Is There a Future for Pacifica?

Is There a Future for Pacifica?

The jury is still out on whether it can restore, let alone enhance, its influence.


The prospect of writing about the ongoing Pacifica crisis is about as enticing as walking past a recently dislodged beehive without the beekeeper’s net: No matter what you say, you’ll end up with welts. Since 1999 there has been a vitriolic battle over programming and personnel between the Pacifica Board and two of the network’s stations in particular, first KPFA in Berkeley and then WBAI in New York. The other three stations in the network, KPFK in Los Angeles, KPFT in Houston and WPFW in Washington, have not been without strife either, and there have been major tensions between stations, especially KPFK and KPFA, and within stations as well [see John Dinges, “What’s Going On at Pacifica?” May 1, 2000, for a detailed account].

Passions (and scars) run deep on all sides, and few have been happy with coverage of the story, including in The Nation. If you, poor writer, suggested that those in Pacifica who were pushing for programming that would attract a wider audience might have a point, you were a crypto-fascist tool of corporate capitalism trying to turn Pacifica into the Home Shopping Network. Conversely, if you, poor writer, suggested that the local stations were right to try to preserve their autonomy and to reject ratings as a standard of success, you were an elitist, racist hippie throwback who wanted KPFA to broadcast programs that would attract only three ponytailed white guys in their 50s. I’ve heard the former group described as sellouts who, if they brought former government officials on their shows to debate current affairs, were aiding and abetting “war criminals”; they were “hijackers” determined to steer Pacifica away from its true mission. I’ve heard the latter group described as “left-wing ayatollahs” or “brownshirts” who indulged in “Operation Rescue” tactics to attack the old board. Each side caricatured the other in this way–and continues to do so.

Please keep in mind that these people–at least as I understand it–are united in their opposition to the Bush Administration’s war on terrorism and on civil liberties, share a powerful critique of US imperialism, are avowed antiracists, deplore the right’s attacks on feminism and women’s reproductive rights, and are bound together by deep concerns over the threat to democracy and public discourse posed by media conglomerates. But Pacifica radio? Hey, them’s fightin’ words. Better to destroy it than to let those who are too pragmatic or, on the other hand, too purist, control it.

Many readers of The Nation have been following this story with great interest, since, despite all its recent troubles, the Pacifica network remains the largest progressive media outlet in the country, and the future of listener-supported, community-based radio has been at stake. Many others, however, especially those of us nowhere near a Pacifica station and trapped, instead, in the auditory hell of Dr. Laura and the endless replaying of “Drops of Jupiter,” have stopped caring about what appears to be a self-indulgent sectarian battle and have two words for all involved: Grow up. The challenge to Pacifica, then, comes not only from its own vicious internal divisions and from a broader media environment dominated by Sumner Redstone, Michael Eisner and Clear Channel; it comes also from those on the left who are out of earshot, sick of the infighting and wondering whether Pacifica is relevant anymore.

The need for restraint and the obligation to focus on rebuilding Pacifica have gained renewed urgency with three dramatic recent developments. First, the old, much-vilified board is gone; second, Pacifica is on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of these battles; and third, the new, interim board has fired or suspended people at various stations, including Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor. (Cooper still hosts RadioNation, a project of the Nation Institute produced at KPFK.) In mid-February the network discontinued Pacifica Network News, one of only two national programs, and fired all the staff and its senior correspondent, Don Rush, who had been with the network for twenty years. Some within Pacifica hail this as a new beginning; others see it as the beginning of the end for the network.

For those who have not been following the story closely (or know it all too well), here are the admittedly incomplete Cliffs Notes: Prior to 1999, the local advisory boards of each station named two members each to sit on the national board. But then the national board voted to end this representation; it also decided to have its membership be self-perpetuating. Many at the local level saw this move as undemocratic and fought it in a multi-pronged slash-and-burn campaign that lasted two and a half years. Dissident staffers, board members and listeners combined fundraising boycotts, on-air attacks on the board, harassment of board members, e-mail and Internet campaigns, and lawsuits to change the constitution of the national board. It was a highly controversial campaign; it also worked. In December 2001 the dissidents won control in what has been called the Pacifica settlement. Throughout this battle there have been at least two “sides” within the network: dissidents like Amy Goodman, Juan Gonzalez, Dennis Bernstein, Dave Adelson and many others who fought very publicly to eliminate the old board, and those like Marc Cooper, Saul Landau, Mark Schubb and many others who hated the board as well but disagreed with the dissidents over tactics and over programming policy.

The old board was viewed as totally incompetent by nearly everyone, and thuggish by many. Not only is it gone; so are the bylaws that governed it, to be replaced by a new structure as yet to be determined. The settlement between the old board and the dissidents, hammered out by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw on December 12, established an interim board, chaired by former board dissident Leslie Cagan, that will govern for fifteen months; it is charged with revising Pacifica’s bylaws and resolving the network’s outstanding personnel disputes and its daunting financial problems. The new board returned Democracy Now!–which the network had stopped producing during the conflict–to the fold (with back pay for the staff). Dan Coughlin, the former director of Pacifica Network News, who was fired for airing news of the nationwide affiliate boycott against the board, was reinstated as Pacifica’s interim executive director until a new one is named. The board also reinstated those staffers who had been banned and fired at WBAI in what came to be known as the Christmas Coup of 2000. When the new board, at its second meeting in early March in Los Angeles, announced that Pacifica headquarters would be moved back to Berkeley (it had been moved to Washington in January 2000), the crowd erupted in cheers.

