Is There a Future for Pacifica?
The old board was viewed as totally incompetent by nearly everyone, and thuggish by many. Not only is it gone; so are the bylaws that governed it, to be replaced by a new structure as yet to be determined. The settlement between the old board and the dissidents, hammered out by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw on December 12, established an interim board, chaired by former board dissident Leslie Cagan, that will govern for fifteen months; it is charged with revising Pacifica's bylaws and resolving the network's outstanding personnel disputes and its daunting financial problems. The new board returned Democracy Now!--which the network had stopped producing during the conflict--to the fold (with back pay for the staff). Dan Coughlin, the former director of Pacifica Network News, who was fired for airing news of the nationwide affiliate boycott against the board, was reinstated as Pacifica's interim executive director until a new one is named. The board also reinstated those staffers who had been banned and fired at WBAI in what came to be known as the Christmas Coup of 2000. When the new board, at its second meeting in early March in Los Angeles, announced that Pacifica headquarters would be moved back to Berkeley (it had been moved to Washington in January 2000), the crowd erupted in cheers.
After the past two and a half years, this all sounds like a new dawn, yes? In fact, early accounts of these changes have had the same air of jubilation as accounts of the Berlin wall falling. Democracy has finally returned to Pacifica, proclaim the dissidents. And if you were, say, Dennis Bernstein of KPFA--who was arrested after his station manager called the police on him and antiboard demonstrators and was marched out of his station in handcuffs--you, too, would rejoice in this triumph over cloddish and creepy authoritarian rule. But those seen as having been on the wrong side of the struggle--Mark Schubb at KPFK, Marc Cooper and Don Rush at Pacifica Network News--have been fired or suspended, and they don't see the recent changes in such glowing terms. In fact, they see a left-of-left coup that will drive the network to the farthest margins of left-wing insignificance.
So the truly hard work has just begun, and the jury is still out on whether Pacifica can restore, let alone enhance, its influence. First, there is the money problem. Pacifica is, as Coughlin puts it, "on the brink of financial collapse": An audit completed in early February (and funded by an anonymous donor) showed the network to be approximately $5 million in debt, with an additional $1.5 million budget gap for this calendar year. The dissidents blame the old board for squandering money on high-priced lawyers, travel and public relations firms; those opposed to the dissidents blame them for launching costly lawsuits that the board had to fight. The audit gives fuel to both sides, showing a whopping $1.47 million in legal fees for the last fiscal year, but also showing more than $203,000 in consulting fees and $330,000 for "public communications." And "asleep at the wheel" might best describe how the old board could have incurred $237,000 in bank charges; the audit suggests that in the future canceled checks be reviewed for "irregular endorsements" and that American Express cards be cut up into very, very small pieces.
The audit recommended staff cuts, pay cuts and cuts in benefits, and insisted, "It is imperative that Pacifica consult with a bankruptcy attorney now." If Pacifica is unable to negotiate a settlement plan with creditors, it will have to file for Chapter 11. Already the new board has let staffers go while presenting others with buyout plans. And the board eliminated Pacifica Network News--which had the potential to re-establish the network as a leader in progressive-oriented news--because, at $1.3 million a year, it was deemed too expensive. Pacifica still has no formal accounting procedures in place, and Coughlin reports that its basic accounting software isn't even functioning properly.
Cagan urges people not to overreact to Pacifica's dismal financial news and rejects bankruptcy as an option. "There's still a possibility we'll be forced into it," she noted, but with recent successes in station fundraising drives, some of them record-breaking, "I'm feeling extremely confident." (The most recent fund drive at four stations produced an unprecedented $3 million in on-air pledges.) She also foresees the possibility of direct-mail campaigns; more coordinated on-air drives, such as the five-station "Save Our Signal" campaign to raise money for KPFK's transmitter; the refinancing of existing properties; and donations from wealthy individuals. She is adamant about one thing: "We are not selling assets. We've been given guardianship of these licenses, and our job is not to sell the licenses." But Pacifica still has to raise $1.5 million by May 15 to cover operational costs and salaries, and another $2 million between May and October.
Even if Pacifica crawls out of this financial hole, it has to confront very sharp, sometimes venomous internal debates about programming. At issue, in part, is whether the stations should be platforms, primarily, for progressive journalism, or whether they should be platforms, primarily, for progressive activism. Some insist that these listener-supported community stations should be indifferent to audience size and to conventional journalistic standards, focusing instead on broadcasting a range of progressive positions, including those that are quite marginal and don't get airtime anywhere else. For dissident activists like Dave Adelson and Carol Spooner, who sued the old board, NPR is a powerful counterexample of what many believe Pacifica should not become: little more than state radio that has, over the years, opted for more mainstream, predictable programming. For this group within Pacifica, the move toward more strip programming (regular programming at the same time each day or week), toward paid professionals as opposed to volunteer programmers and toward efforts to build audience move the stations away from their mission and down the slippery slope toward eventual corporate sellout.
On the other hand, former KPFK manager Mark Schubb, Don Rush from PNN, Marc Cooper and others insist that now, more than ever, Pacifica has a duty to be more listener-oriented, to adopt and increase strip programming so that people can find the same public affairs programming on a regular basis, to develop national progressive programming and to rely primarily on paid staff who adhere to generally accepted journalistic standards. A failure to make such changes, they say, would consign Pacifica to an unnecessarily small and marginalized place within radio and within the broader media landscape. Schubb argues that since KPFK redid its format in the mid-1990s, listenership and fundraising have increased significantly. But many African-American, Native American, Latino and other groups feel their voices were shut out of KPFK in what they see as the pursuit of a more upscale, mainstream audience.
This battle, whether you see it as a contest between these two colliding philosophies or simply as a factional power struggle for control of the air, could dominate Pacifica in the months and years ahead. Nearly everyone I spoke to on both sides of this divide saw the differences as irreconcilable.