The Nation has long regarded Pacifica as a sister institution in what sometimes seems a lonely struggle to keep alive alternative and independent perspectives in the media. With the creation a few years ago of RadioNation, which airs on many Pacifica stations, that relationship became friendlier still. We were, for that reason, distressed at the problems that erupted last year and in whose resolution we may be said to have a stake. As the crisis heated up, we published pieces by Nation contributing editor Marc Cooper, host of RadioNation as well as a news show on Pacifica’s Los Angeles station, and media scholar Robert McChesney. Columnist Alexander Cockburn also weighed in, and we published a lengthy readers’ exchange on our Letters page. After months had gone by and Pacifica’s problems showed no signs of resolution, we decided that a full-blown examination of Pacifica was in order and we turned to John Dinges, former editorial director of National Public Radio, author of books on the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and on the US relationship with Manuel Noriega in Panama, and currently a member of the faculty at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. We anticipate that the issues he discusses in the report that follows will be with us for some time. We invite readers to share their thoughts with us; see also the forum on our website.
Pacifica Radio is in trouble.
If your politics lean toward the left, and you’ve ever lived in one of the five cities with a Pacifica station, you probably have a favorite Pacifica story, a story about a Pacifica broadcast that made a difference in your life. Mine was driving down a Berkeley street on the day of an antiwar protest in the early seventies, and realizing that I wasn’t hearing the station just on my car radio. It was blaring from most of the houses on the block. The sound was all around, and the sound was the Rolling Stones singing, “The time is right for fighting in the street…. The time is right for violent revolution.”
Or years later, in Washington, walking around the office at National Public Radio with earphones that felt as though they had been surgically implanted, listening to the gavel to gavel of the Iran/contra hearings. Pacifica was broadcasting them live. NPR wasn’t.
We always expected Pacifica to be there, to be on the air talking truth to power when the big issues were at stake. Before NPR, and even after, Pacifica set the benchmark for public radio, for public-service radio. It invented the idea of listeners contributing money to a radio station so the station wouldn’t have to sell ads or depend on government subsidies. Pacifica trained a whole generation of radio producers and reporters in the kind of long-form reporting and sound-rich documentary techniques shunned by commercial radio, and its graduates include some of NPR’s best-known bylines.
Now, in an era of unprecedented conglomeratization and homogenization of media, independent voices like Pacifica’s are needed more than at any time perhaps since the Vietnam War. Its five stations and 800,000 listeners make it still the largest media outlet on the left. Yet events of the past year have cast serious doubt on Pacifica’s ability to recapture the role and impact it once had. Radio moments of the present are a far cry from the greatness of the past. They include, at flagship-station KPFA in Berkeley, a dispute in front of a live mike between a manager and an employee he was trying to suspend, a “No Censorship” fundraising drive built around denunciations of Pacifica’s national foundation, and programs devoting dozens of minutes daily to rehashing internal disputes. Veteran staff have been fired for criticizing management on the air, there have been sit-ins and arrests, armed guards have been hired (and removed) and KPFA staff have been first locked out, then given virtually unchallenged control of the station. Almost 10,000 people gathered in Berkeley last July for one of the largest political demonstrations in recent years, under banners calling for free speech and local control. Around the same time, Joan Baez appeared at a benefit concert for the dissidents, and well-known figures, including Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky, expressed their support.
Sorting out who is right and who is wrong in this story is a near-impossible task given the management blunders and heavy-handedness on the one side, and the insults, harassment and threats on the other side. Both sides could claim the pursuit of high-minded goals: Pacifica management sought to strengthen lines of authority in the name of increased audience and political effectiveness; KPFA and its defenders presented a resounding case that “free-speech radio”–Pacifica’s traditional no-holds-barred programming–was threatened by a sanitized, NPR-style takeover by establishment liberals.
But measuring the collateral damage is more clear-cut: At the two largest stations, the internal struggle has stopped dead a process of programming reform intended to increase the network’s tiny audience and recapture Pacifica’s once-undisputed leadership role in public radio and in progressive politics. Total audience for the Berkeley and New York stations, which have the network’s largest staffs and budgets, is flat, continuing a trend of the past four years, and the audience for the Berkeley station is now the second-smallest, after Houston. (The Houston, Los Angeles and Washington stations, the three that embraced the programming reforms and stayed out of the disputes, have seen their combined audiences increase by 52 percent during the same period.) The turmoil has also put in jeopardy a promising expansion of Pacifica’s national programs. To be sure, stations are still broadcasting, paychecks are still written and listeners still donate money. But it is increasingly clear that as a national organization, Pacifica is adrift.
