Inside Pacifica


David Adelson

 

As a member of the Local Advisory Board
(LAB) of Pacifica’s KPFK (90.7 FM Los Angeles) I am charged
with mediating effective communication between the station
and the public. Long-standing rules impede discussion of
internal policy over the air, now apparently including a
prohibition on announcing events organized to discuss such
policy. Further, in a memo dated July 12, 1995, the executive
director of Pacifica, Patricia (Pat) Scott, wrote, "The
Local Advisory board is hereby directed not to take action
that will impede the plans of the station staff. Members of
any local Board who do not feel that they can assist Pacifica
in its present mission are advised to resign. If there are
indications that actions are being taken collectively or
individually to countermand the policies, directives, and
mandates of the Pacifica Board, the Board will take
appropriate steps." But in mid-June the Pacifica
National Board of Directors will vote on a resolution
modifying Pacifica by-laws which, for the first time, will
give the National Board majority control of the board’s
composition. This change, along with many others now being
established, could largely determine what Pacifica will
become in the future and towards what ends its assets will be
directed. I therefore find it necessary to offer these
comments publicly.

 

Some Background

In 1949 Lew Hill, a Quaker and
pacifist, along with a group of conscientious objectors,
pioneered the successful concept of listener-sponsored public
radio with KPFA, 94.1 FM in Berkeley. In a 1951 essay
entitled "The Theory of Listener-Sponsored Radio,"
Hill held that for most of radio, the people actually
involved in broadcasting (including the writer, engineer,
producer, etc.) had either little or no personal relationship
to the material being broadcast or the audience receiving it.
Most radio production was an act in which those creating the
program were making a product in order to deliver an audience
to those sponsoring the program. The sponsors’ dictates
were therefore paramount to outcomes. "I have been
describing a fact at the level of the industry’s staff; it is
actually so notorious in the whole tradition and atmosphere
of our radio that it precludes anyone of serious talent and
reasonable sanity from offering material for broadcast, much
less joining a staff. The country’s best minds…shun the
medium unless the possessor of one happens to be running for
office." Hill felt that only by creating an institution
which would support the relationship between programmer and
audience could listeners obtain programming which treated
them and their concerns as a subject, not as a commodity to
be manipulated.

In order to serve this mission, public
radio would need to escape the market driven pressures
plaguing most media. Listener sponsorship would provide the
source of funding, while the programmer’s freedom to
decide the nature of the broadcast would attract great
artists and thinkers to become programmers. Hill also noted
that advertisers impose a need for shows of reliable
consistency so that audience of predictable sizes could be
maintained. Thus, the risk of occasional failure implicit in
any truly creative act could not be tolerated by advertisers,
imposing a numbing uniformity on the medium. Hill reasoned,
however, that an approach incorporating creativity and
occasional failure, could succeed if listeners felt a
relationship to the broadcast causing them to recognize that
enduring some failure was necessary to make meaningful
success possible.

KPFA began broadcasting and did indeed
attract great programming (and some poor programming), as
well as listener support. The foundation grew into a network
comprising five FM stations – KPFA Berkeley (94.1), KPFK Los
Angeles (90.7), WBAI New York (99.5), KPFT Houston (90.1),
and WPFW Washington, D.C. (89.3) – in sum capable of reaching
one in five U.S. homes, along with over fifty affiliates in
twenty seven states, plus the Pacifica Program Service and
the Pacifica Radio Archive.

But Hill never addressed how best to
balance the desires of individual programmers with the
interests of other programmers and a much larger public and
so not surprisingly the growth of Pacifica has been
accompanied by conflict about who decides who shall be
granted the programming freedoms Hill spoke of, for how long,
and on what basis.

 

Governance

Pacifica governance has always been
contentious. In an interview published in March 1994 in Z,
Peter Franck described an important event in the history of
the governance of KPFA.

CG: Did Lou
Hill build any democratic structures into KPFA
originally, what were they, what happened to them?

