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Pacifica radio donations up, but board/governance costs soar

There’s good news in the Pacifica radio network’s latest financial audit. Listener donations to the five listener supported radio station non-profit rose in 2010 from their catastrophic drop of almost $4 million between 2008 and 2009. The donation total was $10,585,979 in 2010, up from $9,808,729 in 2009. That doesn’t compensate, of course, for the free fall from 2008, when listeners donated $13,603,287 to the network. But it’s a marked improvement.

But while insisting that station staff tighten their belts, the Pacifica Foundation’s governance sector is still clearly unable to control its own internal expenses. The Pacifica radio network’s newest audit indicates that for the year ending in September 2010 the organization spent no less than $378,023 on its station subscriber and staff elected boards. This brings the total price tag for the network’s experiment in democracy to $2,802,685 since it commenced in 2002. Another year like the last six, and it will easily surpass $3 million in 2011.

And although Pacifica officials make noises from time to time about cutting board expenses, 2010’s board/election budget was the third most expensive in Pacifica history—over $112k more than the previous year. The “national division” spent a whopping $175k on board expenses. In 2009 it was $94,859.

Pacifica board expenses by year
2010 “board meetings and elections” 378,023
2009 “board expense” 265,687
2008 “board expense” 377,977
2007 “National board expenses” (230,695) 

and “board election expenses” (153,256)

2006 “National board expenses” (275,124) 

and “board election expenses” (47,578)

2005 “National board expenses” (224,677) 

and “board election expenses” (183,941)

2004 “National board expenses” (119,133) 

and “board election expenses” (206,571)

2003 “National board expenses” 161,918
2002 “National board expenses” 178,105

Here’s how these board/election expenses played out on a station by station level for 2010:

KPFA (Berkeley, CA): $40,431

KPFK (Los Angeles, CA): $45,956

KPFT (Houston, TX): $22,548

WBAI (New York City, NY): $76,183

WPFW (Washington, DC): $26,500

National Division: $175,405

WBAI’s board expenses almost doubled in 2010, up from 38,422 the previous year.

In the past, critics of my articles on this matter have all but characterized Pacifica’s board costs as a bargain, contending that they represent a relatively small portion of the network’s annual expenses. This assumes, of course, that the cash strapped network can afford to spend something like $378k per year on what passes for governance rather than programming.

To give you an idea of what $40,431 means to KPFA, consider the justification that Pacifica management recently gave for the layoff of the entire KPFA Morning Show crew last December:

Eliminating the former Morning Show was the most cost-effective programming change we could make at KPFA. Three part-time positions were eliminated (two hosts and one producer) or 2.3 full-time-equivalent positions, each with full benefits as all employees working at least half-time receive full health benefits. This saves KPFA approximately $147k per year in salaries, payroll taxes and health benefits.

In retrospect, it’s difficult to see how that move was worth the subsequent trouble. Since then, one of those staffers has been rehired following a union grievance that staff estimate cost KPFA over $32,000. Another’s case is in arbitration. Protestors of the layoffs have collected over $60k in donation promises, forthcoming upon the return of the popular programmers in question.

But while Pacifica claims that it couldn’t afford these individuals, apparently it thinks that it can afford a substantial percentage of their estimated costs on board members, whose contributions to the organization are dubious at best. Hopefully the network will take a serious look at these priorities before Pacifica embarks on its next expensive round of subscriber and staff elections, scheduled for next year. Pacifica management has just announced a drastic makeover of KPFA’s schedule, without having consulted most of the station’s listeners or staff—hardly evidence that the folks at the top are taking the democratic principles implied by the election experiment seriously.

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14 Responses to Pacifica radio donations up, but board/governance costs soar

  1. chris stehlik April 25, 2011 at 2:26 pm #

    Really could not have said it better myself Matthew. As a money saving measure, cutting the Morning Show was a complete flop. It’s replacement earned considerably less than the Morning Show ever did. Add to that the legal fees and back pay, and any savings are completely erased.