Beneath the overt conflict are even more serious questions–and disagreements–about Pacifica’s viability and effectiveness in pure radio terms. Indeed, the facts are starkly at odds with one of the most cherished notions about Pacifica, namely that its politically progressive programming attracts a relatively small but fiercely loyal audience. Small, indeed, but decidedly not loyal–certainly not as that term is understood in the radio industry. In fact, listener loyalty at Pacifica stations and programs is among the lowest in all of public radio, meaning Pacifica’s listeners actually spend most of their listening time tuned to other stations. Public radio audience expert David Giovannoni, who has been a consultant for Pacifica for almost a decade, said the efforts to build audience had produced results that were “too little, too late.” The network, he said in a report to the Pacifica board, “is today an anachronism on the FM band, arrested in its development by a small group of people who are similarly stuck in time.” (Giovannoni’s conclusions were immediately denounced by those who charge that the whole idea of audience growth is a ruse to water down Pacifica’s edgy political message.)
Audience is at the center of the conflict. Pacifica’s 800,000 listeners may dwarf the numbers of any other media on the left, but they are minimal for powerful radio stations in major population centers–as is the case with the Pacifica stations. More crucially, audience studies show that most Pacifica listeners tune in only briefly–from a few minutes to several hours a week. Pacifica’s stations can stagger on perhaps indefinitely with what one station manager called “our hypercore” audience–the small politically committed group that listens, donates and is not shy about weighing in publicly to oppose changes. But why should Pacifica limit itself to preaching to its own converted? One doesn’t have to take sides in the current dispute to envision a greater goal: to bring many hundreds of thousands, even millions, into a forum for progressive information and ideas that it was Pacifica’s original mission to provide. “Pacifica used to be the leader in attracting minority audiences, in building audience in general and in raising money from listeners–in fact, Pacifica invented the whole idea of listener sponsorship,” said Rick Madden, a vice president at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). “Now they aren’t a leader in anything. It is just enormously sad.”
The heart of Pacifica is its network of five flagship stations with a set of assets any radio programmer would die for: locations in five major urban centers (WBAI in New York, KPFA in the San Francisco Bay area, KPFK in Los Angeles, WPFW in Washington and KPFT in Houston), powerful FM transmitters broadcasting from frequencies in the prime real estate on the dial and a potential for clear, interference-free listening by a combined population of 42 million. Fifty-seven affiliate stations around the country expand that potential audience to millions more. In today’s overheated market for radio frequencies, Pacifica’s New York and Bay Area stations–which, unlike the vast majority of public radio stations, were assigned frequencies in the commercial part of the radio band–have an estimated value of $80 million and $50 million, respectively.
According to its charter, Pacifica’s five stations and their broadcasting licenses are owned by the Pacifica Foundation, which is governed by an unpaid board of up to nineteen members. The board hires an executive director, who hires and supervises each station’s general manager. In reality, the board and executive director have rarely asserted much authority, and the five stations have been virtually autonomous.
Power struggles always involve money, and Pacifica is no exception. The network has an overall budget of $9.2 million. Almost all the money comes from station fundraising drives; stations also receive matching-fund grants, totaling $1.2 million this year, from the CPB, which allocates funds voted by Congress to support public radio and TV. Individual programs, such as Democracy Now!, also supplement Pacifica funding with grants from private organizations such as the MacArthur Foundation. Pacifica prides itself on refusing any contributions from private corporations, and some look askance at even the CPB money. More hotly debated, however, has been the increasing share of station revenues allocated to national (as opposed to station) spending, such as national staff (the executive director makes about $60,000 a year), consultants, a new satellite system and increased national programming. NPR, by comparison, has a budget exceeding $75 million, about 50 percent of which comes from station fees, with most of the rest from private foundations and private corporations, whose messages are put on the air in short quasi commercials known as underwriting credits. Pacifica’s full-time staff totals about 150, ranging from eight at the smallest station, KPFT, to about thirty at the two largest stations, WBAI and KPFA.
For those who harbor stereotypes about Pacifica as a holdover of sixties counterculture, those images are dispelled by a walk through any of the stations. Consigned to memory is the rabbit warren of dingy corridors and cramped studios where KPFA in its salad days broadcast “Street Fighting Man” as mood music for antiwar protests. All five stations have new or refurbished facilities, thanks to building campaigns over the past five years. Studios are Spartan but professional. Gone are the days when, at KPFA, flushing toilets could sometimes be heard on the air. Protest posters and the occasional gray ponytail on a 50ish male are among the signs that these are stations with political attitude. Each station broadcasts a varied mix of news and talk programs, along with lots of music. The idea is to provide programming that isn’t available elsewhere on the dial. KPFA has been the news leader, producing a daily hourlong news program with three full-time staff members and two dozen volunteer reporters. It also produces a weekly program, dedicated to the music of the Grateful Dead, that is one of the station’s most popular offerings.
