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Sylvia Rivera: 1951-2002
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Pacifica Radio Crisis Is Settled
Amid the setbacks to progressive activism in 2001—from Bush's ascendancy to the presidency to the “war on terrorism”—at least there was one major people's victory in the United States. In December 2001, the Pacifica Radio crisis was settled, leaving progressives in control of the only independent radio network in the United States.
The Pacifica Radio Network, founded in 1949 as an independent, listener-sponsored radio network meant to promote peace and social justice, has been in upheaval since 1999. At that time, Pacifica was the subject of a hostile corporate-style takeover—or, rather, an attempted takeover. The Pacifica leadership tried to eviscerate the progressive politics of the network and eliminate community input from its structure.
They closed down Paci- fica's flagship station KPFA of Berkeley, California for three weeks in July 1999, provoking the largest demonstrations that city had seen since the Vietnam War. They “re- programmed” WBAI, the Pacifica station in New York City, in December 2001 by firing and banning long-term staff. In August 2001, they suspended Amy Goodman, host of their most popular show, “Democracy Now,” and banned the show from Pacifica's airwaves. In the meantime, at KPFK in Los Angeles, KPFT in Houston, and WPFW in Washington, DC, more than 100 staff were fired for mentioning the Pacifica crisis on air, even when it was being discussed in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, Houston Chronicle, and Washington Post.
In the face of this assault, community organizers, political activists, and especially Pacifica listeners, fought back. Freelance journalists went on strike against the Pacifica Network News. Former Pacifica staff members started a boycott campaign to deprive Pacifica of the funds it was using to hire high-priced lawyers and public relations firms to fight its opponents. Listeners picketed, protested, and committed non-violent civil disobedience in a campaign to get Pacifica board members to resign. In December, our efforts succeeded. Pacifica settled the three lawsuits filed against it by listeners, local advisory board members, and national board members. The board of directors was reconstituted with a progressive majority.
Under the leadership of the new board of directors, a handful of interim national staff members have already re-hired the fired and banned staff from WBAI, replaced the general managers at the Los Angeles, Houston, Washington, and New York stations, and returned “Democracy Now” to the network's airwaves. At the same time, they've conducted an audit of Pacifica finances to discover that Pacifica is more than $4 million in debt and needs to raise significant amounts of money immediately or face layoffs and other cutbacks.
We Won, Now What?
Pacifica should think of itself as playing on a national stage. “The priority should be creating a reliable alternative information source for the country that is identifiable to most people as the “official” counterweight to the government and corporate propaganda vehicles,” says Van Jones, national executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
Writer and radio host Laura Flanders, who worked as interim director of Pacifica National News, concurs: “I think we need to re-inspire ourselves about our own presence in the debate about the United States in the 21st century. We should aspire to a status on par with or exceeding CNBC or CBS. The Pacifica Network can have a voice that can force itself into the national debate—to demand a place in every press corps, in every presidential campaign plane, to ask the questions that the other reporters won't ask. What's great about the network is that we can do battle with the mainstream, and we should.”
At the heart of Pacifica's mission is the programming, and it's the reason most Pacifica activists became involved in the struggle. Numerous media activists say they became politicized because of programs they heard on KPFA or KPFK. Other activists say that Pacifica is a lifeline for them, because they hear the issues they care about.
Bernard White, program director of WBAI, speaks for many Pacifica listeners when he says, “The goal of the programming should be to help bring about positive social change, to help build bridges between communities, and promote open discussions about community issues.” There is agreement among many Pacifica activists about their vision of network programming: each station should have a local news department; each station should have a mix of news, public affairs, music, and cultural programming that is in line with the peace and social justice mission of Pacifica; each station should have some kind of a training program, to bring new voices onto the airwaves and to welcome the community into the stations.
At the national level, “Democracy Now” should receive the technical support, and proper promotion that it deserves; Pacifica should have a national (or international) daily dissident-voice newscast that includes contributions from all the Pacifica stations and affiliates (either Free Speech Radio News or something like it). New national programming should come from and be situated at local stations. Additionally, Pacifica should continue its special broadcasts—like the broadcasts of the Iran-Contra hearings and coverage of the WTO protests.
