Pacifica: The Last Word
"Biased" was the term used most often in the scores of letters sent in response to John Dinges's "What's Going on at Pacifica?" [May 1]. Pacifica listeners found it "disappointing," "clueless," "pathetic," "insulting," "inaccurate" "profit-driven drivel" that was a "hit piece" "traveling the road of The New Republic." We were called "corporate mouthpiece," and subscriptions were canceled. On the other hand, some thought the piece "balanced," and we were thanked for our "efforts over the last year to tap a variety of perspectives regarding the difficult crisis at Pacifica radio." A sampling follows.
John Dinges's article on Pacifica is a refreshing look at a conflict of which regular listeners to KPFA are all too wearily aware. Dinges supplies believable and positive motives for Pacifica management, more plausible than the paranoid (but, alas, believable) accounts of evil motives that have been our regular fare. If his astonishing point that the three stations that embraced the programming reforms have "seen their combined audiences increase by 52 percent" is true, then clearly KPFA and WBAI local leadership should move beyond recrimination and reconsider their opposition to changes.
Dinges correctly suggests that the stations' goal must be to appeal to a mass, not a select audience. Much as I love many KPFA programs, I mustn't be the only one listening. If the "patchwork quilt of programs" doesn't work, if programs can't attract an audience, we have a responsibility to consider fundamental changes. We must bring KPFA's message (founder Lew Hill's goal of "a lasting understanding between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors" remains moving and precise) to a broad public and a new generation.
John Dinges's article probably came across as reasonable to readers who haven't been closely following what's going on at Pacifica. Of course we can all agree that alternative media outlets should be reaching larger audiences. And how about more diverse audiences while we're at it?
But the Pacifica struggle is not about audience growth. It's about a corporate-style takeover of a progressive institution. If you look at what the Pacifica board has done over the past year, you will see a pattern of consolidation of power in the hands of the board and away from the subscribers and staff; elimination by censorship or firing of critics of management policies; stacking of the board and staff with people who have clear corporate affiliations and no ties to progressive communities; and attacks on progressive national programs like Democracy Now! that too effectively challenge the status quo.
My experience with most of the board members is that they have nothing but contempt for the current audiences, and they haven't a clue about developing programming that would draw new people into the fold. The success stories they hold up, like WPFW, are stations that have hardly any political programming and no local news. WPFW did little or no local coverage of the demonstrations against the World Bank and IMF. And KPFT, the Houston station, carries more programming from NPR and the BBC than from Pacifica.
We need to get this progressive media institution out of the hands of the board members. Then, and only then, let's have a talk about audience. Let's have a big talk with everyone in the left press about why so few people are listening to our radio stations and reading our publications. Maybe in the past we could use the excuse that there weren't that many progressives around anymore, but that argument just doesn't hold up now. There's a new movement out there, folks, and the progressive media need to hook up with it real fast. The folks who are organizing against police brutality, the prison-industrial complex and the death penalty are well organized. They are young people, people of color and immigrants. The antiglobalization folks who raised hell in Seattle and DC are showing a generation of people that protest is not irrelevant!
Then we might try to go beyond the "bigger audience is better" paradigm to consider a new one. How about "media that build and nourish the movement are better"? Step one in building and nourishing the movement is being in touch with it. The Nation's understanding the media and democracy movement would be a giant step.
New York City
Had John Dinges interviewed longtime Pacifica journalists Amy Goodman, Verna Avery-Brown, Dan Coughlin, Laura Flanders, Dennis Bernstein and Cheryl Flowers or dissenting board members like Tomas Moran, he could not have dismissed critics of Pacifica's new leaders as people who prefer a small, insulated audience.
All of the above have worked hard to increase Pacifica's listenership without watering down its content. All are supporters of national programming and are responsible for much of Pacifica's best recent work. By failing to interview nearly all of the most prominent critics of Pacifica's current management while favoring management defenders and their arguments, Dinges failed to make good on The Nation's promise of a "full-blown examination" of the Pacifica struggles.
Knowledgeable critics might have pointed out, in answer to Dinges's pro-management editorializing on Arbitron ratings, that all five Pacifica stations have gained listeners in the past five years. The two stations that have "improved" the most--Houston's KPFT and Washington's WPFW--have done so largely by sacrificing Pacifica's mission and public affairs shows in favor of music and other ratings-grabbing programming. How could Dinges write a lengthy article on Pacifica without including an opinion held by many thoughtful critics--that KPFT and WPFW are becoming almost unrecognizable as Pacifica stations?
Finally, had Dinges called FAIR before describing our weekly radio show CounterSpin as "one-sidedly anti-Pacifica board," he would have learned that, of more than 400 broadcasts, only four have ever mentioned Pacifica management issues. In the first show, we included a defender of Pacifica management; in three subsequent shows, Pacifica leadership declined our invitations to participate. Ironically, while our media criticism show has been repeatedly censored on the new Pacifica, CounterSpin has never been censored by any of our NPR affiliates despite dozens of programs that included criticism of NPR.
FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting)
New Rochelle, N.Y.
