Robert McChesney is Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois. He hosts the program Media Matters on WILL-AM every Sunday afternoon from 1-2pm central time. He and John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, are the founders of Free Press, the media reform network, and the authors of Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy (New Press) and The Death and Life of American Journalism (Nation Books). He has written sixteen books and his work has been translated into fifteen languages.
The former FCC chairman says he's bitter about the effective dismantling of his low-power radio plan. Under his successor, such an idea won't even get raised.
The "Christmas coup" at New York's WBAI-FM radio, in which Pacifica management changed the locks in the middle of the night, just hours before summarily firing three longtime station employees, marks another dismal turn of events in the recent history of America's pre-eminent network of community radio stations. Nation readers no doubt recall the lockout at Pacifica's KPFA-FM in Berkeley in 1999. In that case, virtually the entire KPFA community of listeners and staff organized against the lockout, and Pacifica's national management was forced to relent.
It will be more difficult to do that at WBAI. Pacifica management learned an important lesson from the KPFA debacle, which was not to permit the station staff to be united in its opposition. At WBAI, Pacifica's national management chose a well-known program host, Utrice Leid, to replace the fired station manager. Leid has been a visible figure at WBAI over the years and has the support of some on the staff and in the community. (I have been a guest on her WBAI program and have always had an enjoyable time.) She has stated her opposition to censorship and her support for WBAI's traditional values.
Any notion that this was going to be a calm transition exploded on January 23, when Leid restricted access to a WBAI Local Advisory Board meeting at WBAI's offices in lower Manhattan. The LAB is a Corporation for Public Broadcasting requirement, and it has been holding meetings at the WBAI office for the past twenty-five years. When participants in the prospective meeting protested, the police arrested nine people for trespassing.
On the all-powerful eighteen-member Pacifica National Board, a marginalized minority of six opposes the firings at WBAI. One of the six, Leslie Cagan, says that Pacifica executive director Bessie Wash, who quarterbacked the Christmas coup and installed Leid, refuses even to discuss the matter with her. (I tried unsuccessfully to reach Wash and Leid.) In a strongly worded statement on January 18, the dissidents called for a reinstatement of the three fired employees, a return to traditional labor-review practices, a full national board meeting to consider the crisis at WBAI and an end to the high security "martial law" environment at the station. These are fair demands.
What happens at Pacifica is not a minor issue of concern only to those who work at WBAI and the other Pacifica stations, or who live in one of the five Pacifica cities. We all need a healthy and vibrant Pacifica. It is the most widely consumed progressive medium in the United States; it is the basis for a national community radio network; it has considerable potential for growth. For all the talk about the Internet and the digital revolution, radio is the true people's medium. And in the commercial wasteland that US radio has become under deregulation, the prospects for noncommercial radio look better than they have for a very long time.
Nor are the problems at Pacifica anything new; there is a long history of internal squabbles. My general sense from afar was that both sides had their flaws, while opportunism masked by political posturing abounded. But in the past few years matters have changed. The newly aggressive national management has shown minimal respect for fair play or the values of community broadcast and little interest in preserving Pacifica's distinctive dissident and independent political focus.
The authoritarianism at WBAI is highlighted, as it was at KPFA, by the unwillingness of the Pacifica management to speak fully and honestly about its strategies and plans. To the limited extent that Pacifica has attempted to justify its actions at WBAI and KPFA, it has been on the grounds that these stations need to expand their audiences dramatically. I am quite sympathetic to that position [see McChesney, "From Pacifica to the Atlantic," October 11, 1999], but Pacifica's actions do not lend credence to this claim. The attack on WBAI, as on KPFA, seems more about seizing power, with the concerns of the audience, existing or potential, nowhere to be found.
This, then, points to the core problem: The management structure at Pacifica is inappropriate for this kind of enterprise. The notion of a self-appointed board of directors having all the legal power makes sense for a small nonprofit group where a small number of people do almost all the labor and strongly influence the board. But at Pacifica this model makes no sense. The Pacifica stations were built up by the staff and listeners over the past fifty years, yet they have hardly any legal power. Many of the current board members have scarcely any prior hands-on involvement with Pacifica and seemingly know little about community radio in theory or practice, yet they hold nearly all the legal cards. That is why their numerous opponents have been reduced to demonstrating, filing long-shot lawsuits and hassling board members in hopes they will quit.
The solution is therefore simple: Revise the legal structure of Pacifica so that it better reflects the actual nature of the five stations and how they do operate, and should operate. Give the staff and listeners more formal power. But the solution is also maddeningly complex. There is no simple way to restructure Pacifica to be democratic and effective and to make everyone happy. Some of those currently disgruntled may never get gruntled.
The proposal developed by numerous people, including FAIR founder Jeff Cohen, seems like the most prudent course: a transitional slate of a dozen highly respected progressive figures should be appointed to the existing board (www.fair.org/press-releases/pacifica-proposal.html). (Disclosure: I was recommended to be on this slate in the original proposal; due to increased obligations, I now cannot accept such a post.) This transitional board would then make a formal study of how Pacifica could be restructured to be more democratic, more relevant and more open to audience expansion, while remaining true to its core values.
This proposal has been endorsed by progressives ranging from Jim Hightower, Michael Moore, Martin Espada, Alice Walker and Studs Terkel to nonprofit media consultant Herb Chao Gunther, foundation president Hari Dillon, Barbara Ehrenreich, June Jordan, Tom Morello, Carlos Muñoz Jr., Jill Nelson, Ramona Ripston and Howard Zinn. The dissident members of Pacifica's national board have called for precisely such a long-term and sweeping re-evaluation. As board member Cagan told me, "The lack of democracy within the institution makes it impossible to have any open and honest discussion of the problems facing Pacifica." The plan can be carried out in accordance with Pacifica's current bylaws.
Tragically, as this goes to press, the board majority is moving in the opposite direction. It proposes to revise Pacifica's bylaws so that it will be "very much modeled on a corporate structure, not a nonprofit one," according to Cagan. This would, in effect, destroy Pacifica. The current board members must remember that they do not own Pacifica; it is not their plaything. They should not revise the bylaws and should adopt the Cohen proposal. Their legacy would then be that they were responsible for making Pacifica a strong and viable model for community broadcasting and media for the coming decades.
This spring the topic of antitrust returned to the headlines after a long absence as the government pursued and won (for the time being) its case against Microsoft and, in a more muted way, as Ti
The summer of 1999 will be remembered by many progressives as the time of the great KPFA lockout--when Pacifica's management tried to muzzle the nation's oldest community radio station.