Pacifica


and struggle.

Pacifica was founded just after World War
II to create an independent, noncommercial radio network in the
service of peace, social and racial justice, and the arts. In
their own words: "Pacifica’s KPFK in Los Angeles has the
strongest FM signal anywhere in the United States. KPFA is the
strongest FM signal in Northern California. WBAI in New York
transmits from the premier location in its metro area, the Empire
State Building. The market value of these five licenses alone
exceeds $100 dollars. Pacifica owns the land and studio and
office facilities in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Houston, and its
transmission tower and property in Berkeley." More,
"Pacifica’s five owned and operated stations’ signals reach
22 percent of American radio homes. Pacifica programming draws an
audience of 708,300 listeners each week, and the 55 affiliate
stations broadcasting Pacifica national programming add an
estimated 500,000 – 1,000,000."

The current Pacifica conflict rages at a
time when U.S. media exhibits an immense tilt, even relative to
the grossly biased past, toward corporate and state domination.
Like all public media, Pacifica has been under attack in Congress
and they anticipate that that their foundation and government
funding are at risk.

In response, Pacifica’s management has
been undertaking major changes to increase fiscal responsibility,
broaden outreach, and strengthen listener allegiance. Among many
critical reforms, two are particularly controversial: (1) To
increase national and repeat programming (that is, shows that
occur daily all week in every venue) thus dramatically reducing
the total number of on-air personnel, and (2) to change the union
so it represents only paid staff and not volunteers as well,
while highly centralizing most decision-making power. Debate and
turmoil have grown within Pacifica not only because of hot
disagreement about these policies, but also about how they are
being implemented, and about what may be new motives behind them.

As an indication of the state things have
reached, in September, UE held its national convention in
Pittsburgh. The following petition to Pacifica chair Jack
O’Dell, Pat Scott and three station managers, was signed by
189 delegates: "We….reject and deplore the union-busting
and other bad-faith bargaining tactics engaged in by the Pacifica
Foundation…..Since Pacifica Foundation represents itself as an
institution dedicated to ‘Peace and Social Justice,’ we
urge and demand that Pacifica Foundation bargain in good faith
with the UE units as they are now constituted…so they can
continue to engage in the struggle ‘for Peace and Social
Justice’ through the medium of community radio…"Also,
WBAI’s union, United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of
America, Local 404, has filed unfair labor practices charges with
the National Labor Relations Board against Pacifica and WBAI
management for their refusal to bargain in good faith over the
past several months.

In reaction to these and other complaints,
Pacifica’s public response has been largely dismissive and
curt, as in the following comment quoted in a highly critical
SF Bay Guardian
article: "There is a small number of
former programmers and wanna-bes who will never be satisfied
unless their show is restored or instituted. This is not new.
… The issues change, the times change, and we have been as
open and as free a voice presenting as many points of view as
ever…. Input was solicited and people were talked to and
changes were made. I don’t agree with all of them myself, but I
do agree that someone at some point needs to make a decision.
When you make changes in a place like that, it’s impossible to
please everybody."

The active antagonists in the developing
struggle are the management of Pacifica on one side and a growing
number of ex-programmers and staff on the other.
Management’s allies include, from all reports, the
station’s board of directors, while the ex-programmers have
as allies a number of listener groups and friends of Pacifica
concerned about developments. Caught in the middle are most
listeners, largely ignorant of what is going on (not least
because a gag order prevents any discussion of Pacifica’s
conflicts on any Pacifica station), as well as many paid
programmers and staff still working at Pacific with no capacity
to enter the fray effectively. Indicative of the norms of the
exchange, here is a letter from Mark Schubb, the KPFK General
Manager, addressed to Programmers and Board Ops:

    • "We need your help in
      honoring KPFK’s long-standing policy against
      airing ‘dirty laundry,’ including
      ‘event’ announcements for that purpose.
      Even if the offense is by a guest or caller,
      please remember that it is your responsibility to
      cut it off immediately and to move on.

      "This is one of the few rules
      we have at KPFK that will absolutely lead to
      permanently being removed from the station.

      "I appreciate the
      respect you have for our audience and for the
      professionalism that you bring to your work here.
      Thanks for your help in this matter."

