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.”