance brokers have written the board claiming that, “Pacifica’s high level of employment litigation posed a threat of ‘uninsurability.’ ”
It’s time for Pacifica’s leading programmers to put aside their differences and come to a unified agreement on what to do with their valuable radio properties. Whatever happens next in the Pacifica drama may decide the future of the entire embattled network.
DeRienzo is host of “Let Them Talk,” on MNN, Tuesday’s at 8 p.m.