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From Farce to Tragedy

The New Crisis at Pacifica

by IAIN BOAL

On September 17 the Governance Committee of the Pacifica National Board passed a resolution expressly designed to find out whether Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! program is getting CIA funding through covert channels like the Ford Foundation for suppressing the “truth” about the 9/11 “over-up” The author of the resolution, Chris Condon, made it clear that he wrote a motion on funding disclosure specifically to find out "where the hell Amy Goodman’s money is coming from".

Condon’s campaign for reelection to the KPFK Local Station Board in Los Angeles is endorsed by the current interim Executive Director of Pacifica and chair of the Pacifica National Board, Grace Aaron. Despite being thrown out of the Church of Scientology, Aaron still publicly identifies herself as “a follower of the teachings of L Ron Hubbard”.      

What on earth is going on here? Listeners to the largest independent radio network in the US, whose broadcast signals are powerful enough to reach a fifth of the entire population, are no strangers to faction fights among staff and local boards, especially at the largest stations, WBAI (New York), KPFA (Berkeley), and KPFK (Los Angeles).  But veterans of the now legendary 1999 crisis could be forgiven for thinking that Pacifica had safely resumed its mission of promoting understanding between peoples and individuals through peaceable dialogue. Many will be dismayed to learn that Pacifica is once again on the edge of the abyss.

In some ways it’s 1999 redux, when a faction under the leadership of Mary Frances Berry, then chair of the Pacifica National Board and former chair of the US Civil Rights Commission, staged a power grab that involved intimidation, lockouts, secret surveillance, armed guards, firings at the local stations, and a barrowload of lawsuits. The takeover triggered a grassroots campaign to save Pacifica, with its epicenter in Berkeley (a “rat’s nest”, declared Berry) but vitally dependent on the strategic sense and tactical savvy of a trio of campaigners on the East coast, Juan Gonzalez, Dan Coughlin and Denis Moynihan. The obstreperous street-level resistance came as a shock to the chair of the Board, who knew little about radio and even less about the original vision that impelled the founders of Pacifica.

Their idea of exploring the springs of human conflict through radical dialogics was born in the camps and prisons that housed conscientious objectors to World War 2. The invention of “listener sponsorship”, the Cold War rhetoric of “free speech” and the identitarian fetish of “community” all came later. Pacifica’s deeper, intertwined taproots were anarcho-syndicalism and Kierkegaardian poetic witness. NPR…not.

A history of the airwaves reveals their special attraction to junior military officers, state propagandists, authoritarians of various stripes, and people with something to sell. Many of the footsoldiers in the 1999 putsch at Pacifica did indeed have their eyes on the microphones, but there was another far larger prize now in sight, although publicly denied – the broadcasting licenses themselves. The network’s five licenses were immensely valuable in the newly deregulated media market, the result of Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996. The New York license alone, with its powerful transmitter on the Empire State Building and massive earprint across a vast metropolitan area, was reckoned to be worth up to $250 million in the hot new radio market. Seize the Pacifica airwaves in order to sell them: a very neoliberal coup! 

The 1999 takeover ultimately failed, after more than a year of fierce struggle, thanks to the efforts and energies of thousands of listeners and supporters across the country, and an outpouring of support from around the globe. The coalition was ad hoc and fragile but at the end of it, everybody agreed that such a thing should never happen again. The banner under which many fought to defend the network was “democratize Pacifica”, whatever that was taken to mean.

Ironically the “new democracy” installed at Pacifica, following the debacle of 1999, has resulted in the very outcome it was intended to prevent. Under the revised governance structure and byelaw changes, a small number of listener-subscribers and staff elect biannually a 25 member Local Station Board. The logic of such “democracy” entails a tiny fraction of listeners electing a board with a great deal of power. In the name of proportional representation, through the liberal mechanism of the single transferable vote, a disproportionate weighting is given to the esperantists, propeller heads, world government paranoiacs, and stranded Maoists who are regularly elected with as few as two hundred votes out of the many tens of thousands of listeners at each station. A case of crackpot electoralism beyond parody, the last election cost upward of $700,000, including the inevitable attendant lawsuits – a grotesque misuse of listeners’ money, who expect their subscriptions to go to programming. 

If the Save Pacifica movement of 1999 included some exotic creatures from the wilder shores of American political culture, this time around an unholy alliance of truthists, sectarians, and voting system fanatics, led by an unwilling reject of the Church of Scientology, have used the new governance structure to take control of the commanding heights of Pacifica’s management.

The results are dismal. The current regime at Pacifica champions fiscal responsibility, but the reality is quite different.  Since Aaron’s cabal has come to power, the financial situation has markedly deteriorated. Spending on salaries and consultants at the Pacifica National Office has jumped by 40 per cent; these positions have mostly gone to board cronies without even a pro forma gesture towards open hiring. Pacifica is behind in payments to Free Speech Radio News and Democracy Now. In just the month of July, WBAI (where the General Manager doubles as Pacifica’s Chief Financial Officer) was almost $50K over budget.      

Under Aaron’s tenure, the stations have been under serious pressure to increase listenership and fundraising by offering miracle cures and 9/11 conspiracist DVDs as donor “thank you gifts”. Pacifica station WBAI in New York made tens of thousands of dollars on gifts promising protection from fungus-causing aerosols that the government is supposedly spraying on its population. It is also symptomatic that at the same time that Aaron favors depoliticized self-help shows, she is reported to fulminate against “pro-Palestinian, pro-immigrant” public affairs programming on the network.

Notwithstanding elements of farce and a descent into snake oil peddling, there is an enormous amount at stake in the struggle for the soul of Pacifica. Despite the ascendancy of the internet, radio is still the most accessible mass medium, and the Pacifica network is the only mass medium in the US that belongs to antagonists of the present order. For this reason alone, if we care about the fate of “the left”, then we should care about Pacifica as a space of opposition to capital and empire. In a commercial desert, it has over the years been a beacon of the radio arts, and it continues to be home to such oases of passionate analysis and lucid exchange as C.S.Soong and Eddie Yuen’s Against the Grain and Doug Henwood’s Behind the News. Nowhere else could Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans’ eye witness accounts of the occupations, have been aired. Even in its weakened state and in the face of further plunder and enclosure of the spectrum and the fading of the high hopes for indymedia, Pacifica is worth fighting for.     

To be sure, the battle for Pacifica is being fought on ground not of our own choosing. The entire landscape of communications needs to be contested. The major historic defeat, resulting in wholesale privatization of the spectrum, happened back in 1934. I stand by remarks I made in front of the Federal Communications Commission [reported in CounterPunch, May Day 2003] at a hearing on media ownership in the wake of the fresh round of looting of the public airwaves that followed the 1996 Telecommunications Act: “The FCC is not the cause of this disaster; in its current condition it is just another symptom…Regulation at this stage is disreputable; it is like demanding regulation of the slave-quarters, instead of abolition. The 1934 Act was bad enough; the1996 Telecommunications Act is a scandal. The whole thing stinks; the corpse is rotten. Let us take it out for burial, and start over.”

My conclusion before the commissioners that day seems no less true now: “The flourishing of life in this country and around the planet now depends on the reappropriation of the commons, and that includes – because the means of communication without limits is the very condition of possibility of all else – the seizing back of the electromagnetic spectrum, the de-commodification of the airwaves.”      

Iain A. Boal is a historan of the commons, associated with Retort, and co-author of Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (Verso). He can be reached at boal@sonic.net.