PF It’s an important question. Lou
Hill set it up. I don’t know all the details–this is
what I was told by Elsa Knight Thompson: There was a
large group of staff and community people which selected
the Pacifica board. That’s the way it was structured. The
Pacifica board, about 1961, simply changed the bylaws to
make itself self-perpetuating. It changed itself from a
board elected by this staff and community to a board that
elected its own members. The FCC ruled that was an
illegal change of ownership, but they never did anything
about that, they didn’t fine the station, and nobody took
advantage of the FCC ruling to challenge it. It was a
real change in the structure. The democratic vision of a
direct link between listeners and the structure of the
station was lost.

CG: What was
the motivation behind the change.

PF: I think it was a quiet coup. I
know Elsa Knight Thompson was very upset about it. At
that time, you had station staff that was pretty radical
and militant and a board that was mostly well-heeled
liberals, that viewed the staff as the unwashed
masses–that was some of the dynamic between the board
and the staff.

I don’t know, from my own
experience, how well this old structure worked. There is
always a problem getting community people involved in a
station when everyone is busy, and while important, the
station is only one of many things in their lives. At the
same time, there is considerable resistance to community
involvement on the staffs. Most of the staff are
volunteers or are paid much less than they would make
elsewhere. This leads to a strong feeling among them that
they are the station, that they own the station, and that
they are the ones that should make the decisions.

The 1961 structural coup did not,
however, do away with internal power struggles. Conflicts
continued and in 1984, Peter Franck, President of the
Pacifica foundation, and like-minded individuals from the
community and within Pacifica met in San Luis Obispo,
California to discuss the root causes of continuing strife
and to propose solutions. They noted that "The Pacifica
Network is in serious trouble. In a time of world-wide
crisis, instead of responding with depth and passion,
Pacifica is purging itself of its most radical elements.
Careerism is replacing commitment. Power in Pacifica has
become concentrated in the hands of a few. This power block,
unaccountable to anyone, is [enacting] a politically
selective process of firings and hirings. A process which has
been obscured by a smoke-screen of personal attack."
They went on to argue, rightly I think, that "this
situation could only come into being because of basic
weaknesses in Pacifica’s present structure and the lack of a
sense of vision and purpose." And they also had some
proposals for changes.

  1. "Station boards should be
    democratically constituted and representative of
    the constituencies the stations seek to serve.
    They should be completely independent of the
    station manager and accountable directly to those
    constituencies."
  2. "Station administrations
    should be based on a collective decision-making
    process. Staff (paid and unpaid) should be
    represented on the station board."
  3. "Final programming
    decisions and judgements must be made by the
    listeners and the communities Pacifica seeks to
    serve."

This 1984 San Luis Obispo gathering was
obviously quite prescient. Its analysis is literally
indistinguishable from many of the criticisms being directed
at Pacifica today. The solutions proposed in 1984 are
notable, moreover, not just for their nobility and continuing
relevance, but because one of the signatories of that
document was Pat Scott, the current CEO of Pacifica and the
individual in perhaps the best position to implement such
changes, if she were so disposed. However, the available
evidence suggests that a course diametrically opposed to that
proposed in 1984 by Ms. Scott and twelve other co-signers is
presently being pursued. Is the change in Scott’s stance
due to new wisdom? Or is this an example of an institution
with flawed structure hiring its past critics and then
compromising their integrity and insight? If Scott would make
the reasons for her change of mind public, we would all be in
a better position to decide.

 

From What, to What?

"Until the mid-seventies,"
Franck indicates, "Pacifica was a very loose corporate
umbrella over five essentially separate stations. Around that
time, the stations started to get in trouble, especially
around issues of accounting and fiscal accountability, and it
was decided that there had to be an executive director of the
overall foundation to make sure that the stations were
fiscally sound and to do the things that were necessary to
protect the license and prevent the stations from getting
into trouble." The stations contributed money to support
the central administration and the position of Pacifica CEO
was created. At that time, since the money for the National
came from the stations to the central body, the stations were
still the centers of "power." But during the
deregulatory Reagan era, public broadcasters were given the
right to lease their sub-carrier frequencies for commercial
purpose and the revenue from these leases provided
Pacifica’s central administration with an independent
stream of money. Not surprisingly, the center of power began
to shift accordingly. In simplest terms the structure now is
as follows: the National has the authority to hire and fire
the CEO, who, since 1995, in turn has authority over hiring
and firing the station managers, who in turn have authority
over their respective stations. But who composes the
National?