At Washington’s WPFW, where 50 percent of the audience is black, a four-hour block on Saturday of classic rhythm and blues is one of the station’s most popular programs, and one that shows up high on citywide audience charts. KPFT in Houston has heavy doses of Cajun, blues and folk, and bills itself as “The Sound of Texas.” (“But we don’t do country and western,” says station manager Garland Ganter, offering an unsolicited rebuttal to criticism from other Pacifica circles that his station panders to lowbrow popular tastes apparently considered incompatible with lefty politics.) The New York City station emphasizes news and also draws a dedicated following to its afternoon block of psychology and health–including Natural Living with Gary Null, author of bestselling alternative health and anti-aging books. And at KPFK in Los Angeles, the biggest fundraising success is a daily politics-culture talk show hosted by journalist Marc Cooper (Cooper also hosts the weekly RadioNation, a co-production of KPFK and The Nation Institute, which runs free on 120 stations).
A good share of Pacifica’s hardcore politics–and attitude–is pumped out by the daily political interview show Democracy Now!, one of only two programs produced by Pacifica for mandatory airing on all five stations. The program is hosted out of New York’s WBAI by Amy Goodman, an early and aggressive reporter in East Timor, and Juan Gonzalez, a New York Daily News columnist. Last year, Goodman was co-winner of a Polk Award for a Pacifica investigation of Chevron’s involvement in attacks on civilians in Africa’s Niger Delta; Gonzalez also won a Polk, for his newspaper commentary. The show’s in-your-face advocacy style (it bills itself as “the Exception to the Rulers”) creates devoted fans, and it is unquestionably Pacifica’s marquee production. Stations are also required to carry the daily half-hour Pacifica Network News (PNN), which features news reports and commentaries from a network of freelancers and a staff of four journalists working out of the Washington station. The show is popular among Pacifica’s affiliates (twenty-three stations run Democracy Now! and forty-two run PNN.)
There has never been a day when Pacifica was not a voice of dissent. A group of young Bay Area intellectuals led by Lew Hill, a World War II conscientious objector, created Pacifica in 1949 as an alternative to what they saw as the crass commercialism of American radio. Hill described the objective of Pacifica as promoting “a lasting understanding between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors.” KPFA was FM at a time when most radios were built with only an AM band; it refused advertising, and it asked its members to become “subscribers” and contribute money for the running of the station. Matthew Lasar, in his book Pacifica Radio, about the network’s first three decades, described Hill as a pacifist anticommunist dedicated to providing a radio forum for the most diverse exchange of views, a haven of free speech in an era when dissident views on race, war and the emerging American empire were considered unpatriotic at best and un-American at worst.
The station, then as now, attracted people with a deep suspicion of authority, and internal disputes were frequent. At the time of Hill’s death in 1957, he was involved in a wrangle with his board of directors over the firing of several employees, and one of the employees was picketing the station in protest. Pacifica’s first battle was against the FBI’s anticommunist investigations and McCarthyism. As American anticommunism emerged as the foremost threat to free speech, Pacifica’s identification with the political left was solidified. Expansion into a network began with the creation of KPFK in Los Angeles in 1959 and WBAI in New York in 1960. KPFT in Houston was started in 1970, and the Washington, DC, station, WPFW, was founded in 1977 with the idea of establishing a predominantly black voice in that majority-black city.
Pacifica acquired a reputation for creative troublemaking and for broadcasting what others feared to touch. “Pacifica is high-risk radio,” said a 1975 brochure quoted by Lasar. “When the theater is burning, our microphones are available to shout fire.” Pacifica was the first to air Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” was investigated by the FBI after WBAI interviewed a whistleblowing FBI agent, and it broadcast an interview with Che Guevara shortly before his 1967 execution in the Bolivian jungle. Pacifica sent a war correspondent to Vietnam in 1965, providing some of the first reports directly from Hanoi. Its uncompromising coverage of that war and its identification with the antiwar movement was the high-water mark of Pacifica’s impact as a network and consolidated it in the affections and memories of a generation of Americans–most of whom are now in their late 40s to early 60s and still make up Pacifica’s most avid group of listeners.
But Pacifica’s clout during the glory days of the antiwar movement did not carry over into the later seventies, as movement politics became more fragmented and divisive. A single unifying cause was replaced by a flurry of competing and aggressive groups, each with a narrower interest than before and each with a constituency. Programmers at Pacifica became little more than brokers allocating airtime according to which hinge squeaked the loudest. Once allocated, programming slots were treated as entitlements. In one case, at KPFK in Los Angeles, an elderly activist tried to leave his air slot in his will. In this small world, in which most Pacifica programmers were unpaid volunteers, control over airtime was the ultimate, and often the only, reward.
