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Pacifica radio elections supervisor: end elections at Pacifica

Train crash from 1800sThe man in charge of overseeing the election of board delegates to Pacifica radio’s five Local Station Boards (LSBs) has asked the network to end these contests once and for all.

“Almost everybody agrees that the elections at Pacifica are too costly, time consuming, factionalized and factionalizing,” concludes Pacifica National Elections Supervisor Terry Bouricius in his final report on the latest round of delegate races, which finished this month. “They interfere with listener-preferred programming, and are exceedingly difficult for staff to administer well. The proportional voting method (STV) can generate LSBs that fairly reflect the diversity of the members, but only if most members take the time to learn about the huge number of candidates, and actually cast their ballots. This has never been the case. In short, Pacifica is not well served by its election process.”

Two out of every three years Pacifica subscribers and staff at the five Pacifica stations are charged with electing “delegates” to these bodies of roughly two dozen people. They deal with management hires and budgets, and appoint representatives to the Pacifica national governing board. I’m definitely in the “almost everybody agrees” camp. By my calculation, these elected boards have cost the organization almost $3 million since the onset of “democracy” at Pacifica about a decade ago. They draw to their ranks an endless supply of self-appointed programming czars who reliably polarize the network in their bids to influence or control air time at one or more of the stations. A not inconsiderable portion of board activity at Pacifica consists of activists trying to get rid of each other via direct expulsions, lawsuits, recall campaigns, and cleverly worded by-laws changes designed to purge opponents.

On top of all that, most of Pacifica’s approximately 71,000 subscriber “voters” don’t even participate in these debacles. As Bouricius’ document reveals, at WBAI in New York City, a pathetic 10.3 percent of the station’s listener subscribers participated in the last event, just barely passing the ten percent “quorum” necessary to certify the result. KPFA in Berkeley was the big success story. There a whopping 16.7 percent of listener-subscribers voted. In other words, over 83 percent did not. Meanwhile KPFK in Los Angeles failed quorum, despite several time extensions. The total number of valid ballots counted was around 300 less than the quorum threshold of 1,866 out of 18,651 extant listener subscribers.

Goodness knows how much this latest debacle cost. The last time Pacifica had an election year, the board cost the organization $378,023.

Here’s an excerpt from the Bouricius report:

The election process at Pacifica is extremely expensive and extremely divisive, yet does an inadequate job of tapping the incredible skills and knowledge distributed throughout the membership. Many of the most competent and cooperative members simply won’t enter the adversarial fray of Pacifica elections. While there are many valuable and skilled members elected to the various LSBs, the nomination and election process acts like a pre-filter that favors self-important ego-driven individuals, skilled at waging battles, while discouraging many mild-mannered and cooperative members of the Foundation who might make excellent board members. Of course some excellent board members get elected, but the election process itself does not assure this. The election process may actually prevent the selection of an optimal set of LSB members. Because of the factionalized nature of adversarial elections, elected members often demonize, or anticipate the worst from others who were elected from competing slates, rather than genuinely working together. This is not a character flaw, but rather an almost inevitable side-effect of competitive elections.

Because mass elections inherently limit the impact of each individual’s vote, there is not sufficient motivation for most members to vote, or if they do vote, to learn much about the candidates first. Essentially we have a sub-set (typically a bit over 10%) of members who are not necessarily representative of members generally, and who are generally poorly informed about the candidates choosing between competing slates made up of some excellent candidates mixed with ego-driven zealots and deferential followers, while draining away the Foundation’s financial resources, and burdening air-time with election programming of little interest to most members, that may even drive down listenership.

Bottom line: “Elections are simply not the appropriate democratic tool for Pacifica to use to select Local Station Boards from among its diverse listener membership,” the report’s overall assessment concludes.

Bouricius does offer an interesting counter proposal—a process he calls “Sortition.” A large Pacifica Listener Council would be drawn by lot, and the resultant councilors would for all practical purposes “hire” a board. “Rather than having the skills appropriate for serving on a Local Station Board themselves, [the Council] would be statistically representative of the membership, and be given the time and incentives to recruit, learn about to, and select the best possible board members.”

The idea, contained in Appendix H of the document (page 84), is definitely worth a read.

Further reading: 2012 Pacifica Local Station Board Delegate Elections Final Report


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12 Responses to Pacifica radio elections supervisor: end elections at Pacifica

  1. Paul Riismandel January 23, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

    I think the idea of a “Sortition” is very fascinating, and perhaps promising. I’ve given a lot of thought and research to governance methods in my years in community radio and alternative media. Too often elections and policy result in overfocus on politics at the expense of making radio or media.

