Those involved with public radio are sadly familiar with the largelysilent privatization of the small slice of the FM broadcast spectrum setaside for non-commercial purposes. At small public radio outlets, the processhas often been brutally abrupt, with little resistance. In contrast, atPacifica Radio, the largest and most powerful public radio broadcaster (NPRis a program service, not a station-owner), the struggle for control hasbeen protracted and often ugly, though almost never public. This struggleis nearing its climax, as the Pacifica board of governors will vote on theweekend of February 26-28 to alter the by-laws of the foundation regardingwho, in the future, will select the Pacifica board of governors, perhapsgiving itself, for the first time, majority control over its own composition.These are the men and women who control the disposition of the $200 million-plusin assets of the Pacifica Foundation. Never heard of them? Don’t feel bad.Almost no one has, and even as it stands now, almost no one gets to votefor them. They’re worth knowing though, because these days they and thehandful of executives they directly or indirectly hire, and no one else,decides what you will hear, and what you won’t, on Pacifica Radio.
The Pacifica Foundation holds the broadcast licenses for FM radio stationsin New York City (WBAI), Los Angeles (KPFK), Berkeley/San Francisco BayArea (KPFA), Washington DC (WPFW) and Houston (KPFT). The station in LosAngeles is the strongest FM signal west of the Mississippi and WBAI, NewYork transmits its broadcasts from the choicest of locations atop the EmpireState Building. In sum, Pacifica signals can reach approximately one infive U.S. households. The stations in New York and the SF Bay Area havebroadcast frequencies in the commercial part of the spectrum, and thus havesale values estimated in 1996 at $90 and $60 million, respectively, althougha more reasonable estimate today might be closer to twice that. Includingthe Pacifica Radio Archives and the various real-estate holdings (stationsites) owned by the Foundation, the total value of the Foundation assetscertainly exceed $200 million and perhaps may reach above $300 million.
If indeed the ‘privatization’ battle has been most bitter at Pacifica,perhaps it is not so much because of its immense value, but because Pacificaoriginated the concept of listener-sponsorship in order to support the foundingethic of programming freedom in service of a mission. It has been populatedand listened to by people who believed that the institution existed forthat purpose. People with such beliefs are bound to put up a fuss when anadministration informs them that the original values have no value whencompared to that of a bigger audience making bigger donations. Pacificafounder Lewis Hill’s vision was that the people producing the broadcasthad to have control over the policy governing their actions. He wrote:
“Since [fundamental] values and expressions…are what we must haveto improve radio noticeably, there is no choice but to begin by extendingto someone the privilege of thinking and acting in ways important to him.Whatever else may happen, we thus assign to the participating individualthe responsibility, artistic integrity, freedom of expression, and the like,which in conventional radio is normally denied him. KPFA is operated literallyon this principle.”
Pacifica has always been relevant not only because it did not acceptcorporate underwriting, but because it operated in a manner different fromthe corportions it criticized. But Pacifica is now being refashioned inthe image of such corporations, using corporate measures of value to gaugeits successes and failures.
In a 1992 article entitled “Why Public Radio Isn’t”, RachelAnne Goodman, writing in the Whole Earth Catalog, described a trend sweepingthe country: that sliver of broadcast spectrum reserved for civic purposesknown as public radio was being put on a market standard. Target audienceswere identified and programming tailored to their tastes supplanted previouslydiverse formats. The administrators of public stations, large and small,were acting aggressively to remove staff, volunteers, and community membersfrom any meaningful say in what those stations aired, and how they wouldbe run. Goodman suggested that the distinct similarity of this process occurringat stations across the country could be traced to a document coming outof National Public Radio in 1986 – the “Audience-Building Task ForceReport”.
In that same year of 1992, Pacifica Radio’s national management in Berkeleydrafted an internal document, “Strategy for National Programming”,a blueprint for syndicated programming intended to compete with NPR’s newsand public affairs offerings sold to non-commercial stations across thecountry. Local Pacifica stations would be required to carry these programsin place of locally produced material. The planners hoped to persuade majorfoundations, which had refused to fund Pacifica in the past, to help financethis project. They envisioned the recruitment of a staff of paid professionalsto replace the local volunteer broadcasters who had been the backbone ofthe organization since its inception, and, for the first time in Pacifica’shistory, to dictate programming from the top, as in a conventional networkhierarchy.
In 1993, word of the plans began to leak out in Berkeley and some KPFAstaff and concerned community members began to organize resistance againstPat Scott, general manager of KPFA. As a result, Scott was ousted and transferredby David Salniker, then KPFA gauleiter and now of the Tides Foundation,to the post of Pacifica lobbyist in Washington. In late 1994, Scott becamethe Pacifica Foundation’s executive director. The changes that were takingplace and those to come were indicated in a memo from Scott dated July 12,1995, which froze membership of all advisory boards and noted: “Inlight of the vast changes that are to occur at all stations, the executivecommittee of the Pacifica Foundation National Board believes it is necessaryto issue an interim set of guidelines that supercede the local station by-lawsso that you will have a clear understanding of our expectations of yourrole during this period.