    While it may be argued that Morning Mix, the replacement, was given an extremely difficult job of matching Morning Show’s numbers from the very start, rather than building an audience, that was Pacifica’s decision. And it was the very argument that was made at the labor committee of the Berkeley City Counci’s hearing , in which I heard her say that any show would draw just as much merely due to the time slot they were in. This was a bad decision that KPFA and Pacifica have to continue to live with.

  2. Stephen M Brown April 29, 2011 at 10:38 pm #

    Matthew Lasar’s analysis of Pacifica governance seems wrong-headed.

    Lasar (in apparent concert with several destructive staff members at KPFA) has for some time been attacking the very concept of democratic governance at Pacifica.

    That is as surprising as it is sad.

    I could understand condemning those who govern Pacifica for (arguably) spending more on governance than they should — i.e., for wasting funds. But Lasar seems to want to discard democratic governance at Pacifica altogether, as he has implied even more strongly in other writings.

    Pacifica governance costs about $378,000 per year, about 2.5 per cent of last year’s approximately $15 milion total income. Roughly half of that $378,000 (it changes from year to year) is for elections and the other half for travel and lodging of national board members when they meet in the five station cities on a rotating basis.

    Is that too much? Perhaps it is. But that would constitute an argument — not against democratic governance — but against wasteful and/or incompetent governance.

    Actually, Pacifica’s elections need not cost anything; they can actually be a source of revenue, as was demonstrated in a test during an early WBAI election, where a carefully worded appeal for donations to offset the cost of the election more than paid for the election itself. (That this was not repeated in every election is, of course, a symptom of poor governance.)

    As for the cost of having the national board meet in the 5 station cities on a rotated basis (as mandated in the foundation bylaws), that money could easily be raised from each station in a special one-day fund drive before each station’s hosting of the national board. The cost need never come from Pacifica’s treasury. (And in fact, effective measures to reduce the cost of elections and national board travel to virtually zero have been presented to the foundation numerous times, but not been implemented. Which is of course an indication of poor governance.

    My point is that even though there may be many acceptable reasons to criticize and remove this or that crop of democratically elected governors of Pacifica, there is no acceptable reason to eliminate democratic governance itself.

    The same reasoning, after all, applies to United States governance: Our present leaders may suck, but opting to exchange them for a dictator (or group of dictators), as Lasar seems to be advocating for Pacifica, hardly seems to be a viewpoint that many Pacifica members would or should endorse.

  3. Steve Gilmartin April 30, 2011 at 11:11 am #

    Elections cost money, so we’d better get rid of them! That seems to be the sum and substance of Matthew Lasar’s message here. But in his rush to get rid of democratic governance, and while citing with horror the extravagance of a national board that would spend a “whopping” $175,000 (for administration, insurance, the CPB-required annual audit, and Democracy Now among other things), Lasar unaccountably fails to mention much more substantial expenses. Here’s a breakdown of personnel costs at the five stations for fiscal year 2010:

    KPFA: 2,277,350

    KPFK: 1,493,113

    WBAI: 1,321,378

    WPFW: 673,643

    KPFT: 528,975

    Despite the “catastrophic drop [in listener donations] of almost $4 million between 2008 and 2009” and at a time when all the other stations in the network reduced personnel costs to deal with rapidly shrinking revenue, KPFA alone refused to do so. That’s the problem, not elections.

  4. Matthew Lasar April 30, 2011 at 1:12 pm #

    Steve Brown and Steve Gilmartin respond to my latest call for the end of staff/subscriber board elections at Pacifica radio by criticizing me. But neither offers a single word in their defense.

    First comes the obligatory scare-the-children prose. If I don’t want elections, I want a “dictator” at Pacifica, it seems. Brown insists that these subscriber/staff board elections only cost “about” 2.5 percent of last year’s annual income, but cannot be bothered to cipher the actual percentage. Gilmartin insists that the National Division $175,405 line item to which I referred somehow funded Democracy Now!. According to the audit, that money was spent on last year’s “board meetings and expenses.”