    While I often see too much focus on the idea and ideology of democracy–rather than critically considering its practice–I nevertheless am still convinced that representation and accountability are important in community media, and that democracy is a good method for achieving that.

    However, the idea of using a randomly chosen, but statistically representative, body to choose administrators is appealing, because it answers the accountability and representation questions in a potentially satisfying way, while also providing a different opportunity for qualifications to be considered apart from ideology or political position. Of course, it is just as possible for a “Sortition” to result in overly partisan selections, where candidates are chosen based more on their ability to spout a particular party line than their experience and qualifications to be a good manager or administrator. But I do think the randomness of the selection committee’s composition complicates that possibility, since it greatly increases the chance that someone without a strong partisan affiliation may be doing the selecting.

    I’ll have to read more about this. It very well might be a good option for new community stations to try, in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

  2. Stan W. January 23, 2013 at 8:57 pm #

    While of course it’s disappointing that the % of Pacifica members that vote is low I , and i think many others, reject the idea of a self selected board (ie ” Friends of the Ballet ” ) model comprised only of prominent , more often than not , well off progressives . We all saw where that got us in 1999 !
    RE the % issue , that occurs in Union elections also. My union for example had only 15% of the membership vote in our most recent elections for the International officers. As bad as that is it’s a helluva lot better than the incumbents just re appointing themselves (though i think that some of those officials would be quite happy with doing that ! )
    And it has to be said that while Lasar’s allies at KPFA did run a slate their staff allies did their best to discourage on air discussion of the real serious issues that divide the network , And thus undoubtly helped lower voter turnout .

  3. Matthew Lasar January 23, 2013 at 9:57 pm #

    KPFA combatant Stan W. rejects the Bouricius report by offering false choices, bad comparisons, and then by trying to discredit me. If he bothered to read the article, he’d know that the document doesn’t propose a “self-selected” board in the current system’s stead. It proposes something that the author calls “sortition”—the recruitment of Listener Council members by lot, who would then be called upon to recruit station boards. Whatever you might think of this idea, it can hardly be called “self-selected”!

    Then comes the comparison with unions. The question isn’t whether Pacifica should do what Stan’s union does, but what kind of system of governance will best serve the organization.

    Finally comes the dig about my “allies” at KPFA. I don’t have any “allies” at KPFA. For some years I endorsed an election slate at KPFA called Concerned Listeners, but had my name taken off the endorsement list of its successor, SaveKPFA. I’ve never made a secret of the fact that my sympathies are with various members of that group, who I regard as the best programmers at the station. But I no longer endorse Pacifica slates because I think these elections have been a disaster for Pacifica radio. I also disagreed with SaveKPFA’s attempt to recall Pacifica National Board member Tracy Rosenberg (more about this here).

    So who at KPFA is my “ally?” As best I can recall, I haven’t been live on the station in over two years (and the last time was quite unpleasant). I don’t expect any promotion of my books or online writings from KPFA. And frankly, since Pacifica trashed the KPFA Morning Show back in late 2010, I don’t even listen to the station very much. I write about community radio all over the world and have a perspective about the subject that has nothing to do with my supposed “allies” at KPFA.

    Stan W. strikes me as a hard core member of that class of Pacifica activists who understand, consciously or instinctively, that the kind of programming they want Pacifica to air will never survive an evaluative process that prioritizes political diversity and audience reach. His camp knows that the only way they’ll win programming power at Pacifica is through politics, that is, through these wasteful, divisive, expensive elections. That’s why they want to keep them going at all costs—not to themselves, of course, but to Pacifica radio.

  4. Stan W. January 24, 2013 at 6:21 am #

    Just a quick comment, Re Lasar’s last paragraph I and others of my ”class” most certainly do want programming that can ”survive a evaluative process that prioritizes political diversity and audience reach ”, As a matter of a fact we had a program council for several yrs in the first decade of this century that did just that , I was on that council for several yrs .
    I often voted for shows that i didn’t personally like but fitted the above mentioned criteria .
    But it was all too democratic of a way to make programming decisions for ,Yes one of Lasar’s allies, then Program director Sasha Lilly so she ordered it disbanded .
    PS I did read that silly ”sortition” [expletive deleted by editor] . I doubt if few will take that seriously . I maintain that the real aim is to restore the old system of self perpetuating board of respectable , preferably affulent ”progressives .
    That’s what could finally destroy Pacifica . We already have a one network of tame , pro-capitalist liberals . It’s called NPR .

