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. The effort was notable for the arrogance of the leaders of Pacifica’s national board and its chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry. While legally the board may hold all the cards, this self-perpetuating and unaccountable body is politically and ethically bankrupt. It offered no coherent rationale for the lockout and avoided–indeed, sought to quash–open dialogue.
In the face of a popular uprising–10,000 people at a demonstration in Berkeley in 1999!–Berry ended the lockout. But the situation is far from secure. What’s needed now is a formal commitment that there will be no sale of KPFA or any of the four other Pacifica-owned stations. Berry and the rest of the board must also start negotiations to establish a new governing structure for the foundation–one that represents Pacifica’s diverse stakeholders: the paid and unpaid workers, the listeners and potential listeners.
But even if a new governing structure is set up, some of the crucial problems underlying the crisis will remain–for they are rooted in the tragic history of US public broadcasting. All noncommercial radio (and television) in the United States, including Pacifica, has grown up in the shadow of the commercial broadcasters, who grabbed the airwaves back in 1934. Since then, there has been a tacit quid pro quo for getting broadcast licenses: The noncommercial broadcasters would do no programming that might compete directly with their ad-driven counterparts. Thus were the commercial giants entitled to do whatever made them the most money, while the noncommercial players were left to do programming that would draw a negligible audience.
Things have been very different in much of the rest of the industrialized world. In other nations public broadcasting has, at its best, gone directly for a general audience, rather than serve whatever little niche has been neglected by the big commercial broadcasters. Such noncommercial players abroad have thus been free to entertain as many viewers and listeners as they can, regardless of what their commercial rivals might be doing. This has meant that systems like the BBC could sometimes generate real mass enthusiasm for their fare–while also offering news and public affairs programming superior to anything our networks, public or commercial, have produced.
Since most of its content is not that popular, the US noncommercial system garners little public funding, either through federal subsidy or listener/viewer donations. This helps explain why all the public stations, as well as the Pacifica-owned stations, have never established a secure basis as noncommercial and nonprofit institutions. (This failure has also intensified the pressure to solicit corporate “underwriting” in its various forms–a move that always threatens to corrupt the content.)
Most public broadcasters, and many at Pacifica, have internalized their forced move to the margins and now regard it as a virtue. Their job, they proclaim, is to let the commercial media handle the masses, while they serve the elite (PBS, NPR) or the left, the disfranchised and/or the artistic community (Pacifica and community radio) with programming that is not commercially viable. To try to break out of this box in any way appears to be “selling out.”
Berry has stated that her desire is to expand Pacifica’s reach among people of color. But the opposition to her actions by virtually all of KPFA’s minority programmers and active listeners, as well as the low minority listenership at Houston’s KPFT–a Pacifica station she does not hassle–reveals how bogus her claim is. As at NPR and PBS, Berry’s actual plan to build Pacifica’s audience appears to be marked by the conventional elitist approach: Rather than deal directly with the public, Pacifica looks to ratings-obsessed consultants oriented to the commercial system and inclined to see the world as an array of advertising-defined demographic blocs. Such audience expansion merely seeks out lucrative niches not served by the commercial system and looks to please mainstream foundation officers, potential underwriters and DC politicos. In such a universe, Pacifica’s renowned content–feisty, anticorporate, antimilitarist–appears to be, at best, an unproductive nuisance.
Thus the fears of KPFA audience and workers–that Berry’s plans for “expanding” its audience must mean contracting Pacifica’s distinctive journalistic offerings–are entirely just. Indeed, by contrast with Pacifica’s other stations, two that are on good terms with the Berry administration, KPFT and Washington’s WPFW, have minimal public affairs programming, national or local.
In my view, Pacifica can expand its audience without commercializing or compromising its commitments. It should determine, through debate, which audiences to speak to, do its programming without regard for commercial rivals and bring in new programmers from the selected communities. At times Pacifica has done just that, as have other community stations. For example, Madison, Wisconsin’s wonderful WORT made headway in the eighties by playing ad-free rock and roll, along with music played on no commercial stations. This attracted new young listeners, many of whom would stick around to hear what else the station had to offer.
While the Pacifica struggle is of great importance, we must fight an even bigger war. The 10,000 people who marched to take back KPFA, and the hundreds of thousands more who strongly supported them, need also to organize to reform our media system overall. Why settle for crumbs from Pacifica’s leadership, when the government is quietly doling all the loaves out to a handful of corporate media giants? Why let Wall Street and Madison Avenue have unchallenged control over our journalism and culture? The point is not just to democratize the margins but to battle for the very heart and soul of our whole nation.