Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Burlington and Bernie: Progressive Eclipse

Also appearing in 2VR: Green Mountain Noise

A serialized examination of Bernie Sanders
and Vermont's progressive movement  

In 1989 The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution described the rise of Vermont's progressive movement. But many things changed after Bernie Sanders moved onto the national stage, while new economic and political challenges created pitfalls. Putting Burlington's situation in a larger context, this sequel also explores the impacts of the Occupy movement, the struggle to overcome the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, and other challenges. But the main focus is Sanders' recent years and the hotly contested mayoral race in which developer Miro Weinberger beat Republican Kurt Wright and Independent Wanda Hines.

Progressive Eclipse takes a closer look at why progressives found themselves on the defensive despite a record of success. It also examines the decision by Sanders and Mayor Bob Kiss to invite military contractor Lockheed Martin to Vermont and other problems that emerged after Burlington launched a municipally-owned cable TV and fiber optic system. Revisiting several Progressive administrations, it chronicles the twists and turns that led to Sanders' presidential run and Weinberger's local victory. New material is released weekly. This week, Chapter Nine:

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Revisiting May Day & the First Red Scare

Concerned about fair pay, civil liberty, economic inequality and the 1 percent? Consider broadcasting Inquisitions (and Other Un-American Activities), a play dramatizing the struggle for workers rights. Here is a video recreation of the infamous Haymarket bombing of 1886, a key moment in the history of the labor movement, excerpted from the play.

Audio recorded at a live performance in Burlington, Vermont.

Dissent and Its Enemies

Inquisitions (and Other Un-American Activities) uses the interrogation of activist Lucy Parsons during the 1919 Palmer raids as a framework. Available for radio, the production -- with a 20-person cast, drama, comedy, and historical recreations -- explores timely themes through dramatic recreations of the movement for an eight-hour workday, the Haymarket bombing, and show trial of four activists. It is based on more than a decade of research, and includes characters like radical organizer Albert Parsons, tycoons like Marshall Field and John D. Rockefeller, muckraker Henry Demarest Lloyd and J. Edgar Hoover at the start of his FBI career.

Since 2004, Inquisitions... has aired on dozens of stations across the country. The complete running time is two-hours, divided into 12 chapters, and can be abridged, aired in installments, or restaged. The original production was written by Greg Guma, directed by Bill Boardman, and co-produced by Toward Freedom and Catalyst Theatre Company

Click here to listen to an audio excerpt in RealAudio (7 min.)
Click here to listen to an audio excerpt in MP3 (7 min.)

Inquisitions... is available as a freedownload for noncommercial radio stations. Contact Squeaky Wheel Productions to register  and download at: or call (203) 268-8446. Print copies of the script: $25; email

Labor’s March

Unions are often portrayed as just another corrupt special interest group. But the true, largely ignored history of the labor movement tells a very different story: a long and dedicated effort, despite ruthless opposition, to shorten working hours, obtain a living wage, and win reforms like Social Security. Here is a six part series that puts labor’s historic struggles and contemporary challenges into context.