I was a producer at WBAI in the early seventies--Pacifica's "glory days," which were due to its relationship with a vibrant national progressive movement. Pacifica nourished this movement and was nourished by it. When the movement shrank and split in later years, Pacifica inevitably did too. If Pacifica remains true to its principles, its fortunes will always reflect those of the movement it represents. In 1972 I opposed Pacifica's acceptance of funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and was derided as a "purist." I take little satisfaction in noting that the antidemocratic changes in Pacifica's national structure that precipitated the current crisis were forced by the network's dependence on those very funds.
By compromising its mission, accepting more tainted funds and sacrificing content for style, Pacifica could certainly grow in size in the short term, but it would shrink in importance and usefulness. A "stronger" Pacifica would be of little value if the network ceased to represent the cutting edge of progressive thought, however out of fashion or difficult for some to hear. In these difficult days, Pacifica's top priority must not be to grow, but to protect its soul. By patiently continuing its prickly, activist programming, it will strengthen the left and ultimately itself as well. Organizing takes time. Arbitron ratings are meaningless. When the national progressive movement crests again, millions of people will seek an alternative radio voice. If Pacifica has been reduced to an "edgy NPR," the movement will have been robbed of a valuable organizing tool, and we will never again see a truly oppositional national radio network.
Dinges is right: It's all about the audience. But the mistake Pacifica made was signing up with Arbitron. Success in the Arbs means holding an easily delineable demographic for a length of time--this shows how well a station delivers consumers to advertisers. But that needn't be the only measure of success. Pubcasters around the world have used the idea of "reach" for decades: how many different people from different communities tune you in (if only for a few minutes) during a week. That marketeers with a pecuniary interest in streamlined radio format (like David Giovannoni) and those hypnotized by them (like Dinges) see a "horror show" in Pacifica's patchwork should be irrelevant to anyone with a noncommercial view of quality (especially "community") radio.
Assistant professor of radio
Brooklyn College, CUNY
I broke my self-imposed gag rule with regard to giving interviews to the print media by speaking with John Dinges some months ago. My hope was that an in-depth, fair and honest deconstruction of the underlying issues that brought the Pacifica crisis to a head would be presented to the Nation audience.
I was severely disappointed. Rather than examine how and why a centralized hierarchy was foisted upon the stations long before the Corporation for Public Broadcasting pulled the chain; rather than investigate the cronyism, incompetence and arrogance at the management and governance levels; rather than probe the aggrandizement of an ineffectual national bureaucracy at the expense of the stations, subscribers and national programming; rather than question the abandonment by its leadership of the noble mission of Pacifica, with no new vision except that of "growing audience"; Dinges prefers to see the demise of a fifty-one-year-old public trust as a modernists-versus-sandbox-bullies squabble.
While "audience" (or, more accurately, audience numbers as measured by Arbitron) is definitely at the center of the paradigm shift in public radio--birthing a plethora of consultants and their cottage industries--it is not at the center of the conflict at Pacifica. Granted, the pressure put on Pacifica by CPB's change in funding criteria--four out of five stations did not make the criteria until they were ranked as minority stations--was audience-related, giving management the excuse to make "necessary" changes. But again, it is not at the center of the conflict. If it were, I would not have been rudely dismissed with two hours to "get [my] things out."
Unlike Mary Frances Berry, I did not enter Pacifica with "impeccable progressive credentials." I entered as an independent-thinking, articulate and seasoned public radio broadcaster with a vision for programming--local, national and global--a knack for community-building and fundraising, a reputation as an outspoken advocate for diversity, a sense of humor and an inclusive management style. I became enamored with the KPFA and Pacifica radio legacy. I was passionate about grooming and empowering the next generation of KPFA and Pacifica broadcasters, knowing that by doing so we would also be grooming the next generation of listeners and subscribers. And I was determined to bring KPFA into digital broadcasting. But vision, leadership and passion can be very threatening attributes to those with covert agendas.
I did not gain the respect and trust of staff, listeners and donors by standing up to my new boss, as Dinges says, or "dissing the board to donors." I didn't have to, because the emperors had no clothes on, and everyone knew it. I was told that I was "not a good fit for the organization," not "not a team player," as the article states. That mis-fact alone speaks volumes to me of whose version of events Dinges listened to and why. To frame the struggle as an audience debate, to reduce the heartfelt outcry of thousands to a playpen pissing match without acknowledging the other operating paradigms is wrong.
The systemic problems remain despite the new dawn/new day spin of the leadership. In April there were thousands of activists in the streets of Washington, but not a peep from Pacifica, which has not only a DC station but the Pacifica Network News there as well--and the Pacifica national office, stealthily moved there one night after fifty years on the West Coast. How tragic.
I had my say on most of these issues in my article, so I won't try to have the last word. On the charge of bias, I can only say that I reported the story as thoroughly and fairly as I could and gave readers my best and most honest analysis based on the facts and my experience in public radio.
The debate over audience growth and political content will surely continue among the Pacifica stations, as it must. But it is self-defeating to frame that argument--as some letters do--on the unexamined assumption that all successful audience growth (such as that at the Houston, Washington and Los Angeles stations) must by definition have been achieved by "watering down" core Pacifica political content. I did not find that to be true in my comparison of the programming schedules of all five stations. Each has a different mix of political, nonpolitical and music programming, and all devote at least an hour and a half to Pacifica's trademark national programs, Democracy Now! and Pacifica Network News. Others may reach a different conclusion--and that is the point of an open debate.