“The Local Advisory board is, hereby, directed not to take actionthat will impede the plans of the station staff. Members of any local Boardwho do not feel that they can assist Pacifica in its present mission areadvised to resign. If there are indications that actions are being takencollectively or individually to countermand the policies, directives, andmandates of the Pacifica Board, the Board will take appropriate steps.”
In the succeeding period members of local station management and advisoryboards who opposed these trends were fired or forced to resign. Reportsof union-busting emanated from the unionized shops in New York and Berkeley,and these were given credence by the news that Pacifica had retained theAmerican Consulting Group, a notorious union-busting consulting firm, toprovide advice and support in its union negotiations. Station folios, monthlycommuniques from the stations to their subscribers, were reduced in sizeand finally eliminated. Purges of volunteers and staff led to several hundredpeople network-wide being removed.
At least a dozen people were banned from Pacifica for publicly criticizingadminstration policies and actions. In Los Angeles, following the removalof radical black programmers who violated Pacifica’s “dirty laundryrule” by airing a show discussing the treatment of black programmersat Pacifica. KPFK’s general manager Mark Schubb posted a prohibition notonly of on-air discussion of Pacifica policy but also of announcements ofmeetings at which Pacifica policy would be discussed. It seems this gagrule only applies to disfavored programmers. In late 1998, when longtimePacifica programmer Larry Bensky complained on-air about the abrupt cancellationof his national daily program and his treatment at the hands of Pacifica,he was rewarded with a weekend show rather than being permanently bannedin the manner of those who had previously attempted to speak out. At theupcoming February 28 meeting in Berkeley, a petition signed by present andformer Pacifica staffers, also by listener-sponsors, will demand publicapologies to and offers of reinstatement of the banned programmers.
In the mid-1990s, singificant manuevers began at the highest level ofthe institution, the Pacifica Governing Board. In a complaint to an InspectorGeneral of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a group of concernedlisteners and former station volunteers in the SF Bay Area known as TakeBack KPFA charged that “since February, 1995, Pacifica Board SecretaryMary Tilson has refused to make minutes of the Board’s meetings public,saying that she has been advised by Pacifica’s legal counsel that such documentsare for the use of the board and are not subject to public inspection.”In the CPB Inspector General’s report, the executive summary stated: “PacificaFoundation was not allowing the public to observe their board deliberations;the drafters of the Communications Act intended for governing board proceedingsto be open to the public. The Foundation had obtained legal counsel regardingthe issue and felt it was abiding by the Act provisions. However, the openingof board of directors’ meetings for one hour to just listen to public commentsdoes not comply with legal requirements which reads that, ‘All persons shallbe permitted to attend any meeting of the board, or of any such committeeor body, …’ The statute allows closed sessions for only those reasonsspecifically stated therein. Deliberations being held in closed sessiondid not meet the criteria specified in the statute. Staff personnel statedthat Board meetings use (sic) to be open, until the Board started havingproblems with the public.”
This contention was disputed by Scott, who travelled to Washington tomake a presentation before the CPB board. In the event, Jack O’Dell, Pacifica’schairman decided to do the job himself. Ultimately, the board did not takeany punitive action whatsoever with respect to Pacifica.
In 1997 came a crucial step in the ‘privatization’ drive. The governingboard of Pacifica attempted to change its by-laws to give itself, for thefirst time, majority control over its own membership. At the time, the boardcomprised fifteen seats. Ten of these were filled by two nominees from eachof the five member stations’ community advisory boards, along with fiveat-large members selected by the Pacifica board. The Board proposed thatit select one of the two nominees from each member station’s advisory board,and that it additionally select one other person of its own choosing fromeach station signal area. In other words, the Pacifica governing board,which up to that point only had control over one-third of its members (theat-large directors), wanted direct control of two-thirds of its membership,and elective control over the remaining third.
The newly-hired communications cirector, Burt Glass, formerly with theU.S. Justice Department’s community policing program, issued what he termeda “cheat sheet” describing how Pacifica staff and board membersshould disguise the scheduled changes with verbal fluff.
The proposed governance changes were to be enacted by the governing boardat its June 1997 meeting. But there was still considerable resistance withinthe board, and the vote on the key section of the governance change wasdelayed until the subsequent meeting, so that the language of the changecould be altered. Following the June 1997 meeting, governing board member(and board secretary) Roberta Brooks, a longtime aide of congressman RonDellums, made outrageously misleading statements to the press and to theKPFA advisory board asserting that the by-law changes were already a donedeal. At the September 1997 meeting in Washington DC at which the crucialby-laws change was to finally occur, dissident groups sent attorney DanielM. Siegel to document what appeared to be violations of the procedures foraltering by-laws. Ultimately, the Board abandoned the attempt to alter theby-laws, and instead voted simply to increase the number of at-large membersto nine (of a total nineteen board members).
