The Pacifica Radio Network is a tragedy for the progressive left. But there is hope for a New Day, at least until July 7.
Founded in 1946 by pacifists E. John Lewis & Lewis Hill, Pacifica was envisioned as a harmonious beacon for America’s peace and social justice movements. Today, sadly, it has a minuscule listenership, massive debt and a terrible reputation for endless internal conflict, dysfunction and disarray likely to be cured only by a new set of bylaws currently up for a network-wide balloting that ends July 7.
For more than a half-century, Pacifica broadcast news, opinion and in-depth analysis that could not be aired anywhere else in America. Its broad, loyal, thoughtful listenership brought real clout to the political spectrum. Its range of progressive, cultural and spiritual voices was a source of pride at a well-run national network with powerful signals in major media markets and more than 200 affiliates.
The Pacifica flagship stations and its many cohorts were proudly appreciated by serious information seekers and activists nationwide.
But around 2000 the network went into decline. New bylaws meant to open up governance procedures were deeply flawed. Local station board meetings became oversized, unfocused and unproductive. Today, local station board meetings can drone on for four and five acrimony-filled hours that accomplish nothing while devastating the stations’ finances.
Serious commitments to balancing quality, professional-level programming with grassroots journalism and solidarity began to disappear. Factionalism, personal attacks and systemic instability ate away at the Network’s ability to function or stay solvent.
Pacifica suffered through 17 Executive Directors in 18 years, a managerial impossibility. Local stations like Los Angeles’s KPFK had similar numbers of general managers. At New York’s WBAI, monthly deficits, practically non-existent, and non-transparent bookkeeping procedures and other legal/financial arrangements were often beyond comprehension.
Simple property tax notices, license renewals and other critical documents were repeatedly ignored, threatening the network’s ability to even exist. Pacifica’s repeated failure to produce legitimate, legally verifiable audits cost the network millions in grants and revenue.
While countless hours of air time were saturated with relentless, annoying, listener-repelling fundraising, the ever-diminishing amounts of money that did trickle in from a trusting public were squandered on levels of incompetence and internal empire-building that could not be justified in any sane scenario.
Some of that listener money has gone to an insider partisan lawyer who assaults any challenge to the entrenched interests who oppose change. He works alongside an infamous union-busting firm (also paid with listener donations) now imposing a deadly austerity on an already decimated, demoralized staff.
They’re cheered on by a KPFK board member who’s physically assaulted at least one other board member at a public meeting, and has threatened the network with a militia take-over. It took an excruciating three-hour meeting of at least 20 people merely to censure her. But she remains on the board and numerous committees.
Years ago, Alan Minsky, now Executive Director of Progressive Democrats of America, drafted an ambitious overview for a future Pacifica that would serve as a major organ of the progressive movement. With sane management and a stable structure, the network would combine radio, print, internet, social media, public meetings and other media organizing mainstays into a powerful, cohesive national force for meaningful social change.
Minsky was then interim program director at KPFK, where his vision was under continual assault from an endless stream of quickly-gone station managers and national board Executive Directors. Finally, he was himself squeezed out, to be followed by upper management and some of the station’s most popular programmers and most essential staff.
KPFK currently has neither a program director nor a development director for fundraising. Many of its best-loved broadcasters are under constant fire. Its most recent fund drive was a significant failure, with weeks of air-time sucked up into endless pitches, driving still more listeners away.
With the largest signal west of the Mississippi, KPFK has a minuscule listenership, a tragic symptom of decades with an unworkable structure. WBAI, in the heart of Manhattan, has also devolved into a tiny listenership, barely registering on the ratings services. Finances are in the range of threatening future operations. KPFT in Houston is selling its building. There is no financial cushion at WBAI or KPFK to guarantee long-term operations without a revival of listener support, which will never come amidst an endless death spiral of ghastly fund drives and endless internal chaos.
When such realities are raised among Pacifica’s current insiders, the immediate response is almost always an intense personal, content-free attack. Personal attacks, name calling and vitriol has become Pacifica’s most notable public response to inquiries associated with its lack of governance. Thoughtful, respectful dialogue is almost nowhere to be found.
Which speaks to Pacifica’s core problem: its current structure is a failure. It does not work. It was established 20 years ago, before the transformative tsunami of digital media, internet dominance, Facebook/Google totalitarianism. It’s rigid, obsolete, disruptive, irrelevant, doomed.
Many great activists work their hearts out every day to preserve the network. But its tragic failures are baked into how its administrative core does not function. National and local station board meetings are infamously dysfunctional. Administrative leadership is unsteady, unreliable, unprofessional. Often, programming is stiff, out of touch, alienating. Fund drives are forever and failing…with no safety net. Lacking a major new lifeline to a reborn listenership, Pacifica can envision no sustainable future.
Despite the endless personal diatribes, none of this is the fault of any one individual. The Pacifica network is being choked to death by the constrictive grasp of an old, unworkable structure that must be changed if the network is to survive. Uncontrolled chaos, confusion and contradiction do not constitute a true democracy.
There is still, at Pacifica the glimmer of hope for a New Day of greatness. But overhauling the infrastructure is the only way that light can shine. An election to reform the bylaws is under way by a group of listener/members and staff that call themselves New Day Pacifica. Their plan to cut the governing body from 122 people down to 15 democratically elected board members is being fought tooth and nail by the entrenched power structure.
Pacifica members will continue to vote in this cliff-hanger until July 7th, but for many, simply finding their ballot turns out to be a challenge unto itself.
Beth Kean, New Day Pacifica’s Campaign Manager says that “Although members should have received their Ballots on June 6th or 7th, many haven’t seen them. Often, the ballots, seem to end up in SPAM. If people can’t find them there, we send them straight to the Pacifica Ballot Request Page to ask for a replacement ballot.
Pacifica members can vote for structural change up to July 7. Please vote YES!
By Pacifica Members: Ross Altman, Sandy Childs, Susan Da Silva, Patricia Hoffman, Evelia Jones, Ali Lexa, Gregg Lewis, Sheila McCoy, Nancy Niparko, Will Ryan, Mansoor Sabbagh, Akio Tanaka and Harvey Wasserman