    Neither Brown or Gilmartin say anything, however, suggesting that these elections have helped Pacifica in any way. How could they? They obviously have not. All these semi-annual debacles have done is to stuff the organization with incompetent board members whose primary concern is lobbying for programming and programmers—either the ones who have air time or the ones who want some (or more). The latter loudly repeat Steve Gilmartin’s call for staff cuts, but these Pacifica politicians do not work together to raise money for the network, or to collectively solve the pressing infrastructural problems the foundation faces. Every issue for them is basically just a proxy battle for who has access to air time.

    As a consequence of this, the recent debacle at KPFA ensued, in which the on-air staff supporters of one electoral faction were driven from the Morning Show, and replaced by the supporters of another electoral faction. The result was the disastrous “Morning Mix” volunteer programmer experiment, now abandoned by the Pacifica National Office, which, in order to save face, is now drastically rearranging the station’s schedule like so much tossed salad.

    On a larger scale, Pacifica station general managers come and go on an annual basis—fired or driven out by the latest crop of self-appointed saviors. If Pacifica GMs had a coat-of-arms, it would be a turnstile. During these elections, Pacifica station airtime is deluged with candidate speeches and forums about how insufficiently radical their respective station is, driving away the audience as quickly as board members drive away talented management and staff. Different electoral factions lob inaccurate rumors about the stations across the Internet based on unreliable second hand sources. Lawsuits have become the standard means of settling disputes.

    Since Steve Brown is so interested in statistical context, here is some more. According to the 2010 audit, Pacifica spent about ten times more on its boards than it did on “advertising and promotion” ($37,448); the foundation spent fifteen times more on its boards than it did on training ($25,646); Pacifica spent $70k more on its boards than it did on community events; it spent over $100k more on its boards than the network did on non-computer related maintenance and repairs. To me, these comparisons are far more revealing of the network’s present priorities than Brown’s bland 2.5 percent observation.

    The bottom line is that Pacifica spent over a third of a million bucks last year on a governance system for which neither Brown or Gilmartin can say anything positive. If they can’t, why should I?

  5. Chuck Karish April 30, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    I have trouble understanding this as a payroll issue in light of the circumstance that the people being fired and the programs being taken off the air on KPFA include the leading fundraisers that allow KPFA to subsidize the rest of Pacifica.

  6. Steve Gilmartin April 30, 2011 at 7:01 pm #

    It’s hard for me to understand how Lasar, who documented the Mary Francis Berry / Lynn Chadwick hijacking of Pacifica in 1999, can be so dismissive of the forces of democratization that the near demise of Pacifica ushered in. The Berry / Chadwick brand of politically suspect corrupt cronyism is exactly what Pacifica got as a result of an unelected, self-appointed board…and will risk getting again without elections. Calling that “scare-the-children prose” does not lessen the reality of that threat. And, sure, the election process is far from perfect and can, as Lasar says, produce “board members whose primary concern is lobbying for programming and programmers.” Witness the ascendancy of the Concerned Listener/”SaveKPFA” faction on KPFA’s local board, which has ushered in a frenzied “We want our Morning Show back” PR campaign that has been extremely destabilizing to the station. But such over-the-top LSB meddling in programming is new and did not exist under previous elected boards.

    Perhaps Lasar objects to the existence of program councils, which were empowered by the elected boards but which operate separately from them. Composed of listener reps, paid and unpaid staff, station management and department reps, the councils are designed to evaluate and suggest ways to improve programs, generate new programming, and ensure that programming decisions are made in a fair and collaborative manner. For a short time, the elections and the program council at KPFA did function quite well (the council producing excellent new programs like Voices of the Middle East, Women’s Magazine, Pushing Limits) before those holding power within the station, unhappy at the prospect of having to share that power, did everything they could to obstruct and undermine the newly minted processes of democratization that came out of the Berry-Chadwick takeover. Get rid of elections and program councils and you’ll be left with a corrupt patronage system, unresponsive to its community of listeners and overseeing a grid of stale program fiefdoms that can only contribute to Pacifica’s declining listenership. Again, the problem is not the elections themselves, it’s the narrow but powerful few within Pacifica’s stations who wish to maintain control at all cost.

  7. Stan Woods May 5, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    Gilmartin and Brown both address my main objections but i would like to comment on the (alleged ) 60k pledged on the condition that the ”Morning show ”with the same two hosts be reinstated .

