What's Going On at Pacifica?
After a year of conflict, Pacifica is hardly a place of dreams, grandiose or otherwise. The network's national staff has all but disintegrated. In January national operations were moved from Berkeley to Arlington, Virginia, where they were run for two months out of a borrowed office crowded with unopened file boxes. Then they were moved again, to WPFW's offices in Washington, where Bessie Wash will double as station manager and Pacifica's executive director. Wash made no public statements but signaled privately that she would try to bring peace. Her good-natured style is reflected in her station's laid-back on-air sound, and she is credited with putting the station in the black for the first time and with nearly doubling its audience. In early March, Wash (whose office declined an interview request) visited all the stations. At KPFA she impressed some staffers with her warmth and openness to their concerns, and she left behind some guarded optimism.
But Pacifica activists were not so easily mollified. Websites and e-mail lists noted, accurately, that Wash's station was the most energetic in its application of the gag rule and that she had canceled a media-criticism program, Counterspin, whose spin was one-sidedly anti-Pacifica board. Other appointments were also suspect in the eyes of Pacifica dissidents. The chairman-elect, David Acosta, was linked to the discussions about selling stations. One appointee, John Murdock, was identified as a lawyer in a firm whose specialties included management representation in labor disputes. Berry's appointment of Ganter as interim program director was described by one KPFA program host as "giving us the finger" because of Ganter's role in taking the station off the air and locking out the staff last year.
On the sidelines, one important constituency, the station managers of Pacifica's sixty affiliate stations, was growing increasingly impatient and expressed concern that the seemingly endless dispute is causing the deterioration of the national programming that is most important to their stations. Pacifica provides the affiliates with a satellite distribution service and Pacifica programs at fees far below those of NPR. (In a move unrelated to the dispute, Jerry Brown, the gadfly former California governor, ended his popular talk show when he ran for mayor of Oakland. Bensky's daily show was cut back to Sunday only, at his request, and has aired only on KPFA since he was fired. Neither program was replaced, leaving Democracy Now! and PNN as Pacifica's only national offerings.)
Rob Lorei, news director of community station WMNF in Tampa, Florida, says Pacifica "shares our values--written in our station's mission statement--of social justice, peace and equality." He added, "We see ourselves as balancing the bias in the mainstream media, and that includes NPR." But, said Lorei, the turmoil, especially the perception of censorship, has gravely hurt Pacifica's credibility at his station. "Before, Pacifica was as good as gold to our listeners. But now we are hearing from listeners who say they don't trust Pacifica. They want to know if there is an alternative. And our listeners aren't political types like you have in New York and California." Lorei and other affiliates say that Pacifica's energies have been misplaced in internal struggles at the expense of moving forward to implement technological changes, such as expanding quickly into online webcasting and direct broadcast from satellites. "Pacifica will become an artifact or a dinosaur," Lorei said. "What's happening in media is passing them by--wireless Internet, satellite radio. They aren't there."
Richard Towne, who runs station KUNM in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which caters to a mix of progressive communities, with special emphasis on programming for Native Americans, joined a one-day boycott of Pacifica programs last October because he wanted "to send a message to the [Pacifica national] board that they aren't doing their job." Still, he said, he applauds the board for trying to move the network in the direction of building up national programming.
What can finally be said to make sense of so conflicted a tale? Pacifica has survived many quarrels, although it is hard to find one so long-lasting and bitter as this one. The network, in its 50s, has still not tapped out the reservoir of political commitment, affection and good feeling it earned in its early decades. There are no problems at Pacifica that cannot be fixed.