At the same September 1997 Pacifica national board meeting, new boardchair Mary Frances Berry was seated. Thenceforth, considerably more orderwas imposed upon what had been a markedly unruly organization. The paceof firings and removals moderated. National board meeting transcripts andminutes began to be posted on the Pacifica web site (http://www.pacifica.org).And in mid-1998, Scott announced her impending resignation. Although Pacificaremained radically altered from its pre-1995 state, it appeared as thoughthe organization were on a steadier course, with the administration demonstratinggreater respect for its own rules of operation.
But within a year, the question of governance, of how those who controlthese $200-$300 million in unique broadcasting assets will be selected,resurfaced again. At the October 1998 national board meeting, the boardvoted unanimously to alter Pacifica’s governance structure at its subsequentboard meeting to be held February 26-28 in Berkeley. The purported impetusto change the by-laws regarding election of Pacifica Governing Board membersostensibly came from the CPB (which provides a matching grant based on communitysupport amounting to approximately 20% of Pacifica’s budget). It is notpossible to know what precisely occurred since, as of this writing, thetranscripts and minutes of this meeting, in contrast to those for the precedingyear, have not been posted. However, the decision to change by-laws in partresulted from a letter from CPB president and CEO Robert Coonrod to outgoingScott in response to her request for clarification about Pacifica’s compliancewith CPB regulations. Specifically, Scott inquired whether the present structureof Pacifica, in which each Pacifica station advisory board nominates twoof their number to serve on the Pacifica Governing Board, violates CPB rulesindicating a separation of governance and advisory board functions. Beforehe joined CPB in 1992, Coonrod was deputy director of Voice of America,the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (both Radio and TV Marti), and WorldnetTelevision and Film Service. Coonrod responded that it was his opinion thatPacifica’s structure did indeed violate CPB rules. However, the rules hespoke of have not substantively changed since at least 1978. Still the apparentthreat of losing CPB grant money, and the possible negative impacts of thatloss on future spectrum allocations when the shift to digital broadcastingoccurs, seems to have convinced the Pacifica governing board that it nowmust change how it elects itself. Some have the suspicion that the canvassingof CPB opinion by Scott and Coonrod’s response were a collusive operation.
The impending change in Pacifica’s by-laws will alter the method of selectionof governing board members, with the board deciding how it will be composedin the future. Very few within the institution and almost no one outsideof it is presently aware of this impending change in ownership. Advisoryboards have been asked for their comments and suggestions on the governancechange, but no information is presently available concerning the proposalsbeing considered by the Pacifica governing board on this point. Materialsincluding the relavent CPB regulations, as well as the opinion of Pacifica’scounsel, John Crigler, of Haley, Bader and Potts, have been circulated withinthe organization. An attorney familiar with the Pacifica situation commentsthus to CounterPunch: “Frankly, from a lawyer’s point of view, thewhole thing makes no sense. Normally Pacifica’s lawyer would give the reasonswhy Pacifica’s ok, not agree with nonsense saying it has been illegal forover a dozen years. No lawyer would intentionally allow his opinion to bedistributed like this, because it waives the attorney-client privilege…unlessthe people in control want the change.”
Whose institution is it? Whose will it be? Is this Governing Board likelyto choose a structure of governance giving any other group within Pacifica,including its subscribers, any say in who gets to make the meaningful decisionsat Pacifica? Or will it instead grant itself permanent control of its owncomposition?
The most confounding part of this sad saga is the likelihood that mostof the men and women making this decision are well-meaning people who holddear one or another stripe of ‘progressive’ values. From their position,they may well believe that they are acting to save Pacifica, protectingit from assault by present and future foes. They may not trust the motivesof programmers, staff, volunteers, or subscribers. If one is to believetheir public statements, they are solely concerned with expanding Pacifica’saudiences beyond their present scope, and insuring financial growth. Yetthe vision they have of how this is to be done, and why, is not now or everto be open to challenge. It is hard for autocrats to find their own powerobjectionable.
So what will happen to Pacifica, emblem of listener-supported publicradio, thorn in the flank of business-as-usual? What will the governingboard propose to itself? This article is intended to be a contribution todebate leading up to the February 26-28 meeting in Berkeley. CounterPunchersand friends of Pacifica in the Bay Area can stop by in Berkeley at the meetingto make their voices heard. As matters stood in late January, only the finalday is presently scheduled to be open to the public. On Pacifica’s agenda,public comment is ranked last.
For more details and the petition mentioned above see www.radio4all.org/freepacifica.
For additional information visit http://www.radio4all.org/freepacifica.
In CounterPunch’s early February issue we will profile the bigplayers in the Pacifica plot.
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