The one lever of power that the Local
Advisory Boards still hold, for the time being, is the right
to name two members from each LAB to the National Board. The
National presently comprises fifteen seats, ten filled by LAB
"representatives" from the five member stations,
and five at-large members which the National itself appoints.

However, the current arrangement, in
which the local station advisory boards determine the
majority composition of the National Board of Directors, is
about to be changed. The new structure will be that each
station advisory board will nominate two members of its own
board to the National. One of these must be a person of
color. The National will then select one of these two
nominees. The National will also elect one person from each
station signal area who is not on the LAB to be the second
area "representative," and will also elect the five
at-large members. The proposal therefore gives the National
Board, for the first time, direct control over the majority
(two-thirds) of its composition, and elective control over
the remaining one-third. The stated goals of this change are
to "to develop a system of governance that strikes the
right balance between local community input and clear
national vision in order to follow through on the broader
goals of the strategic plan." It is also supposed to
facilitate attracting highly qualified national board members
while attaining racial balance.

To aid Pacifica administration and
station managers in dealing with questions and complaints
about these governance changes which potentially reduce local
(employee) and listener input to near nil, Pacifica’s
recently hired, first ever Communications Director, Burt
Glass, provided PR advice by way of what he referred to as a
"cheat sheet" distributed as a confidential
memorandum dated March 11, 1997. Glass noted: "While
there is nothing in this document that is untrue or
incriminating, please do not make and distribute copies to
others." In response to questions as to why Pacifica is
reducing the number of seats on Pacifica’s board of directors
for local advisory board members Glass recommends answering
that "The number of board directors from our five
station areas remains unchanged. In fact, two-thirds of our
board are required to reside in our five station areas —
reaffirming our commitment to remain close to the needs of
grassroots community radio. One-third of our board will be
elected at-large." The answer deftly sidesteps the
transfer of power from stations to what becomes a
self-regulated and self appointing National Board.
Glass’s "cheat sheet" also contains suggested
responses to questions about charges that Pacifica has
engaged in union-busting, changes in programming emphasis,
elevating efficiency above democracy, changed modes of
funding, and other topics. These are all dealt with in a
similar PR fashion, avoiding real issues with clever
rhetorical ploys. The Glass "cheat sheet" was
explicitly confidential yet it was leaked almost immediately
and made available to a group of decidedly angry dissidents
who maintain a web site (
http://www.radio4all.org/freepacifica) of documentary evidence of the struggles at
Pacifica. Similarly, a number of other documents marked
confidential have been leaked and posted at this web site,
the one place listeners can go to get some first hand
information, demonstrating the existence of genuine dissent
at all levels of the institution.

 

Two ideas

One has to wonder whether the
discussions of the National Board and top management over
such things as hired union busters or reducing democracy have
been without conflict and unanimous, or whether they been
subject to disagreement? Since it has been impossible to
obtain specific details about internal debate at the National
level, the following ideas are fragmentary, speculative, and
tentative. Nonetheless, they are drawn from a series of
comments made by KPFK’s National representatives and General
Manager at various points over the past seven months.

Apparently, WBAI (New York) volunteers,
programmers, staff, and LAB have been extremely uncooperative
with the changes which the Pacifica administration are
imposing. At the same time, conversations have been held at
the national level about the possibility of selling WBAI,
which has recently been conservatively estimated to be worth
upwards of $90 million in the newly deregulated media market.
The sale of the station, when discussed, has apparently been
considered in terms of a station swap, i.e. another signal in
the public part of the spectrum, albeit necessarily weaker
and with a lesser reach, would be acquired. Such a
transaction would keep a Pacifica station in New York and net
the foundation a vast cash reserve. A station swap would also
provide a natural opportunity to "lose" the most
intransigent WBAI people, who in some instances
have been protected by strong union contracts, or the union
itself.  The strategic 5-year plan indicates,
"Pacifica shares a commitment to at least five strong
local stations," but does not specify a commitment to
the five presently existing stations.

