What's Going On at Pacifica?
Thinking about audience was already producing a small revolution in the world of 600-700 stations that is public radio. In the late eighties and early nineties, the buzz at the yearly meetings attended by station execs was about "understanding how people use radio." Lynn Chadwick--then a volunteer, later to become Pacifica's embattled executive director--learned her first hard lessons about audiences as host of a feminist talk show called Sophie's Parlor on WPFW in Washington. The program aired on Saturday afternoon immediately after the station's most popular blues DJ, known as "The Bama," whose main audience was black men. "I couldn't figure out why we were getting all these calls from men on a women's show," she said. First lesson: A show's audience starts with people already tuned in and grows or dwindles, depending on how many tune out versus how many new people tune in. The Bama's audience might have been interested in the Caribbean news and music show coming up later in the afternoon, but by then most of the black men would have tuned out because they had little interest in the white women's issues discussed on Sophie's Parlor. Likewise, few of the women listening to Sophie's were likely to stick around long for a program on the Caribbean. It was classic "patchwork" in the extreme--programming that caused more people to tune out each hour than to tune in.
The yearly station-executives' meetings often featured workshops conducted by audience experts David Giovannoni and George Bailey, who used hour-by-hour charts to show the way a station's listeners tune in and out during the day. "Back then, Pacifica was the laughingstock of public radio," said Nicole Sawaya, then manager of a small station in Northern California and later general manager of KPFA. "Giovannoni would put up charts about Pacifica to show a programming 'horror show.' Pacifica stations were doing everything designed to drive listeners to tune out: patchwork grids, multiple languages, unprofessional sound, poor production values, rotating hosts."
Long before they assumed leadership roles at Pacifica, Chadwick and Sawaya had become modernizers, advocates of changes designed to build "loyalty"--getting listeners to tune in longer and more often. The changes were actually introduced at Pacifica first by another convert to the audience-building message, KPFA general manager Pat Scott. Named Pacifica executive director in 1994, Scott moved aggressively but undiplomatically. She was heard more than once to blurt out, "No more of this hippie shit." Under Scott, Pacifica embarked on a two-pronged plan: The five stations would build local audience by getting rid of the checkerboard, and they would go beyond the core stations by creating a series of national news programs to be aired on affiliate stations. The idea was to double Pacifica's audience by the year 2000.
The five Pacifica stations embraced the changes with varying degrees of enthusiasm. KPFA began programming several hours of news and public affairs during morning and evening drive time. Staffers generally went along, even when Scott canceled several volunteers' programs, including one that had been on the air for thirty years and that was hosted by Soviet specialist William Mandel, who had led resistance to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early sixties.
Still, the old ways are visible. Weekdays from 1 to 4 pm are a kaleidoscope of fifteen different programs with at least fifteen different hosts. KPFA's Audigraphics study documents another example on Sunday morning: Audience drops precipitously during the political talk show by Pacifica's brand-name host Larry Bensky. In patchwork style, the show's 9-10:30 am slot is sandwiched between four hours of classical music at one end and an hour and a half of folk and acoustic at the other.
In September 1997, the Pacifica board elected a new, high-profile chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry, who was energetic, blunt-spoken and came with impeccable progressive credentials. A household name among the younger tier of civil rights leaders, she is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and chairwoman of the US Civil Rights Commission. Berry came in excited about the promise of growth in the strategic plan and with hopes of stimulating interest in Pacifica within African-American communities. And she expected to be an active fundraiser. "My vision was to go out into the schools," Berry said, "to let in more of the diversity of the communities of our signal area, and I was prepared to raise money to implement these plans."
Berry, however, was almost immediately on a collision course with two of the five stations. It had always been an open question whether the board ran the stations or the stations ran the board. Each station's local advisory board, itself made up of representatives of local activist groups, was entitled to name two members to sit on the national board. Since ten of nineteen members were concerned mainly about individual causes and local station interests, Berry saw quickly how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to muster a majority focused on national issues. At Berry's first meeting, Scott pushed a proposal that would have weakened the stations' lock on decision-making, and when it was rejected, Scott, frustrated and burned out, announced that she would resign. To replace her, the board named Lynn Chadwick, who had won recognition and a major award as president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.
Change was forced, however, in late 1998, when Pacifica's most important single funder, the CPB, put the network on notice that the presence of local advisory-board members on the national board violated CPB regulations. Berry scheduled a vote on the matter for the February 1999 board meeting. Protesters picketed the meeting, held in Berkeley. Many advocated renouncing CPB money rather than giving up local control. In the end, the board did vote to make local advisory-board members ineligible for membership, but those affected simply resigned their local posts and stayed on the national board.
The host for that meeting was KPFA's recently hired general manager, Nicole Sawaya. In her year at the station, Sawaya had won the trust and affection of the staff, despite her clear alignment with the audience-building reformers and the fact that her previous job had been at NPR. "She was the best manager ever," says news director Aileen Alfandary. "And I have been here for twenty years." But part of that trust had been won by standing up to her new boss, Chadwick, whenever disagreements arose. In preparation for the meeting, Chadwick had instructed station managers to prepare contingency budgets, cutting costs to cover the possible loss of CPB funding. Sawaya, rather than cutting operating expenses or staff, as all the other stations did, presented a budget that deducted KPFA's quota for payment of national programming and national board expenses. Sawaya stood with the protesters, criticizing the national staff and board for bloated budgets and lack of accountability. Mark Schubb, the Los Angeles general manager, shared many of Sawaya's criticisms and questioned whether Chadwick was adept enough for the job of executive director. But at the meeting, which he also attended, he was appalled by Sawaya's lack of tact. "Nicole and I agreed," he said. But she went public. "People heard she was dissing the board to donors. I told her, 'Play politics, don't confront Lynn and the board.'"