avatar
Imagining Pacifica’s Future


The following are excerpts from a report delivered to the Pacifica National Board by Executive Director Greg Guma on June 3, 2006 at a session held in New York:
 
I’d like to begin by asking you to imagine the Pacifica radio network a few years from now. Start by imagining an audio production center with multiple channels and schedules open to frequent change, a place that breaks down distinctions between listeners and producers, a hothouse for the cultivation of talent and a laboratory for new ideas, a place where people converge, contribute – and then move on, a center for the development of informative, educational and entertaining programs with community partners and like-minded organizations.
 
But it’s more than that. It’s also place where people learn how to communicate, an audio resource center that offers state-of-the-art training and a variety of platforms to get messages — news, information, opinions, music, humor, drama and more — out into the world.
 
While you’re at it, imagine a workplace where people look forward to the challenges of each day, where the discussion is vigorous and dynamic, and where disagreements aren’t feared but rather welcomed because those involved realize that they can lead to creative solutions. And imagine a staff that sees its job as nurturing, teaching, and enabling others to freely and effectively express themselves.
 
Now look beyond that, and imagine a network where diversity is a cause for celebration rather than conflict, where programs offer people hope and alternatives, a clearinghouse that shares ideas, talent and programs with more than 200 affiliates, a truly national network that educates and entertains by stimulating dialogue and asking hard questions – and does this with a combination of irreverence and respect.
 
This is some of how I envision Pacifica in the future, and I hope you can imagine something similar. But however our visions may differ, we obviously have some challenges, significant work to do and key decisions to make to get from here to there.
 
A changing landscape
 
There is no time to waste. The evidence suggests that, at the moment, the audience for public radio appears to have leveled off, and some stations are even losing ground. Meanwhile, Internet stations, podcasts, MP3s and iPods are changing the way people around the world listen. Increasingly, they have more control over their audio consumption. They can listen to programs and stations from other areas, and at times more convenient to their schedules. They can even carry their favorite radio shows and entire music library around with them.
 
Recent studies indicate that within five years a third of public radio’s weekly audience will listen at least two hours a week to programs delivered through a platform other than a primary broadcast channel. The shift could go even further – half of the entire audience could be using new platforms up to four hours weekly. That translates into somewhere between 8 and 25 percent of public radio’s total service.
 
The question is: Will Pacifica be ready to provide these new platforms and services?  We are beginning to gear up, better coordinate our efforts, and develop new capacity for training and distribution. But we need to continue investing – in equipment, concepts, and personnel — if we are going to create the reliable new infrastructure we need.
 
Another aspect of the change is high definition – or HD radio, which piggybacks digital signals on existing analog signals and promises high quality reception. So far less that 10 percent of US stations are broadcasting in digital, and the cost of HR receivers remains high. But eventually, the price will come down and radio stations will be able to offer greater choice by multicasting on up to 3 channels. Imagine having not only the current Pacifica station channels, with a mix of news, public affairs, and music, but also a second channel, perhaps one on which we could broadcast hearings, rallies and other specials events – a veritable progressive radio version of C-Span, and even a third channel for more experimental programming, Spanish language listeners, arts and humanities shows, or perhaps to lease or sell to pay for new initiatives.
 
Before long the cost of HD receivers for both homes and cars will drop below $150. They’ll have jacks for iPods and CD players, and before you know it, beginning in urban areas, the face of so-called traditional radio will be transformed. The question is: Will Pacifica make a sufficient and timely investment to be at the leading edge of this transformation?  I would argue that we must.
 
That’s the technological side – the delivery mechanisms. What about content?
 
Troubling trends
 
Let’s start from where we are. On average, our five stations currently devote less than 20 percent of their airtime to network news and public affairs shows – less than five hours a day — even though this form of programming has fueled public radio’s growth over the last decade. In comparison, we devote almost 40 percent to local news and public affairs, and another 40 percent to music.
 
The percentages obviously vary from station to station. According to a recent report for the Radio Research Consortium, called “Audience 2010: 21st Century Trajectories,” two stations – WBAI and KPFK – devote substantially more time to local public affairs shows. At WBAI, it’s around 63 percent, almost two thirds of all content; at KPFK, it’s 56 percent. And two other stations – WPFW and KPFT – devote considerably more than the average to music: 59 percent at KPFT and about 71 percent at WPFW.
 
And what’s the result? In general, both the Audience 2010 study and recent Arbitron reports indicate that both listenership and, more worrisome, loyalty are on the decline. Loyalty – measured as our share of our listeners’ total radio use — grows from sensitivity to what people want to hear, and correlates strongly with financial support.
 
Pacifica listeners are loyal to and enthusiastic about Democracy Now!, a show we launched 10 years ago that has proven that combining solid journalism, sensitivity to breaking news and a strong personality are a winning combination. Programs that have sustained the most loyalty also include Flashpoints and Sunday Salon, two shows that focus largely on national and international issues and are identified with strong personalities; morning shows and the evening news at various stations; programs like Explorations with Michio Kaku and Background Briefing on KPFK, and TalkBack on WBAI; and some of our music programs, particularly those aired on Saturday and Sunday and hosted by a well-known local personalities. A half hour program featuring Alan Watts on KPFK also has a loyal following, which suggests a role for proven programs and voices from the past that are available from our unique archives.
 
