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Andrew Phillips: the education of a KPFA general manager

Andrew Phillips

Andrew Phillips at the NFCB [photo: Matthew Lasar]

I attended the National Federation of Community Broadcasters conference on Friday. No sooner did I wander into the main drag of the San Francisco event than I spotted KPFA’s beleaguered General Manager, Andrew Leslie Phillips, staffing a table.

“Matthew!” Phillips cheerfully exclaimed after I introduced myself. “Got a lot of respect for what you do. Sit down and let’s talk.”

The enthusiasm, the compliments, the banter, the Melbourne accent . . . it’s pretty easy to be charmed by this guy—except if you are his boss, it seems. According to Phillips, the Pacifica Foundation, which owns Berkeley, California based KPFA, has put him on “paid administrative leave.” His ultimate fate, I tentatively divine from various unreliable sources, will be determined by an investigation of what could be a few or perhaps over a hundred “complaints”. This all depends on which self-appointed authority you quote. Initial reports [Facebook login] claimed he was fired (I emailed Pacifica Executive Director Summer Reese for the details, but received no reply).  Allegations of “racism” are also in the air (they often are at Pacifica). Facts about those charges, however, remain just as scarce.

And so, having interviewed Phillips at length, I’m going to explore a different take on his hiatus—that it is really about his attempts to repair KPFA’s badly damaged morning schedule. Some background is in order:

Back in late 2010, the Pacifica Foundation’s then Executive Director Arlene Engelhardt decided that KPFA could no longer afford its two hour Morning Show and it would have to be dumped. Full disclosure: I was appalled. I loved that show and the voices of its two hosts, Aimee Allison and Brian Edwards-Tiekert. Now it was gone.

Over KPFA’s airwaves I listened to the official excuses. “Nobody wants layoffs, but . . . ” apologized various Deacons of the Church of Pacifica. Actually, from the basement computer where I do most of my writing I could almost hear the collective licking of lips at the prospect of all that available airtime. Haters of the Morning Show had long since damned Allison and Edwards-Tiekert (and their predecessors) as Democrats, liberals, anti-911/truthers—you know, all the Bad Things. It was time to replace them with true representatives of The Community. Now at last they had an Executive Director’s ear, and a credible excuse: saving KPFA payroll cash in the middle of a recession.

So out went the Morning Show, and in came the “Morning Mix”—five work days, five different volunteer hosts (sometimes more). Some of them were awful. Several of them were good. But the overall daily production wasn’t—a textbook example of how a community radio station can quickly devolve into a single occupancy motel for programmers. I remember one Morning Mixer interviewing somebody about some new exercise dance thing. “See you next week,” I recall her saying to her audience at the end of the hour. What was coming up next on KPFA or even on the Morning Mix tomorrow was apparently none of her concern. This was her slot; that was what mattered.

The station quickly split in two over the canceling of the Morning Show. Demonstrations and counter-demonstrations outside the Berkeley building ensued. Subscribers elect KPFA’s board. The two main slates: pro-Morning Show SaveKPFA and pro-Morning Mix Independents for Community Radio had themselves an electoral battle royale over the move. It was in this context that Phillips was brought in as the station’s new General Manager.

Phillips had a lot of experience with Pacifica. He’d been central to New York sister station WBAI in the 1980s. But he engaged in some serious dorkery when he first got started at KPFA. He showed up at a Local Station Board meeting and went into a tirade against SaveKPFA, calling its principals “Fifth Columnists,” a dig that did not go unwasted on some of the faction’s old left activists. “That went over like a lead balloon,” Phillips told me with a chuckle.

A lengthy food fight began. By the time it concluded the SaveKPFA dominated LSB had issued a statement of ‘no confidence’ against his and Pacifica’s “anti-union” actions. But behind the scenes, KPFA’s GM and the station’s senior staff were talking, and when Engelhardt left, Phillips felt like he had some room to maneuver.

“For about a year, remembering that I was employed by Arlene Engelhardt at Pacifica, I basically did her bidding,” Phillips continued. “I did what she wanted and what she expected. But I realized over time that what she’d expecting and what she implemented was the wrong strategy.”

And he explained why:

“Drive time, particularly in the morning, is the time when most people listen to the radio. KPFA had a very credible and respected morning show. It was doing pretty well. It was basically supporting the station. It was paid staff, yes, and you have to deduct the salaries to get the net amount that it was making, but it was still driving the morning. Arlene Engelhardt took it off. We put on this sort of mish mash program. It was the wrong time for the program. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t have more volunteer programming on the station, programming like the Morning Mix. But not at eight o’clock in the morning with five different shows and many different hosts changing constantly. That is not the recipe for good listening.

At that time, we were running Al Jazeera at six, Democracy Now at seven, the Morning Mix at eight. People tuned in at seven for Democracy Now. Many of them went away for the Mix and they came back for the Dem Now rebroadcast at nine o’clock.”

