As the troubles facing Pacifica radio persist without apparent end, I sometimes wonder whether the five station listener supported radio network should voluntarily dismantle itself—that is, transfer its licenses to five local non-profit entities.
I am not the first person to suggest this. Community radio pioneer Lorenzo Milam more or less laid the idea out back in 1999. So did former KPFA Music Director Charles Shere. I differ with their scenarios in that I envision a break up facilitating the birth of a stronger national organization for progressive community radio.
There are several cases for sun setting the Pacifica Foundation, which owns the licenses to five listener supported radio stations in the United States. The first is that the organization finds itself in a potentially irreparable state of financial crisis. According to the network’s latest audit, over the last four years the non-profit has lost over five and a half million dollars. That’s roughly half of what Pacifica collects in listener subscriber donations in a typical September-to-September fiscal period. Its working capital has declined from positive $2,835,309 in 2007 to negative $1,034,153 as of September 30, 2011.
“These conditions and events have given rise to a substantial doubt about the Foundation’s ability to meet its obligations as they become due,” the audit warns, “without substantial disposition of assets outside the ordinary course of operations, or restructuring of debt, or externally forced revisions of its operations or similar actions.”
Last sentence of the audit: “Substantial doubt remains as to the ability of the Foundation to continue as a going concern as of the date of this report.”
The second reason is that the Pacifica network has no clear mission. Since Pacifica democratized in 2002/2003, turning its local governance boards over to subscriber elected delegates, it has become an electoral battleground, in which different agendas for the organization have fought each other to a standstill in draining contests for local station board seats (here’s a quick tutorial on Pacifica governance).
This is most obvious right now at Pacifica station KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, which now has two different morning drive-time shows (Up Front at 7 AM; Morning Mix at 8 AM), controlled by the supporters of two different electoral factions. But similar convulsions have taken place at the other stations, WBAI in New York City, KPFT in Houston, KPFK in Los Angeles, and WPFW in Washington, DC.
For all practical purposes, these elections have reduced Pacifica radio to a large body of air time surrounded by people who want some. As the network deteriorates, its fate will continue to be decided, helter skelter, by whoever is elected to its five local station boards, which, by my estimate, have now cost the organization $2,928,461 since the network democratized itself a decade ago ($2,802,685 plus $125,776 for 2011 as per the latest audit). That figure will probably rise well above the three million zone when Pacifica holds its next round of board elections this year. So desperate is Pacifica’s current executive director about this regular debacle that in a recent board meeting she suggested that it might be cheaper to drop the event and be sued than to let the fool thing go forward.
The third and more structural argument for a break up is that the Pacifica Foundation is expected to perform two tasks that often seem if not at odds, certainly a burden upon each other. The first is to oversee the administrative affairs of five locally based listener supported radio stations. The second is to collect a portion of the income that these stations and Pacifica affiliates generate to fund and distribute programming to almost 140 affiliate community or college based radio outlets.
It seems to me that the second task is a very worthy and necessary one—aggregating resources for shows like Democracy Now! and Free Speech Radio News, as well as the other programs that Pacifica distributes. According to a recent article in Current, the foundation is behind on its payments to DN and FSRN. Nonetheless, some non-profit entity should be able to focus on this task more, and supervise the five stations far less. In truth, they ought to take care of themselves. Many independent community radio stations across the country do so; some with great success.
Some historical background might help the discussion (I wrote a book about this, if anyone is interested). Pacifica radio could be accurately described as an “accidental network.” Although the Foundation very purposefully launched KPFA in 1949, its acquisition of the next station, KPFK-FM in Los Angeles was controversial. The pacifist organizers of that project wanted a separate non-profit for the frequency; some quit when they discovered that it would be otherwise. A philanthropist gave WBAI in New York City to Pacifica in 1960. When Pacifica’s then board President was contacted about the gift, he initially thought it was a crank call. The founders of KPFT-FM in Houston weren’t that interested in joining Pacifica; by some accounts they affiliated only because they thought that it would smooth the path to a Federal Communications Commission license.