The point is that locally-focused public affairs programs, while representing an important aspect of Pacifica’s mission and a dominant part of its program mix at three stations, currently don’t rank relatively high in terms of loyalty or listeners.
 
And what about the more music-oriented stations? According to Audience 2010, although KPFT has climbed back from a listener slump, loyalty to its programming is fairly low. The same is true for WPFW, except that the study says it had fewer listeners in 2005 than in 2002. In fact, more than one of our stations has been classified as a “diver.” As the study puts it, a “diver” may still be flying high at the moment, but its audience trajectory is down.
 
Now, we can argue about the validity of the figures and assumptions, or the fairness of such classifications. But what seems clear is that, on the one hand, we are losing ground at the moment, and on the other, national news and public affairs shows, along with credible and familiar hosts, engender the most loyalty and are the most sustainable parts of the current mix.
 
Programming priorities
 
But Pacifica doesn’t want to set priorities merely on the basis of what is popular. Put another way, it chooses not to be market-driven. Instead, it is committed to creating space for new voices, mission-based programming, and identifying new and currently under-served audiences. And to do that, while remaining relevant and fiscally sound, program schedules and mixes must change. What we need is a fair and more effective way to set limits on how long programs remain on the air, a review process that gives managers and program committees the ability to open space and make needed changes.
 
For some time, the Board has been urging that Pacifica place more emphasis on programming for the nation’s growing Latino population. This is a very appropriate priority, both in terms of outreach to an under-served audience, demographic trends in our signal areas and nationwide, and the nature of this potential audience.
 
According to Arbitron ratings, Latinos spend more time listening to the radio than any other ethnic group. And although commercial Latino stations have recently engaged in pro-immigrant advocacy, the corporations behind many of these stations are less than thrilled, and the current emphasis isn’t likely to continue. Pacifica, on the other hand, can sustain its commitment, and attract a larger and more loyal Latino audience by developing and strategically scheduling more programming.
 
At the same time, Pacifica needs to make a sustained commitment to national news and public affairs programming. The first step, one I’ve been working on, is a new and original network program that responds to current events during the fall election season. I see it as a weekday show, a limited series that combines serious discussion with humor and music, and showcases talent from within and beyond our organization. Once election season ends, we should use this time slot to showcase successful local programs from our stations and affiliates for limited, but potentially renewable periods. In 2007, I suggest that we launch another series, this one focusing on race in America.
 
Second, I recommend that the Spanish language news show we are launching be scheduled to air with other Latino programs (music, public affairs, immigration themed) to create a program bloc that can build a loyal audience. All Pacifica stations should make a significant commitment to serving this emerging audience by devoting at least 2 hours per day to Latino programming.
 
In a more general sense, what I am suggesting is that we open up space in all station schedules for the type of new programs that meet our mission, weave together local and national elements, and generate greater audience loyalty and additional financial support by getting infrequent listeners — those currently on the fringe — to tune in more often.
 
Reorganizing for change
 
These recommendations are part of an overall set of priorities that has been presented to the National Finance Committee as part of the budget process. But even these priorities don’t answer all the questions that face us. For example:
 
How much effort and investment should we put into broadcast services and how much into newer channels and platforms? And how quickly can we shift investments toward these new delivery systems?
 
How much should we invest as creators of original content and how much as selectors and context-setters for content produced by others?
 
What content is most suitable for new channels, compared with the primary broadcast signal?
 
What are the most promising avenues for shared research, development, and investment? And who are the appropriate partners?
 
As Pacifica stations move from managing a single channel in each signal area to operating as multichannel, multiplatform, interactive production and resource centers, how will they acquire the needed knowledge and skills?
 
And, in a larger sense, can we recapture the humanistic spirit that animated this organization more than a half century ago?
 
As I said earlier, time is short, and there is no time for distractions. That’s why it is so troubling to see both local station boards and the national board devoting time to internal quarrels and procedural maneuvers that have little to do with the challenges we face. And that is also why I am asking you to imagine a different future.
 
So, I’ll end as I began…  Imagine Boards whose members contribute as much as they demand, Boards that bring skills and resources together in a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect, with members who offer as much positive reinforcement as criticism, who actually enjoy their time together and see their work more in terms of shared responsibilities than authority, and lead by inspiring respect and being the change they wish to see.
 
And finally, imagine Pacifica Radio as an educational media organization – not a tool of any movement, group or faction, no matter how just its cause. Imagine an education organization dedicated to self-management of information, to empowering people with the capacity for full self-expression. An organization that understands it is possible to have diversity as well as unity, and that operates on the basis of a simple and yet profound idea: freedom of expression is fundamentally a personal and not an institutional right, and freedom of the press means the right of people to use all means of communication. Pacifica’s job, as I see it, is to help make that a reality.
 
One change leaves the way open for the introduction of others, a philosopher once said. So, I say to you all, let’s make some change.
 

Leave a comment