The five stations divided the day into a patchwork quilt of programs, scheduled more in line with a volunteer’s preferences, clout and available free time than with any view toward the audience. Lew Hill once remarked that a program serving even one listener well was worth putting on the air, and that became a mantra whenever someone questioned whether anyone was listening. “Pacifica was great in the early seventies,” says NPR reporter Mike Shuster, who was a Pacifica UN reporter in the late seventies. “But when the war ended in 1975, and even before when the antiwar movement petered out, Pacifica began to grope for what to do. That was when the splinter programming came in. That was what the left was like then.” Pacifica redefined itself as “community” radio, in which community was conceived not as a single city but as dozens of diverse interest groups and political constituencies.
Radio was also changing. Pacifica held a nearly exclusive franchise on listener-sponsored public radio until the late sixties. Then Congress brought together hundreds of educational FM stations into a coordinated public radio system. NPR was created and began to distribute a news and features program called All Things Considered in 1971. The news system was funded by Congressional appropriations to a new entity, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which gave operating grants to qualifying stations, including the five Pacifica stations. Dozens of Pacifica reporters and producers made the move to NPR, attracted by better pay and a more stable journalistic environment. NPR’s Pacifica graduates include diplomatic correspondent Ted Clark; medical reporter Patty Neighmond; former Pacifica Vietnam correspondent Chris Koch, who became an All Things Considered anchor; New York reporter Margot Adler; and Robert Krulwich, who then moved from NPR to CBS and then to ABC television.
Internal upheavals, presaging the current crisis, shook Pacifica’s New York affiliate. Programmers rebelled against the Pacifica board’s attempt to remove some programs, barricading themselves in the station’s control room for almost six weeks in 1976. For a time, management and staff had an active and open discussion of reaping a windfall to put Pacifica back on its feet by selling the station’s valuable commercial frequency. The idea, then and later, was to acquire cheaper noncommercial stations with equivalent power and continue broadcasting.
Was anybody listening? When Pacifica learned the answer to that question it was a shock. In the late eighties, when the network began to subscribe to Arbitron surveys to measure its audience, KPFT in Houston had so few listeners it didn’t show up in the surveys, while WPFW in Washington was actually declining in audience. The two small stations were running chronic deficits and had to be regularly bailed out by the larger stations.
Yet Pacifica still had great moments as a national network that echoed its impact during the antiwar years. Only Pacifica provided national broadcasts of the weeks of Congressional hearings into the Iran/contra scandal in 1987, elevating national correspondent Larry Bensky to journalistic prominence. The national broadcasts demonstrated Pacifica’s acceptance among mainstream listeners–audiences surged during the national broadcasts, then dropped back when stations returned to regular fare.
As Pacifica entered the nineties, its signal was reaching 40 million people, but little more than one in a hundred listened long enough or often enough to be measured. NPR stations now existed in every Pacifica market and were attracting the news-hungry, socially active audience who had once been loyal Pacifica devotees. With a far larger news budget, NPR provided wall-to-wall coverage of crucial events like the run-up to the Gulf War and the war itself. NPR’s news audience had caught up to Pacifica and was roaring away–growing from 2 million to 8 million in just ten years. In the five Pacifica cities, NPR stations were doubling and tripling Pacifica’s audience.
Inside Pacifica, the argument that NPR’s success was somehow the result of watered-down programming pandering for popularity was growing thin. Political purity still mattered, but some began to think seriously about growing the audience.
Thinking about audience was already producing a small revolution in the world of 600-700 stations that is public radio. In the late eighties and early nineties, the buzz at the yearly meetings attended by station execs was about “understanding how people use radio.” Lynn Chadwick–then a volunteer, later to become Pacifica’s embattled executive director–learned her first hard lessons about audiences as host of a feminist talk show called Sophie’s Parlor on WPFW in Washington. The program aired on Saturday afternoon immediately after the station’s most popular blues DJ, known as “The Bama,” whose main audience was black men. “I couldn’t figure out why we were getting all these calls from men on a women’s show,” she said. First lesson: A show’s audience starts with people already tuned in and grows or dwindles, depending on how many tune out versus how many new people tune in. The Bama’s audience might have been interested in the Caribbean news and music show coming up later in the afternoon, but by then most of the black men would have tuned out because they had little interest in the white women’s issues discussed on Sophie’s Parlor. Likewise, few of the women listening to Sophie’s were likely to stick around long for a program on the Caribbean. It was classic “patchwork” in the extreme–programming that caused more people to tune out each hour than to tune in.
The yearly station-executives’ meetings often featured workshops conducted by audience experts David Giovannoni and George Bailey, who used hour-by-hour charts to show the way a station’s listeners tune in and out during the day. “Back then, Pacifica was the laughingstock of public radio,” said Nicole Sawaya, then manager of a small station in Northern California and later general manager of KPFA. “Giovannoni would put up charts about Pacifica to show a programming ‘horror show.’ Pacifica stations were doing everything designed to drive listeners to tune out: patchwork grids, multiple languages, unprofessional sound, poor production values, rotating hosts.”