Everyone at the stations I spoke with
agrees that the day-to-day mood there is deplorable. Employees
will not comment publicly because they believe that to do so
would mean the loss of their jobs. Indeed, there have been
firings and the new contract that management is offering
expressly forbids public discussion of in-house issues at threat
of job termination.Management claims it wants only to increase
the size of the network’s audience and the quality of its
programming. Regrettably, says management, this requires some
house-cleaning. Over the years many shows not able to reach out
and retain audience have been given regular slots on the
stations. Programmers have been given tenure based on longevity,
but not on the program’s continuing relevance or quality.
However much it may hurt folks to lose their programs, says
management, we need innovate if programming is to keep pace with
audience needs and reach new constituencies. Among other
priorities management seeks to reduce chaotic content and develop
daily national programming that can build devoted audience and
impact national discussion and debate. To accomplish these ends,
they add, lots of volunteers who have served with passion and
intelligence and have been the backbone of the station have to
lose their prominent on-air positions. More, they can not enjoy
full union representation as their involvement with the station
doesn’t warrant it.

From outside, management’s rationale
seems compelling. I can easily envision the emergence, over the
years, of presumed tenure for shows whose quality may never have
been top notch, or which may have declined as times changed. And
I can well imagine that the task of weeding out such shows would
lead to painful recriminations. I can even imagine some people
who work with those shows misreading termination notices as
indicators of suppression or censorship, rather than as an effort
to get better programming. Management claims this is precisely
what is happening and thus urges outsiders to be patient and
recognize that the turmoil is a necessary though burdensome price
to pay for improved programming.

But dissidents say that events contradict
management’s stated motives, and, even if the motives were
pure, the enactment is horribly reactionary. Pacifica management
discounts this as sour grapes by self-interested ex-staff, but
investigation suggests otherwise. There are lots of indicators.
Management hired a union busting firm which had representatives
at many negotiating sessions and helped develop the new contract.
It is hard to conceive of any possible justification for this.
Pacifica board meetings have become secret behind-closed-door
operations, hardly a sign of socially-conscious confidence.
Program terminations have been brutal, and a culture of fear has
developed.Are these just typical problems arising from a
difficult situation? A few blunders perhaps gone a bit awry? This
is management’s claim.

But the dissidents feel that Pacifica is on
a road to mediocrity and placidity, or worse. They point out that
while Pacifica happily utilizes leftist commentators on their
local stations to raise money during fund raising drives, they do
not use these same commentators on their news feeds that go out
to dozens of other stations. Instead the feeds are culled largely
from mainstream sources like AP and government think tanks. The
dissidents name for this: Pathetica News.Dissidents also point
out that shows already being erased or at risk or denigrated by
management are, ironically, those that raise the most money, have
the most devoted audience, and are most leftist, such as
Flashpoints and Democracy Now.. Ex- and current programmers and
volunteers alike all decry an internal culture of corporate
authoritarianism foisted in the name of
"professionalism" that vastly exceeds what is needed to
enact responsible changes in new times.The common denominator
that dissidents see for the shows and commentators under attack
by management is their serious journalistic bite. These Pacifica
dissidents, all of them past employees or supporters of the
station with years of active involvement, feel that the
programming drift is steadily away from serious journalism,
particularly left commentary and content, even at the risk of
losing income.The situation is profoundly complicated on many
levels. The attack on the policy of station volunteers belonging
to the union could be motivated by a desire to remove excessive
power from 10-hour-a-week "employees" and to improve
representation for the full-time staff, or it could be a first
step toward dissolving the union per se. In each station the
ratio of volunteers to paid employees in the union is over ten to
one and the union, so overwhelmingly volunteer in membership,
often does an inadequate job of representing paid employees. On
the other hand, these volunteers in most cases work long hours
and make major contributions to Pacifica at every level. Surely
they shouldn’t be entirely disenfranchised.