Thus the only two truly deliberate Pacifica stations are KPFA and the network’s historically black, jazz oriented station WPFW-FM, launched in 1977 after a long bureaucratic struggle. These two signals have been endlessly suspicious of each other over the decades. I’ve lost count of the number of KPFA activists who have derogatorily referred to WPFW as the station that hardly broadcasts any public affairs programming, and the number of WPFW programmers who deployed some variant of the phrase “that white station in Berkeley” to refer to KPFA. There has never been much basis for unity in this relationship.
Nonetheless, starting in the mid-1980s, a new generation of Pacifica board members and managers began asking the obvious questions: how do we make Pacifica greater than the sum of its parts? How do we turn this fragmented scenario into a competitive network? The results were successful, to a degree. By the late 1990s, after a decade of being overshadowed by NPR, Pacifica could point to gavel-to-gavel coverage of significant national events, and most importantly, the launching of the remarkably successful program Democracy Now!
But a whole generation of programmers were displaced by the process, and by 1999 the network exploded from the resultant tensions, leading to the managerial shutdown of KPFA in Berkeley, followed by a similar debacle at WBAI. The “democratization” of Pacifica in 2002/2003 was supposed to resolve these conflicts by somehow guaranteeing that governance would remain in the hands of Pacifica’s “grass roots” base. But that thinking seems magical in retrospect. Instead the “network” is now honeycombed with factions of air time seekers and air time defenders using the foundation’s costly subscriber elections as their battleground.
As the situation deteriorates, it becomes less and less clear whether Pacifica is worth the endless trouble that it creates for itself and others. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that many activists climb up to the Pacifica national board from their respective local boards with very little knowledge of the organization as a whole (I’ve also lost count of the number of board members I’ve met who couldn’t match call letters with location for three out of the five Pacifica stations). In this capacity these Solons make life and death decisions about the other Pacifica frequencies with barely any understanding of them, sometimes guided by self-interested or ideological agendas rather than facts. This also greatly polarizes Pacifica’s internal life.
The latest strategy for Pacifica, perhaps repudiated at the last National Board Meeting in Berkeley, could be roughly characterized as follows: remove paid, unionized professional staff from station air slots and replace them with what I would characterize as “entrepreneurial volunteers,” who derive their compensation from professional or ideological self-promotion.
Shortly before ripping the entire KPFA Morning Show down in the late months of 2010 and replacing it with a hodgepodge of volunteer hosts, Engelhardt offered this justification for the move.
“I think we’ve lost sight of our way, particularly at KPFA more so than at the other stations in the Pacifica network. We use less volunteers and pay more staff for functions that in some cases could be done by volunteers, than is happening at other stations in the network.
That’s one of the foundations of community radio, and I think that when times were, shall we say, fat, there was plenty of money, it was great to pay everyone for almost every function within the station. Now that we’re hitting some lean times, it’s time to remember what our foundation was, that was in volunteerism.”
Speaking at the Berkeley gathering, at which even more draconian staff cuts were proposed by national management, KPFA Local Station Board Vice Chair Sasha Futran offered an assessment of this strategy:
What I understand the majority here wants to do is cut the programming that brings in the money. . . . There are some phenomenal people who can come in and be good on the air right away. But they’re fairly rare. And your paid staff is going to produce the programming that people will listen to, and therefore with more listeners you will bring in more money. It’s a downward spiral to cut staff from the stations that are bringing in marginal surplus or just making it.
It was encouraging to learn that Pacifica appears to have stepped back from this top-down retrenchment oriented approach. According to the SaveKPFA faction, which opposed the closing down of the Morning Show, the national governing board eventually passed a resolution proposed by one of the slate’s board members. It commanded each station to autonomously produce a “thorough and realistic analysis of the station’s projected revenue and expenses,” and submit that to the Pacifica National Office and Pacifica National Board. The most challenging pillar of this task will fall upon WBAI in New York City, which pays exorbitant rent for its studios in the Wall Street area and for its transmitter access, and must move soon to relieve itself and the network of these burdens.