Long before they assumed leadership roles at Pacifica, Chadwick and Sawaya had become modernizers, advocates of changes designed to build “loyalty”–getting listeners to tune in longer and more often. The changes were actually introduced at Pacifica first by another convert to the audience-building message, KPFA general manager Pat Scott. Named Pacifica executive director in 1994, Scott moved aggressively but undiplomatically. She was heard more than once to blurt out, “No more of this hippie shit.” Under Scott, Pacifica embarked on a two-pronged plan: The five stations would build local audience by getting rid of the checkerboard, and they would go beyond the core stations by creating a series of national news programs to be aired on affiliate stations. The idea was to double Pacifica’s audience by the year 2000.
The five Pacifica stations embraced the changes with varying degrees of enthusiasm. KPFA began programming several hours of news and public affairs during morning and evening drive time. Staffers generally went along, even when Scott canceled several volunteers’ programs, including one that had been on the air for thirty years and that was hosted by Soviet specialist William Mandel, who had led resistance to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early sixties.
Still, the old ways are visible. Weekdays from 1 to 4 pm are a kaleidoscope of fifteen different programs with at least fifteen different hosts. KPFA’s Audigraphics study documents another example on Sunday morning: Audience drops precipitously during the political talk show by Pacifica’s brand-name host Larry Bensky. In patchwork style, the show’s 9-10:30 am slot is sandwiched between four hours of classical music at one end and an hour and a half of folk and acoustic at the other.
In September 1997, the Pacifica board elected a new, high-profile chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry, who was energetic, blunt-spoken and came with impeccable progressive credentials. A household name among the younger tier of civil rights leaders, she is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and chairwoman of the US Civil Rights Commission. Berry came in excited about the promise of growth in the strategic plan and with hopes of stimulating interest in Pacifica within African-American communities. And she expected to be an active fundraiser. “My vision was to go out into the schools,” Berry said, “to let in more of the diversity of the communities of our signal area, and I was prepared to raise money to implement these plans.”
Berry, however, was almost immediately on a collision course with two of the five stations. It had always been an open question whether the board ran the stations or the stations ran the board. Each station’s local advisory board, itself made up of representatives of local activist groups, was entitled to name two members to sit on the national board. Since ten of nineteen members were concerned mainly about individual causes and local station interests, Berry saw quickly how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to muster a majority focused on national issues. At Berry’s first meeting, Scott pushed a proposal that would have weakened the stations’ lock on decision-making, and when it was rejected, Scott, frustrated and burned out, announced that she would resign. To replace her, the board named Lynn Chadwick, who had won recognition and a major award as president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.
Change was forced, however, in late 1998, when Pacifica’s most important single funder, the CPB, put the network on notice that the presence of local advisory-board members on the national board violated CPB regulations. Berry scheduled a vote on the matter for the February 1999 board meeting. Protesters picketed the meeting, held in Berkeley. Many advocated renouncing CPB money rather than giving up local control. In the end, the board did vote to make local advisory-board members ineligible for membership, but those affected simply resigned their local posts and stayed on the national board.
The host for that meeting was KPFA’s recently hired general manager, Nicole Sawaya. In her year at the station, Sawaya had won the trust and affection of the staff, despite her clear alignment with the audience-building reformers and the fact that her previous job had been at NPR. “She was the best manager ever,” says news director Aileen Alfandary. “And I have been here for twenty years.” But part of that trust had been won by standing up to her new boss, Chadwick, whenever disagreements arose. In preparation for the meeting, Chadwick had instructed station managers to prepare contingency budgets, cutting costs to cover the possible loss of CPB funding. Sawaya, rather than cutting operating expenses or staff, as all the other stations did, presented a budget that deducted KPFA’s quota for payment of national programming and national board expenses. Sawaya stood with the protesters, criticizing the national staff and board for bloated budgets and lack of accountability. Mark Schubb, the Los Angeles general manager, shared many of Sawaya’s criticisms and questioned whether Chadwick was adept enough for the job of executive director. But at the meeting, which he also attended, he was appalled by Sawaya’s lack of tact. “Nicole and I agreed,” he said. But she went public. “People heard she was dissing the board to donors. I told her, ‘Play politics, don’t confront Lynn and the board.'”
Barely a month after the board meeting, on March 31, the last day of Sawaya’s one-year contract, Chadwick told her she was being let go. The only reason stated: She was “not a team player.” Whether or not Sawaya’s firing was a good management decision–Berry says she agreed at the time but thinks in retrospect it was a mistake–the reaction that followed approximated a volcanic eruption and a six-month flow of sulfurous lava. A management dispute was about to become a battle for control of KPFA and the future of Pacifica. KPFA staff rose up in open rebellion, which continues today. Here are just some of the main events:
§ On the day Sawaya was fired, Chadwick ordered KPFA’s news director not to report the firing on the air–applying a longstanding Pacifica rule against using the air to discuss internal business or “dirty laundry.” News director Alfandary defied the order and aired the report. Protesters arrived outside KPFA.