To improve our programming, we can start by looking at our past successes. Most people would agree that “Democracy Now” is a huge recent success. As Dan Coughlin, Pacifica's interim executive director, explains, “‘Democracy Now' builds audience...has strong community roots and it relies on local producers at a vibrant community radio station.”
Two leading social justice activists, Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange and Van Jones, suggest that Pacifica should deepen its coverage of critical movement issues and consistently offer solutions rather than just criticisms of problems. “It would be good if the network could really see itself as a conscious ally of the vital movements of the day, and, pro-actively, seek out the most effective ways to bring critical coverage to the issues that the movements are working on,” says Jones.
Danaher says, “You can't just criticize, you have to talk about what we should do. How do we construct the alternative boat?”
Another vision is open dialogue programming. David Adelson, chair of KPFK's local advisory board, and Laura Flanders are advocates of this type of programming. Essentially it means creating an open space on the airwaves where people can have in-depth discussions with audience participation.
“I want to turn on the radio and hear an ongoing challenge to basic assumptions that requires people to say, why do you think that? What's the evidence for your point of view? I want to hear a principled discussion about the basis for disagreement,” says Adelson.
Improving the sound of the stations—either by using better equipment or by doing more edited pieces and documentaries—would also be welcomed by Pacifica listeners. “If you have three to five minute produced pieces, that's far more interesting than half an hour of a live interview. Some of the people are boring or bad interviews. But if you have money to put into the production process, you're going to get a better product that's easier to listen to, that's been edited. I don't think there's a necessary contradiction between democratization and professional- ization,” says Kevin Danaher.
Red flags fly up for many Pacifica activists when they hear the word professionalization, because professionalization has been used at community radio stations as a pretext for eliminating radical political programs. But that's not the kind of professionalization promoted by Danaher. For example, “There should be a sense that everyone who's on the air should be contributing to the sound of the station—not that the station is a place that's divided among broadcast fiefdoms that can't be under any management by anyone,” says Flanders. “We should have discussions among programmers, with listener input, about our programs and how we can collaborate. The programming should be thought of as contributing to the station as a whole—and the programmers who don't do that shouldn't assume that they have a privileged place… Pacifica calls for programmers to be part of a radio community.”
The fiefdom concept comes from a history at Pacifica that includes programmers getting so glued to a time slot that they feel they own it. Some programmers have been doing their shows for 10, 15, 20 years, and don't show an inclination to pass on the torch. How can we get new voices onto the airwaves while respecting and honoring the longtime programmers who've contributed so much to our network but may need to move on? How can we provide people with some job security and a union contract without giving them the impression that they own their time slot—or the airwaves?
Pacifica activists have a variety of ideas—from mandatory sharing of time slots to mandatory retirement after a certain number of years to moving people from on-air positions to management and training positions to having a review process to evaluate people on a case by case basis. “If you have some flexibility in managing your on-air talent and staff, you can move people around,” says Nicole Sawaya, former station manager at KPFA. “Why have a news training program and an apprenticeship program if you can't move people around? You want to respect people, respect that they've worked for low wages for so many years, but maybe there should be a threshold—10 years, 15 years.”
We need to deepen our ties with communities and with activists and artists who lead our social justice movements. Dan Coughlin says of WBAI: “WBAI achieved [an] unparalleled record of success not by killing its community ties, or by abandoning Pacifica's mission. On the contrary, WBAI deepened its commitment to New York's diverse communities and to the vision of a new society articulated by Pacifica's founder Lew Hill. WBAI also allied itself, like Pacifica has historically done, with the new social movements emerging from the streets, community gardens, sweatshops, officers, and classrooms of the city and the world.”
Those ties can be deepened by meetings with progressive groups about their programming ideas, outreach to prospective listeners at activist events, and community activist advisory committees for programs. An idea that has been experimented with at KPFA is a program council that includes paid staff, unpaid staff, and community members. Although the KPFA model hasn't achieved the programming changes that some people desire, the inclusion of all of these constituencies is not what bogs the group down. Unfortunately, the KPFA program council, like Pacifica historically, primarily evaluates program proposals that it receives rather than proactively developing programming. Many activists interviewed for this article suggest that Pacifica work with community groups to figure out what kind of programming is needed in order to promote social justice activism; and then actively try to develop those programs and recruit talent for the new shows.