    So does ML think that pledges with strings attached be accepted ?

    I don’t think so. Think about the precident that would be .

    If listener $ was accepted on a conditional basis what would keep say the Israeli consulate from donating a half mil on the condition that ”Flashpoints ” was purged ? Or a Democratic party affialted group from making a huge donation if the Green and Peace and Freedom aprty candidates were denied air time ? (Not that they get much presently )

    But Prof. ML is indifferent to that real likehood if such donations were accepted

  8. Robert Johnson May 5, 2011 at 10:16 pm #

    Arguments over the past decade against having democratic governance of Pacifica generally resemble a current Tea Party argument: Fight government bloat by eliminating government rather than overhauling it. This throw-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater approach serves big business in America’s case. Who does it serve in Pacifica’s case? Perhaps an old guard. Perhaps even big business behind the scenes. Pacifica needs more relevance and professionalism, no doubt, but who among the self-anointed should hold the reins?

  9. Matthew Lasar May 6, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    Ok. It’s official. You guys don’t like my perspective about Pacifica radio. I’m a bad guy. Wuddever. But don’t any of you read anything else on Radio Survivor? We write about all kinds of important stuff going on in radio. Paul has a great piece on the future of college radio. Jennifer is following the KUSF drama on a regular basis. How about a few comments about some of our other coverage? Or is there nothing else besides Pacifica?

  10. Robert Johnson May 9, 2011 at 10:32 pm #

    Fair enough. But this date (May 10) shows the frequency with which I find time to check even my own comments on a thread. While I think radio is important and fascinating, my only hands-on experience is with Pacifica. I will heed your siren song to read more, I promise. But I can’t promise any useful or even entertaining comments.

  11. Tracy Rosenberg May 21, 2011 at 9:50 am #

    Hi Matthew,

    The best estimate I can come up with of the costs to prevent the sale of KPFA (per the Michael Palmer misdirected email to Media Alliance’s then-ED Andrea Buffa that kicked off all the fuss in 1999 when Dennis Bernstein read it out loud on KPFA’s airwaves and then was dragged off the air by private security guards) is around 4 million. If you include the many lawsuits, the many benefit events, fundraising in support of Carol Spooner’s lawsuit, the Friends of Free Speech Radio effort, the security bills for Pacifica, those expensive board meetings at luxury hotels attended by hundreds of activists, and so on. The four-year effort between 1999 and 2003 to democratize the internal structure of Pacifica to prevent the loss of assets was really expensive.

    But there is no doubt that having gotten through it once, no one ever wanted to go through a struggle like that again. So safeguards were put into place that allowed the members to interfere to prevent the sale of assets they had paid for and helped to build without their permission. And a decision was made that it was worth spending 2-2.5% of annual income to keep those safeguards in place.

    One can argue (and I have) that it makes sense to look at on-line voting options to minimize the $100,000 or so in costs for printing and postage for 80,000 ballots – and I hope that will come to pass. It should. Despite the digital divide, it shouldn’t be controversial that lots of Pacifica members are savvy enough to review materials online and would like to save the trees and a few bucks as well.

    Relatively few would prefer to cede their right to prevent the sale of a station for a paltry savings of $25,000 a year.

    I agree with Mr. Johnson that that is a tea party-style argument about dismantling safety nets because its “too expensive”.

    Pacifica is – and has been – besieged for far too long with a culture where people with long-standing ties to the organization resist change by filing lawsuits. Programming changes result in lawsuits. Personnel changes result in lawsuits. Everything is resolved with a metaphorical legal gun.

    I know why. It is the result of a media system that provides no access and shuts down progressive and marginalized perspectives, leaving Pacifica in a scarcity dynamic where people feel that if they don’t work for, have a space on or have *control of* this outlet, there is no where else for them to go. Which is largely true and very sad.

    But it is not an excuse for the inability of the old guard to let the network change. At KPFA, listener sponsorship declined by 30% between 2007 and 2009. With the old Morning Show on the air. There was a huge problem and expenses had to be cut. If that can’t happen without a blizzard of 15 complaints, grievances and lawsuits, then something is very wrong.