After the past two and a half years, this all sounds like a new dawn, yes? In fact, early accounts of these changes have had the same air of jubilation as accounts of the Berlin wall falling. Democracy has finally returned to Pacifica, proclaim the dissidents. And if you were, say, Dennis Bernstein of KPFA–who was arrested after his station manager called the police on him and antiboard demonstrators and was marched out of his station in handcuffs–you, too, would rejoice in this triumph over cloddish and creepy authoritarian rule. But those seen as having been on the wrong side of the struggle–Mark Schubb at KPFK, Marc Cooper and Don Rush at Pacifica Network News–have been fired or suspended, and they don’t see the recent changes in such glowing terms. In fact, they see a left-of-left coup that will drive the network to the farthest margins of left-wing insignificance.

So the truly hard work has just begun, and the jury is still out on whether Pacifica can restore, let alone enhance, its influence. First, there is the money problem. Pacifica is, as Coughlin puts it, “on the brink of financial collapse”: An audit completed in early February (and funded by an anonymous donor) showed the network to be approximately $5 million in debt, with an additional $1.5 million budget gap for this calendar year. The dissidents blame the old board for squandering money on high-priced lawyers, travel and public relations firms; those opposed to the dissidents blame them for launching costly lawsuits that the board had to fight. The audit gives fuel to both sides, showing a whopping $1.47 million in legal fees for the last fiscal year, but also showing more than $203,000 in consulting fees and $330,000 for “public communications.” And “asleep at the wheel” might best describe how the old board could have incurred $237,000 in bank charges; the audit suggests that in the future canceled checks be reviewed for “irregular endorsements” and that American Express cards be cut up into very, very small pieces.

The audit recommended staff cuts, pay cuts and cuts in benefits, and insisted, “It is imperative that Pacifica consult with a bankruptcy attorney now.” If Pacifica is unable to negotiate a settlement plan with creditors, it will have to file for Chapter 11. Already the new board has let staffers go while presenting others with buyout plans. And the board eliminated Pacifica Network News–which had the potential to re-establish the network as a leader in progressive-oriented news–because, at $1.3 million a year, it was deemed too expensive. Pacifica still has no formal accounting procedures in place, and Coughlin reports that its basic accounting software isn’t even functioning properly.

Cagan urges people not to overreact to Pacifica’s dismal financial news and rejects bankruptcy as an option. “There’s still a possibility we’ll be forced into it,” she noted, but with recent successes in station fundraising drives, some of them record-breaking, “I’m feeling extremely confident.” (The most recent fund drive at four stations produced an unprecedented $3 million in on-air pledges.) She also foresees the possibility of direct-mail campaigns; more coordinated on-air drives, such as the five-station “Save Our Signal” campaign to raise money for KPFK’s transmitter; the refinancing of existing properties; and donations from wealthy individuals. She is adamant about one thing: “We are not selling assets. We’ve been given guardianship of these licenses, and our job is not to sell the licenses.” But Pacifica still has to raise $1.5 million by May 15 to cover operational costs and salaries, and another $2 million between May and October.

Even if Pacifica crawls out of this financial hole, it has to confront very sharp, sometimes venomous internal debates about programming. At issue, in part, is whether the stations should be platforms, primarily, for progressive journalism, or whether they should be platforms, primarily, for progressive activism. Some insist that these listener-supported community stations should be indifferent to audience size and to conventional journalistic standards, focusing instead on broadcasting a range of progressive positions, including those that are quite marginal and don’t get airtime anywhere else. For dissident activists like Dave Adelson and Carol Spooner, who sued the old board, NPR is a powerful counterexample of what many believe Pacifica should not become: little more than state radio that has, over the years, opted for more mainstream, predictable programming. For this group within Pacifica, the move toward more strip programming (regular programming at the same time each day or week), toward paid professionals as opposed to volunteer programmers and toward efforts to build audience move the stations away from their mission and down the slippery slope toward eventual corporate sellout.

On the other hand, former KPFK manager Mark Schubb, Don Rush from PNN, Marc Cooper and others insist that now, more than ever, Pacifica has a duty to be more listener-oriented, to adopt and increase strip programming so that people can find the same public affairs programming on a regular basis, to develop national progressive programming and to rely primarily on paid staff who adhere to generally accepted journalistic standards. A failure to make such changes, they say, would consign Pacifica to an unnecessarily small and marginalized place within radio and within the broader media landscape. Schubb argues that since KPFK redid its format in the mid-1990s, listenership and fundraising have increased significantly. But many African-American, Native American, Latino and other groups feel their voices were shut out of KPFK in what they see as the pursuit of a more upscale, mainstream audience.

