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Why Free Speech Radio News is dependent on Pacifica

Free Speech Radio News logoSince publishing my post on Free Speech Radio News’ closure I’ve heard some questions about why the organization is so dependent on Pacifica. It’s a good question, and the answer helps illuminate why folks across community radio care about Pacifica.

To get a better handle on FSRN’s situation I had a follow-up phone call with Nell Abram, who reminded me that Pacifica is a program syndicator, operating both a satellite distribution system and an online repository called Audioport.

Pacifica has been the primary distributor for FSRN since 2002, sending the program out via its satellite system. Abram said that “the vast majority” of FSRN’s affiliates receive the program through their affiliation with Pacifica. These stations pay Pacifica to receive the network’s programming, in particular the two flagship programs Democracy Now and FSRN. In turn, Pacifica pays DN and FSRN for the right to air and distribute these programs.

Thus, when Pacifica started decreasing its payments to FSRN it was such a blow because most affiliates paid for the program through subscription fees to Pacifica, not direct payment to FSRN itself.

It’s understandable how in 2013 the fact that FSRN is reliant upon Pacifica for distribution seems retro. It’s important to remember, however, that a decade ago internet distribution of a daily radio program was not as feasible as it is today. Not all community stations could count on having reliable broadband or networked play out equipment. At the same time bandwidth costs for hosting and distributing a program were higher.

Aside from its five broadcast stations, one of Pacifica’s most valuable assets is its satellite network which has permitted the organization to distribute a reliable slate of daily live and pre-recorded programming to stations across North America. Prior to establishing the satellite feed in 1997 stations either had to be subscribers to the Public Radio Satellite System to get daily programs from Pacifica, or wait to receive tapes through the mail. PRSS was costly to Pacifica and stations, leaving it out of reach of many affiliates. Therefore it is difficult to overstate how important the launch of Pacifica’s satellite network was for interlinking community stations and establishing daily news and public affairs programs with national reach.

In 2002 community stations were already accustomed to receiving Pacifica Network News and Democracy Now via Pacifica’s satellite network. So distributing FSRN via that same network only made sense, immediately making the program accessible to dozens of stations.

In the intervening years FSRN has added affiliates that download the program online and pay for it directly, but these are in the minority and hardly enough to sustain the cost of producing the program.

With declining payments from Pacifica–going from $50,000 a month in 2008 to $10,000 this year–Abram explained that FSRN had to cut staff down to the barest number of people needed to produce the program. In particular the organization was left without the staff time to do any “substantial development work” towards new funding.

Yet, there is hope for a return of FSRN, perhaps in a different form. Abram emphasized to me again that the FSRN board of directors and staff want to explore new models for production, funding and distribution. They are still awaiting a promised disbursement from Pacifica that they will use as “seed money” to fund this effort.

For community radio the question of dependence on Pacifica for program distribution is still quite pertinent, and something to keep in mind as the financial crisis at the foundation develops.

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6 Responses to Why Free Speech Radio News is dependent on Pacifica

  1. Nathan Moore September 30, 2013 at 11:32 am #

    Nice post, Paul – digging a little bit and helping to explain. Such a shame all around, though…

  2. L October 11, 2013 at 8:34 am #

    What is WBAI using when it says Free Speech Real News? Is this cool ? Explain plz

  3. Ann Garrison October 20, 2013 at 9:42 pm #

    To make me care about this, FSRN would have to explain how Zack Baddorf became the President of its Board of Directors, from October 2008 – October 2011.

    • Ann Garrison October 20, 2013 at 10:05 pm #

      If you wonder why I might say so, Google Zack Baddorf’s work on the Web, including his FSRN work, or read his LinkedIn or Facebook page.


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