Friday, April 3, 2015

SOS - Burlington: From Secrets to Partnership

Remarks for Save Open Space Summit, Jan. 21, City Hall. 
Reimagine Burlington

   How did we get here? These days I often ask myself that kind of thing, looking back, thinking about the past. But 40 years ago, when I was new to Burlington, I thought mostly about the future, how it could be different and better.
   About that time I joined the faculty of Burlington College. It had another name then. Vermont Institute of Community Involvement, or just VICI. And one of the ideas of founder Steward LaCasce was to get away from "bricks and mortar" -- the big, expensive, campus-based model of higher education -- and, as much as possible, develop a community-based alternative, using existing resources and spaces around town. It was a practical form of involvement and interdependence.
   Eventually, the College did buy a building. But the idea of staying small and connected to the community persisted.
   At the time, the land we are here to save was owned by Vermont's Roman Catholic Diocese. The church purchased most of it from Burlington Free Press Publisher Henry Stacy in the 1870s. Before that it was farmland, and the city grew around it. A rolling meadow led to a bluff overlooking Lake Champlain, with a beach below, a forest of oak, red maple and pine at the southern edge, and a railroad tunnel under North Avenue. All in all, it is a special, irreplaceable piece of land.
   The church erected an imposing Victorian building, which housed orphans for a century. After World War II, the local diocese bought adjacent land and converted a cottage into a school for delinquents. After the St. Joseph Orphan Asylum and the Don Bosco School for Delinquent Boys closed, it became diocese headquarters and home for projects like Camp Holy Cross.
    So, the "school without walls" and the cloistered catholic campus near the lake. How did they get entangled? The answer begins with secrets, the first about what went on in the church -- and on that property.
   In the end dozens of former residents came forward, and revealed a dark, sordid history of physical and sexual abuse by nuns, priests and staff. Like other parts of the church, the diocese ultimately found itself under attack and in serious financial trouble. By May 2010, it had paid almost $20 million to settle 26 lawsuits. More were to follow. Selling the land was urgent to help cover up to $30 million in legal settlements for the abused.
    Developers expressed some interest, but disagreed about what the property was worth. There were also zoning restrictions, and some claimed the city was overvaluing the land. In any case, it went on the market in April 2010 for $12.5 million. The sale to BC for $10 million was announced on May 24, 2010, only a month later -- ten days after the diocese paid out $17. 65 million.  Based on about 200 housing units, a plan initially considered, a more reasonable price was probably $7 million or less.
   Why did the college pay that much? And what did its leaders expect? Like many decisions by private boards, it's mostly confidential, a shared secret. But we know the deal was promoted and brokered by Antonio Pomerleau, once known as the "godfather of Vermont shopping center development." Owner of Pomerleau Real Estate, a prominent, devoted Catholic who wanted to help the church, and a powerful, persuasive developer who for years chaired the Burlington Police Commission.
    In the early 1980s Pomerleau became an obvious target for Bernie Sanders, a capitalist mogul who wanted to rebuild the waterfront and controlled the Police Department. His $30 million waterfront redevelopment plan was derailed after Sanders' election as mayor. But the relationship changed. By the time College President Jane Sanders announced the purchase, Pomerleau was considered a family friend. In then-President Sanders' words, Pomerleau was the only man who could have made it happen. Someone to trust, who understood relationships. But it didn't hurt that he loaned the school $500,000 to close the deal. Yves Bradley, who subsequently became chair of the College's Board of Trustee, handled the 2010 transaction details for Pomerleau Real Estate.
   According to local sources, the school's leaders believed that, with connected friends like Sanders and Pomerleau, plus a Treasurer like Jonathan Leopold, handling the $10 million debt and $3 million for renovations was a reasonable expectation for a school with 200 students and revenues around $4 million a year. Big donors would come -- but they didn't. The Board also embraced another notion: that enrollment could double in five years, a goal well beyond the national average. It didn't.
    In retrospect, it sounds like magical thinking. Or just bad judgement. But somehow it made sense -- at least until September 2011, when Jane Sanders was forced to resign, mainly for not raising enough money. So began a three-year, silent slide toward insolvency.
    Exactly how many students attend BC today? Just how bad are its finances, and how did that happen? Why did one president resign suddenly in the parking lot? We don't know for sure. We also don't know whether the school will continue to exist as an independent college a year from now. 
    We could know more. We should. But it's a political hot potato. And the mayor has made it known that, although he's open to preserving a few "key attributes" for public use -- some forest, a garden, a path to the shore and Texaco beach -- he won't risk city funds or political capital. Instead, he's likely to wait until the deal is closed, then try to negotiate concessions during the zoning and permitting process. 
Many people in a position to make things happen, one way or another, appear to be on board with developer Eric Farrell's plan and the mayor's free market stance. But they are reluctant to say much.
    I'll conclude with a question and a vision. This land has seen more than enough secrets, loss and pain. Can't we find a better approach, a more open path? Can't we move from secrecy to partnership, a partnership in the public interest -- between conservation groups, local colleges, government and private capital -- brokered by engaged officials, combining sufficient housing with a modest campus, compatible projects, and as much open space as possible. With persistence, courage and political will, it can happen. 
    I still believe the future can be different -- and better. And that's why I think we're here.

