Good Morning, Postville!

An unlikely thorn in Agriprocessors' side

As a new work week began in Postville, Iowa, last November, Jeff Abbas, with his bushy gray beard and ample paunch, manned the mike at the town’s lone radio station, KPVL. After a song by Billy Bragg, Abbas delivered the latest update on Agriprocessors, the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the world and the largest employer in this town of two thousand tucked among the rolling hills just west of the Mississippi River. In May 2008, Agriprocessors had been the target of what at the time was the largest immigration raid in U.S. history, in which nearly four hundred workers were arrested. On this Monday six months later, Postville was abuzz with the news that the company had declared bankruptcy.

“Five before nine, currently fifty-five degrees on our way to an absolutely stellar day here in God’s country. I’m Jeff Abbas. We are exploring the Agriprocessors situation today all the way back as far as May, just seeking your comments and questions.”

Locals interested in learning about the fallout from the Agriprocessors raid initially had to rely on the legions of national media that parachuted into town. In Postville, there was little coverage. Sharon Drahn, the editor and only reporter at Postville’s weekly newspaper, the Postville Herald-Leader, told me that the demands of covering the town council, the schools, and the churches left her little time to report substantively on Agriprocessors, before or after the raid. The paper also has a limited base of advertisers in a town this small, which makes offending the business community risky.

The closest serious newsgathering operations are some two hours away by car, in Waterloo and Dubuque; a professor at the University of Northern Iowa described this rural corner of Iowa as a “media desert.” Indeed, when I went to Postville in 2006 to report on the working conditions at the slaughterhouse for The Forward, a Jewish weekly based in New York City, there was practically no local coverage of the problems at the plant, even though the owners—the Rubashkin family, Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn—had clashed with locals since the slaughterhouse opened in the late 1980s. The company had been investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and criticized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Abbas was not a likely candidate to fill the void. As KPVL’s only employee, he was already in charge of nearly all of the station’s programming, and he doesn’t even draw a regular paycheck (more on that later). Abbas’s background is in music programming, not journalism. But in the months after the raid, Abbas tutored himself in the art of sources and government documents and created his own mix of news, commentary, and civic engagement, eventually becoming the local authority on the raid and its aftermath. Abbas’s expanded role—and more particularly his critical bent toward Agriprocessors—which has included turns as a talking head on cnn, npr, and Al-Jazeera English, drew criticism from members of KPVL’s board and requests for Abbas to tone it down. But it has also won Abbas a significant fan base in Postville. “A lot of this stuff was only discussed in hushed tones at the diner before,” said Lynda Waddington, a reporter for the Iowa Independent who has covered the Agriprocessors story, but who works from her home in Marion, Iowa, a two-hour drive away. “Jeff forced them into an uncomfortable position where they had to talk about it or at least listen to it.”

This is not the sort of programming that anyone expected when Postville’s Lutheran church secured a radio license in 2002. “We wanted something like that station in that TV show Northern Exposure—with the storefront window, where they could see the world go by right in front of them—you know, to be more in touch with the community,” said Nina Taylor, KPVL’s former treasurer. The early programming was designed to provide multilingual updates on snow days and tornado warnings. With a signal that extends about ten miles outside of town, KPVL was primarily a repeater for Iowa Public Radio.
When Abbas joined KPVL in 2006 as the station manager, his main goal was to entertain the diverse groups brought to the town by the slaughterhouse. The Guatemalan baker hosted “Noche Latina” for the workers, for example, and Sunday afternoons were given over to Jewish music for the kosher factory supervisors. Abbas did news briefs on the half hour and hour, but he admits they were “mostly canned—just stuff I pulled off the wire, along with the weather.”

The turning point for Abbas came the week after the raid, when he read the descriptions of child labor, abusive supervisors, and dishonest management in the government’s affidavit on the slaughterhouse. Abbas was outraged. When I interviewed him months later, he became animated as he recalled his awakening. “Every time I spent more than a few minutes with that affidavit, I became more incensed,” he said. “I couldn’t help but become outspoken.” Much of Abbas’s criticism has been directed at the Rubashkins. Aaron and Sholom Rubashkin have both been charged with child-labor violations by the Iowa attorney general, and federal prosecutors have charged Sholom Rubashkin with bank fraud and immigration violations.

Abbas’s position as both an insider and an outsider in Postville helped to shape his new role as town crier. He grew up in Bremer County, Iowa, seventy miles from Postville, so he knows the local ways. But he spent most of his adult life in the hippie stronghold between Stockton and Lodi in California. Abbas has none of the reticence that distinguishes most Postvilleans, and he befriended many of the curious folks who came to Postville after the raid to fill the positions at Agriprocessors. One group of workers came from homeless shelters in Texas, for example, another from the Pacific island of Palau. It was Abbas’s decision to air an interview in late May, with a woman from Texas who was angry about the way the Rubashkins had treated her, that caused the first blowback from Chaim Abrahams, then the president of KPVL’s board and also an executive at Agriprocessors. Abrahams wrote an e-mail to fellow board members complaining that the KPVL programs were dividing the town.

As it turns out, Abrahams had more to fear from Abbas than just the divisive effect he might have on Postville. When Abbas found a hot story, he would get on the phone to journalists elsewhere in the country with the tip. In November, after Sholom Rubashkin was jailed for bank fraud and then released on bail, Abbas turned up video footage of a celebration at Postville’s synagogue, welcoming Rubashkin home at the same time that the company’s workers were scrambling to keep from being evicted from their apartments. Abbas passed the video to Shmarya Rosenberg, a blogger in St. Paul, Minnesota, who has provided some of the best coverage of the raid and its aftermath; a few days later, the video was referenced in The New York Times.

It didn’t help that as the station’s influence increased, its revenue did not. Abbas was hired with the understanding that his salary would be a commission on any underwriting he could secure—work he set aside as he hustled to expand programming. Abbas said that over the last two years he has received $4,500 for his work at the station. He has stayed afloat, he said, by selling his old coin and stamp collections.

Tensions came to a head just before Thanksgiving, at an open meeting of the radio station’s board, when Abrahams took issue with Abbas yet again. Dozens of Postville residents showed up to support Abbas. After making a plea for editorial independence, Abbas requested some sort of personal financial assistance. “I need to get myself out of the hole,” Abbas told the crowd, his hands folded before him.

Nina Taylor, the station’s treasurer, has been one of Abbas’s supporters, but she politely expressed discomfort with the position that Abbas’s work had put her and the other board members in. “There’s no guideline or directions on how to deal with this,” Taylor told me in an interview, “so everyone is kind of creating it as we go along.” Soon after the meeting, Taylor resigned her position, citing the stress of the work.

The board did come up with a bit of money to tide Abbas over, and town officials took over much of the rescue work for the struggling former slaughterhouse workers that Abbas had been doing. (When Agriprocessors filed for bankruptcy, Abbas spearheaded an effort to provide them with basic relief, turning the KPVL studios into a food bank and working the phones in an effort to keep the electricity and water on in the workers’ apartments.) On Christmas, Abbas took his first day off since Christmas the year before.

But the tension remains. Abbas has kept up his on-air commentary, and the board continues to deny him a regular paycheck. In February, Abbas applied for food stamps. He also contacted a lawyer to help him fight for a portion of a grant that KPVL got from The Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

“I’m almost fifty-five years old,” Abbas said. “There’s nothing else I can do. There’s nothing else I want to do.” 

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Nathaniel Popper is a senior writer at The Forward.