    Democratic governance doesn’t mean that math fails to apply, nor does it mean that an executive director chosen by a democratically-elected national board of directors cannot make tough decisions when they have to be made. It means that KPFA, WBAI, KPFT, KPFK, and WPFW cannot be sold behind the back of the communities that they serve (as many stations are as Jennifer Waits is brilliantly documenting) and that she is charged with preventing that – at all costs – and facing an economy that has looted the money from the people to the banks and imperial wars and occupations.

    That ain’t easy. And it isn’t always going to make you popular. And there are costs. But it would be nice if the costs weren’t aggravated by people who feel the only response to a layoff or a programming change is to file a lawsuit. All that does is make a mockery of the millions already spent to save the network. Undermining the organization from within to try to maintain a failing status quo is a fools pursuit.

    I’m about to spend 5 hours in a KPFA local station board meeting. And there is nothing on the agenda but dueling motions of censure. It’s a total waste of time and does nothing to build for the future. I want to talk about promotion, I want to talk about a program council reviewing a raft of exciting new proposals for special programs, I want to talk about town hall meetings, I want to talk about next year’s budget. But we won’t.

    The old guard has other plans for the day. And its frustrating. Spin is no substitute for planning. And lawsuits are no substitute for a balanced budget. And a closed door is no substitute for engaged, open, community-based programming development initiatives.


    Tracy Rosenberg

    KPFA LSB Listener Representative

    Pacifica Foundation Board of Directors

  12. Jim Bob September 30, 2011 at 6:18 pm #

    Evidence or rational thinking will not convince the Pacifica cultists. This all makes sense for the rational and sane amongst us and will never to the power hungry kooks with no lives who make up most of Pacifica these days.

    The “liberators” of Pacifica have about 0 credibility and that is why the network is and will go down the tubes. I was a supporter of “liberating” KPFK and all we ended up doing was liberating the station from good programming, competent leadership, and important voices. Amy Goodman should be ashamed for her role, notice she does little on air reporting of the lunacy that has consumed the network. Take your 911 conspiracy theories and shove it! I stopped donating 6 years ago and will never again. The network is a joke, I know of nobody who listens and ratings are AWFUL. 800 an hour in LA with the broadest signal strength in the market. My deepest regret is my involvement in what is now clear was the beginning of the end of the network.

    When the network falls and the board is dissolved you can all pat yourselves on the back for ruining what could be a very valuable asset for the Left in America. Live in denial to the bitter end, you think and act like Bushies.

  13. Matthew Lasar October 3, 2011 at 6:57 pm #

    Jim Bob: be of good cheer.

    I too supported the democratization of Pacifica radio. I did so not because I thought that democratization would make the network better, but because the old board clearly wanted to sell KPFA and WBAI. I got what I wanted in this section of the 2003 by-laws:

    All Members shall have all rights granted to them by law or by these Bylaws, including without limit the right to vote . . . on the sale, exchange, transfer or disposition of all or substantially all of the Foundation’s assets; on the sale, exchange, transfer or disposition of any of the Foundation’s broadcast licenses; on any merger, its principal terms and any amendment of its principal terms.

    This measure prevents that kind of hijacking. But although I hoped for the best, I also knew that, under the cover of the license sale issue, the principals screaming loudest for democratization really wanted a system of governance that would allow them to control programming at the stations, and to win air time for themselves. I knew that their agendas were marginal at best, and cultish and ugly at worst.

    They’ve won, for now. But the marginality and grotesqueness of their politics will eventually do them in. It’s sometimes hard to see things in the long term. I often lose patience myself. But let’s try. Thanks for your comment.

  14. Jim Bob October 4, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    Tragic enough, the “activists” that have been spawned by the sectarian groups that also hijacked KPFK were after DAY 1 of the Occupy Wall Street protests in LA trying to undermine the organizers. Why? No jolke here, they didn’t ask for permission from indigenous rights activists and incorporate their agenda. Absolute MADNESS. Not enough “democratic centralism.”

    That is the kind of climate KPFK has created. Politics as therapy.

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