Friday, March 27, 2015

9/11 Theories and Pacifica's Fear Factor

From Planet Pacifica

My interview for Pacifica Executive Director was supposed to take place in late September, 2005, but Hurricanes Katrina and Rita forced the Board to reschedule for the end of October. In the meantime, it was business as usual -- writing and editing for Vermont Guardian, a weekly newspaper I had launched with a partner and investors a year and a half earlier.
The most significant feature I wrote while waiting turned out to be “Mission Improbable,” a report on the controversial theories of David Ray Griffin, a theologian who had examined the available evidence about the 9/11 attacks and published two books on the subject. For several years, the public had been urged to ignore “outrageous conspiracies theories” about the horrific events that set in motion the so-called war on terror. But as Griffin argued in lectures, the official explanation also required the acceptance of a theory, one involving a massive intelligence failure, 19 Muslim hijackers under the sway of Osama bin Laden, and the inability of the world's most advanced Air Force to intercept four commercial airplanes.
The official story didn’t seem to convincingly explain the events; in fact, certain claims might even defy the laws of physics. Yet mainstream media outlets – and even some Pacifica journalists – consistently declined to examine the technical and exhaustively documented case Griffin had developed.
My October 2005 report, which later resulted in the imaginative charge that Pacifica had hired a “non-credible fringiepurveyor of “preposterous conspiracy theories,” discussed Griffin’s admittedly radical conclusions: controlled demolition of the World Trade Center towers, something other than a passenger plane crashing into the Pentagon, and the shooting down of Flight 93. I also included some suggestions about who might have known and made it possible.
”Both the Bush administration and Larry Silverstein, who owned Building 7 and had leased the WTC earlier in 2001, clearly benefited,” I argued. “How? Silverstein collected $7 billion in insurance on property that was losing money and faced major problems caused by asbestos, while the administration needed ‘an archetypal event’ in order to implement the plans to invade Afghanistan and Iraq that several key administration figures had been developing for more than a decade.”
US officials may not have played a role, I acknowledged. Perhaps they only covered up embarrassing facts to spin the story and exploit the tragedy. But there was another possibility – that some members of the intelligence community knew something in advance, but didn't prevent the attacks and persuaded the administration to help with a cover-up. An even more disquieting alternative was that someone in the executive branch actually did know in advance, or even provided a push.
Disturbing? Obviously. Preposterous? Maybe, maybe not. It certainly wouldn't be the first time elements within the government or business orchestrated a pretext for aggression, and lied afterward, to achieve a long-term aim. After all, we now know that events were manipulated to justify the Spanish-American War, the U.S. entry into World War II, the expansion of the Vietnam War, and the current Iraq war. Scholars have even challenged official accounts of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
How could such a conspiracy be kept secret? I asked Griffin. "We don't know the secrets they have kept," he replied. "The Manhattan Project [to create the atomic bomb] was kept secret for a long time, as well as a war in Indonesia during the 1950s. Things are compartmentalized, with information available on a need-to-know basis. Most people are afraid for their jobs," he continued, adding that "if they talk and disobey, they can be imprisoned and worse." Plus, when people do speak out the press frequently ignores or attempts to discredit them.
Griffin’s analysis raised troubling questions, I concluded, but “not much can be said with complete certainty, except that without 9/11, George Bush would not have been able to declare himself a ‘war president’ and there would have been no convincing reason to expand the federal government's power through legislation like the USA PATRIOT Act.” Given the administration's discredited claims about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's connection to the attacks and weapons of mass destruction, “it didn’t stretch credulity to conclude that the public hasn’t yet heard the whole story.”
This in turn led me to consider anxiety, more specifically the tendency of opportunists and demagogues to have people worry about the wrong things. I’d just reviewed False Alarm: The truth about the epidemic of fear, in which New York internist Marc Siegel explained that the basic problem lies in the amygdala — the Brain’s central station for processing emotions. Once it detects a threatening situation, it pours out stress hormones. If the stress persists too long, it can malfunction, overwhelm the hippocampus (center of the "thinking" brain), and be difficult to turn off. In the end, this "fear biology" can wear us down rather than protect us, inducing paralysis and even making us susceptible to diseases that we might otherwise resist. Linking the reaction to the current "war on terror," Siegel charged the government and media with encouraging people to be unreasonably afraid.
Here’s a tip: One of the best ways to overcome fear is to “re-educate” yourself, putting risks in a more realistic perspective; in short, to focus less on the unlikely, stop exaggerating potential impacts and purge the "high-pressure misinformation that is being shot into our brains." Humor also helps. But the first step is to realize when you’ve been conned and learn how to realistically assess the risks.
In any case, as I flew west I wondered whether Pacifica’s metaphoric amygdala might be misfiring due to long-term stress. Based on what I’d read and heard, it looked plausible. At the very least some Pacificans weren’t dealing with their fears very rationally. My preliminary conclusion was that the organization could use less drama, some fresh perspectives, and a lighter touch.

