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What's Going On at Pacifica? | The Nation

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What's Going On at Pacifica?

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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.)

About the Author

John Dinges
John Dinges has been writing for many years on Latin America. His latest book is The Condor Years: How Pinochet and...

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After three foreign correspondents are decertified, is Cuba sending a message to the international press corps?

Two senior citizens of the
cold war are chatting amiably over small cups of thick, sweet Cuban
coffee in a Havana hotel. Bob Reynolds, tall and erect in his
mid-70s, made clandestine trips to Havana for the CIA in the early
years of the Cuban Revolution. And in Miami, as CIA station chief, he
was in charge of recruiting thousands of tough young Castro-haters
and turning them into a fighting force to invade Cuba. Comandante
Ramiro Valdes, shorter, a few years younger than Reynolds, has a gray
goatee reminiscent of Trotsky and an iron handshake. One of the most
feared and respected men in Cuba, he was at Castro's side at all the
major events of the revolution and became chief of state security
after the 1959 victory.

Their encounter, counterspy and
spy, was one of many head-turning vignettes at a historic meeting
here in Havana, March 22-25, in which Americans and Cubans from
all sides reconstructed and relived the April 17, 1961, Bay of Pigs
invasion. On the Cuban side for three days of intense discussions
were Fidel Castro and sixty of his top military leaders; the US
delegation included five Cuban veterans of the CIA-trained 2506
Brigade, which carried out the invasion, and White House advisers
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Goodwin.

"We talked as
professional to professional," Reynolds said of his first-ever
meeting with Valdes. "I congratulated him on the effectiveness of
their system." Valdes had only a few months to organize islandwide
security before the Bay of Pigs invasion. He rejected the notion that
it was a draconian secret police system that doomed the effort. "I
told [Reynolds] it was the total support of the people for the
revolution," said Valdes.

Valdes disclosed that his
security network quickly rounded up 20,000 suspected dissidents in
the hours after the invasion began, squelching the US expectation
that the invasion would set off mass rebellion and sabotage on the
island. Valdes also revealed that Cuba had no intelligence from
inside the 2506 Brigade itself. The Cubans knew from secondary
sources and partly from US press accounts that an invasion was
imminent but did not know the date or landing site. Security on the
island, however, was so tight that according to Samuel Halpern, the
other CIA official at the meeting, the CIA found it virtually
impossible to plant agents anywhere but in rural areas. Halpern was
the CIA's point man on Operation Mongoose--the Kennedy Administration
special project against Castro that included intelligence collection,
sabotage and assassination missions inside Cuba.

Castro sat
across from Halpern and Reynolds, showing no sign of lingering
hostility to the Americans and Cubans who had plotted his overthrow,
even his death. On the contrary, the atmosphere was jovial,
respectful. Castro--who missed not one minute of the presentations
and himself talked in long half-hour and hour stretches--remarked at
one point that it was more than respectful, it was friendly. At a
final banquet, Castro used the word "family" to describe the
conference participants and the frank, intimate exchanges. Once,
José Ramon Fernandez, the Cuban battlefield general at the Bay
of Pigs, called the anti-Castro troops mercenarios, and Fidel
pointedly corrected him. "They're brigadistas," he
said.

During a break, Castro rushed over for a private
conversation with CIA official Reynolds after an exchange in which
the Cuban side had been adamantly skeptical about Reynolds's denial
that the CIA saboteurs had blown up a ship unloading weapons in
Havana harbor in 1960. He shook hands and put his hands on Reynolds's
shoulders, saying, "I don't want you to think we are trying to settle
old scores."

The five members of the 2506 Brigade
delegation were also frequently engrossed in deep conversation with
Cuban officials, although Castro himself seemed to make a point of
keeping them at arm's length. One brigade member, Roberto Carballo,
who runs a hotel in Cancun, Mexico, has a long record of anti-Castro
activities, including being named in newly declassified US documents
as a suspect in terrorist activities in the 1970s.

The
strongest disagreements at the meeting were among the members of the
US delegation over the actions of President Kennedy and his
Administration. Kennedy adviser Schlesinger presented a picture of
Kennedy as trapped--inheriting an ill-conceived invasion plan from
the previous Administration. There was the implication that CIA
officials sold Kennedy a bill of goods: Schlesinger said Kennedy
consistently refused to approve the direct use of US soldiers, but
the CIA strategy seemed premised on the conviction that Kennedy would
change his mind in the heat of battle and send in the Marines rather
than allow the invasion to go down to ignominious
defeat.

There was no disagreement on the US side that the
invasion was ill conceived. Brigade member Alfredo Duran said the
United States not only failed to invade but also abandoned the troops
on the beach when it was clear that the invasion had failed. Duran
said privately later that some of the brigade soldiers were so angry
they fired their weapons at the US Navyships waiting
offshore.

CIA official Halpern vigorously rebutted
Schlesinger's scenario. The Kennedys were not so innocent, he
insisted. He described a time shortly after the failed invasion when
Richard Bissell Jr. was called to a meeting with Robert and John Kennedy. "Get rid of
Castro, the Castro regime," Bissell said he was told. Halpern recounted, "I said what does
'get rid of' mean? And [Richard Bissell] said, 'Use your imagination.'"
The result, Operation Mongoose, proposed thirty-two different
measures, including assassination, to get rid of the
regime.

The National Security Archive, a sponsor of the
conference, presented a declassified document that refuted the idea
that the CIA led Kennedy to believe that all would not be lost if the
invasion failed, because the anti-Castro forces could melt into the
mountains and continue guerrilla warfare. The document described a
meeting in which a CIA official told Kennedy explicitly that in the
event of a failure, the only alternative was to evacuate the invasion
force.

Perhaps the most bitter exchange came from brigade
member Luis Tornes, who said he became convinced that the United
States intentionally sent the soldiers to their death in the hope
that world opinion would blame Castro for mass murder. But Castro
didn't cooperate, and instead took the surviving invaders prisoner
and gave them medical treatment. About 120 of the 1,400 troops were
killed in battle. Cuba eventually released all the prisoners after
long negotiations.

For Castro and his men, Playa Giron (as they prefer to call the battle) was an unalloyed David and Goliath victory. But in the United States the battle is still construed as just another episode in a dictator's undemocratic
survival. It is like much else in the tortured conflict between the
United States and Cuba. History and common sense point to ending a
standoff that has outlasted nine US Presidents and become an
increasingly absurd post-cold war footnote. As they did at the
meeting, Castro and his men couldn't proclaim more clearly their
desire for respect from, if not friendship with, the United States.
But it won't happen--not as long as the US Presidents who control the
writing of that final chapter remain tangled in a trap of their own
making, as was Kennedy when he launched the invasion forty years ago.

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.

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