Is There a Future for Pacifica?
Now, as an outsider--and I am very much an outsider--one thing seems clear to me: Both sides have a point. The only black voices I hear on the radio are Colin Powell or teenage boys singing about "bitches" and "hoes." The voices of progressive blacks would today seem like something from a 1970 time capsule. Latinos or Asian-Americans? Forget it. NPR has become incredibly yuppified. However, when you look at the minutes of the latest Pacifica board meeting, and read demands that KPFK have more Islamic programming, more Spanish-language shows, more shows about immigration reform, more shows about Native peoples and so forth, you do wonder whether this automat-style programming would further segment, rather than bind together, progressive listeners. And how do you convince a potential new listener to KPFA, say, that its journalistic standards are superior to those of FOX News, when the station features a show called Visionary Activist hosted by an astrologist whose guests include "planets, gods and, on occasion, dead people"? (Go ahead, send the hate mail--but this is the kind of programming that the right and liberals cite to argue that progressives deserve no place at the table of national debate.)
"Everything is up for re-examination, especially programming," asserts Cagan. "There are no sacred cows. It's not that we have an agenda, that there will no longer be a certain kind of programming. Everything is open for discussion." Coughlin has set up a "Mission Commission" to review and elicit input on programming and the programming process, which he acknowledges could be highly contentious. But like it or not, radio listeners today do rely, in part, on predictable schedules. Especially for news and public affairs programming, they want to know that they can find the same kind of news/talk show at the same time every day. The sort of listener Pacifica attracts seeks out surprise too, but this desire for some predictability in format would be foolish to ignore.
Finally, those on the board and at the stations must figure out how to stop the infighting and how to repair what many refer to as a toxic work environment. This means nothing less than cultivating an entirely new, more respectful, more restrained institutional culture marked by compromise, real power sharing and civility. Cagan, by all reports, has succeeded in creating, at the public board meetings, an environment that is respectful of people's differences and complaints, and one that is also focused on developing participatory processes that will produce effective new bylaws and more open personnel practices. But the firings of particular staff, the terminating of Pacifica Network News and the public declamations at the March meeting by some that the new board must prevent "antimission" people (those who allegedly have deviated from Pacifica's founding pacifist principles) from ever getting back on the air look like an effort to blinker one vision in favor of another.
Many on the old board behaved badly and stupidly, including refusing to listen to crucially important constituencies within the network. Is the interim board going to make the same mistakes? Is the new board simply picking off, one by one, those they feel were insufficiently critical of the old regime? "I can imagine why people might think there's a purge," Cagan acknowledged, "but the process this time is much different. Yes, people have been fired, but no one's been banned. And the numbers are wildly different. At WBAI under the old board, twenty-seven or twenty-eight people were fired or banned. We offered a buyout, which was totally voluntary, and only three people have been fired. Pacifica is changing, and we're opening up space at the five stations for new leadership to emerge." She insists that the board eliminated PNN not for ideological reasons but because the audit singled it out as especially costly and urged that it be abolished.
Don Rush begs to disagree. "Part of it is personal," he maintains, recalling the torrent of abusive voice mails and e-mails he got from dissidents who saw him as on the wrong side of the battle. "Once their side won, we would be the people who would go."
Questions about Pacifica's future management take on new urgency in this age of unprecedented media concentration and as the White House continues to tighten the jaws of news management. And the February 19 decisions by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which ordered Michael Powell's lapdog FCC to reconsider (read, eliminate) restrictions on the number of television stations the networks can own, and simply struck down rules preventing a company from owning a cable system and a broadcast station in a single market, make many of us anxious about Pacifica's ability to remain a powerful and important voice in the etheric wilderness.
There are five Pacifica stations and only fifty-one affiliates. Those of us out here stuck with Britney Spears and "Satellite Sisters" and no Pacifica station or affiliate, who see Bush, Ashcroft, Sharon and the top guys at Enron and Arthur Andersen (to name just a few) getting away with murder (often literally), are fed up with folks at Pacifica seeing each other as the enemy and smearing each other endlessly. Despite Cagan's commitment to participatory democracy (and her opposition to censorship), she, Coughlin and others may need to issue some tough, top-down edicts about name-calling and race-baiting in the workplace. If Pacifica can survive financially (and don't think the media sharks aren't circling around those stations, waiting patiently) many of us want Pacifica and its stations to reach some hard-nosed compromises that will carve out space for progressive programming for national audiences as well as programming with local interest and appeal. In terms of potential reach, Pacifica may be the largest progressive media outlet, but in terms of real influence, it has yet to fulfill its potential. Maybe if you're in Berkeley or LA, the biggest, most important battles over democracy are inside the walls of the Pacifica stations. But many of us would like those in Pacifica to walk away from the microscope and put on some binoculars. Look outward. That's where the really, really bad guys are, and they are getting scarier--and in more need of media outrage--each and every day.