This article is as much an amalgamation as my own creation, and is intended as a starting point for the systemic analysis I have yet to run across. Incorporated are some thoughts of Lyn Gerry, Irwin Silber, Alexander Cockburn, Mimi Rosenberg, et al, plus others written in Z Magazine. I do take full responsibility for this interpretation.
KPFA, flagship of Pacifica's five FM stations, was founded by Lewis Hill in 1949 as a sanctuary from the pabulum and right wing poison of radio, just after the start of the Cold War/McCarthy period. FM frequencies were cheap and most workers and programmers volunteered for the privilege. It quickly became a Mecca for cultural and political dissidence, where Pauline Kael analyzed film and Bill Mandel gave radical talks on the Soviet Union; where Ginsberg's "Howl" as well as speeches of Che Guevarra were read.
Times have changed, with a vengeance. For starters, what cost a relative pittance is now worth between $3 and $500 million. Of equal/greater importance are the expansion and demands of global capitalism and its engine, U.S. corporations with their faithful servants in government. At home, a social compact derived from struggles of the 30s and 60s- Social Security, a Welfare safety net, a real minimum wage, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, voting rights, Public Health, progressive taxes, infrastructure, et al are being systematically eroded. At the same time NAFTA and the World Trade Organization transfer decent domestic jobs abroad to super-exploited, perpetually indebted and devastated societies, controlled by governments and a military often financed and trained by the U.S. However one views the Soviet Union, its collapse has accelerated this process and eliminated almost all options for desperate multitudes throughout the world.
At home, the dispossessed and non-compliant are kept in line by ever larger and more aggressive police forces enforcing ever more punitive laws. Clinton 's Presidency has broken a 60-year liberal commitment by avidly promulgating the development of these regressions. As a result, many liberal hearts, minds and actions have moved further and further to the right, supporting Bill, and staying in the game. The government regularly pursues policies enhancing the power and profit of corporate and political elites while minimizing public opposition or even awareness of what's going on. That's where Pacifica comes in.
Struggles over power have always existed within Pacifica. In recent years, however,
Dramatic changes have occurred; characterized by increased centralization of authority, and a marked exclusion of subscribers, non-management staff and Local Advisory Boards (LABs) from input or even knowledge of important decisions. The institution is being reshaped to resemble a top-down, traditional corporate structure. Programs, which do not raise "sufficient" funds, or which fundamentally challenge Governmental and corporate policies are being eliminated. This has resulted in removal of hundreds of people and programs throughout the five stations (see accompanying lists for KPFK.) The National Pacifica Governing Board recently stripped the rights of LABs to elect National Board members. Indeed, the National Board actually granted themselves the right to elect their own membership! Responding to this travesty, eighteen members of Advisory Board members from four network stations are suing Pacifica, claiming illegal alteration of its by-laws as well as unfair business practices. Another suit, initiated by subscribers, contends a serious abrogation of the original 1949 Charter, claiming the founding principles of Lew Hill were created to establish a fundamentally different dynamic.
There are a number of different factors operating in this decade-long, slow evisceration of
Pacifica, but two keys are clearly Board Chair Mary Francis Berry and Jack Odell, her friend and predecessor as Pacifica Board Chair, who brought her to Pacifica. A long time Democratic insider and close associate of Clinton, Berry is keenly attuned to her party's politics and threats to it.
Pacifica is a thorn in the side of the Clinton administration's centrist path, yet it still needs to keep the broad "Left" in the Democratic column. And here's Pacifica in key areas needed in any national election. Its audiences may be relatively small, but its coverage and analysis of East Timor, Iraq, or any of the areas mentioned above are more influential than sheer numbers suggest. Pacifica helps create a political/ideological climate, which challenges the fundamental direction of the Administration. For example, disclosing U.S. sponsorship of the Indonesian military, and the deaths of over 500,000 Iraqi children by starvation and disease caused by the U.S./U.K. bombings and embargo.
In this context, Berry found Pacifica policies highly repugnant to her own politics. One way to justify attacks was to play the race card. Her call for diversity fundamentally was an attempt to neutralize Pacifica's politics by attacking long established programmers and staff, coupled with trying to expand its audiences through cultural appeals to people of color. Some aspects of Pacifica made the network vulnerable to this assault - especially an in-group mentality which made it virtually impossible to end tenured programs, what ever their worth or audience. These provided a perfect pretext for bringing in managers with Berry's outlook-first Pat Scott, then Lynn Chadwick. When they made a mistake, as with KPFA manager Nicole Sawaya, they got rid of her at the first opportunity.
On-air discussion of any of the above by anyone other than management is forbidden. Recently, when programmers at KPFA discussed issues on-air, they were first censored, then fired, arrested and locked out. The Executive Director of Pacifica News Service was just fired for a 20 second report on a one-day protest boycott by sixteen independent stations, which use radio "feeds" from Pacifica. When and how will this ever end?
Pacifica Radio was the single most important force in American broadcasting resisting the politics and culture of the cold war. As we enter a period of hyper-concentration in communications and of unprecedented government and corporate control of information, it's radical mission remains vital. Let us continue to defy attempts to circumscribe political debate within the ideological framework of the two-party system. Let us continue to present perspectives of dissident thinkers and groups absent from the airwaves. And let us provide an invigorated venue for the full range of American cultural life. In a word, Pacifica should continue to resist the shrinking of the public sphere, the decline of sites where all can engage in open dialogue, exchange information and organize ourselves.
Pacifica is distinct from NPR and cannot be permitted to devolve into the liberal wing of public radio. Indeed, Pacifica's mission is to go where others fear to tread, and to raise issues outside the established framework of mainstream liberalism. It is an illusion that Pacifica can achieve mainstream popularity and continue to be a critical voice in broadcast journalism. A retreat from Pacifica's traditional programming goals will not broaden support but simply render Pacifica less distinguishable from what is already on the air. Pacifica has wielded remarkable influence over mainstream and independent media during the past half-century despite its relatively small size and budget. At the same time we do not take pride in the low numbers of subscribers. Pacifica must engage new constituencies, many of them already in motion, with tremendous needs and progressive potential; unionizing workers, Latinos and many other struggling groups, young people in and out of school; as well as building on its already important role in the developing community radio movement.
We need substantive diversity, not tokenism, from top to bottom, from programming and staff to LABs and the National Board. The personal histories/careers of Board members should display involvement with community struggle, an understanding of the links with the universal struggle for justice, and the role of independent media in those arenas. It is especially important that the Chair and Executive Director of the National Board be persons of stature in the progressive community with a strong commitment to democratic procedures. The same can be said of local station managers.
There are many ideas and movements developing toward solutions of the current crisis: The lawsuits mentioned, institution of subscriber voting for local or even all Boards, various suggestions for resignations and Interim Boards, a call for a Task Force to prepare for a Pacifica Summit on Governance and Programming, and others. At this point, while matters are fluid and changeable, it is vital for many more people to become actively involved in the process. Masses of people actually won the recent battle around KPFA, changed the entire dynamic and provided us this organizing space. It's equally important to engage the new constituencies and bring their voices, numbers and experience into a struggle which can, in turn, provide them allies as well as an important means of communication. I hope the listings below encourage the reader to tune in to the
ever-changing happenings around Pacifica and get involved in some way. Once
Pacifica becomes NPR, it will never return. If we win, it will transform
the Network and invigorate an entire progressive movement across the
country. Si, se puede!
L.A. Coalition: 323-653-0726
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