Is There a Future for Pacifica?
The prospect of writing about the ongoing Pacifica crisis is about as enticing as walking past a recently dislodged beehive without the beekeeper's net: No matter what you say, you'll end up with welts. Since 1999 there has been a vitriolic battle over programming and personnel between the Pacifica Board and two of the network's stations in particular, first KPFA in Berkeley and then WBAI in New York. The other three stations in the network, KPFK in Los Angeles, KPFT in Houston and WPFW in Washington, have not been without strife either, and there have been major tensions between stations, especially KPFK and KPFA, and within stations as well [see John Dinges, "What's Going On at Pacifica?" May 1, 2000, for a detailed account].
Passions (and scars) run deep on all sides, and few have been happy with coverage of the story, including in The Nation. If you, poor writer, suggested that those in Pacifica who were pushing for programming that would attract a wider audience might have a point, you were a crypto-fascist tool of corporate capitalism trying to turn Pacifica into the Home Shopping Network. Conversely, if you, poor writer, suggested that the local stations were right to try to preserve their autonomy and to reject ratings as a standard of success, you were an elitist, racist hippie throwback who wanted KPFA to broadcast programs that would attract only three ponytailed white guys in their 50s. I've heard the former group described as sellouts who, if they brought former government officials on their shows to debate current affairs, were aiding and abetting "war criminals"; they were "hijackers" determined to steer Pacifica away from its true mission. I've heard the latter group described as "left-wing ayatollahs" or "brownshirts" who indulged in "Operation Rescue" tactics to attack the old board. Each side caricatured the other in this way--and continues to do so.
Please keep in mind that these people--at least as I understand it--are united in their opposition to the Bush Administration's war on terrorism and on civil liberties, share a powerful critique of US imperialism, are avowed antiracists, deplore the right's attacks on feminism and women's reproductive rights, and are bound together by deep concerns over the threat to democracy and public discourse posed by media conglomerates. But Pacifica radio? Hey, them's fightin' words. Better to destroy it than to let those who are too pragmatic or, on the other hand, too purist, control it.
Many readers of The Nation have been following this story with great interest, since, despite all its recent troubles, the Pacifica network remains the largest progressive media outlet in the country, and the future of listener-supported, community-based radio has been at stake. Many others, however, especially those of us nowhere near a Pacifica station and trapped, instead, in the auditory hell of Dr. Laura and the endless replaying of "Drops of Jupiter," have stopped caring about what appears to be a self-indulgent sectarian battle and have two words for all involved: Grow up. The challenge to Pacifica, then, comes not only from its own vicious internal divisions and from a broader media environment dominated by Sumner Redstone, Michael Eisner and Clear Channel; it comes also from those on the left who are out of earshot, sick of the infighting and wondering whether Pacifica is relevant anymore.
The need for restraint and the obligation to focus on rebuilding Pacifica have gained renewed urgency with three dramatic recent developments. First, the old, much-vilified board is gone; second, Pacifica is on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of these battles; and third, the new, interim board has fired or suspended people at various stations, including Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor. (Cooper still hosts RadioNation, a project of the Nation Institute produced at KPFK.) In mid-February the network discontinued Pacifica Network News, one of only two national programs, and fired all the staff and its senior correspondent, Don Rush, who had been with the network for twenty years. Some within Pacifica hail this as a new beginning; others see it as the beginning of the end for the network.
For those who have not been following the story closely (or know it all too well), here are the admittedly incomplete Cliffs Notes: Prior to 1999, the local advisory boards of each station named two members each to sit on the national board. But then the national board voted to end this representation; it also decided to have its membership be self-perpetuating. Many at the local level saw this move as undemocratic and fought it in a multi-pronged slash-and-burn campaign that lasted two and a half years. Dissident staffers, board members and listeners combined fundraising boycotts, on-air attacks on the board, harassment of board members, e-mail and Internet campaigns, and lawsuits to change the constitution of the national board. It was a highly controversial campaign; it also worked. In December 2001 the dissidents won control in what has been called the Pacifica settlement. Throughout this battle there have been at least two "sides" within the network: dissidents like Amy Goodman, Juan Gonzalez, Dennis Bernstein, Dave Adelson and many others who fought very publicly to eliminate the old board, and those like Marc Cooper, Saul Landau, Mark Schubb and many others who hated the board as well but disagreed with the dissidents over tactics and over programming policy.