§ Late that night, a .38-caliber pistol was fired into Chadwick’s unoccupied office.
§ A few days later, Pacifica national correspondent Larry Bensky devoted seventeen minutes of his Sunday show to denunciation of Sawaya’s firing. Chadwick fired him. “I bear the stigma of being fired for speaking freely on free-speech radio,” Bensky said later. (The dirty-laundry ban–rechristened the “gag rule”–was unevenly applied. Station news personnel recorded a short statement of protest against Pacifica’s board that was played as a disclaimer before almost every show for six weeks. Then, suddenly, in late June, Chadwick took volunteer music DJ Robbie Osman off the air for commenting on his show about the Sawaya firing.)
Protests got nastier, and eventually guards were hired. Protesters called an African-American Pacifica staffer an “Oreo” and “house Negro” as she walked to work through the protest, and they took to jostling Chadwick as she walked into her office. A poster showed Chadwick with bloody fangs hunched over the prostrate female body of KPFA. In late June, as the board was meeting in Washington, according to Berry, a staff member warned the board that an occupation of KPFA was imminent. Management ordered new, tougher guards into the station–and this time they were armed.
Rumors began to circulate that Pacifica intended to solve the problem by selling the station. An e-mail mistakenly sent by a board member to a wrong address confirmed that selling had indeed been discussed and was favored by at least that board member. Berry had denied such reports before, and she denied them again. But the incident set off another outburst. (That the idea of selling a Pacifica frequency should occur to board members was hardly surprising, given the commercial value of the stations. Berry says one board member frequently brought up the idea of selling KPFA and possibly WBAI–swapping them for cheaper stations in the area–to bring in a cash windfall that would put the network on a financially stable footing for decades. But she says the idea never enjoyed more than a small minority of support.)
A San Francisco organization, Media Alliance, called a press conference July 13 to make public the wayward e-mail message. Berry was ready with a denial she expected would be included on the air with any discussion of the issue. In a bewildering example of atrocious timing, however, Pacifica chose the same day to announce to KPFA that it was going to start seriously enforcing the dirty-laundry rule. Predictably, the rule was defied. An afternoon-talk-show host, Dennis Bernstein, devoted a portion of his one-hour show to a long excerpt of the Media Alliance press conference–with no reference to Pacifica’s denial.
As he finished his program and walked to his office, Bernstein was met by interim general manager Garland Ganter, who had been brought in from the Houston station to run KPFA. Ganter told him he was being put on paid leave and was to leave the station, for violating the dirty-laundry rule. Instead, Bernstein took refuge in the control room of a studio that had just started broadcasting the KPFA nightly-news program. Ganter followed, accompanied by two burly guards. Bernstein protested that his rights were being violated and that he feared for his physical safety. Newscaster Mark Mericle, watching through the glass divider separating the on-air space from the control room, began to narrate the confrontation over the air. The control-room mike was switched on by a sympathetic radio technician, and the melodrama was live at 59,000 watts for all to hear. (Later erroneous reports of the scene said that armed guards had dragged a newscaster off the air, but Mericle’s and Ganter’s accounts agree that no force was used and that Bernstein’s own show had ended before the confrontation.)
Faced now with total on-air rebellion by a unified KPFA staff, Ganter walked to another studio. He killed the feed from the newscast studio where Mericle and Bernstein were speaking and switched the station to archive tapes of past Pacifica broadcasts. With protesters already pouring into and occupying the first floor of the station, Ganter called the police. Six hours and fifty-two arrests later, the station was empty and quiet, except for the chatter of the archive tape playing from the main control room.
The standoff lasted sixteen days. Employees were locked out but continued to be paid as archive tapes, then piped-in music, filled KPFA’s air. On July 29 Pacifica management hollered uncle. Berry announced that the station would be opened and turned over to its staff. “This means we will not be enforcing any rules about what is on the air at KPFA for the time being, as a noble experiment,” she said.
But far from dying out, the rebellion has escalated into a mini-political movement, fought on the air from the Berkeley station and over the Internet by activists all over the country. In October Chadwick removed (and assigned to unspecified duties) Dan Coughlin, news director of Pacifica Network News, a few days after he had written and put on the air a news item about sixteen Pacifica affiliates boycotting his own program in protest against the Pacifica board. Coughlin had been having his own run-ins, and a union employee had recently won a grievance against him, but the timing of his removal made it obvious that he was another victim of the sporadically applied gag rule. The side-taking was complete when the host of Pacifica’s other national program, Amy Goodman, weighed in against the Pacifica national board, calling publicly for Coughlin’s reinstatement.