One of the most difficult challenges will be transforming the Pacifica stations that have dramatically veered from the mission of the network—especially WPFW and KPFT, which are now primarily music stations.
As Bernard White puts it, “Culture is a very strong weapon against oppression. When people understand their culture, it can be used as a very valuable organizing tool.” But there are legitimate questions about what is the appropriate balance between music and public affairs and whether Pacifica could (or should) try to play all the types of music that are absent from the commercial airwaves.
Model of Media Democracy
We should walk our talk—the politics we espouse in our public lives should be the same as the ones we use within the organization,” says Marty Durlin of Pacifica affiliate station KGNU radio in Boulder, Colorado. In other words, we should be union-friendly, organized non- heirarchically, and have staffs that reflect the ethnic, racial, gender, and economic diversity of our local communities. Our finances should be transparent, with regular financial reports available to the staff and to the general public; and our communication should be exemplary. We should not allow divisive issues to fester unaddressed, as we've seen, when we don't address difficult issues, people can use them against us.
But most Pacifica activists haven't focused on the day-to-day management issues, they've spent their time discussing what is the right democratic structure for the organization's national board of directors. We want to make sure we prevent the board from ever again falling into the hands of individuals who are not dedicated to the peace and social justice mission of Pacifica.
There are a variety of perspectives on the structure of the national board—some people believe that the board should be elected directly by Pacifica listener-sponsors, others say that national board members should be elected by members of local advisory boards who are themselves elected by their local communities. Some believe that every single seat should be an elected seat, others believe that there should be some seats set aside for progressive community leaders and/or for representatives of the Pacifica affiliate stations.
For example, Carol Spooner, a new Pacifica board member who was the lead plaintiff in the listeners' lawsuit against Pacifica, says she hasn't yet decided which one she thinks works best: “I have thought a lot about it and I have not made up my mind…. I strongly believe that the national and local boards need to be elected; I am strongly opposed to self-appointing seats on any of these boards.”
Van Jones disagrees: “I think that a share of the board seats should be for election and another share should be non-elected but demographic or expertise slots or some combination…. I don't trust the present listenership to elect 100 percent of the seats and for it to work out for communities of color and for organizational stability. But if democratic reforms would get us there, then I would cede ground to the democratic reforms.”
On one hand, activists are concerned that having set-aside slots on the board could result in the appointment of people who are not dedicated to Pacifica's mission, as happened in the recent past with Pacifica's “at large” board members. On the other hand, some of the very worst Pacifica board members of the last several years were elected by the Local Advisory Boards (LABs), when they were still able to elect board members (though the LABs were not democratically constituted at that time).
Some radio stations that have direct elections by listeners end up with corporate-dominated boards of directors—for example, KQED, an NPR station in San Francisco.
Somehow we will have to create a system that is both democratic and ensures that the board members come from diverse communities and have deep roots in progressive communities.
There is some common ground on the principles that must underpin the structure. Number one is accountability. The national board members should be accountable to the local stations, their advisory boards, and the listeners. Number two is that decision-making should primarily flow from the local stations to the national management and board members and not vice versa.
Increase Listener Input
The local advisory boards at the Pacifica stations are likely to play an important role in the upcoming revitalization of the Pacifica Network. As part of the Pacifica settlement agreement, the LABs have been charged with democratizing within the next year. Undoubtedly, LAB members will elect some, if not all, of the Pacifica national board members in the new Pacifica. There is even a possibility that they will become governing boards of the local stations rather than advisory boards.
But the KPFA local advisory board, the LAB that is already practicing democracy, has been criticized on a number of counts, despite the hard work that was put into developing the KPFA proportional representation electoral process. “I think our board suffered from some real big obstacles—we had no power; that's pretty frustrating, especially when the community wants us to take action. Another thing was a lack of information from the station.… Then, as in all democratic bodies, you get a broad range of opinions and points of view. I think we tended to polarize and do a lot of internal bickering, which was frustrating and very non-productive,” says Carol Spooner.
