Those involved with public radio are sadly familiar with the largely silent privatization of the small slice of the FM broadcast spectrum set aside for non-commercial purposes. At small public radio outlets, the process has often been brutally abrupt, with little resistance. In contrast, at Pacifica Radio, the largest and most powerful public radio broadcaster (NPR is a program service, not a stationowner), the struggle for control has been protracted and often ugly, though almost never public. This struggle is nearing its climax, as the Pacifica board of governors will vote on the weekend of February 26-28 to alter the by-laws of the foundation regarding who, in the future, will select the Pacifica board of governors, perhaps giving itself, for the first time, majority control over its own composition. These are the men and women who control the disposition of the $200 million-plus in assets of the Pacifica Foundation. Never heard of them? Don't feel bad. Almost no one has, and even as it stands now, almost no one gets to vote for them. They're worth knowing though, because these days they and the handful of executives they directly or indirectly hire, and no one else, decides what you will hear, and what you won't, on Pacifica Radio.
The Pacifica Foundation holds the broadcast licenses for FM radio stations in New York City (WBAI), Los Angeles (KPFK), Berkeley/San Francisco Bay Area (KPFA), Washington DC (WPFW) and Houston (KPFT). The station in Los Angeles is the strongest FM signal west of the Mississippi and WBAI, New York transmits its broadcasts from the choicest of locations atop the Empire State Building. In sum, Pacifica signals can reach approximately one in five U.S. households. The stations in New York and the SF Bay Area have broadcast frequencies in the commercial part of the spectrum, and thus have sale values estimated in 1996 at $90 and $60 million, respectively, although a more reasonable estimate today might be closer to twice that. Including the Pacifica Radio Archives and the various real-estate holdings (station sites) owned by the Foundation, the total value of the Foundation assets certainly exceed $200 million and perhaps may reach above $300 million.
If indeed the 'privatization' battle has been most bitter at Pacifica, perhaps it is not so much because of its immense value, but because Pacifica originated the concept of listenersponsorship in order to support the founding ethic of programming freedom in service of a mission. It has been populated and listened to by people who believed that the institution existed for that purpose. People with such beliefs are bound to put up a fuss when an administration informs them that the original values have no value when compared to that of a bigger audience making bigger donations. Pacifica founder Lewis Hill's vision was that the people producing the broadcast had to have control over the policy governing their actions. He wrote:
"Since [fundamental] values and expressions ... are what we must have to improve radio noticeably, there is no choice but to begin by extending to someone the privilege of thinking and acting in ways important to him. Whatever else may happen, we thus assign to the participating individual the responsibility, artistic integrity, freedom of expression, and the like, which in conventional radio is normally denied him. KPFA is operated literally on this principle."
Pacifica has always been relevant not only because it did not accept corporate underwriting, but because, it operated in a manner different from the corporations it criticized. But Pacifica is now being refashioned in the image of such corporations, using corporate measures of value to gauge its successes and failures.
In a 1992 article entitled "Why Public Radio Isn't", Rachel Anne Goodman, writing in the Whole Earth Catalog, described a trend sweeping the country: that sliver of broadcast spectrum reserved for civic purposes known as public radio was being put on a market standard. Target audiences were identified and programming tailored to their tastes supplanted previously diverse formats. The administrators of public stations, large and small, were acting aggressively to remove staff, volunteers, and community members from any meaningful say in what those stations aired, and how they would be run. Goodman suggested that the distinct similarity of this process occurring at stations across the country could be traced to a document coming out of National Public Radio in 1986 - the "Audience-Building Task Force Report".
In that same year of 1992, Pacifica Radio's national management in Berkeley drafted an internal document, "Strategy for National Programming", a blueprint for syndicated programming intended to compete with NPR's news and public affairs offerings sold to noncommercial stations across the country. Local Pacifica stations would be required to carry these programs in place of locally produced material, The planners hoped to persuade major foundations, which had refused to fund Pacifica in the past, to help finance this project. They envisioned the recruitment of a staff of paid professionals to replace the local volunteer broadcasters who had been the backbone of the organization since its inception, and, for the first time in Pacifica's history, to dictate programming from the top, as in a conventional network hierarchy.
In 1993, word of the plans began to leak out in Berkeley and some KPFA staff and concerned community members began to organize resistance against Pat Scott, general manager of KPFA. As a result, Scott was ousted and transferred by David Salniker, then KPFA gauleiter and now of the Tides Foundation, to the post of Pacifica lobbyist in Washington. In late 1994, Scott became the Pacifica Foundation's executive director. The changes that were taking place and those to come were indicated in a memo from Scott dated July 12, 1995, which froze membership of all advisory boards and noted: "In light of the vast changes that are to occur at all stations, the executive committee of the Pacifica Foundation National Board believes it is necessary to issue an interim set of guidelines that supercede the local station by-laws so that you will have a clear understanding of our expectations of your role during this period.