The budget resolution was “an important step forward for local control,” SaveKPFA proclaimed—that is, local control for the five Pacifica stations.
But if “local control” is the ultimate goal here, and if Pacifica isn’t even steadily keeping up with its contributions to Free Speech Radio News and Democracy Now!, what is the point of the Pacifica Foundation? Isn’t it time that we again asked the obvious questions relevant to the present? Is Pacifica radio as it is currently construed more trouble than it is worth? Doesn’t the rapidly expanding multiverse of community, college, unlicensed, and Internet radio venues, soon to be bolstered by a new generation of Low Power FM stations, deserve a better system for program distribution than this Byzantine quagmire?
One way out
In the past, interested parties have suggested Local Management Agreements between Pacifica and the stations as a solution to the problem. But while they’ll give the stations some autonomy, they’ll never resolve conflicts over money. So here is a napkin-notes hypothetical orderly transition towards a new system (or as orderly as possible given the subject matter):
Step one: Some new entity that oversees national programming and distribution for community radio should be established. It would perhaps be overseen by Democracy Now! (attention Pacifica conspiracy-theory lovers: DN isn’t behind this idea; nobody at the firehouse studios was consulted about this essay). Free Speech Radio News and the Pacifica Archives would merge into the foundation, along with relevant staffs and resources.
This is only one possible scenario, of course. There are many other ways that the new entity could be configured. One would hope that Pacifica’s many affiliate stations would enjoy more of a presence in any future scheme.
Step two: Shortly thereafter, the Pacifica Foundation would transfer the Federal Communications Commission licenses of the five Pacifica stations to their respective Local Station Boards, as they concurrently themselves up as non-profits. They would be granted these licenses on one proviso—they must pay the new national programming foundation around eight to twelve percent of their annual income for the next ten years, which is much less than they contribute to Pacifica now.
Some mechanism for making certain that this obligation is fulfilled would have to be set up. This would form the basis for funding national programming. Must carry agreements for national shows would also be attached to the deal.
Step three: Once the stations have become independent, what is left of the Pacifica Foundation’s resources and assets relevant to them would transfer to them (such as the KPFA building)—the rest would transfer to the new foundation. Pacifica radio would cease to exist. Its replacement would have a clearer, simpler purpose, with an agreed upon stream of income for a decade.
This is obviously a rough sketch. I’m sure that factors that I have not foreseen impede this scenario. It might take an organizational miracle to pull off. Some coordination with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be necessary to make it work, along with the FCC, of course. Like any such transition, there are risks involved.
But the current situation cannot continue. It threatens to close the Pacifica network down, and probably sooner rather than later.
I look forward to constructive responses to this post. I’d be surprised if Radio Survivor readers write in to claim that there is still some basis for unity at Pacifica. This is an organization whose factions now spend much of their time trying to squelch each other via censure motions, parliamentary board maneuvers, lawsuits, or recall campaigns. Feel free to insist that Pacifica would be a great network if those awful people that you dislike or oppose would just shut up, stand down, change, or go away. The problem, of course, is that they won’t. After all, have you?
PS: In case anyone is wondering, I took no position on the recall vote at KPFA on KPFA Local Station Board delegate and Pacifica National Board member Tracy Rosenberg. Predictably, the matter is now bottled up in court, which is the fate of most Pacifica electoral events. I see the whole controversy as a symptom of Pacifica radio’s elections, which, as I argue in this essay, reliably produce highly polarized boards whose principals are far more interested in getting or defending air time for their followers than they are in finding common ground or solving urgent problems. Send me a reasonably thought out petition calling for the end of these races. That’s something I’d like to sign.
As usual, civil responses to this essay are welcome. Gratuitously nasty, insulting, and accusatory comments will find themselves lost in our spam queue, along with posts that contain expletives and lots of hyperlinks.