Crisis at Pacifica
Capital’s most severe crisis in seventy years ought to be a moment of significant opportunity for the left. But as the right mobilizes disgruntled Americans via its vast radio, television, web, and print empires, the one mass medium available to the left—Pacifica Radio—is driving out its best and brightest. A network that has the potential to reach a quarter of the US public is opting for irrelevant and unlistenable programming at a time when competent and genuinely radical journalism is urgently needed, and justifying its warped choice with the Thatcherite mantra: there is no alternative.
In two previous dispatches to CounterPunch here and here I described the pathological state of Pacifica’s byzantine governance structure – a national board containing 122 members, baroque bylaws, and vastly expensive and corrupt local board elections. The chief result has been the ascendancy of a kind of Tea Party of the left, featuring ex-Scientologists, miracle cure hucksters, and conspiracists who believe that Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!, Pacifica’s premier program, is taking CIA money to suppress "the truth about 9/11". Add to that an austerity plan to stick it to the workers, right out of the Thatcher/Sarkozy playbook, and you have Pacifica Radio in 2010.
Under cover of budget cuts, the Mad Hats who control the Pacifica National Board are seeking to dispense with those who oppose their conspiracy-driven agenda—or simply strive for well-produced, quality radio. The axe has fallen first on WBAI’s acclaimed ‘Behind the News’, an island of lucid analysis in the mass media swamp, hosted by the economic journalist Doug Henwood, author of Wall Street and publisher of Left Business Observer. In the midst of a gathering emergency, the brains trust at WBAI decided that Henwood’s program, which provides some of the best economic analysis anywhere, should be cut to twice a month. Henwood tendered his resignation, blasting the swerve towards “chem-trails and footpads and 9/11 nuttery”. A day later the vitamin supplements mogul Gary Null, notorious for his claim that HIV does not cause AIDS, announced that he would be returning to the airwaves of WBAI on November 15th. (ACT UP wrote to Pacifica that “returning Gary Null to the air for financial reasons would be unethical profiteering, because he gives out information that can cause people to become infected with HIV or fail to treat the infection properly.”)
The Mad Hats are now focusing on the flagship station of the Pacifica network, KPFA in the San Francisco Bay Area, which thus far has been mainly free of such conspiracism and snake oil. Three members of the Pacifica National Board have drawn up a list of their staff enemies to be fired, which includes the majority of the workers at some of the most successful programs, in terms of listenership and fundraising, on KPFA’s air: the Morning Show, the noon program of radical ideas Against the Grain, and the Evening News. Against the Grain host Sasha Lilley’s fate was apparently sealed when she interviewed me about my CounterPunch article on why the Pacifica board system had cost more than $2.4 million dollars since 2002 and why it needed to be replaced. Those at the top of Pacifica were incensed and demanded her firing.
Laying off these workers would not only violate KPFA’s contract with the Communications Workers of America. It would seriously compromise the solvency of what has been the most financially successful station in the network. KPFA has historically subsidized the other four Pacifica stations, and has financed and executed some of the most groundbreaking reportage, from the McCarthy era to the Free Speech Movement to the Iran-Contra investigations to, recently, the latter-day Winter Soldier hearings.
At KPFA, the union and local management have come up with an alternative menu of cuts, so that the station can balance its budget while preserving the ability to produce high quality programming. The cuts focus on KPFA’s parent organization Pacifica itself, whose bureaucracy has become an enormous financial drain on the five stations. In spite of the tough economic times, KPFA raises enough money to pay for itself—it just doesn’t raise enough money to pay for Pacifica as well. Pacifica is demanding the station hand over $800,000 of KPFA listeners’ money in the coming fiscal year and has flatly refused to make any of the recommended cuts. The Pacifica National Board refuses to reduce the number of its famously expensive—and dysfunctional, as a search of YouTube can attest—quarterly board meetings. KPFA’s union has asked Pacifica’s executive director, Arlene Engelhardt, to disclose her own salary (which should be a matter of public record) but she has refused. Austerity is just for the workers, after all.
In the place of programs of journalistic integrity and serious intellectual inquiry, KPFA listeners only have to look to WBAI to imagine what the sound of their radio station will soon be: programs about the Illuminati, microchips used for mind-control, and neo-populist goldbuggery. And all because “there is no alternative” but to cut experienced journalists and union jobs.
If I’ve invoked Lewis Carroll more than Lewis Hill (the syndicalist founder and guiding spirit of Pacifica) in this dispatch – it’s because there is truly a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party feel about some of the current proceedings. But it is at the same time terribly serious, and not simply for the station workers whose livelihoods are threatened. Let’s remind ourselves of what is at stake. The network has the signal power to reach one fourth of the population of the United States – that’s an extraordinary earprint. Don’t believe those who glibly assert that terrestrial radio is old school and a dying medium. The money men don’t believe it – that’s why the WBAI license, in the wake of the great privatizing grab of Clinton’s 1996 Telecommunications Act, was being appraised at a staggering $250 million. And the same goes for KPFA, which pumps out more than 50,000 watts over Northern California.
Make no mistake, Pacifica remains a vital space for dissenting and antinomian voices in the United States. If this network is lost, it is inconceivable that the Left could ever get such a chance again. It was, after all, only an accident that the conscientious objectors and poets who instigated the network were given a license to broadcast at all. Following the catastrophe of a global war, the founding Pacificans in 1946 recognized that the hand letter-press and the Gestetner duplicating machine were not adequate to the task of communicating beyond the confines of a small coterie of war resisters, anarcho-pacifists and bohemians in Berkeley and San Francisco. They dreamed of what Dwight Macdonald called “big effects”. They hoped to broadcast, for example, to the communities around the naval base of Oakland and the dockyards of Richmond, using AM radio. The state refused them access to the powerful and dominant medium of AM, but they were granted an FM license, mainly because frequency modulation was a novel technology then in its infancy. Virtually nobody had a receiver in those pioneering post-war years; Lewis Hill even gave away sets to the first subscribers. Few foresaw how extraordinarily valuable public access to the FM spectrum would eventually become. This precious resource, held in trust by the foundation, is not only being squandered, but is now mortally endangered.
To those who would say there is no alternative to cuts or to the dominance of the mainstream media, I would answer, yes, there is indeed an alternative. Radio must be put first over a delusional, power-hungry bureaucracy and a governance system run amok. Crackpot electoralism has allowed the will of ten of thousands of listeners and subscribers to be thwarted by candidates whose mandate rests upon as few as two hundred votes. A plurality of 2 per cent! How did this absurd situation come to pass? Abstractly committed to democracy but too bored to vote in a relentless train of mind-numbing elections, thousands of dedicated supporters of Pacifica will wake up this month to find their favorite programs inexplicably decimated, while their putative representatives, parading the mantle of “community”, continue to spend millions of dollars of listener pledges on yet more board meetings and ballotry.
The only hope for the long term health of Pacifica is to scrap as soon as possible the fatally flawed governance structure and start over. This means collecting approximately 800 signatures of current subscribers, that is, one percent of the membership, to begin the process of revising the bylaws. A national "Salvage Pacifica" campaign must be initiated as the immediate priority. So once again I invite concerned readers and the silent majority of actual listeners to contact firstname.lastname@example.org, and the business of reconstitution can begin.
"The crisis", Antonio Gramsci wrote from Mussolini’s prisons, "consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear." We’ve seen the morbid symptoms on display. It’s time to move ahead to rescue—and revitalize—this invaluable resource for the left.
Iain Boal is a social historian of science and technics, and co-author of Retort’s Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (Verso). He can be reached at email@example.com.