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The Battle for Pacifica

Ballots are being mailed for elections to the Local Station Boards at the Pacifica Foundation’s five radio stations across the nation. The result of these elections could determine whether Pacifica survives or continues its slide into bankruptcy.

First a bit of background. Each of Pacifica’s five stations – KPFA in Berkeley, KPFK in Los Angeles, KPFT in Houston, WPFW in Washington, D.C., and WBAI in New York – has a 22 member Local Station Board (LSB). Half of the seats are up for election this year. Each LSB sends four of its members to the Pacifica National Board (PNB), which wields absolute control over the network, including hiring national staff, approving national and local station budgets, and setting programming priorities.

Pacifica has always been fractious, back to when KPFA was founded as its first station in 1946. Its current bylaws were adopted 10 years ago, following a mass uprising and several lawsuits directed at a leadership group that attempted to create a self-perpetuating PNB. The new bylaws have brought democracy to the network, but they need revision to create a more streamlined and efficient structure that absorbs less of the organization’s time and money. But that is a conversation for another day.

The current majority has controlled the PNB since January 2009. When it took control it fired the Foundation’s long-time Chief Financial Officer, Lonnie Hicks, and replaced him with  former KPFA LSB member LaVarn Williams. In the absence of an Executive Director, PNB chair Grace Aaron, a Los Angeles peace activist and veteran of Scientology’s  internal wars, assumed political and organizational leadership.

Since 2009, the PNB’s inept and politically sectarian leadership has brought the Foundation to its knees. It has spent down all its reserves, incurring cumulative deficits of $5.7 million in the last four fiscal years, according to its 2012 audit report. The National Office, which receives 20 percent of each station’s on-air fundraising, has fallen far behind on its bills, including payments for Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!, Free Speech Radio News, and legal costs. But for its creditors’ patience, Pacifica would be in bankruptcy already. The audit reports raises doubts about Pacifica’s ability to continue as a “going concern.”

The reasons for Pacifica’s financial decline are complex, including both the world wide financial crisis that has impacted almost all nonprofits and the aging of Pacifica’s core listenership. But rather than responding to these challenges, Pacifica’s leadership has accentuated them. Before his termination, Hicks had for years warned of the financial decline and urged Pacifica to develop new fundraising strategies instead of relying on more and longer on-air fund drives that frustrate and alienate listeners. Almost nothing has been accomplished to improve fundraising at either the local or national level since 2009.

Pacifica’s annual budget is about $14 million. The budgets of the member stations vary widely: In the year ending September 30, 2011, KPFA raised $3.3 million, KPFK $3.7 million, WBAI $3.2 million, WPFW $1.6 million, and KPFT $1.3 million. While the other four stations have been able to meet their expenses and pay their share of the National Office expenses, WBAI has not been able to do so for several years.

The PNB has refused to address WBAI’s financial crisis, which has required an annual subsidy of $500,000 to $1.0 million. Most of WBAI’s shortfall is due to the $720,000 it pays annually for its Wall Street office and Empire State Building broadcast tower. The PNB has failed to insist that WBAI find cheaper facilities, at least in part because its PNB members are a critical part of the current board majority. Instead, WBAI’s financial problems have threatened the stability of the entire network.

For Pacifica to survive, its leadership must address its financial problems, particularly the WBAI situation, diversify its fundraising, and develop a strategy for developing Pacifica’s Internet presence and digital media. Pacifica is far behind most mainstream media outlets and free-standing web sites in presenting its content to the growing part of the population that relies less and less on traditional radio broadcasting.  Comparing Pacifica’s web presence with that of Democracy Now! proves this point.

Instead of focusing on the critical big picture issues, the PNB has developed a new strategy of intervening in local station affairs. KPFA has born the brunt of the PNB’s attacks, perhaps because three of its four PNB members, who are members of the Save KPFA caucus, oppose the direction of the Board majority. Last year the PNB rejected the station budget developed by the KPFA staff and LSB, even though it was realistic and balanced, including required payments to the National Office. The PNB also backed now former Executive Director Arlene Engelhardt in her unprecedented rejection of all three candidates proposed by the KPFA LSB to serve as KPFA’s station manager. The PNB recently intervened in the selection process for the selection of KPFK’s program director. A PNB committee has proposed a new “code of conduct” that would allow the expulsion of people from membership in the Foundation for bad mouthing or attempting to undermine the PNB’s decisions. Remember that Pacifica calls itself “Free Speech Radio!”

In the interests of full disclosure, you may conclude that I have an axe or two to grind here. I was the Foundation’s general counsel from April 2006 through January 2009, when I resigned over the Hicks firing. When I took office as an LSB member at the beginning of 2010, I was greeted at my second meeting with a libel lawsuit filed by Grace Aaron, LaVarn Williams, and a few others. We had that case dismissed and recovered $20,000 in sanctions. A few months later, some of our opponents filed a new case against me and three other KPFA LSB members for the offense of raising $68,000 in pledges to keep KPFA’s Morning Show on the air after it was removed due to the machinations of Engelhardt and Tracy Rosenberg, the sole KPFA PNB delegate who is not a member of Save KPFA. (Needless to say, the removal of the Morning Show was a catastrophe for KPFA fundraising, a concern that has yet to be fully remedied two years later.) That case remains pending. The final part of the litigation tri-fecta came about when the PNB voted to expel me because I was a “political appointee” as the volunteer legal advisor to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan. The superior court ordered that I be reinstated, which finally occurred when the judge threatened to hold the PNB chair and secretary in contempt. The PNB voted to appeal the decision, although the term from which I had been expelled ended a year ago, which coincides with my resignation from my post as the mayor’s legal advisor over disputes concerning her handling of Occupy Oakland.

Sorry for the digression. The bottom line here is that we need to create a new PNB majority by winning a minimum of two to three more seats than we now have. Practically, that means keeping the three current KPFA seats and adding a few more reasonable delegates from the other stations, particularly increasing the number from KPFK from one to two or three.

A new PNB majority will take the focus off petty politics and instead address (1) Foundation finances; (2) Digital media and the Internet; and (3) national programming. It will also have the responsibility early next years to hire a new Executive Director and Chief Financial Officer for the Foundation. The new CFO should focus on fundraising rather than bookkeeping. The PNB should limit its activity to setting policy, rejecting the temptation to meddle in staff and local station decisions.

Finally, I want to address what I view as a few of the false issues that have been injected into the campaign for the KPFA LSB. First is the claim that members of Save KPFA are simply stooges for the Democratic Party. In truth, several of my friends in Save KPFA are active in the Wellstone Democratic Club, which probably represents the most progressive wing of that party. Some Save KPFA members, including me, are extremely alienated from the Democratic Party and support the Greens, Peace and Freedom, etc. Period.

A second canard is that we are also stooges for KPFA’s paid staff and want to eliminate volunteers from the airways. That is another canard. What Save KPFA wants is good programming, presented by paid and volunteer staff, that will attract new people to our station. We want Pacifica to grow itself and contribute to the development of a powerful progressive movement in this country. If anyone thinks that is a crime, please do not vote for us.

Dan Siegel is an attorney in Oakland.

 

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