How You Can Save Pacifica
The tsunami of abuse triggered by the alarm I sounded about the new crisis at Pacifica Radio in CounterPunch only confirms my diagnosis, were it not for the fact that among the torrents of sewage from envenomed nutballs there were many encouraging messages-in-a-bottle from dismayed supporters of the network eager to help save Pacifica once again.
There is no surprise, however, about the cast of characters who have lined up to shoot the messenger. Symptomatically, the interim Executive Director of Pacifica demanded that I retract what is all in the public record and dangled a lawsuit. It is an irony – or rather it ought to be – that the boss of a “free speech” radio network has a gag reflex.
A letter from a Pacifica Local Station Board incumbent/candidate from Los Angeles is a fairly typical specimen from the mailbag. Christopher Condon writes, “I have neither asked for nor received any endorsement from Grace Aaron. I know perfectly well Ms. Aaron’s position and I have never raised the issue. It probably comes down to her signing my nominating petition along with many others, and I put ‘nominated by’ Grace Aaron along with others on my campaign statement.” Condon hangs himself with his own rope. As a cursory glance at my original piece will show, Condon either corroborates my point – the Executive Director didn’t endorse him, she just nominated him! – or confirms fears that far from taking a turn towards NPR (an allegation, by the way, I never made in the first place) the current regime is actually steering the good ship Pacifica onto the reefs of HIV denialism, fungus-inducing aerosols care of the CIA, 9/11 truthinesss, etc., etc. – in other words, conspiracist programming in the full-blown paranoid style complete with that tell-tale pressure in the voice.
My CounterPunch piece was neither about the cult of Amy Goodman nor the various factions jostling for their moment at the microphone. It was about the domination of the national and local boards by the likes of Aaron and Condon owing to a perverse governance structure, with grotesque consequences for programming and fund-raising.
More disturbingly, Gresham’s Law is operating to antagonize Pacifica stalwarts of generosity and good will like Noam Chomsky whose recent Riverside Church speech was offered as a premium without his permission and whose name was used to suggest that he was endorsing a particular slate in the current WBAI elections. Chomsky is so put out by the misrepresentation of his Riverside lecture on the front page of the WBAI website – implying that he has a new view on 9/11 – that he has threatened to forbid Pacifica to use any of his work for fundraising.
The religious affiliations, past or present, of the currently anointed favorite of the National Board is actually of zero interest to me, and irrelevant to my case. What matters is that Pacifica’s “new democracy” enables a cabal to impose any regime they want, staffed with its own acolytes. It’s not that the current crew is necessarily ruling by decree, but that the governance structure, put in place after the 1999 crisis, enables such practices. Indeed the logic actually encourages it. Coups ’R US.
To give readers an idea how far-fetched Pacifica governance has become, consider that in 2007 there were over a hundred meetings of the National Board. That may seem profligate enough; now it has bloated to the point that there’s a meeting of Pacifica governance every night of the week (just go to http://kpftx.org/pacalendar/index.php to check out the calendar for this month).
The cost of this creature – a surreal camel-albatross hybrid worthy of any medieval bestiary – has mounted to several million dollars since the new democratic governance was installed six years ago. No one is able to compute the real figure. Pacifica’s bureaucracy would make Max Weber wince – more nation-state than radio network. Formally, the full Pacifica National Board is composed of ‘directors’ and ‘delegates’, having a minimum of 122 and a maximum of, er, 123 members (see Pacifica Bylaws, Article 5, Section 1, C). There are 12 subcommittees, comprised of the Elections Committee, the Coordinating Committee, the Technology Committee, the Audit Committee, the Personnel Committee, the Finance Committee, the Programming Committee, the Archives Task Force, the Affiliates Task Force, the Committee of Inclusion, the Committee to Investigate Racism and Sexism, and finally the Governance Committee. This last embodies the Foundation’s totemic mascot, an ouroboros – the snake that eats its own tail.
So we find ourselves today with a pyramid scheme which is mirrored at the local board level and where the mission has become…governance. Governance, in other words, as an end in itself. Pacifica has become its own tin-pot nation-state, though you might say that a more apt analogy is the justly reviled board of the modern corporation (to be sure, in petit bourgeois pantomime drag), since their hands are busily dismantling the firewall between governance and programming. The church-state separation expected in the rest of the media apparently does not apply to free speech radio Pacifica. Just take a look at the electioneering, which is dominated by people campaigning on promises about the programming they will bring to the air once elected, rather than the proper business of a board.
The current election unfortunately carries us beyond the parody as described in my October 6th article. Listeners suffering from election fatigue may have missed the latest developments. In addition to the usual fare – cronyism, attack ads, corruption, self-dealing, ad hominem abuse instead of debate on the truly pressing issues facing oppositional media in the US – the inept management has served up ballots based on an electoral roll two years out of date, thereby disfranchising 30 per cent of Pacifica’s new members and allowing thousands of ex-members to vote illegally.
The founders of Pacifica, as syndicalists and antinomians, had a strong aversion to bourgeois form and representation, with its periodic ratification of our masters by ballot. They would be appalled at Pacifica’s governance apparatus, though the rank incompetence of its bureaucracy they would no doubt dismiss with a shrug. What else to expect? The current elections at the network make Afghanistan look pristine. Actually the two are connected: military humanism abroad gets you Karzais, (neo)liberal electoralism at home gets you Condons. And let’s be clear – there’s nothing antiquarian about the democracy on offer in the parliament of Kabul or the control rooms of Pacifica. It is probably the face of the future.
Many have written asking what they can do here and now. My alarm call does seem to have breached the dam of silence, but clearly that is not enough. The shambles of the ongoing election is not likely to stop Aaron and Co from destroying what was left of the old Pacifica. Finding some Moses to replace Aaron is hardly the point. It is the structure itself that is rotten. In fact, it guarantees a repeat of the current disaster, and sooner rather than later.
Certainly, let’s start by scrapping the noxious bylaws that incubated this monster. But the only hope lies in a thoroughgoing renovation of Pacifica. The ship is going down. It will take a movement to wipe the slate clean, to get a new board and a structure congruent with the mission of Pacifica – governance, in other words, that aids and abets rather than imperils the network’s very existence.
Here’s my suggestion, addressed not only to all those who wrote to me in their deep concern about what is happening now, but to the Pacifica community as a whole (I sympathize with the sneers that will greet that phrase) including those who have long since turned off or stopped subscribing but still care about the state of the media in this country. It would take only 700 Pacifica subscribers – that is, one percent of the membership – to sign a petition formally demanding to start the process of tossing the offending bylaws into the dustbin of history. My mailbag suggests that there may be such a movement waiting to be born, and one moreover that is prepared to go beyond the narrow but necessary task of rescuing Pacifica from the new barbarians.
Those interested in supporting and joining in such an endeavor, please write to email@example.com up and running and we can begin the job of rebuilding an independent radio network dedicated to radical dialogue and the audio arts.
October 26, 2009
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.