A group of freelance reporters for PNN called a national “strike.” The strikers didn’t have the numbers to keep PNN from getting on the air, but suddenly longtime contributors to PNN who continued to file were branded as scabs. One of those so branded, Saul Landau, who had been writing commentaries for Pacifica for a decade, sent out “an appeal to all progressives” to “stop the Pacifica bashing” and warned that “continuation of what has become a veritable war against Pacifica could lead to the death of the only alternative radio network progressives possess.” Signers included Oakland Mayor and former Pacifica talk-show host Jerry Brown, actors Ed Asner and Mike Farrell, and writer Barbara Ehrenreich. A similarly illustrious list, including authors Matthew Lasar, Ed Herman and Robert McChesney, countered Landau with a letter calling the strikers’ action “appropriate” and part of a true “grassroots effort.” Nevertheless, the respectful tone and lack of political invective in the exchange marked an important turn.
One station manager estimates that the year of crisis has cost the network as much as $500,000, depleting its reserves. In February Berry tried to move beyond the impasse. After standing by Chadwick for months, Berry announced that Chadwick would be replaced by Washington station manager Bessie Wash. Berry also said that she would step down when her term as chairwoman expires in September. In an interview, however, her language was less than conciliatory. “I’m so disappointed, because if these people are the left, the left is in bad shape,” Berry said. “The elitism, the paranoia, is boundless. Worse, they use the mantra of free speech as a cover to protect their own little playpen.”
She said she now regrets getting involved, and that KPFA activists and even some dissidents on her own national board, whom she called “wackos,” used her national stature to generate media attention. “If they could, they would destroy me,” she said. “They said I was a fascist, a CIA agent, a black bitch. They said I was going to sell Pacifica and buy some black stations in the South. Because that’s what black people do.” While acknowledging some errors, she says her tough stance was necessary: “We paid the price. We bore the brunt of it,” she said, adding, “But it was contained enough so someone else can come in and heal it.”
However, Bensky, the fired national correspondent, framed Berry’s tenure as uniformly negative. Berry and Chadwick were guilty of “wholesale abandonment of Pacifica’s principles and practices,” he said, summarizing those as community control, free-speech radio and Pacifica’s role as a provider of alternative political information. Bensky said KPFA, together with its sister station WBAI, is resisting such a top-down takeover of its programming. Another KPFA activist, Aaron Glantz, who helped organize the stringer strike against PNN, added a touch of hyperbole: “They have dreams of world domination. That’s what this is all about.”
After a year of conflict, Pacifica is hardly a place of dreams, grandiose or otherwise. The network’s national staff has all but disintegrated. In January national operations were moved from Berkeley to Arlington, Virginia, where they were run for two months out of a borrowed office crowded with unopened file boxes. Then they were moved again, to WPFW’s offices in Washington, where Bessie Wash will double as station manager and Pacifica’s executive director. Wash made no public statements but signaled privately that she would try to bring peace. Her good-natured style is reflected in her station’s laid-back on-air sound, and she is credited with putting the station in the black for the first time and with nearly doubling its audience. In early March, Wash (whose office declined an interview request) visited all the stations. At KPFA she impressed some staffers with her warmth and openness to their concerns, and she left behind some guarded optimism.
But Pacifica activists were not so easily mollified. Websites and e-mail lists noted, accurately, that Wash’s station was the most energetic in its application of the gag rule and that she had canceled a media-criticism program, Counterspin, whose spin was one-sidedly anti-Pacifica board. Other appointments were also suspect in the eyes of Pacifica dissidents. The chairman-elect, David Acosta, was linked to the discussions about selling stations. One appointee, John Murdock, was identified as a lawyer in a firm whose specialties included management representation in labor disputes. Berry’s appointment of Ganter as interim program director was described by one KPFA program host as “giving us the finger” because of Ganter’s role in taking the station off the air and locking out the staff last year.
On the sidelines, one important constituency, the station managers of Pacifica’s sixty affiliate stations, was growing increasingly impatient and expressed concern that the seemingly endless dispute is causing the deterioration of the national programming that is most important to their stations. Pacifica provides the affiliates with a satellite distribution service and Pacifica programs at fees far below those of NPR. (In a move unrelated to the dispute, Jerry Brown, the gadfly former California governor, ended his popular talk show when he ran for mayor of Oakland. Bensky’s daily show was cut back to Sunday only, at his request, and has aired only on KPFA since he was fired. Neither program was replaced, leaving Democracy Now! and PNN as Pacifica’s only national offerings.)
Rob Lorei, news director of community station WMNF in Tampa, Florida, says Pacifica “shares our values–written in our station’s mission statement–of social justice, peace and equality.” He added, “We see ourselves as balancing the bias in the mainstream media, and that includes NPR.” But, said Lorei, the turmoil, especially the perception of censorship, has gravely hurt Pacifica’s credibility at his station. “Before, Pacifica was as good as gold to our listeners. But now we are hearing from listeners who say they don’t trust Pacifica. They want to know if there is an alternative. And our listeners aren’t political types like you have in New York and California.” Lorei and other affiliates say that Pacifica’s energies have been misplaced in internal struggles at the expense of moving forward to implement technological changes, such as expanding quickly into online webcasting and direct broadcast from satellites. “Pacifica will become an artifact or a dinosaur,” Lorei said. “What’s happening in media is passing them by–wireless Internet, satellite radio. They aren’t there.”