Some members of the National Board have
dissented regarding treatment of WBAI and apparently this
internal conflict has played a role in the ongoing vacancy of
the fifth at-large seat on the National Board. Be that as it
may, the possibility of the sale of Pacifica Foundation
assets raises a crucial question: Who would control the
revenues generated from the sale of such assets? If the
proposed governance changes are adopted this month, the
answer would be: a group of fifteen people with majority
control over their own composition, only one-third membership
in actual broadcast stations, no organized links to
listenership, and a track record of jealously guarding their
privacy in decision-making, dealing aggressively with
dissenters, and manipulating public opinion to obscure
meaningful public participation. Even if there were no other
motives, control over a cash bank account of $90 million
would provide quite a large incentive for centralization, one
might deduce. Apparently, if current trends continue, all of
the constituencies of Pacifica are to be left unable to do
anything about such matters but hope and trust that this
small group will "do the right thing."

So how does anyone impact the on-going
deliberations and decisions? For a listener, it is nearly
impossible to learn of the internal policies of the network,
much less participate in or influence them. Moreover, in my
discussions with various station personnel and programmers I
have found that they too have essentially no concept of the
larger structural issues involved, although there is a clear
sense that criticism of the administration is risky if one
wishes to keep one’s job. Even as a local advisory board
member, it has required stubborn and persistent effort to
fight through what the Glass memo demonstrates are
intentional efforts at preventing meaningful understanding
and engagement. One thing that is clearly needed for
"outsiders" to have an informed opinion is clarity
about Pacifica administration logic.

Central to the Pacifica
administration’s justifications for the vesting of management
with greater authority than ever before, is the concept of
accountability. The word is used a lot by KPFK’s National
Board representatives and General Manager, and it appears
frequently in memoranda from the national level (e.g. the
Glass memo). Everyone agrees that Pacifica is an immense
resource built over decades by many people and a large
audience. The idea that Pacifica’s actors should be
accountable rather than have unlimited control over these
public assets therefore strikes a powerful chord. Everyone
involved at every level readily agrees that some few
individual programmers, or staffers, or volunteers should not
direct Pacifica’s resources based solely on their
personal inclinations. Programmers and staff must be
accountable. But what about some few managers or national
board members directing Pacifica’s resources based
solely on their personal inclinations? Why is that not only
okay, but an overriding goal?

The governance changes do not institute
a mechanism for accountability or removal of Board members if
they do things that harm the institution or that are
objectionable to other Pacifica constituencies. Quite the
opposite. The proposed changes assure that the National Board
is accountable only to itself. Accountability, in the sense
that the Pacifica administration uses the word, therefore,
refers not to the honorable idea that there should be
democratic means for affected constituencies to impact
Pacifica, but to the unrestrained ability of the
administration to act decisively to meet what it alone
determines to be Pacifica’s mission. If a particular
programmer or staff person is not effectively serving the
goals articulated by the administration, accountability means
that the programmer or staff person can be expeditiously
removed. Accountability at Pacifica means the freedom of
administration to function as it pleases, without oversight.
This is likely also the issue at the heart of the Pacifica
union conflicts that have been widely written about;
management wants to be as unencumbered as possible in
deciding who will do what when, who will be hired, and who
will be fired.

Board members admit that the decision
process at their level has been arduous with much compromise,
but there is no way to know what the differences were about.
One wonders, for example, whether members of the National
Board and the administration have made serious attempts at
conceiving legitimate alternatives to the autocratic,
hierarchical structure presently being imposed, in which
essentially all power rests with Pacifica National staff and
station managers, with none of the kinds of checks on that
power which would lead to true accountability. If so, I would
like to know what other proposals were considered and why
they were rejected. If there have been no alternative
innovations discussed, I would like to know why that is
considered a "professional" approach to problem
solving.