This battle, whether you see it as a contest between these two colliding philosophies or simply as a factional power struggle for control of the air, could dominate Pacifica in the months and years ahead. Nearly everyone I spoke to on both sides of this divide saw the differences as irreconcilable.

Now, as an outsider–and I am very much an outsider–one thing seems clear to me: Both sides have a point. The only black voices I hear on the radio are Colin Powell or teenage boys singing about “bitches” and “hoes.” The voices of progressive blacks would today seem like something from a 1970 time capsule. Latinos or Asian-Americans? Forget it. NPR has become incredibly yuppified. However, when you look at the minutes of the latest Pacifica board meeting, and read demands that KPFK have more Islamic programming, more Spanish-language shows, more shows about immigration reform, more shows about Native peoples and so forth, you do wonder whether this automat-style programming would further segment, rather than bind together, progressive listeners. And how do you convince a potential new listener to KPFA, say, that its journalistic standards are superior to those of FOX News, when the station features a show called Visionary Activist hosted by an astrologist whose guests include “planets, gods and, on occasion, dead people”? (Go ahead, send the hate mail–but this is the kind of programming that the right and liberals cite to argue that progressives deserve no place at the table of national debate.)

“Everything is up for re-examination, especially programming,” asserts Cagan. “There are no sacred cows. It’s not that we have an agenda, that there will no longer be a certain kind of programming. Everything is open for discussion.” Coughlin has set up a “Mission Commission” to review and elicit input on programming and the programming process, which he acknowledges could be highly contentious. But like it or not, radio listeners today do rely, in part, on predictable schedules. Especially for news and public affairs programming, they want to know that they can find the same kind of news/talk show at the same time every day. The sort of listener Pacifica attracts seeks out surprise too, but this desire for some predictability in format would be foolish to ignore.

Finally, those on the board and at the stations must figure out how to stop the infighting and how to repair what many refer to as a toxic work environment. This means nothing less than cultivating an entirely new, more respectful, more restrained institutional culture marked by compromise, real power sharing and civility. Cagan, by all reports, has succeeded in creating, at the public board meetings, an environment that is respectful of people’s differences and complaints, and one that is also focused on developing participatory processes that will produce effective new bylaws and more open personnel practices. But the firings of particular staff, the terminating of Pacifica Network News and the public declamations at the March meeting by some that the new board must prevent “antimission” people (those who allegedly have deviated from Pacifica’s founding pacifist principles) from ever getting back on the air look like an effort to blinker one vision in favor of another.

Many on the old board behaved badly and stupidly, including refusing to listen to crucially important constituencies within the network. Is the interim board going to make the same mistakes? Is the new board simply picking off, one by one, those they feel were insufficiently critical of the old regime? “I can imagine why people might think there’s a purge,” Cagan acknowledged, “but the process this time is much different. Yes, people have been fired, but no one’s been banned. And the numbers are wildly different. At WBAI under the old board, twenty-seven or twenty-eight people were fired or banned. We offered a buyout, which was totally voluntary, and only three people have been fired. Pacifica is changing, and we’re opening up space at the five stations for new leadership to emerge.” She insists that the board eliminated PNN not for ideological reasons but because the audit singled it out as especially costly and urged that it be abolished.

Don Rush begs to disagree. “Part of it is personal,” he maintains, recalling the torrent of abusive voice mails and e-mails he got from dissidents who saw him as on the wrong side of the battle. “Once their side won, we would be the people who would go.”

Questions about Pacifica’s future management take on new urgency in this age of unprecedented media concentration and as the White House continues to tighten the jaws of news management. And the February 19 decisions by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which ordered Michael Powell’s lapdog FCC to reconsider (read, eliminate) restrictions on the number of television stations the networks can own, and simply struck down rules preventing a company from owning a cable system and a broadcast station in a single market, make many of us anxious about Pacifica’s ability to remain a powerful and important voice in the etheric wilderness.

There are five Pacifica stations and only fifty-one affiliates. Those of us out here stuck with Britney Spears and “Satellite Sisters” and no Pacifica station or affiliate, who see Bush, Ashcroft, Sharon and the top guys at Enron and Arthur Andersen (to name just a few) getting away with murder (often literally), are fed up with folks at Pacifica seeing each other as the enemy and smearing each other endlessly. Despite Cagan’s commitment to participatory democracy (and her opposition to censorship), she, Coughlin and others may need to issue some tough, top-down edicts about name-calling and race-baiting in the workplace. If Pacifica can survive financially (and don’t think the media sharks aren’t circling around those stations, waiting patiently) many of us want Pacifica and its stations to reach some hard-nosed compromises that will carve out space for progressive programming for national audiences as well as programming with local interest and appeal. In terms of potential reach, Pacifica may be the largest progressive media outlet, but in terms of real influence, it has yet to fulfill its potential. Maybe if you’re in Berkeley or LA, the biggest, most important battles over democracy are inside the walls of the Pacifica stations. But many of us would like those in Pacifica to walk away from the microscope and put on some binoculars. Look outward. That’s where the really, really bad guys are, and they are getting scarier–and in more need of media outrage–each and every day.

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