What's Going On at Pacifica?
Pacifica will always be political radio, but its future is obscured when the language of the debate is limited to political rhetoric. Yes, it comes down to speaking truth to power. But it is also a matter of magnifying the power to speak: Will Pacifica, with the political power of a nationwide radio network, with a potential audience almost as large as NPR's, make a serious effort to broadcast to an audience of millions, or will it be content to narrowcast to its current small core of listeners?
It is a timid political vision that assumes that high-quality, progressive radio cannot be designed for a mass audience. Why is it a political sellout to design political programming that will appeal to significant numbers of the American people? Isn't it deeply defeatist to assume that Pacifica can only appeal to the small crowd of faithful who already listen? I think Marx, and certainly Gramsci, would roll over in their graves at that kind of leftist thinking.
At its heart, the debate inside Pacifica is not a political debate, even though it is cast in political terms. It is a debate over differing visions for the future of the network.
No, the KPFA staff are not ultraleft-overs from the sixties. They are serious journalists with serious concerns about maintaining their independence. Their vision is portrayed in general terms of local control and Pacifica's free-speech tradition, but in concrete terms it amounts to keeping things the way they are. It is a vision that resists putting more money into national programming--the one thing most likely to increase audience. Nor are Mary Francis Berry and her allies cryptofascists or Clinton clones. They want to push Pacifica in the direction of that larger national audience. But for the past year, they have failed to make a convincing case--or any case at all--that their controversial actions were part of a coherent strategy to achieve their legitimate vision. Firing people--for perceived insubordination and violation of a capriciously applied dirty-laundry rule--was hardly a tactic likely to win over already deeply suspicious staff members to the new vision for a growing national audience.
Some quiet progress in this direction has been made, however. The three "reformed" stations--Los Angeles, Houston and Washington--have greatly increased their audience numbers by doing a few simple things that make sense in radio terms. KPFA and WBAI have lagged behind, but they cannot be cut loose or cashed in--not without destroying Pacifica as we know it. The two largest stations have been the creative and journalistic heart of the network and are indispensable to any effort to revitalize its news and public-information programs. Without them, the stations with smaller staffs would face diminishing audience returns--forced to resort to folk music and jazz to continue audience growth.
NPR's success has already demonstrated that it is not music but news and serious public-affairs programming that build loyalty among the kind of people who listen to both NPR and Pacifica--concerned, socially active, racially diverse, educated and, yes, left-of-center citizens. But Pacifica does not have to become like NPR to gain its share of that audience. NPR went for and won the franchise for mainstream, straight journalism on radio. That leaves Pacifica free to reinvigorate the franchise it already owns: smart, in-your-face, contrarian coverage of the news with a preference for the progressive agenda. That is what Pacifica's sixty affiliates are clamoring for--even though of late they have become wearily skeptical that they will ever get it.
It is no mystery to anyone that the fighting must end for that to be accomplished. The mutual demonization must stop. Tension between national organizations and their local affiliates is inherent in the relationship--no matter what the organization or its politics. Consensus-building always works better than hierarchical decision-making. Pacifica's national leadership must lead the way out of the impasse. Two changes--call them concessions if you want--would help. One, the Pacifica board must rebuild its lost authority by creating a national governance structure that reconciles the stations' local community connections with the ability to implement national programming strategy. Second, let the journalists make the journalistic decisions. That simple principle was advocated in interviews with journalists on both sides of the conflict, including Larry Bensky and Mark Mericle of KPFA and Mark Bevis and Don Rush of Pacifica Network News. It is an approach that must include dumping the unworkable dirty-laundry rule and allowing Pacifica's news editors to formulate consistent editorial policies on how to cover news about Pacifica itself.
Pacifica has risen and then lost its way in perfect harmony with the waves of vitality and confusion in the American left. Perhaps Pacifica's next golden radio moments must await a new generation and the refocusing of the progressive movement itself.