Pacifica on the Brink

Pacifica on the Brink

Marc Cooper hosts a daily drive-time show on Pacifica’s KPFK.


America’s only progressive network, Pacifica Radio, teeters on the edge of collapse. Both sides in the dispute helped push it to this point. Now both sides must work together to pull it back. Federal mediation currently under way must be pursued as the only way out.

The national Pacifica management unleashed the current round of troubles when, at the end of March, it failed to renew the contract of Nicole Sawaya, the popular general manager of Berkeley affiliate KPFA. An on-air staff rebellion ensued. A few programmers were fired for their defiance, but the staff mutiny was left unaddressed. For a hundred days Pacifica neither sought serious compromise with its enraged KPFA staff nor attempted to quell the on-air rebellion. When finally in mid-July Pacifica moved to regain control of KPFA, it stumbled badly. An order was given banning any more on-air dirty laundry, but one obstreperous programmer, clearly looking to extend the conflict, defied the order–and Pacifica took his bait. All hell broke loose. Within minutes regular programming had been pulled and replaced by archive tapes, staff and programmers were put on paid leave and dozens of staff and protesters who had entered the building were arrested for refusing to leave. The station was boarded up.

Since then, the station has become the target of near daily demonstrations and protests. After five years of taking a lot of exaggerated criticism for purportedly being home to power-hungry centralizers, the Pacifica national office wound up becoming the caricature drawn by its worst enemies: The managers of America’s only progressive radio network called in the cops.

But the other side bears equal responsibility for this fiasco. It has also become a caricature: A group of committed leftists ripping apart their own institution in a factional dispute. Pacifica’s critics claim they have been muzzled. On the contrary, for more than three months KPFA staff have had unfiltered access to the air to put forward their grievances. Off the air, some full-time Pacifica critics have been running a vigorous Internet and e-mail campaign hinting at some sort of dark conspiracy.

Every timid step by Pacifica to renew and expand what has been an ailing operation has been met with politically charged hyperbole and distortion. The handful of people who work in Pacifica’s national office for low wages, and the dozen or so liberal do-gooders who volunteer on its nonprofit board, may very well be ineffective managers. But one reason for their intransigence is the hounding they have suffered in this crisis. Pacifica’s critics have branded them criminals and “Pinochetistas” and accused them of plotting to seize the network for their own gain. The personal phone numbers, e-mail and even home addresses of the board and national staff have been posted on the Internet, resulting in round-the-clock harassment. In some cases, the protesters have contacted the employers of the board members to argue that they are criminals and scabs.

Both sides must now step back from the brink and invest their energies in the mediation process–which so far has been mostly about the shape of the table. For its part, Pacifica management must immediately settle the crisis it provoked in Berkeley and reconsider its firing of Sawaya. Also, Pacifica executive director Lynn Chadwick must be ready to resign if that’s a necessary confidence-building measure. Further, board chairwoman Mary Frances Berry, who has been mostly AWOL during this crisis, must provide more effective and visible leadership. When she has spoken out, it has been to frame the staff rebellion as resistance to increased racial diversity. Berry’s formulation strays far from reality, and she would do much better to focus on improving Pacifica’s management skills.

On the other side, those critics who wish to “save” Pacifica should take care that they not burn it down in the process. They must understand that change and growth are necessary. Even before this crisis, Pacifica’s signal covered 22 percent of America, but the network’s stations had only a million or so listeners and substantially fewer than 100,000 subscriber/sponsors. KPFA staff must also find ways to distance themselves from the Internet strategists who wish only to exacerbate the conflict. Out of the current mediation must come a mutual acknowledgment that the survival of Pacifica is more important than the personalities and conflicts of the moment. Because Pacifica is the one truly noncommercial island in a sea of corporate and conglomeratized media, ways must be found to make it a stronger and clearer voice into the next millennium. All sides in this dispute agree with that notion. The first step is to ratchet down the rhetoric and find effective ways to discuss needed change. Both sides have to recognize that neither one holds a monopoly on either righteousness–or recklessness.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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