Why Gary Null has left KPFK
This is a letter from WBAI board member Steve Brown, sent out to his email list on July 07, 2013, and forwarded to me by Ron Miller yesterday.
Dear Pacifica Supporter —
By now, Gary Null’s listeners at KPFK know he is no longer there. What they don’t know – because he simply vanished without warning or explanation – is why.
I didn’t know why either, though I am a board member of WBAI and a fiduciary of Pacifica.
So I asked him – because I was as mystified as his listeners. After all, Gary Null is one of the longest-running broadcasters in KPFK history (over 30 years). He is also the most successful fundraiser in KPFK history (during the last fund drive alone he brought in 42 percent of the station’s total income, and has sometimes brought in as much as 70 percent on certain days).
So what happened? Why did Gary leave KPFK?
To find out, I recently phoned Gary while he was on the road, filming his latest documentary. When I asked what precipitated his departure from KPFK, he explained that it was not a single event or cause, but rather an increasing accumulation of incidents in which station management behaved negligently and irresponsibly, repeatedly broke its word, failed to honor its listeners, and – he almost hesitated to say this – “manifested a deep spiritual lack of common ethical courtesies.”
He said there had finally come a “tipping point” at which he realized that, although he had dedicated 30 years of his life to nurturing the station and championing its mission, he could no longer (and I could hear in his voice how distressed he was) honorably continue in that environment.
I asked Gary if he could be a bit more specific about some of the issues he had with station management. At first, he said no; there was no point. He was not in favor of blame-allocation. It was water under the bridge, and he did not want to denigrate or attack anyone. However, after some prodding he agreed to share a few key issues.
The one that seemed most personally wounding to him (this is my own assessment) was an evening news broadcast, originating from KPFA but simulcast on KPFK, in which several members of an AIDS organization not only attacked Gary’s scientific findings about AIDS (which he agreed they had every right to do) but also accused him of being a “murderer.”
Gary asked the station to give him equal air-time on the same program to refute this slander, since its listeners had only heard one side. Not only did KPFK not give him this opportunity, it did not even give him the courtesy of a reply. (This, mind you, at the same time Gary was working his a** off, hour after hour, during KPFK’s fund drive, often pitching non-stop until 4am in the morning.)
Gary was not so much upset by this personal attack on him (he has a tough skin, and is regularly attacked by much bigger assailants). What did trouble him, deeply, was that the station would condone such vile personal attacks about anybody on its Evening News – without offering an opportunity for rebuttal. As an award-winning investigative journalist himself, Gary felt this to be a severe violation of basic journalistic integrity, not to mention unworthy of a Pacifica station. But when Gary brought the matter to the attention of KPFK’s management, they shrugged it off, did not even feel it necessary to respond. When Gary then told Pacifica’s Executive Director about this breach of journalistic ethics, she too did not seem to care, let alone feel it necessary to actually do something – either about this particular case, or about Pacifica’s journalistic standards in general.
Here is another incident Gary told me about. This one highlights the extreme dysfunction of the present KPFK management, and its uncaring attitude towards its listeners – an attitude which not only lost Pacifica at least 1,000 angry supporters, but also lost Gary a friendship of nearly 40 years standing. Here is what happened.
Shortly after Hurricane Sandy, each Pacifica station aired an emergency 12-hour fundraiser to help WBAI recover from the storm’s damage. To ensure the success of this drive (during which, incidentally, Gary broke all fundraising records in Pacifica history) Gary persuaded his good friend Peter Max, perhaps the world’s most famous living artist, to make a gift to the station of $1 million worth of his most coveted prints, each one hand-signed by Peter Max and personally dedicated to the donors who had pledged. This effort was to be coordinated by KPFK management, which was supposed to send the donor names and addresses to Peter Max, so he could sign and mail them to each donor from his studio.
But that never happened. For although the donors sent their pledge money, they never received their Peter Max prints, signed or otherwise. That’s because KPFK management – at first totally cavalier, then totally dysfunctional – never sent the donor names to Peter Max. Nor did anyone even send him so much as a thank-you note (God forbid a personal telephone call!) in recognition or appreciation of his $1 million gift to Pacifica.
To this day, almost 9 months later, those donors still have not received their signed Peter Max prints. So they began bombarding Gary with phone calls by the hundreds — and blaming him. And Peter Max, too, called Gary repeatedly to find out what was going on. But KPFK management, which was sitting with all those names in its possession, could not bestir itself – or simply did not care enough – to put the names in an envelope, or append them to an email, and send them to Peter Max. As a result, hundreds of angry listeners have said they were ceasing their support – and rightly so, given the constant failure of management to keep its promises and honor its most basic commitments to its listeners.
According to Gary, taking money without respecting those who donated it, is negligent and immoral. In Gary’s mind, if you want to keep an audience, you must honor and appreciate its members, otherwise you will lose them. And you will also lose any broadcaster who refuses to be a part of such a negligent and dishonorable system, as KPFK has now lost Gary Null.
Although there were several other incidents that Gary mentioned (a few of which were so bizarre I could scarcely believe them, until they were corroborated by a senior KPFK producer), I think the final straw for Gary was this.
