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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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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.

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.

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.'"

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