  5. Kellia Ramares-Watson January 27, 2013 at 12:20 am #

    Well…Well…Well… I called for the LSB to be picked by lot in the Aug 20, 2009 Berkeley Daily Planet, and was talking out it inside and outside the station before that. And when I made my parting statement to the Pacifica National Board in July of 2010, I noted that Pacifica did not have the money to keep me at my full 11 hours a week board opping but had the money for an elections supervisor. Was this a radio station or a graduate seminar in political science?

    Now the outgoing elections supervisor says that the election process has been too expensive, interferes with listener-preferred programming and should be replaced with a system somewhat akin to what I had suggested, insomuch as drawing lots is involved.

    I am feeling so very…what’s the word? … VINDICATED.

  6. Laura Mac Dougall January 27, 2013 at 7:17 am #

    I am a listener, and do we get to weigh in on this? Or will insiders decide that for us? There are plenty of things that would improve the numbers of listeners who vote, perhaps the listeners have some ideas to add, I know I do. I think maybe we listeners just need more access to the process and not less. I think they need to be invited into this discussion.

  7. Beryl January 29, 2013 at 7:10 pm #

    Mr. Bouricius, I agree with the former response that we need more access rather than less. Your Sortition seems to imply that elected boards by nature are uncreative, devious with hidden agendas and are the CAUSE of any dysfunction that Pacifica has and that the only way to get quality and fairness is to cover your eyes and pick from a hat (after you invest the TIME, MONEY and research into identifying a diverse, qualified, available pool of candidates). As a community listener-member once on a board, and commitedly so, I find this NOT to be representative of the Foundation and unfair to Board members who do work to give ‘voice to the voiceless’. By the way, why work for someone or some entity, take a salary that they ‘couldn’t afford’ then blast them in a/this public forum? No offense but which slate are you on?

  8. Matthew Lasar January 30, 2013 at 4:54 pm #

    I doubt that that I’m the only reader who finds Stan W.’s second response a bit confusing:

    I and others of my ”class” most certainly do want programming that can ”survive a evaluative process that prioritizes political diversity and audience reach ”, As a matter of a fact we had a program council for several yrs in the first decade of this century that did just that , I was on that council for several yrs .
    I often voted for shows that i didn’t personally like but fitted the above mentioned criteria .

    If Stan really wants programming like that, how come he says he “didn’t personally like” it? My guess is that he voted for those unpleasantly relevant and professional shows as long as stuff that his faction wanted also got approved. That explains to me why KPFA listeners now receive a steady diet of conspiracy mongering fare, such as the recent “fawning interview” (as the Daily Kos saw it) with self-appointed Sandy Hook expert James F. Tracy.

    In any event, no sooner did our comment software process Stan’s denunciation of “respectable preferably affulent ‘progressives'” (goodness knows, we wouldn’t want anyone on a Pacifica board who is respectable), than an actual working class person asked why Pacifica has money for these elections, but no cash for her job as a board operator at KPFA. Is this “a radio station or a graduate seminar in political science?” Kelia Ramires-Watson wonders.


    Laura McDougall
    and “Beryl” go for the graduate seminar, it seems. “There are plenty of things that would improve the numbers of listeners who vote,” McDougall protested, “perhaps the listeners have some ideas to add, I know I do.” But she offers none of them here. Since these elections have been failing for ten years at a cost of around $3 million to the listener-subscribers she claims to represent, maybe it’s time to get to specifics.

    Meanwhile, Beryl thinks that Boricius’ report implies that “elected boards by nature are uncreative, devious with hidden agendas and are the CAUSE of any dysfunction that Pacifica.” Sounds about right to me, at least as elections have played out at the network. McDougall worries that “insiders” will eventually do something about these races. But here’s the irony Laura: you are one of the insiders. I quote from the report again:

    Essentially we have a sub-set (typically a bit over 10%) of members who are not necessarily representative of members generally, and who are generally poorly informed about the candidates choosing between competing slates made up of some excellent candidates mixed with ego-driven zealots and deferential followers, while draining away the Foundation’s financial resources, and burdening air-time with election programming of little interest to most members, that may even drive down listenership.

    My guess is that outside pressure will eventually force Pacifica to end or substantially modify these elections. If you were a typical Corporation for Public Broadcasting board member or grant officer, would you continue to support giving Pacifica CPB money (around $1.15 million in 2011) after reading this report? I doubt it. So, yes, eventually “insiders” will end this debacle. To paraphrase Pogo, we have met the insiders, and they are us.

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