"The Local Advisory board is, hereby, directed not to take action that will impede the plans of the station staff. Members of any local Board who do not feel that they can assist Pacifica in its present mission are advised to resign. If there are indications that actions are being taken collectively or individually to countermand the policies, directives, and mandates of the Pacifica Board, the Board will take appropriate steps."
In the succeeding period members of local station management and advisory boards who opposed these trends were fired or forced to resign. Reports of union-busting emanated from the unionized shops in New York and Berkeley, and these were given credence by the news that Pacifica had retained the American Consulting Group, a notorious union-busting consulting firm, to provide advice and support in its union negotiations. Station folios, monthly communiques from the stations to their subscribers, were reduced in size and finally eliminated. Purges of volunteers and staff led to several hundred people network-wide being removed.
At least a dozen people were banned from Pacifica for publicly criticizing administration policies and actions. In Los Angeles, following the removal of radical black programmers who violated Pacifica's "dirty laundry rule" by airing a show discussing the treatment of black programmers at Pacifica. KPFK's general manager Mark Schubb posted a prohibition not only of on-air discussion of Pacifica policy but also of announcements of meetings at which Pacifica policy would be discussed. It seems this gag rule only applies to disfavored programmers. In late 1998, when longtime Pacifica programmer Larry Bensky complained on-air about the abrupt cancellation of his national daily program and his treatment at the hands of Pacifica, he was rewarded with a weekend show rather than being permanently banned in the manner of those who had previously attempted to speak out. At the upcoming February 28 meeting in Berkeley, a petition signed by present and former Pacifica staffers, also by listenersponsors, will demand public apologies to and offers of reinstatement of the banned programmers.
In the mid-1990s, singificant manuevers began at the highest level of the institution, the Pacifica Governing Board. In a complaint to an Inspector General of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a group of concerned listeners and former station volunteers in the SF Bay Area known as Take Back KPFA charged that "since February, 1995, Pacifica Board Secretary Mary Tilson has refused to make minutes of the Board's meetings public, saying that she has been advised by Pacifica's legal counsel that such documents are for the use of the board and are not subject to public inspection." In the CPB Inspector General's report, the executive summary stated: "Pacifica Foundation was not allowing the public to observe their board deliberations; the drafters of the Communications Act intended for governing board proceedings to be open to the public. The Foundation had obtained legal counsel regarding the issue and felt it was abiding by the Act provisions. However, the opening of board of directors' meetings for one hour to just listen to public comments does not comply with legal requirements which reads that, 'All persons shall be permitted to attend any meeting of the board, or of any such committee or body, ...'The statute allows closed sessions for only those reasons specifically stated therein. Deliberations being held in closed session did not meet the criteria specified in the statute. Staff personnel stated that Board meetings use (sic) to be open, until the Board started having problems with the public."
This contention was disputed by Scott, who travelled to Washington to make a presentation before the CPB board. In the event, Jack O'Dell, Pacifica's chairman decided to do the job himself. Ultimately, the board did not take any punitive action whatsoever with respect to Pacifica.
In 1997 came a crucial step in the 'privatization' drive. The governing board of Pacifica attempted to change its by-laws to give itself, for the first time, majority control over its own membership. At the time, the board comprised fifteen seats. Ten of these were filled by two nominees from each of the five member stations' community advisory boards, along with five at-large members selected by the Pacifica board. The Board proposed that it select one of the two nominees from each member station's advisory board, and that it additionally select one other person of its own choosing from each station signal area. In other words, the Pacifica goveming board, which up to that point only had control over one-third of its members (the at-large directors), wanted direct control of two-thirds of its membership, and elective control over the remaining third.
The newly-hired communications director, Burt Glass, formerly with the U.S. Justice Department's community policing program, issued what he termed a "cheat sheet" describing how Pacifica staff and board members should disguise the scheduled changes with verbal fluff.
The proposed governance changes were to be enacted by the governing board at its June 1997 meeting. But there was still considerable resistance within the board, and the vote on the key section of the governance change was delayed until the subsequent meeting, so that the language of the change could be altered. Following the June 1997 meeting, governing board member (and board secretary) Roberta Brooks, a longtime aide of congressman Ron Dellums, made outrageously misleading statements to the press and to the KPFA advisory board asserting that the by-law changes were already a done deal. At the September 1997 meeting in Washington DC at which the crucial by-laws change was to finally occur, dissident groups sent attorney Daniel M. Siegel to document what appeared to be violations of the procedures for altering bylaws. Ultimately, the Board abandoned the attempt to alter the by-laws, and instead voted simply to increase the number of at-large members to nine (of a total nineteen board members).