Nicole Sawaya is less kind in her criticisms of the LAB: “I think some of these LABs bring the station down. If there was really an advisory board of people active in their communities coming back with concrete examples of what needs to be reported on the radio and what wasn't looked at and should be looked at, that would be great. But it shouldn't get bogged down in unnecessary politics… I do think it's a good idea for national board members to serve on the LAB first, because you get to see how people perform on their LAB before you put them in charge of the whole network.”
Ironically, KPFA's more “democratic” local advisory board consists mostly of stalwart KPFA activists and has had difficulty attracting and retaining people of color and experienced community organizers to its ranks. But the “undemocratic” local advisory boards in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC are full of board members who lead community organizations and have track records of social justice, labor, and other activism. They are also demographically diverse.
Does this mean that an undemocratic structure might be better than a democratic structure for the LABs? Of course not. It just means democracy is not a panacea for creating the kinds of local advisory boards that we want for Pacifica. It is particularly not a panacea for boards that lack diversity—and not just racial and ethnic diversity.
“There's a lot to like in the KPFA model,” says Bob Lederer of WBAI. “The issue that concerns me is that the KPFA model excludes several groups of poor and institutionalized people who are avid listeners of WBAI.… And I personally think that diversity in every sense of the word is important—not just demographic diversity but also sectoral diversity—we need a board that includes labor union representatives, people focused on issues of criminal justice, people concerned with social service providing, education, the environment.”
The LABs must be clear in their purpose—whether they are advisory or governing boards. In Spooner's opinion, the LABs should review station policies and make recommendations to the station general manager; review the general manager; review and make recommendations about programming; and assess community needs on behalf of the stations.
There should be clear rules for how the LABs function—from the way meetings are conducted to how members and the public are informed about meeting times and locations. When developing election procedures for the LABs, we should think about what type of people we want on the LABs (avid listeners? staff? community organizers? representatives from each of these groups?) and how we can bring such people into the fold. If we decide that having set-aside slots is unacceptable, then some serious recruiting will need to be done to make sure that the people who run for our LABs are not limited to only the most hard-core Pacifica listener-activists.
It is also important to recognize that we need to let the communities into the station. “We need to tear down the barriers that have been put in the path of community and listener cooperation with the stations. Let listeners into the stations; let the LABs into the stations; the community needs access to the stations again,” says Bernard White. Robbie Osman suggests bringing back the stations' public affairs departments or developing Third World and/or women's departments: “KPFA used to have a public affairs department where people active in the community could be taught how to make a documentary, how to make a module for a new program. That would bring activists and political thinkers and fighters into the station.”
Conversely, we need to get the stations, their staffs, and LAB members into the communities. Bob Lederer has ideas for how to do this: “We need to be out at the major street fairs, the major demonstrations, and public events— selling the radio stations. We need to promote ourselves and welcome people back…. We also need to appeal for people's input and ideas,” he suggests. “We could have LAB committees that are open to people who aren't on the LAB; town meetings in different communities or on different themes (such as, how can WBAI do better labor programming?); a summit meeting of progressive groups to solicit their input on news coverage and new programming; and go back to and expand live and taped coverage of progressive and community events.”
The most positive lesson learned from the Pacifica struggle is that progressives can win. Another positive lesson is that pursuing a variety of tactics and including people with varying political perspectives allowed us to succeed. The Pacifica battle included a strong legal strategy, a direct action strategy, civil disobedience, press work, fundraising concerts, mass demonstrations, a financial boycott, and many other tactics, all of which contributed to the ultimate victory. The people involved in the struggle ranged from the most sectarian leftists to Pacifica staff who became radicalized only when they were kicked out of their stations; from union leaders and politicians to radical lawyers to gay and lesbian rights activists; and every community organization that had benefited from access to the airwaves at Pacifica.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, we also learned the value of using the radio as an organizing tool. Through announcements on KPFA, we were able to keep listeners alert and active about what to do next in the Pacifica struggle. We'd give out the phone numbers of Pacifica board members over the air and hundreds of listeners would call the board to insist they uphold the peace and social justice mission of the network.
