Resisting Misleading Narratives About Pacifica Radio

The counter-narratives about the recent takeover, and restoration, of New York City’s Pacifica radio station, WBAI, have apparently begun. Thus far we have no new offerings but rather restatements of previously given excuses, ones that wilt in the face of reasoned critique.

Here I am referring specifically to Akio Tanaka’s November 12 article in CounterPunch. Mr. Tanaka leads off by repeating the claim that “The reason Pacifica National Office intervened at WBAI was because the station was not able to make payroll, and there was no further money to give to the station.” He was nonetheless honest enough to not lay all blame at the feet of WBAI by also writing “The reason for this is the lack of competent financial oversight and planning for many years at the very top of our governance structure.”

I don’t disagree with the assessment that Pacifica has been poorly managed in recent years. But the assertion that WBAI could not make its payroll can be challenged on two counts. One, WBAI managers have repeatedly said the station had already raised enough money to make all of the month’s expenses in the October fund drive that was barely a week old when the station was forced off the air. Two, it would seem rather counter-intuitive to believe that the solution to a shortage of funds is to cut off all means of collecting funds.

Let’s review what happened during the October 7 coup: The station’s bank account was frozen (actually done two days earlier but that was not known beforehand); all local programming was taken off the air, ending the ability of WBAI to continue fundraising; the station’s main website and its website specifically set up to accept donations were removed from the internet; the call center that took phone pledges was summarily dismissed; and the station’s landlord was told to find a new tenant and rent payments to her terminated.

I do not have a degree in finance, but it doesn’t take a specialist to see the absurdity of this situation. If WBAI was in such dire straits, wouldn’t the solution be to allow it to continue its fund drive in order to secure needed funds? Instead, similar to the logic of the Pentagon that “saved” Vietnamese villages by burning them to the ground and killing the villagers, the Pacifica National Board rogue minority faction attempted to “save” WBAI by destroying its ability to survive.

Berthold Reimers, WBAI’s general manager, reports that the aborted October fund drive exceeded the results of the year’s earlier fund drives, taking in about $10,000 per day. Further, in a report to station staff and hosts, he wrote, “As of September 30, 2019 WBAI borrowed $37,000 from Pacifica to make its payroll. Septembers are always rough on all stations. WBAI always catches up in October and we would have caught up and paid all expenses” expected to be incurred before the next fund drive, including immediately paying back the September loan. He added, “If Pacifica was really broke they should have at least waited for WBAI to bring in all the cash during the October drive.”

It can more than reasonably be argued that a radio station, or any other entity, shouldn’t be that close to financial danger. But when it comes to Pacifica, that is not a problem specific to New York. WBAI’s projected cash-flow deficit for 2020 is nearly identical to that of California stations KPFA and KPFK. Further, according to a paper prepared by three Pacifica National Board directors, a report used as the rationale for the coup against WBAI used dubious accounting to inflate the deficit of WBAI and still assigned only 26 percent of Pacifica’s total operating deficit to the station.

Mr. Tanaka’s other primary statement is that “the current Bylaws preclude sale of any station without a membership vote.” Well, yes, and that is why there is a push to change the bylaws. Mr. Tanaka points out, correctly, that bylaws can’t be changed without a vote of the members of Pacifica’s five stations. Further, he notes that there would be five elected directors, one from each station, along with the six appointed directors under the proposed amendment. I acknowledge that I should have been more precise in explicating the composition of the board should the proposed bylaws be adopted. But critical here is that the self-selected directors would have a permanent majority. The larger point — that the new board would constitute an undemocratic structure — stands.

And, as I previously wrote, the contesting of a likely member referendum is the next front in an ongoing struggle to maintain democratic accountability and local control. Once again, the last time a Pacifica board of directors could self-select its members, the result was a lack of accountability, dictatorial leadership, a lockout at KPFA and the Christmas Coup at WBAI. A lawyer at a corporate law firm specializing in union busting was sadly representative of the people who were selected to be on the board back then. A Citibank executive was also selected to be on the board, and did not take his seat only because of a phone campaign by listeners that resulted in the executive being told by his bosses to not accept the post. No, that was not a board representative of community concerns.

This time around, those advocating a return to undemocratic governance structures have carefully pre-selected people with strong credentials for their proposed board. The pre-democratic board contained some people with community credentials, yet that did not save Pacifica from years of unnecessary strife, lockouts and firings, nor did it stop some of the people with those credentials from becoming the authors of draconian acts. That is why a democratic structure became the solution.

Supporters of the coup have yet to explain how removing WBAI from the air, chasing away listeners with irrelevant programming, disabling its ability to raise funds, taking steps to have its offices taken away and attempting to wipe away its archives is consistent with a supposed “plan” to “rebuild” it. The supposed “plan” by coup leader John Vernile had glaring holes in it. Having examined the proposed budget attached to Mr. Vernile’s “plan,” I’ll highlight two problems. The first is that the “plan” lists “0” for severance expenses at the same time as “all staff remain laid off.” Severance expenses, especially in light of the fact that legally mandated time notices were not given, can’t be zero.

Further, Mr. Vernile’s “rebuild budget” assumes unrealistic on-air fundraising revenue. WBAI listeners willingly support local programming. There can be no reason to expect that listeners would have continued to donate to a station offering only syndicated programming with no local content. Thus the pious claims of an intervention to restore fiscal responsibility melt in the sunshine of examination. This was not a case of “adults” restoring order as the coupsters tried to imply; the “rebuild” plan has the appearance of something hastily thrown together to justify an action.

One last point. The “plan” was to “introduce content that has a local focus.” How was this to be accomplished? By deigning to allow local hosts to pre-record programs and have an imposed “program coordinator” decide if they can be aired or not. A single person with no accountability to paid and unpaid staff, listeners or communities cannot be said to constitute a fulfillment of Pacifica’s mission of serving its communities and opens the gates for censorship. Even if such a person were truly well-meaning, he or she couldn’t possibly substitute for the combined knowledge of local community members and broadcasters.

Whether the intention was truly to sell off WBAI and use the proceeds to benefit other Pacifica stations (as been openly discussed for years), to impose censorship for the purpose of converting WBAI into an NPR-style broadcaster or some other reason, there has been no refutation of the arguments put forth by WBAI personnel and listeners. The most coherent counter-argument offered is that the proposed bylaw changes would allegedly still require membership approval for the selling of any station. Even if true (the language of the proposed changes doesn’t explicitly address that), the lack of democracy inherent with appointed directors is compounded by the fact that a campaign scapegoating WBAI has been conducted for years, potentially inculcating a mindset among some listeners of the California and Houston stations that WBAI should be sold.

Listeners of Pacifica stations who wish for them to retain democratic accountability remain advised to vote against the bylaw changes.

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His first book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books and his second book, What Do We Need Bosses For?, is forthcoming from Autonomedia.