What's Going On at Pacifica?
The Nation has long regarded Pacifica as a sister institution in what sometimes seems a lonely struggle to keep alive alternative and independent perspectives in the media. With the creation a few years ago of RadioNation, which airs on many Pacifica stations, that relationship became friendlier still. We were, for that reason, distressed at the problems that erupted last year and in whose resolution we may be said to have a stake. As the crisis heated up, we published pieces by Nation contributing editor Marc Cooper, host of RadioNation as well as a news show on Pacifica's Los Angeles station, and media scholar Robert McChesney. Columnist Alexander Cockburn also weighed in, and we published a lengthy readers' exchange on our Letters page. After months had gone by and Pacifica's problems showed no signs of resolution, we decided that a full-blown examination of Pacifica was in order and we turned to John Dinges, former editorial director of National Public Radio, author of books on the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and on the US relationship with Manuel Noriega in Panama, and currently a member of the faculty at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. We anticipate that the issues he discusses in the report that follows will be with us for some time. We invite readers to share their thoughts with us; see also the forum on our website.
Pacifica Radio is in trouble.
If your politics lean toward the left, and you've ever lived in one of the five cities with a Pacifica station, you probably have a favorite Pacifica story, a story about a Pacifica broadcast that made a difference in your life. Mine was driving down a Berkeley street on the day of an antiwar protest in the early seventies, and realizing that I wasn't hearing the station just on my car radio. It was blaring from most of the houses on the block. The sound was all around, and the sound was the Rolling Stones singing, "The time is right for fighting in the street.... The time is right for violent revolution."
Or years later, in Washington, walking around the office at National Public Radio with earphones that felt as though they had been surgically implanted, listening to the gavel to gavel of the Iran/contra hearings. Pacifica was broadcasting them live. NPR wasn't.
We always expected Pacifica to be there, to be on the air talking truth to power when the big issues were at stake. Before NPR, and even after, Pacifica set the benchmark for public radio, for public-service radio. It invented the idea of listeners contributing money to a radio station so the station wouldn't have to sell ads or depend on government subsidies. Pacifica trained a whole generation of radio producers and reporters in the kind of long-form reporting and sound-rich documentary techniques shunned by commercial radio, and its graduates include some of NPR's best-known bylines.
Now, in an era of unprecedented conglomeratization and homogenization of media, independent voices like Pacifica's are needed more than at any time perhaps since the Vietnam War. Its five stations and 800,000 listeners make it still the largest media outlet on the left. Yet events of the past year have cast serious doubt on Pacifica's ability to recapture the role and impact it once had. Radio moments of the present are a far cry from the greatness of the past. They include, at flagship-station KPFA in Berkeley, a dispute in front of a live mike between a manager and an employee he was trying to suspend, a "No Censorship" fundraising drive built around denunciations of Pacifica's national foundation, and programs devoting dozens of minutes daily to rehashing internal disputes. Veteran staff have been fired for criticizing management on the air, there have been sit-ins and arrests, armed guards have been hired (and removed) and KPFA staff have been first locked out, then given virtually unchallenged control of the station. Almost 10,000 people gathered in Berkeley last July for one of the largest political demonstrations in recent years, under banners calling for free speech and local control. Around the same time, Joan Baez appeared at a benefit concert for the dissidents, and well-known figures, including Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky, expressed their support.
Sorting out who is right and who is wrong in this story is a near-impossible task given the management blunders and heavy-handedness on the one side, and the insults, harassment and threats on the other side. Both sides could claim the pursuit of high-minded goals: Pacifica management sought to strengthen lines of authority in the name of increased audience and political effectiveness; KPFA and its defenders presented a resounding case that "free-speech radio"--Pacifica's traditional no-holds-barred programming--was threatened by a sanitized, NPR-style takeover by establishment liberals.
But measuring the collateral damage is more clear-cut: At the two largest stations, the internal struggle has stopped dead a process of programming reform intended to increase the network's tiny audience and recapture Pacifica's once-undisputed leadership role in public radio and in progressive politics. Total audience for the Berkeley and New York stations, which have the network's largest staffs and budgets, is flat, continuing a trend of the past four years, and the audience for the Berkeley station is now the second-smallest, after Houston. (The Houston, Los Angeles and Washington stations, the three that embraced the programming reforms and stayed out of the disputes, have seen their combined audiences increase by 52 percent during the same period.) The turmoil has also put in jeopardy a promising expansion of Pacifica's national programs. To be sure, stations are still broadcasting, paychecks are still written and listeners still donate money. But it is increasingly clear that as a national organization, Pacifica is adrift.