Richard Towne, who runs station KUNM in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which caters to a mix of progressive communities, with special emphasis on programming for Native Americans, joined a one-day boycott of Pacifica programs last October because he wanted “to send a message to the [Pacifica national] board that they aren’t doing their job.” Still, he said, he applauds the board for trying to move the network in the direction of building up national programming.
What can finally be said to make sense of so conflicted a tale? Pacifica has survived many quarrels, although it is hard to find one so long-lasting and bitter as this one. The network, in its 50s, has still not tapped out the reservoir of political commitment, affection and good feeling it earned in its early decades. There are no problems at Pacifica that cannot be fixed.
Pacifica will always be political radio, but its future is obscured when the language of the debate is limited to political rhetoric. Yes, it comes down to speaking truth to power. But it is also a matter of magnifying the power to speak: Will Pacifica, with the political power of a nationwide radio network, with a potential audience almost as large as NPR’s, make a serious effort to broadcast to an audience of millions, or will it be content to narrowcast to its current small core of listeners?
It is a timid political vision that assumes that high-quality, progressive radio cannot be designed for a mass audience. Why is it a political sellout to design political programming that will appeal to significant numbers of the American people? Isn’t it deeply defeatist to assume that Pacifica can only appeal to the small crowd of faithful who already listen? I think Marx, and certainly Gramsci, would roll over in their graves at that kind of leftist thinking.
At its heart, the debate inside Pacifica is not a political debate, even though it is cast in political terms. It is a debate over differing visions for the future of the network.
No, the KPFA staff are not ultraleft-overs from the sixties. They are serious journalists with serious concerns about maintaining their independence. Their vision is portrayed in general terms of local control and Pacifica’s free-speech tradition, but in concrete terms it amounts to keeping things the way they are. It is a vision that resists putting more money into national programming–the one thing most likely to increase audience. Nor are Mary Francis Berry and her allies cryptofascists or Clinton clones. They want to push Pacifica in the direction of that larger national audience. But for the past year, they have failed to make a convincing case–or any case at all–that their controversial actions were part of a coherent strategy to achieve their legitimate vision. Firing people–for perceived insubordination and violation of a capriciously applied dirty-laundry rule–was hardly a tactic likely to win over already deeply suspicious staff members to the new vision for a growing national audience.
Some quiet progress in this direction has been made, however. The three “reformed” stations–Los Angeles, Houston and Washington–have greatly increased their audience numbers by doing a few simple things that make sense in radio terms. KPFA and WBAI have lagged behind, but they cannot be cut loose or cashed in–not without destroying Pacifica as we know it. The two largest stations have been the creative and journalistic heart of the network and are indispensable to any effort to revitalize its news and public-information programs. Without them, the stations with smaller staffs would face diminishing audience returns–forced to resort to folk music and jazz to continue audience growth.
NPR’s success has already demonstrated that it is not music but news and serious public-affairs programming that build loyalty among the kind of people who listen to both NPR and Pacifica–concerned, socially active, racially diverse, educated and, yes, left-of-center citizens. But Pacifica does not have to become like NPR to gain its share of that audience. NPR went for and won the franchise for mainstream, straight journalism on radio. That leaves Pacifica free to reinvigorate the franchise it already owns: smart, in-your-face, contrarian coverage of the news with a preference for the progressive agenda. That is what Pacifica’s sixty affiliates are clamoring for–even though of late they have become wearily skeptical that they will ever get it.
It is no mystery to anyone that the fighting must end for that to be accomplished. The mutual demonization must stop. Tension between national organizations and their local affiliates is inherent in the relationship–no matter what the organization or its politics. Consensus-building always works better than hierarchical decision-making. Pacifica’s national leadership must lead the way out of the impasse. Two changes–call them concessions if you want–would help. One, the Pacifica board must rebuild its lost authority by creating a national governance structure that reconciles the stations’ local community connections with the ability to implement national programming strategy. Second, let the journalists make the journalistic decisions. That simple principle was advocated in interviews with journalists on both sides of the conflict, including Larry Bensky and Mark Mericle of KPFA and Mark Bevis and Don Rush of Pacifica Network News. It is an approach that must include dumping the unworkable dirty-laundry rule and allowing Pacifica’s news editors to formulate consistent editorial policies on how to cover news about Pacifica itself.
Pacifica has risen and then lost its way in perfect harmony with the waves of vitality and confusion in the American left. Perhaps Pacifica’s next golden radio moments must await a new generation and the refocusing of the progressive movement itself.