Labor - And A Whole Lot More

A Missing Chapter in Broadcasting History
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KQED in San Francisco, one of the country's premier public broadcasting stations, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. But the official history the station put out to mark the anniversary has a gaping hole in it. There's absolutely no mention of the key event that involved the public in KQED's operations as never before -- and never since: The first and only major strike against any public broadcasting station anywhere.

For 18 weeks in late 1974 and early 1975, the strike by employees of KQED's television and radio stations severely curtailed KQED's operations and won widespread public support for the striking engineers, filmmakers, camera operators, announcers and others led by the reporters for KQED-TV's highly popular nightly news program, "Newsroom," whose format was being copied by public TV stations nationwide.

I recall the strike all too clearly, for I was "Newsroom's" labor reporter at the time and in charge of the strikers' publicity efforts. We waged an extremely heavy campaign. We turned out buttons, bumper strips, T-shirts and a variety of leaflets and posters. We held numerous rallies and demonstrations, placed ads and "free speech messages" on several radio and TV stations and, through simple classified ads in the city's two daily newspapers, built a list of 1,500 "Friends of the KQED Strike" who were sent weekly news releases and otherwise were kept in close contact.

The campaign's most unusual aspect was the daily broadcasting of "Newsroom of the Streets," which was taped at varying outdoor locations by the regular "Newsroom" crew for showing nightly on Bay Area cable channels. We also published a widely circulated daily strike bulletin featuring the superb cartoon work of Dan O'Neill.

Supporters sent hundreds of letters to KQED's management and Board of Directors in behalf of the strikers. They demanded refunds of their membership fees and pledged not to contribute more until the strike was settled fairly. They provided much of the man and woman power that our small band of 80 strikers needed to conduct major activities, much of the essential inspiration and half the $4,000 a week we spent to run the strike.

Individual donors ranged from a cabbie who stopped at a picket line one day with $2 "so you guys can have some coffee," to the hundreds of people who sent checks ranging from $5 to $100.

Outsiders donated food as well as money, joined us on the picket lines, and helped line up their unions and community groups behind us and our union, the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians. Some supporting unions sent as much as $5,000. Some, like the San Francisco-Oakland Newspaper Guild, "adopted" strikers by sending a check every week. The Teachers Union and others sent volunteer to picket and to help in the chores at strike headquarters on a regular basis.

The widespread labor support was probably best explained by Steven Thompson, the recording secretary of a Painters Union local which contributed $50 to the strike fund.

"We, too, are a small union, and generally cannot afford to give monetary assistance even of such a minor nature," Thompson wrote the Strike Committee. "But is is our belief that your cause is especially important in that it is concerned with, and in the eye of, a media which affects us all so deeply. A victory for KQED strikers will eventually, we reason, have a more striking effect for organized labor, public services and other small unions than any other action we could support."

Celebrities such as singer Joan Baez and union leaders Harry Bridges and Cesar Chavez spoke out for us. Malvina Reynolds wrote two songs for us. Then-State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and Congressmen Phil and John Burton and virtually all other major officeholders in the San Francisco Bay Area were outspokenly on our side, too. They warned KQED it would have a very tough time getting government funds until the strike was settled.

Much of the support was based on the popularity of "Newsroom." Letters poured into KQED blaming management intransigence for the nightly absence of what a typical protester called "The finest program of its kind ...the most viewed news reporting in this area."

Strikers greatly limited the station's on-air solicitation of funds that the station hoped to use as a major weapon against them. Although unable to produce "Newsroom" or any other local programs, KQED did manage to continue broadcasting, primarily by using national programming provided through the Public Broadcasting System. But whenever KQED's management went on the air to pitch for viewers to "call in and pledge money," strikers and their supporters rushed to the telephones to tie up the lines with protests to KQED. Before the strike, a single "Pledge Night&" would bring in $15,000 to $20,000, but those held during the strike eventually were returning less than $1,000.

Our greatest accomplishment may have been simply the act of staying together. We were a highly diverse group with a wide variety of occupational and social concerns, and many were new to unions and collective action. But though we often argued heatedly, none of us broke ranks to return to work, despite the length of the strike and repeated management attempts to divide us.

In the end, however, we got relatively little for our extraordinary efforts in what amounted to a war of attrition against us by KQED management. We won our basic demand for union contracts, but with pay, benefits and rights less than those of our counterparts elsewhere. And we and our supporters were only temporarily successful in related demands that KQED give employees and KQED members an effective voice in operations of the station, which KQED management described as "a private, non-profit corporation" rather than vital non-commercial public entity.

Nor did we succeed in our attempt to halt the move by KQED's management toward a commercial TV style that KQED has now almost thoroughly adopted, complete with commercials for program underwriters.

Our defeat -- and defeat it clearly was -- marked the beginning of the end for "Newsroom." KQED management, headed by veterans of commercial TV, moved in to take tight control over what had been a collective of independent reporters gathering and presenting information in their fields of expertise with a minimum of the interference from editors, news directors and the like which is common in commercial TV.

"Newsroom" became simply a commercial news program without commercials, generally reporting the same stories in the same ways as other local TV news outlets. As elsewhere, reporters usually were told what to cover and frequently how to do it. Their stories had to reflect, or at least not oppose, the views of a news director who chased audience ratings with all the passion of his insecure counterparts in the commercial world.

Often, the reporter's knowledge of a particular story didn't go far beyond what appeared in the script, just as in most local TV news operations, where reporters are mainly generalists merely developing the story ideas of editors and news directors. But even that didn't much matter, since the devotion to commercial TV style meant more, briefer stories and hence little time for the ad lib discussion that was one of "Newsroom's" unique features.

William Osterhaus, KQED's president and general manager at the time, was especially pleased with the tight control over reporters. He rejected the reporters' demand for the right to be fired or laid off only for economic reasons, misconduct or other just cause.

That right, common in most union contracts, including those covering print reporters, is essential if reporters are to have the basic security and independence to dig where they may without concern for employers who could fire or threaten to fire them anytime they dug into an overly sensitive spot. But Osterhaus insisted on the right to fire reporters at will, to give them no more standing than the right to work until he decided "you are not what we want, goodbye."

He soon decided that I was not what he wanted. Not long after the strike, I was fired for "insubordination" for refusing to limit my coverage of labor matters.

Copyright 2004 Dick Meister