By way of explanation Pacifica
management also argues that things had been going downhill at
Pacifica for some time before the present efforts at change
were begun. But I have yet to hear any
person–administration, staff, volunteer, or
"dissident"–claim that KPFK before the Scott
administration was a healthy and creative environment. By all
accounts it was a place characterized by extraordinary
territoriality and factionalism in which expressions of
disrespect were severe and frequent. Lack of a structure in
which creative leadership could translate into policy
handicapped positive progress, and administrative and
technological systems were rudimentary at best. But while
opinion of the situation prior to the arrival of Scott is
universally negative, this is in no sense a logical
justification for now imposing a completely autocratic
decision-making structure.

The Scott administration stepped into
the void created by the absence of healthy structure.
Particular people were identified as the reasons for the
impossibility of positive change, and management acted
decisively to have those people removed, often with the
support of many who remained. Critics of the Scott
administration similarly have often identified specific
people as the source of injustice. In my view, however,
neither of these positions accurately describes the
situation. Both before and after Ms. Scott was named CEO,
Pacifica’s problems were primarily the result of
structural features, not "bad people." Before
Scott, for example, among other problems adequate means of
efficiently and satisfactorily arbitrating differences were
lacking. Subsequently, rather than fixing this and other
problems in ways consistent with creating a democratic
institution, an autocratic structure has been imposed. Not
surprisingly personal battles and acrimony remain, though
they are now expressed differently, such as the grotesque
"screw you" memo from National Program Director
Gail Christian sent to WBAI programmer Mario Murillo, which
triggered Alexander Cockburn to break his silence about
Pacifica in The Nation.

Pacifica attracts resources on the
basis of an alternative vision of what would be necessary to
achieve social justice. If Pacifica isn’t willing to
make the ideals broadcast by Pacifica stations work at home,
then doesn’t the whole effort become a crass exercise in
deceit?

 

Effects on the air

Despite repeated mention of Pacifica’s
strategic 5-year plan, I have yet to outline its most
important features. The plan is intended to create a more
powerful network capable of distributing its product more
broadly, and to insure a product of increasingly professional
quality to attract and hold more of the people it reaches,
all in the service of promoting "positive social
change." Internally, the goal is to increase resources
(money) and to use those resources more efficiently in the
creation and distribution of a high-quality product.
"Professionalizing" both the institution and the
product are not conceived to have impacts on content, only on
form. However, this change in form is supposed to
dramatically alter listener levels and support. Democratic
mechanisms of oversight are absent from the plan.

At KPFK a number of steps have already
been taken to further the goals and strategies expressed in
the 5-year plan. Before the tenure of the current KPFK GM,
Mark Schubb, the program schedule catered to a diversity of
audiences. Particular, distinct audiences would tune in for
one show and out for the next. The program schedule was
fragmented. Changes made in the programming and scheduling
since then have successfully increased listening hours
(technically, the Average Quarter Hourly, or AQH), while the
total number of listeners who tune in the station at some
point during a week (the CUME) has declined slightly. These
measures are important as they are related to those used to
determine Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) matching
funds and probably also spectrum allocation as analog FM
broadcasting is replaced by digital broadcasting. But one has
to wonder whether the issue of numbers of hours spent
listening or numbers of people who listen should be
definitive gauges for the success of Pacifica stations. What
about the quality of the listening experience? What about the
progressive effect of the information conveyed? If one is
market driven, ten percent more (consumer oriented) listeners
is better than ten percent fewer with a 100% or 500% more
meaningful and politically empowering experience for those
who do listen.

