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Sixties Blossom in Berkeley

July 21, 1999

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) _ Grooving to the beat of a tinny boom box, yoga instructor Dieter Grube flashes a peace sign as he keeps vigil outside KPFA community radio, which is locked up in a management-staff dispute.

Behind him, about 50 people mill about in the sun _ parents, retired professors, students, the homeless. Stacked on a table, a Xeroxed blast from the past: fliers advertising a benefit concert headlined by folk singer Joan Baez.

Here on a quiet street in Berkeley, the Sixties are in bloom as a community famous for its protest past goes radio-active.

``We have all of Berkeley here, and it’s wonderful,″ said Tracy Rosenberg, an organizer with the activist group Media Alliance and a regular on the KPFA protest line.

Agreeing with fired staffers’ contentions that management is trying to take their quirky community radio station mainstream, loyal listeners have taken to the sidewalk outside KPFA in protest for much of July. Their numbers have ranged from a dedicated few to rallies of thousands. About a dozen nylon tents have formed ``Camp KPFA,″ and a number of people have been arrested in skirmishes with police.

Big names like Baez and ``The Color Purple″ author Alice Walker have joined the cause, along with others like a woman from Humboldt County who would identify herself only as ``Behr.″

At times, the scene takes on a celebratory feel. Tables of food and drink stretched along the sidewalk Monday, and a nearby restaurant advertised ``KPFA specials″ for $5.

On Tuesday, while some staffers broadcast over pirated airwaves from a makeshift booth near the station, others met with officials of the parent company, the nonprofit Pacifica Foundation. No resolution was announced.

Over five colorful decades, KPFA has earned a spot in broadcast lore. It has broadcast Allen Ginsberg’s seminal poem ``Howl,″ claimed to be the first to play the Grateful Dead and given a start to film critic Pauline Kael.

The trouble began in April when popular general manager Nicole Sawaya was dismissed. Management banned discussion of the issue from KPFA’s airwaves, resulting in two firings of on-air staff and the arrests of more than a dozen protesters for trespassing.

In mid-July, listeners heard veteran KPFA newsman Dennis Bernstein hustled out the door after he mentioned the controversy. All staffers were put on paid leave as management locked the doors and began airing old shows.

Some might have trouble casting the Pacifica Foundation in the role of oppressive parent. Its board is chaired by Mary Frances Berry, who also heads the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

Pacifica managers deny any attempt to stifle KPFA. Others contend the on-air gag rule and subsequent lockdown don’t mesh with the station’s mission.

``I cannot accept the occupation of a radio station under armed security,″ Ms. Rosenberg said.

Many angered by the moves are longtime listeners who trust KPFA to bring them voices they say are ignored by the mainstream media. Standing at an information table, Scott Fleming, a recent graduate of UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall law school, sheepishly admitted he wasn’t getting much studying done for his bar exam next week.

But some things, he said, are more important.

``They seem to think they can come and take our radio station away from us,″ he said.

Some are newer devotees, like Grube, a recent arrival from Germany who smiled serenely on Monday amid the supportive blares of motorists’ horns. He said he was there to support free speech and free expression.

``I am a meditator, so usually I sit on my cushion and meditate,″ he said. ``It’s really the first time something like this is really grabbing me.″

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