Not long ago, Gary volunteered to help a KPFK fund drive by offering, as a premium, a 1- or 2-week “total immersion” health retreat at a luxurious spa. He himself would fly out to conduct the retreat personally, which included rejuvenating mineral baths at natural underground springs, daily early morning yoga sessions, healing ayurvedic massages, guided exercise therapy, spiritual seminars, use of a fully equipped world-class gym and – perhaps most tempting – a virtually unending succession of delicious juices and lavish organic meals prepared under Gary’s direct supervision, by a team of professionally trained gourmet chefs.
Not only was Gary doing this as a public service for KPFK, accepting no payment, and setting aside two weeks from his hectic schedule of writing, lecturing, documentary film-making and the counseling of terminally ill patients. He also volunteered – since KPFK, as usual, had no money – to assume all the up-front costs of accommodations, food, transportation, and professional services out of his own pocket, to be reimbursed to him immediately afterwards by the station, out of proceeds from the event.
Needless to say, this extraordinary premium was snapped up as soon as it was offered, and KPFK was able to realize a nice profit. But the station broke its promise to reimburse Gary, sticking him personally with thousands of dollars in expenses. Weeks turned into over a month, but no amount of communication with KPFK management succeeded in getting them to honor their commitment. Only after Gary threatened to stop fund-raising did a check finally arrive.
So in the end, Gary told me, he no longer feels there is a reason to remain with KPFK. Why should any sane person remain in a family that repeatedly breaks its word and allows people to call you a “murderer?” That would be an abusive relationship model, he said.
To me, as a board member of a Pacifica station, it was sad to hear Gary talk this way. For Gary has brought more listeners to Pacifica than any other broadcaster. He has also brought it more money than any other broadcaster as well – raising roughly $40 million for the foundation in the course of his career. Ironically, although other broadcasters at KPFK are paid salaries and receive monetary compensation (one broadcaster, whom Gary asked me not to name, gets paid more than half a million dollars a year by Pacifica!), Gary does not accept a penny for his services to KPFK or any other Pacifica station, even though the money he raises pays for a significant part of the operating expenses of KPFK, not to mention of the salaries of the very management staff who have treated him so disrespectfully.
For years Gary has been counseling the millions in his audience about the need to let go of negative relationships in order sustain health and psychological wholeness. Now I believe Gary himself has finally come to recognize that his relationship with the present KPFK management is negative, and apparently incapable of changing. Therefore he needs to sever it.
Nevertheless, despite his differences with KPFK management, Gary truly wishes the station success, because he believes passionately in its mission, and considers its survival to be far more important than the failure of this or any other set of managers. He hopes that future KPFK managers will do a better job in serving the station and its listeners.
So what is the bottom line?
What, in the final analysis, does Gary Null’s departure mean for KPFK and Pacifica?
As a board member of a Pacifica station, I am alarmed as well as indignant that the management of any Pacifica station could be so short-sighted (and stupid) as to let its most popular broadcaster and biggest fundraiser leave – for any reason – let alone for reasons that should have been amicably resolved over a cup of coffee (or a glass of organic vegetable juice) instead of being allowed to fester for months, before finally blowing up in Pacifica’s face.
What on earth was KPFK management smoking to let Gary walk? And why was Pacifica’s management not alert and pro-active enough to step in and avert this catastrophe while there was still time?
Pacifica management may wish to forget that KPFK’s airwaves will now be poorer and duller without Gary Null. It may also wish to forget that Gary Null is a celebrated investigative reporter whose radio programs have won more Silver Microphones (“the Pulitzer Prize of broadcasting”) than all of Pacifica’s other broadcasters combined, and that his film documentaries on government corruption, corporate malfeasance, Wall Street thievery, and the pharmaceutical assault on our health and environment have won awards at major film festivals all over the world.
But Pacifica management cannot afford to forget that Gary Null is the most popular broadcaster in its history, accounting for up to half the audience at one Pacifica station and bringing in as much as 35% of total revenue at KPFK. According to Pacifica’s chief financial officer, the foundation was barely generating enough revenue to survive as it is. How do its chances for survival look now, when the millions of dollars that Gary Null used to bring in are no longer available?
This is an intolerable situation for Pacifica. There is simply no reasonable hope of replacing Gary Null’s fundraising revenue in any other way, or from any other source. How then could any responsible management have allowed Gary Null to leave? More important, what efforts is management making to induce him to return? Gary Null can survive without Pacifica. But unfortunately the reverse is not true.
Therefore, if Pacifica does not take immediate steps to correct the circumstances that have suddenly robbed KPFK and the foundation of so much of its income, it does not deserve to survive. Instead, it should sell its radio licenses and distribute the proceeds to progressive organizations that will use the funds more wisely and more effectively than Pacifica’s management has shown itself able to do.
We all agree that it is not healthy for Pacifica to have so many of its eggs in one basket – as Gary Null himself has been pointing out to Pacifica for years. But the only way to correct this unhealthy dependency on Gary Null is by creating new programming that is as good as Gary Null’s, and can attract an audience as large and supportive as Gary Null’s.
But unless and until that happy day arrives, Pacifica management must face reality and acknowledge that, whether it likes it or not, it does indeed have most of its eggs in one basket, and must therefore do whatever it takes to avoid overturning that basket and breaking those eggs.
Stephen M Brown