So after another fund drive had gone “down the tubes,” Phillips recounted that he “threw up his hands” and asked for suggestions. “We’ve got to do something about the mornings. Let’s talk about it.”

“And so I opened it up to the staff. They’re pretty professional people. We started a long discussion. A lot of to and fro. And out of which finally I made a decision to give the seven to eight o’clock hour to the News Department. Not to Brian Edwards-Tiekert per se, but to the news. Let them take responsibility. They’re pretty professional. The news some people consider conservative. So be it. There’s much more radical stuff on KPFA. Whatever. I wasn’t interested in that. I was interested in helping to create a program that would give the morning more weight.

They decided to bring in Edwards-Tiekert in the morning for an hour at seven am. We brought Sonali Kolhatkar in from [Pacifica sister station] KPFK in Los Angeles, and in three days they had a program up [Up Front] that sounded professional. All of a sudden the morning sounded like something. And the Morning Mix benefited. And if you look at the ratings now, like the streaming ratings, you’ll see that at 6 am now (we moved Democracy Now back to six) we have a very steep rise. People tune in. They stay in for the Up Front program. They stay in for the Morning Mix. They stay in for Democracy Now. And they climb again for Mitch Jeserich at ten o’clock. So from a radio point of view we’ve got a better profile.”

I asked Phillips what he would do with KPFA mornings if he had his druthers:

“Well, Tiekert is way overbooked. He needs a full time producer and he needs another host. And it probably should be on for two hours. The Mix should really be moved. The reason that it is there now is essentially political. It’s not because it’s a good program. I mean some of the programs in the Mix are good programs, but as a five day a week program, it’s a mish mash. It’s a mix!

I don’t know where I would move it. Look, Davey D’s already got a show. He’s paid. He doesn’t have to be on in the morning. The Thursday show (Project Censored) is a good show. The Friday show (Andres Soto) is a good show. And maybe Steve Zeltzer, but that doesn’t have to be on in the morning, but Zeltzer’s show is not bad either. The best of them are the Thursday and Friday shows.”

I would probably say that Andres should be a contributor to the Morning Show. The Project Censored Show could go anywhere. It’s a very good show. A very important show, but it could be located elsewhere in the schedule.”

That’s what Andrew Phillips says he wants, but he’s not in charge at this point. I am told that Pacifica is currently paying his salary and another general manager’s at the cost of around $70k a year each. “Nuts,” Phillips summarized the whole situation with a cocked eye. “Just nuts.”

Ironically, SaveKPFA, which used to be at odds with Phillips, is now his biggest supporter. In April, staff launched a petition declaring their opposition to his removal (signers here and here). Not surprisingly, the signers list is top heavy with SaveKPFA supporters and light on Morning Mix folk. Even some of the Morning Mixers he praises did not sign.

Phillips takes these somersaults with good humor. “I was branded anti-union when I got here and now I’m being branded a racist,” he mused. “WTF?”

More significantly, last week he gave the welcome address [Facebook login] at the NFCB, a sign of his stature within the community radio community. He told the audience that community radio’s job is to “go deep” on stories that are given “cursory coverage” by the rest of media:

“For instance, I suggest that what happened on September 11th, 2001 is one such story. Since the September 11 attacks, doubts have been raised about the mainstream account of events. There have been a number of 9/11 conspiracy theories suggesting that members of the U.S. government may have deliberately covered-up and falsified events, in order to hide negligence or even complicity.

A number of 9/11 opinion polls – including Zogby International – find more than 40 percent of New Yorkers don’t believe the official story – 40 percent don’t believe it. And almost 12 years after that horrendous day – and I was in New York that day – I saw it first hand and was breathing in my fellow citizens – we still have inadequate answers to what really happened that terrible day.”

I personally don’t have a lot of sympathy for this perspective on the role of community radio. I know there are people at KPFA who say they treat these issues with rigor. My experience with most conspiracy theory oriented programming is that it is very critical of others, and very uncritical of its own logic—top heavy with rhetorical questions and cherry picked, ad hominem evidence. Aside from the question of whether public opinion surveys help us understand what happened on September 11th, that Zogby poll was commissioned a coalition of groups predisposed to believe that there was a conspiracy. A more recent Angus Reid poll indicates that most Americans reject the most famous “9/11 Truth” claims.

“Only 15 per cent of respondents think claims that the collapse of the World Trade Center was the result of a controlled demolition are credible,” the Vancouver based pollster noted in 2010.

But while I may not concur with Phillips’ on that issue, I think that Pacifica urgently needs to keep him on as general manager of its historic first radio station. As his NFCB commentary suggests, he finds sympathy for almost all of KPFA’s tendencies and components. After two years of experience, Phillips is probably the closest thing that Pacifica will ever find to someone who can harmonize the disparate forces that make up KPFA.

I asked Phillips if he had anything to add to our conversation. “All this attention to Andrew Phillips is unwarranted,” he modestly explained. “I am very sorry that this has become about me.” But right now it is about him. He is the general manager that KPFA needs.

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