When the Houston Press last looked in at the embattled studios of KPFT, gadfly Edwin Johnston and station savior/ nemesis (depending on whom you believe) Garland Ganter's war of words had finally escalated into actual violence. Johnston was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault, of which he was acquitted late last month (see "Tuning Out the Static," by Lauren Kern, April 5).
Johnston's court victory is among the smaller of several triumphs his forces have won in recent weeks. The Pacifica Campaign, a New York-based organization, has partnered up with Corporate Campaign, Inc., an antimanagement organization that battles on behalf of unions against corporate entities like Carl Icahn, Campbell's Soup and American Airlines.
Together Pacifica Campaign and CCI have won the resignations of three Pacifica national board members since May 13, including both Houston-based members. CCI's tactics apparently aim to make their opponents' professional lives a complete and utter misery by any legal means necessary.
Michael Palmer was the first to give in. Palmer, who works for CB Richard Ellis commercial real estate services, was the Pacifica Foundation's treasurer. He was charged by the Pacifica Campaign with, among other heresies, proposing to sell the station's commercial frequencies in New York and Berkeley in exchange for a noncommercial slot on the dial and an estimated $80 million in cash. One day Palmer found picketers outside his West Loop office.
"They were saying that he supported maquiladoras and stuff like that," says KPFT station manager Ganter. "The guy brokers warehouse space out by the Ship Channel. It was kind of a big jump from that to abusing impoverished folks in third-world countries. It finally got to the point where these folks were picketing outside of other branch offices around the country. Word finally came down from the home office to Palmer, 'Either quit the Pacifica board or quit your job' It's economic blackmail basically." (While Palmer himself may not be involved in the establishment of maquiladoras, CB Richard Ellis certainly is. It touts northern Mexico as a paradise where American firms can tap in to "labor, labor, labor.")
Palmer was first with charges of "violent blackmail," which are disputed by the Pacifica Campaign's Juan Gonzalez. "Ours is a peaceful movement," Gonzalez writes on the group's Web site, www.pacifica campaign.org. "To restore Pacifica to its original mission" is its goal.
Next up were Karolyn Van Putten of San Francisco and David Acosta of Houston, who both resigned on June 12. Acosta, a CPA and formerly the national Pacifica chair, was shot down by a barrage of e-flak. "What they did is a spam e-mail campaign to all the CPAs in Houston," says Ganter. "They started sending them e-mails about Acosta -- 90 percent of the stuff was false. All sorts of things, like he's part of a 'corporate cabal' that was trying to take over public radio in Houston. They also had a picket in front of Acosta's office on several occasions. They started calling his clients -- a lot of his clients here are musicians -- and telling them, 'Did you know Acosta is a terrible CPA? He's destroying public radio in Houston' and all this sort of stuff." (Palmer and Acosta did not wish to be interviewed.)
Since then Andrea Cisco of WBAI in New York has also given in. Washington-based Ken Ford, who works for the National Association of Home Builders, is next on the hit list. Ford has been the acting chair since Acosta's resignation. "Last month some of these folks stormed [Ford's] offices in Washington and hung a banner in the window and jammed the phones," says Ganter. "They've even resorted to picketing and protesting the branch offices of home builders around the country. They've crashed their meetings and symposiums and stuff like that by dressing up in suits and following the home builders in. Then in the meeting they'll stand up and start chanting and yelling."
"Pacifica has hired some attorneys who are looking into some of this to see about charges of illegal disruption of commerce," says Ganter. "But it seems the folks on the other side are pretty well organized, I will give them that, and they know where to draw the line."
So if present trends continue, the Pacifica Campaign eventually will force out all of its board opponents. Whether it can replace them is another matter, and a California judge has temporarily barred any new appointments to the board. But let's imagine the Pacifica Campaign forces carry the day and take over the board. Let's imagine what kind of station KPFT will become. Just such a blueprint is offered up in Houston Radio Report Preview, a newspaper put out by the anti-Ganters. The centerpiece is a side-by-side comparison of the program schedules of 1980 and 2001.
Ganter is correct when he claims the station was balkanized back in the '80s, and the progressives who hark back to the days when KPFT broadcast in 11 languages haven't been monitoring AM radio in Houston lately. If they had, they would hear Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, Pakistani and Indian programming across a wide swath of the right end of that dial. There are also nine Spanish-language stations -- on the FM dial alone.
And part of KPFT's mission is to give a loudspeaker to voices that are stifled elsewhere on the dial. To some extent, they are already doing so. Democracy Now, BBC News Hour and The World offer up national and international news unique among all Houston media save for cable and satellite. There are likewise no substitutes for the Matthew Momoh Show, The Prison Show, Nuestra Palabra and the station's gay programming. So far so good.
More problematic is the almost complete lack of local news (the fabled mirage that Ganter has been promising over the next dune for four years) and -- most relevant to Racket -- the music programming, which too often feels as canned as cream of mushroom soup. What's more, KIKK has usurped much of KPFT's "The Sound of Texas" mantle, at least as far as the big guns of the genre go. What Jeep-driving "Road Goes On Forever" fan is going to sit through 20 minutes of pledge-begging when he can get the same hoary old chestnut off KIKK's tree by enduring a mere three minutes of commercials? Then there's the stigma that some rabidly right-wing radio fans perceive about anything broadcast over KPFT's pinko airwaves. They'd much rather get their Texas music from an upstanding free-enterprise bastion like KIKK, thank you very much. (But then KIKK's ratings are tanking, so maybe Ganter will just wait out the apparently inevitable format shift and proceed with the SOT.)
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And to these ears, anyway, "The Sound of Texas" often sounds like "The Sound of White, Upper-Middle-Class, 25 to 50, Inner Loop Texas." It's Bobos in Paradise, neither country nor rock nor anything altogether ethnic. Where is the Mexican music programming? Where are the local rock shows? Why don't all of the music shows feel as freewheeling as those hosted by the weekend jocks? Two hours less a day of Texas music, replaced by any number of ethnic music programs and local news, would likely go a long way toward defusing the opposition while maintaining current pledge levels and listenership.
The Democratic Party in its coma years from 1968 to 1992 was a crazy quilt of special interests and ethnic groups, and its coalition resembled the KPFT schedule circa 1980. The Democrats failed to elect a single president in that span, save for the election immediately following the biggest scandal in presidential history. Likewise, KPFT lost thousands of dollars a year. Ganter has pulled a Clinton. He has triangulated, and in doing so, he has attracted the most listeners ever to the station. At the same time, much of the station's liberal/ progressive and musically adventurous edge has been lost.
Little did we know that the two locations of Elvia's were in such competition with each other. As the votes were being tallied for Best Latin Venue, we failed to clearly distinguish between the southwest and downtown locations of the fabled cantina -- even though we clearly reported the downtown location as the winner. By the time the managers at the dueling Elvia's called us to clarify which had won, the votes had been destroyed. Therefore, we hereby declare them both to be winners. If only the Florida fiasco could have been so simply resolved.