What's Going On at Pacifica?
But Pacifica's clout during the glory days of the antiwar movement did not carry over into the later seventies, as movement politics became more fragmented and divisive. A single unifying cause was replaced by a flurry of competing and aggressive groups, each with a narrower interest than before and each with a constituency. Programmers at Pacifica became little more than brokers allocating airtime according to which hinge squeaked the loudest. Once allocated, programming slots were treated as entitlements. In one case, at KPFK in Los Angeles, an elderly activist tried to leave his air slot in his will. In this small world, in which most Pacifica programmers were unpaid volunteers, control over airtime was the ultimate, and often the only, reward.
The five stations divided the day into a patchwork quilt of programs, scheduled more in line with a volunteer's preferences, clout and available free time than with any view toward the audience. Lew Hill once remarked that a program serving even one listener well was worth putting on the air, and that became a mantra whenever someone questioned whether anyone was listening. "Pacifica was great in the early seventies," says NPR reporter Mike Shuster, who was a Pacifica UN reporter in the late seventies. "But when the war ended in 1975, and even before when the antiwar movement petered out, Pacifica began to grope for what to do. That was when the splinter programming came in. That was what the left was like then." Pacifica redefined itself as "community" radio, in which community was conceived not as a single city but as dozens of diverse interest groups and political constituencies.
Radio was also changing. Pacifica held a nearly exclusive franchise on listener-sponsored public radio until the late sixties. Then Congress brought together hundreds of educational FM stations into a coordinated public radio system. NPR was created and began to distribute a news and features program called All Things Considered in 1971. The news system was funded by Congressional appropriations to a new entity, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which gave operating grants to qualifying stations, including the five Pacifica stations. Dozens of Pacifica reporters and producers made the move to NPR, attracted by better pay and a more stable journalistic environment. NPR's Pacifica graduates include diplomatic correspondent Ted Clark; medical reporter Patty Neighmond; former Pacifica Vietnam correspondent Chris Koch, who became an All Things Considered anchor; New York reporter Margot Adler; and Robert Krulwich, who then moved from NPR to CBS and then to ABC television.
Internal upheavals, presaging the current crisis, shook Pacifica's New York affiliate. Programmers rebelled against the Pacifica board's attempt to remove some programs, barricading themselves in the station's control room for almost six weeks in 1976. For a time, management and staff had an active and open discussion of reaping a windfall to put Pacifica back on its feet by selling the station's valuable commercial frequency. The idea, then and later, was to acquire cheaper noncommercial stations with equivalent power and continue broadcasting.
Was anybody listening? When Pacifica learned the answer to that question it was a shock. In the late eighties, when the network began to subscribe to Arbitron surveys to measure its audience, KPFT in Houston had so few listeners it didn't show up in the surveys, while WPFW in Washington was actually declining in audience. The two small stations were running chronic deficits and had to be regularly bailed out by the larger stations.
Yet Pacifica still had great moments as a national network that echoed its impact during the antiwar years. Only Pacifica provided national broadcasts of the weeks of Congressional hearings into the Iran/contra scandal in 1987, elevating national correspondent Larry Bensky to journalistic prominence. The national broadcasts demonstrated Pacifica's acceptance among mainstream listeners--audiences surged during the national broadcasts, then dropped back when stations returned to regular fare.
As Pacifica entered the nineties, its signal was reaching 40 million people, but little more than one in a hundred listened long enough or often enough to be measured. NPR stations now existed in every Pacifica market and were attracting the news-hungry, socially active audience who had once been loyal Pacifica devotees. With a far larger news budget, NPR provided wall-to-wall coverage of crucial events like the run-up to the Gulf War and the war itself. NPR's news audience had caught up to Pacifica and was roaring away--growing from 2 million to 8 million in just ten years. In the five Pacifica cities, NPR stations were doubling and tripling Pacifica's audience.
Inside Pacifica, the argument that NPR's success was somehow the result of watered-down programming pandering for popularity was growing thin. Political purity still mattered, but some began to think seriously about growing the audience.