On the negative side, the Pacifica struggle saw many of the problems that have plagued the left for the last 20-plus years. Some activists attacked each other at every possible opportunity, especially on email; scared off competent listeners and experienced organizers because of their refusals to go along with the group consensus and insistence on interminable meetings; and displayed an insensitivity to diversity issues that left the movement constantly open to race-baiting by Pacifica board hijackers. Members of listener groups berated staff, staff disrespected listeners, and then we were all supposed to play on the same team.
Kevin Danaher has some harsh criticisms on this account and some of the most constructive suggestions: “The most troubling thing to me has been the incredible willingness of other leftists to slash throats of each other behind each others' backs…. Communication has to be a respectful dialogue. If we can get on the radio and do respectful dialogue with administration officials and corporate CEOs, then why is it that other leftists who slightly disagree with us become the devil?
What is Danaher's solution? “Unity,” he says. This unity will be especially important among the new Pacifica national board members who have only the slimmest majority with which to work. Danaher also suggests that all Pacifica activists and leftists learn what it means to make decisions by consensus: “In order to build unity, you have to subordinate your ego to a group process.”
Nuts-and-bolts-wise, several people point out that Pacifica has never promoted itself the way that commercial stations promote themselves and that proper promotion could result in a much larger listenership. Additionally, there are listeners who left Pacifica because of the recent crisis and need to be brought back into the organization. “There's some confusion out there about what's going on with Pacifica. There should be PR in every market, like a truth and reconciliation commission—here's what happened, here's where we learned from the mistakes, here's our new safeguards, here are the players,” suggests Sawaya.
Another strategy for increasing audience is creating partnerships with other progressive organizations. For example, Zakiya says, “We should forge alliances with the Indymedia Centers. We need to reach out and use the IMCs as incubators for training staff. The IMCs are producing content that can be put on the air. We should form alliances with labor, environmental groups, women's groups, other progressive organizations.” We also haven't taken advantage of the audience potential of the Pacifica affiliate stations. Marty Durlin says, “even before the last few years, the affiliates were generally an after-thought.”
Diversifying the audience should also be important. Progressives' work against sexism, racism, homophobia, and other types of discrimination is not a side issue, it is at the heart of our social justice movements.
Van Jones believes that if the new Pacifica is more visionary in its approach to programming, it will quickly develop a larger audience that includes working-class people, people of color, and others who are interested in social change: “If the stations take issues (there could be national and local issues selection), like economic justice or environmental justice or criminal justice—if they hit issues that lean more toward working class people and less toward intellectuals, then over time the audience will begin to shift. I think the primary thing should be getting the stations in alignment with more of an agenda driven, vision driven kind of programming.”
Fight for Media Democracy
Zakiya's vision includes doubling the number of Pacifica stations over the next five years. He also suggests that Pacifica use the Internet to distribute more programming than it can distribute over its five major stations. The Pacifica website could stream several channels of programming—one channel with multilingual programming, one with primarily music, and so on. Several people interviewed for this article suggested that wbix.org, the online WBAI-in-exile, continue broadcasting even after the WBAI staff return to the station and that the website be used as a training ground for new journalists.
Danaher envisions Pacifica as the radio arm of a people's movement: “Let's say the movement was a global citizen party and Pacifica was the radio part of it; let's say there was a publishing arm and a reality tour arm. We could have lots of different components and cross-fertilization.” Additionally, Danaher says, Pacifica could use its radio stations to help progressive groups with fundraising events—since most groups don't have access to a large audience in the way that Pacifica does: “An FCC license is a license for printing money; [Pacifica] could help other groups with fundraising events by talking into that microphone.”
The people's victory at Pacifica is a great victory for the media democracy movement in the United States, but, as David Adelson says, “If we just treat winning Pacifica as the endpoint, it's a loss. Reclaiming Pacifica has got to be used as a driving wedge for the fight to win more democratic media.”
Pacifica listener organizations throughout the country should continue working and should broaden their work to other media issues—advocacy for low power FM radio, open access on the Internet, and meaningful public broadcasting reform, for starters. They should lobby their local public access cable stations to air the new “Democracy Now” cable television show.
We understand that our struggle is not over, because, as Zakiya puts it, “As long as there is a Pacifica, it is always going to be a struggle. The forces of oppression don't want a Pacifica to exist.” Z
Andrea Buffa is the former executive director of Media Alliance.