Pacifica’s financial independence is
considered paramount in all discussions and memoranda I have
encountered. It is certainly true that if the institution
cannot survive financially, it cannot serve its audiences in
any useful manner at all. But in my opinion, Pacifica’s
financial independence is most undesirable if it means
independence from listener support and responsiveness as Lew
Hill conceived of it. What is most desirable is precisely
Pacifica’s dependence, at all times, on its
listener-sponsors. Returning to Hill: "Anyone can
understand the rationale of listener sponsorship – that
unless the station is supported by those who value it, no one
can listen to it, including those who value it. But beyond
this, actually sending in the subscription, which one does
not have to send in unless one particularly wants to, implies
the kind of cultural engagement, as some French philosophers
call it, that is surely indispensable for the sake of the
whole culture." Here is the central point: the
engagement of the listeners which is indispensable for the
sake of the whole culture. In this conception, it is not just
more money which is needed. To go that route is to lose. What
is needed is to engage the community in the battle to define
whether the ability to compete in the market model is what
will determine the survival of public service resources.
Thus, those concerned with the possibility of Pacifica
fulfilling its promise must not only act to insure that it
survives the current challenges from within, but the attempts
from without at imposing upon it inherently destructive
standards.

 

Alternatives

Given my criticisms of the present
structure, I feel compelled to offer possible alternatives.
Alternative proposals which might increase true
accountability and bring the listeners into the process in a
real sense without interfering with the power of management
to implement desirable changes, might include the following:

  1. Retention of the policy that a
    2/3 majority of National Board seats are elected
    by the Local Advisory Boards,
  2. Making a majority of the Local
    Advisory Boards elected by the listener-sponsors
    on a one person one vote basis with proportional
    representation, and having some number of Local
    Advisory Board seats elected by staff,
    programmers and/or volunteers, and
  3. Instituting a weekly or
    biweekly radio program during which internal
    policies, so-called "dirty laundry,"
    can be discussed with the General Manager,
    Program Manager and a panel of Advisory Board
    members who might, for example, respond to
    listener questions.

Naturally these proposals contradict
the current desires of management, and many long-time
observers of Pacifica may believe them unworkable. Other
solutions may be superior, but any should include some form
of direct accountability to the listener other than the
accountability that comes from the audience’s freedom not to
listen and not to contribute. Pacifica is too valuable an
institution to offer only this "negative" lever. We
are also free not to buy Nike shoes, but without some way to
publicize the abuses that accompany their production, Nike
will always find a willing market. Listener-sponsors should
have some means of actually influencing policy, including the
ability to know what is going on and to have their proposals
seriously considered. The design of such mechanisms should
ensure that they are not disruptive nor overwhelming, but
they should give listeners some measure of real power. As to
the objection that such mechanisms are inefficient, I respond
that they may be inefficient toward the goal of creating a
radio product capable of attracting the widest possible
audience. However, following Lew Hill, this type of solution
may be the most efficient means of creating listeners with a
sense that their opinion and their action have import and
meaning, and as a result may be the most efficient means of
promoting "positive social change." Naturally, I
recognize that such proposals are threatening to people at
every level of the existing hierarchy, so that they are
unlikely to be spontaneously implemented by those same
individuals. What is needed, therefore, is open discussion
and debate, and then some form of intervention from without
on behalf of progressive values and listeners alike. I have
always given money to Pacifica not just to pay for
programming, but because I felt I was contributing to a
different kind of institution. I believed the rhetoric
Pacifica broadcasts about what is required to establish a
just society and I believed Cornel West when he said on
Pacifica that the central problem of our society is the
inability of everyday people to interrogate power. Those who
choose not to make themselves heard regarding Pacifica’s
future may console themselves with the knowledge that larger
audiences will be able to consume a more professional and
reliable radio product presenting admirable ideals (at least
in the near term) which apparently are unworkable.

Dr. Adelson is a research
neurophysiologist at UCLA. He has been a volunteer at
KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles, and is presently a member of
its Local Advisory Board. He can be reached by email at
[email protected]

The governance
changes described herein will be voted upon at the next
meeting of the Pacifica National Board of Directors
scheduled for June 13-15 at the Oakland Marriot, Oakland,
CA.