Dennis Bernstein was backed into a corner. It was a little after 6 p.m. on July 13, and the veteran KPFA newsman had just been told to turn in his keys and leave for violating station policy. Instead, he headed to the broadcast booth, followed by armed security guards who were trying to show him the Berkeley sidewalk.

He shoved his way inside the closet-size booth, where a tape player was running a segment on HMOs. He bumped into the machine, disrupting the tape. The broadcaster on duty realized that news was happening in front of him and flipped on the mike. Suddenly, Bernstein was live and on the air. He went for it.

"I am a news reporter," he shouted, his voice full of emotion, as the guards, in their do-not-be-alarmed monotone, tried to defuse him. "I belong here! I am supposed to be here! I do my work here! Do not hurt me! Do not drag me out of here! Don't you dare come in here as armed guards and drag me out of here and threaten me!"

Bernstein realized he had no place to go. So he made a decision.

"In the best tradition of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King and the founder of Pacifica Radio, Lew Hill, I sat down," says Bernstein, 49. "I said, 'I'm not leaving.' "

Within a half-hour, he says, about 600 members of the surrounding community--which had heard the struggle on the air--descended on the station, joining the picketers and other protesters already camped there. They began chanting: "Free speech radio!" Six hours later, his point made, Bernstein left, officially placed on paid leave.

It was just another day in the Pacifica Radio saga, a bizarre three-month conflict between the network's management and its employees that could probably only happen where it's happening--Berkeley, Calif. It began with the firing of one station manager in March after her contract had expired and has escalated into a fully evolved free-speech movement and public relations disaster, with benefit concerts featuring Joan Baez and Wavy Gravy, scores of arrests and a reading of beatnik poetry accompanied by the cool rhythms of an African drum.

Pacifica is an unapologetically leftist public radio network with five stations--in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston, New York and Washington. The network receives about 15 percent of its $10 million budget from the federal government; the rest comes from listener donations. Pacifica does not accept corporate money.

The network's national audience is not large--about 700,000--but it is fiercely devoted and ever watchful for signs that Pacifica is becoming commercialized or limiting anyone's ability to say whatever he wants on the air.

Over the past five decades, Pacifica has won awards for in-depth coverage of many issues off the radar of commercial media, such as the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. At the same time, because it is community-run radio--often staffed by volunteers--Pacifica can sound amateurish and self-indulgent. Dead air is not uncommon, as are half-hour rants.

On one side of the metaphorical barricade are the KPFA employees, who believe that their journalistic and free speech rights have been violated by Pacifica management, which they speculate wants to either sell the stations or gut them.

Fueling the ire of Pacifica broadcasters is a network rule that prohibits employees from talking about internal matters on the air--just before Bernstein was heard shouting at security guards on the air, he had been placed on leave for discussing the conflict on his show, "Flashpoints." Some Pacifica stations--such as Washington's WPFW (89.3 FM)--have liberally employed the gag rule to quash coverage of the imbroglio.

On the other side is management, which says it is trying to make the network's stations appeal to a broader range of listeners and sound more professional. And, implicitly, more listeners ought to mean more donations. For too long, management says, Pacifica stations have preached to the choir of like-minded listeners and stayed too small. Management would like to cultivate more programs, such as "Democracy Now!," which are good enough to be sold into syndication and make money.

But such expansion has been nearly impossible, management says, because entrenched Pacifica hosts and programmers are unwilling to change.

Which leads to what is perhaps this conflict's strangest characteristic: A large part of it boils down into a contest of who's more-lefty-than-thou.

Pacifica was founded in Berkeley in 1949 by Lewis Hill, a pacifist opposed to World War II. In the '50s and '60s, it blasted the House Un-American Activities Committee and broadcast a variety of views ranging from socialist to communist. From 1959 to '77, Pacifica added its four other stations. During the '60s, KPFA in Berkeley became a beacon for the free speech movement.

Since then, however, Pacifica has searched for relevance and seen its listenership decrease. Though Pacifica's five stations do not participate in commercial ratings, they'd finish toward the bottom of each market if they did.

KPFA "has been a place where people can talk to each other," says Bernstein. "It's not always modulated and perfectly formed, and sometimes it's pretty damned terrible, but it's the community's resource for cultural programming and the unfettered flow of information."

Improving broadcast quality and content should be the goal of everyone in Pacifica, says Mary Frances Berry, the head of the Pacifica board. Her day job is head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. She herself has been arrested numerous times in anti-apartheid protests.

"No one can say they're any more lefty than I am," she says.

Berry says KPFA's listenership is about 200,000 in the Bay Area, which has a population of 6 million. She says the average Pacifica listener is a 55-year-old white male--hardly fulfilling the network's mission of diversity.

But Nicole Sawaya, the KPFA station manager who was fired in April, says research showed her that the average age of the audience is 45, that the listenership is split evenly by gender and contains a sizable black percentage.

Berry favors jettisoning some old programs for new ones that would help reach new audiences. But dislodging shows and hosts has been nearly impossible, she says.

Pacifica employees networkwide worry that management doesn't want to improve the stations so much as sell them. KPFA owns a commercial FM broadcast license and transmits at a powerful 59,000 watts, covering much of Northern California. It is worth as much as $65 million, and selling it would be a financial boon to the cash-strapped network.

"Maybe we should think about" selling KPFA, Berry says, "but we're not."

Last week, KPFA was boarded up and padlocked; all employees were placed on paid leave. Since then, Pacifica management has piped in canned music, national programming and reruns. But there is one sign that some progress could be made: Both sides have agreed to accept mediation.

The scene on Martin Luther King Drive outside of KPFA is reminiscent of yesteryear Berkeley. Locked-out employees have set up a tiny 10-watt guerrilla station in the protest camp outside of the station. Protesters--ranging from mohawked twentysomethings to balding hippies--blocked the wide city thoroughfare earlier this week with more than 20 tents--"Camp KPFA," they called it. Many of the youths weren't KPFA fans, per se; they simply showed up because they "support free speech," they reported.

There were plenty of old-school protesters, as well. Shirley Burlingame is an 80-year-old veteran of the 1960s anti-war movement and a devoted dissident.

"It's a struggle for the soul of democracy," she said, holding a picket sign denouncing Pacifica. "There are always issues [to protest], but nothing is as crucial as this."

On the other hand, there's Berkeley City Council member Betty Olds, a 50-year city resident: "I think there's a large group of people who are just doing it because they like rioting."

So far, there have been no protests at the other Pacifica stations. But there have been editorial clampdowns.

At WPFW in Washington, the July 14 edition of "Democracy Now!" was pulled off the air about 10 minutes after it began, as host Amy Goodman began to discuss the protests at KPFA. On Friday, WPFW pulled the plug on Goodman when she mentioned the flap. And earlier last week, a 10-minute news wrap-up of the situation--which included an interview with Berry, who said that the wrap-up did not violate Pacifica's gag rule--was excised from a 30-minute news program by WPFW.

As for Sawaya, she has become the Mrs. O'Leary's cow of this conflagration. Several other staffers resigned in the wake of her departure.

One Pacifica board member said her firing had made her a "martyr." She prefers to think of herself in another way.

"I call myself Helen of Troy," says Sawaya, who is still unemployed. "I'm the face that launched a thousand protests."

Special correspondent Norman Weiss reported from Berkeley.