Or take the debate over programming.
Management’s assault on programming could be a sincere
attempt to provide more continuity to build audience and
strengthen audience allegiance, something I certainly feel makes
very good sense. Or, ominously, it could be that management
wishes ultimately to reduce or eliminate dependence on listener
sponsorship. Then the goal would be to grow audience, but with no
concern about the level of commitment or involvement of each
listener. With this goal it can make sense to jettison a show
with devoted audience willing to pay plenty at fund raising time
to instead air a show with a larger but far less devoted audience
who won’t give any funds. The aim becomes to gain large
donor support, foundation support, or even corporate support, by
steadily reducing radical content (even at the cost of listener
allegiance and political impact). Why would rich organizations or
individuals take up Pacifica’s budget deficit in such a
scenario? To effectively own the station, of course, and thereby
control policy and make Pacifica what they wish it to be. Having
a defining fiscal hold on an apparatus capable of reaching 22
percent of the U.S. population is not a bad investment. Wresting
it from progressives is good strategy for elites.

This is what many dissidents fear. Is
Pacifica on a road to political subordination to big foundation,
donor, or corporate interests? Or can Pacifica rebound, seeking
out larger audiences via more hard hitting journalistic content
that builds a listener base so strong that it will defend the
station and make up for lost federal funding? And how does this
all get resolved? It seems, at this point, that there is so much
hostility that constructive debate is virtually precluded even
though it is relatively easy to envision some positive
possibilities.

  • Some national programming makes good
    sense, as part of Pacifica’s agenda. Such daily
    shows can impact and build huge audiences, and Democracy
    Now is good evidence for it. But local programming is
    also key to developing community and addressing the life
    circumstances of those most responsible for and devoted
    to each station. In any event, faithful and hardworking
    volunteers shouldn’t be summarily dismissed but
    should instead be incorporated, as possible, in the teams
    of researchers and other support staff needed for good
    journalistic programming.Volunteers and paid employees
    aren’t the same thing and do, in fact, have
    different interests at various times. They should have
    two different contracts and perhaps even two support
    organizations as well, each of which can function in the
    interests of its members, hopefully often in alliance.
    But the purpose of this can’t be to reduce the power
    and influence of those who do the work. Quite the
    contrary, the way forward is to have serious standards,
    yes, but also serious democracy at work, with each
    employee able to defend and improve work conditions and
    also to impact on the direction of overall operations.At
    the top, national and local boards beholden to no one and
    self choosen are, in a public institution, autocratic,
    pure and simple. So another needed improvement is to have
    elections of boards by dues paying listeners, and to have
    open and public meetings, open planning, etc. The only
    reason for a board in the first place is to facilitate
    listener input over policy and programming and, depending
    on the mandate of a station, input by specifically
    affected target constituencies, which, in the case of
    Pacifica, ought to include the progressive movement most
    broadly.Obviously, gag laws such as are now being used,
    are a travesty that must be eliminated. Is the goal of
    the station to raise numbers of listeners per se or to
    enlarge political and social impact of programming? Is
    the commitment to fiscal independence to be turned into
    an excuse to disempower the listenership by eliminating
    grass roots fund-raising and turning to large donors
    only, or is it to be transformed into an opportunity to
    strengthen listener allegiance so that content is made
    subservient to the public interest, not to private
    wealth? These issues must be addressed openly.

The problem is, how can a positive outcome
be attained amidst the current rancor. If those at Pacifica other
than the highest management can’t even express their
feelings for fear of being fired, clearly constructive discussion
is precluded. I hope someone can come up with a resolution other
than a circular firing squad. My suggestion is this.Convene a
national board of progressive leaders with unimpeachable records.
Hire for that board researchers to gather and provide guidance in
reading all relevant documentation, to prepare questions for
hearings, etc. After preparations are complete, hold hearings for
a few days, inviting everyone with relevant experience at every
level within Pacifica to testify. Do the whole thing publicly,
but allow private closed testimony for those wanting anonymity.
Publish the results, including recommendations by the
commission.It seems to me that if such a commission were properly
constituted, it would be hard for Pacifica management and
Pacifica dissidents to ignore the resulting recommendations.
Progress could then be made. On the other hand, it would be a
horrible loss if recent trends were to continue unchecked and
Pacifica were to spiral into mainstream mediocrity. It
doesn’t matter whether the cause of dissolution is by
management design or error, recalcitrant old-line programmers,
reactionary labor policies or avoidable labor strife, politically
meaningless personal friction, or any other reason at all.
Pacifica is too important an institution for its audience and the
broad progressive community to leave exclusively to a relatively
few people working long hours under trying circumstances.