What's Going On at Pacifica?
Beneath the overt conflict are even more serious questions--and disagreements--about Pacifica's viability and effectiveness in pure radio terms. Indeed, the facts are starkly at odds with one of the most cherished notions about Pacifica, namely that its politically progressive programming attracts a relatively small but fiercely loyal audience. Small, indeed, but decidedly not loyal--certainly not as that term is understood in the radio industry. In fact, listener loyalty at Pacifica stations and programs is among the lowest in all of public radio, meaning Pacifica's listeners actually spend most of their listening time tuned to other stations. Public radio audience expert David Giovannoni, who has been a consultant for Pacifica for almost a decade, said the efforts to build audience had produced results that were "too little, too late." The network, he said in a report to the Pacifica board, "is today an anachronism on the FM band, arrested in its development by a small group of people who are similarly stuck in time." (Giovannoni's conclusions were immediately denounced by those who charge that the whole idea of audience growth is a ruse to water down Pacifica's edgy political message.)
Audience is at the center of the conflict. Pacifica's 800,000 listeners may dwarf the numbers of any other media on the left, but they are minimal for powerful radio stations in major population centers--as is the case with the Pacifica stations. More crucially, audience studies show that most Pacifica listeners tune in only briefly--from a few minutes to several hours a week. Pacifica's stations can stagger on perhaps indefinitely with what one station manager called "our hypercore" audience--the small politically committed group that listens, donates and is not shy about weighing in publicly to oppose changes. But why should Pacifica limit itself to preaching to its own converted? One doesn't have to take sides in the current dispute to envision a greater goal: to bring many hundreds of thousands, even millions, into a forum for progressive information and ideas that it was Pacifica's original mission to provide. "Pacifica used to be the leader in attracting minority audiences, in building audience in general and in raising money from listeners--in fact, Pacifica invented the whole idea of listener sponsorship," said Rick Madden, a vice president at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). "Now they aren't a leader in anything. It is just enormously sad."
The heart of Pacifica is its network of five flagship stations with a set of assets any radio programmer would die for: locations in five major urban centers (WBAI in New York, KPFA in the San Francisco Bay area, KPFK in Los Angeles, WPFW in Washington and KPFT in Houston), powerful FM transmitters broadcasting from frequencies in the prime real estate on the dial and a potential for clear, interference-free listening by a combined population of 42 million. Fifty-seven affiliate stations around the country expand that potential audience to millions more. In today's overheated market for radio frequencies, Pacifica's New York and Bay Area stations--which, unlike the vast majority of public radio stations, were assigned frequencies in the commercial part of the radio band--have an estimated value of $80 million and $50 million, respectively.
According to its charter, Pacifica's five stations and their broadcasting licenses are owned by the Pacifica Foundation, which is governed by an unpaid board of up to nineteen members. The board hires an executive director, who hires and supervises each station's general manager. In reality, the board and executive director have rarely asserted much authority, and the five stations have been virtually autonomous.
Power struggles always involve money, and Pacifica is no exception. The network has an overall budget of $9.2 million. Almost all the money comes from station fundraising drives; stations also receive matching-fund grants, totaling $1.2 million this year, from the CPB, which allocates funds voted by Congress to support public radio and TV. Individual programs, such as Democracy Now!, also supplement Pacifica funding with grants from private organizations such as the MacArthur Foundation. Pacifica prides itself on refusing any contributions from private corporations, and some look askance at even the CPB money. More hotly debated, however, has been the increasing share of station revenues allocated to national (as opposed to station) spending, such as national staff (the executive director makes about $60,000 a year), consultants, a new satellite system and increased national programming. NPR, by comparison, has a budget exceeding $75 million, about 50 percent of which comes from station fees, with most of the rest from private foundations and private corporations, whose messages are put on the air in short quasi commercials known as underwriting credits. Pacifica's full-time staff totals about 150, ranging from eight at the smallest station, KPFT, to about thirty at the two largest stations, WBAI and KPFA.