At the same September 1997 Pacifica national board meeting, new board chair Mary Frances Berry was seated. Thenceforth, considerably more order was imposed upon what had been a markedly unruly organization. The pace of firings and removals moderated. National board meeting transcripts and minutes began to be posted on the Pacifica web site <http://www.pacifica.org>. And in mid-1998, Scott announced her impending resignation. Although Pacifica remained radically altered from its pre- 1995 state, it appeared as though the organization were on a steadier course, with the administration demonstrating greater respect for its own rules of operation.
But within a year, the question of governance, of how those who control these $200-$300 million in unique broadcasting assets will be selected, resurfaced again. At the October 1998 national board meeting, the board voted unanimously to alter Pacifica's governance structure at its subsequent board meeting to be held February 26-28 in Berkeley. The purported impetus to change the by-laws regarding election of Pacifica Governing Board members ostensibly came from the CPB (which provides a matching grant based on community support amounting to approximately 20% of Pacifica's budget). It is not possible to know what precisely occurred since, as of this writing, the transcripts and minutes of this meeting, in contrast to those for the preceding year, have not been posted. However, the decision to change by-laws in part resulted from a letter from CPB president and CEO Robert Coonrod to outgoing Scott in response to her request for clarification about Pacifica's compliance with CPB; regulations. Specifically, Scott inquired whether the present structure of Pacifica, in which each Pacifica station advisory board nominates two of their number to serve on the Pacifica Governing Board, violates CPB; rules indicating a separation of governance and advisory board functions. Before he joined CPB in 1992, Coonrod was deputy director of Voice of America, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (both Radio and TV Marti), and Worldnet Television and Film Service. Coonrod responded that it was his opinion that Pacifica's structure did indeed violate CPB rules. However, the rules he spoke of have not substantively changed since at least 1978. Still the apparent threat of losing CPB grant money, and the possible negative impacts of that loss on future spectrum allocations when the shift to digital broadcasting occurs, seems to have convinced the Pacifica governing board that it now must change how it elects itself. Some have the suspicion that the canvassing of CPB opinion by Scott and Coonrod's response were a collusive operation.
The impending change in Pacifica's by-laws will alter the method of selection of governing board members, with the board deciding how it will be composed in the future. Very few within the institution and almost no one outside of it is presently aware of this impending change in ownership. Advisory boards have been asked for their comments and suggestions on the governance change, but no information is presently available concerning the proposals being considered by the Pacifica governing board on this point. Materials including the relevant CPB regulations, as well as the opinion of Pacifica's counsel, John Crigler, of Haley, Bader and Potts, have
been circulated within the organization. An attorney familiar with the Pacifica situation comments thus to CounterPunch: "Frankly, from a lawyer's point of view, the whole thing makes no sense. Normally Pacifica's lawyer would give the reasons why Pacifica's ok, not agree with nonsense saying it has been illegal for over a dozen years. No lawyer would intentionally allow his opinion to be distributed like this, because it waives the attomey-client privilege ... unless the people in control want the change."
Whose institution is it? Whose will it be? Is this Governing Board likely to choose a structure of governance giving any other group within Pacifica, including its subscribers, any say in who gets to make the meaningful decisions at Pacifica? Or will it instead grant itself permanent control of its own composition?
The most confounding part of this sad saga is the likelihood that most of the men and women making this decision are well-meaning people who hold dear one or another stripe of 'progressive' values. From their position, they may well believe that they are acting to save Pacifica, protecting it from assault by present and future foes. They may not trust the motives of programmers, staff, volunteers, or subscribers. If one is to believe their public statements, they are solely concerned with expanding Pacifica's audiences beyond their present scope, and insuring financial growth. Yet the vision they have of how this is to be done, and why, is not now or ever to be open to challenge. It is hard for autocrats to find their own power objectionable.
So what will happen to Pacifica, emblem of listener-supported public radio, thorn in the flank of business-as-usual? What will the governing board propose to itself? This article is intended to be a contribution to debate leading up to the February 26-28 meeting in Berkeley. CounterPunchers and friends of Pacifica in the Bay Area can stop by in Berkeley at the meeting to make their voices heard. As matters stood in late January, only the final day is presently scheduled to be open to the public. On Pacifica's agenda, public comment is ranked last.
For more details and the petition mentioned above see <http://www.radio4all.orglfreepacifica>.