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.