(Originally posted on March 27, 2008) 
Next: Applying for the Dream Job from Hell

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Future of Community Radio

Will audiences keep tuning in to radio if the information and music they want can be more easily accessed by other means? Can FM compete with the quality and reliability of new portable devices? And will listeners continue to pay attention to long fund drive pitches? These are some of the difficult questions public and community radio must answer in the near future.
      At the moment websites and blogs are undermining newspapers, DVRs and TiVo are allowing viewers to skip commercials and time-shift the viewing of their preferred shows, and iPods are revolutionizing the way we access and consume music. The good news is that there are traits and features specific to radio that can help. But broadcasters need to open themselves to the inevitable convergence with new media and the Internet.
      So, how can community radio prepare for the future? Three ways: embrace convergence, focus on unique and thematic content, and use radio’s traditional strengths while combining them with the power of new technologies. This can lead to a new form of radio that doesn’t abandon the airwaves, but also brings quality programming that can’t be found elsewhere to new audiences and emerging media platforms.
     What are radio’s strengths, especially those can be leveraged and integrated with some of the new opportunities?
     IMMEDIACY: Radio’s edge is the ability to be truly "live." Instant real-time broadcasting can take place from nearly any place or location to chronicle live local – and national – events. There is considerable untapped potential here. Think street reporting, reality radio. Hearing a live voice is a totally different experience than any other. It can be powerful, touching and engaging. Being able to listen to something that is happening this very moment in another place is inherently fascinating. Returning to its roots, radio needs to leverage the huge potential of live coverage.
     EMOTIONAL POWER: Radio is about both informing and relating to people. When you do both, people change. As the great and underappreciated broadcaster Larry Josephson said, the power of radio is simple: it's personal. Radio needs to bring back the emotional power of direct, spontaneous reporting and talk delivered by strong, credible personalities. Without that, it will be difficult to compete with new portable devices. Like popular online media platforms, the successful community radio stations of the future will be characterized by a strong, unique style. Podcasting is already affecting radio, putting the heart back into it, focusing on unique content and a compelling source. Heart, passion, and a personal connection: These can’t be over-estimated.
     IDENTITY: Podcasting also draws attention to the value of niche entertainment and thematic content. Specific kinds of news, commentary or music become more important than generalized radio content that must appeal to as large an audience as possible. "New radio" needs to have a clear focus, theme and identity. This means applying some lessons from blogs and focused independent news sites to news, public affairs and music programming. Grassroots broadcast-plus-online radio stations can be debut vehicles for new music, news and reporting talent. Being a talent clearinghouse can be a very powerful theme in itself. Scouting, identifying and cultivating new talent is what some of the best bloggers and talent scouts do. Radio can do it too, especially as platforms multiply.
     THE LOCAL CONNECTION: Radio is ideal for maintaining a sense of community. This is especially true in times of emergency, or when a local event – a rally, accident, or tragedy – bursts upon the scene. People already realize that their needs and interests aren’t being well served by distant corporate entities with no real community connection or concern for local needs. A strong focus on "local" news, music, events, people and issues – especially coupled with "global" access – provides a winning combination. More people distrust “the media” in general these days, but they still have some confidence in their local outlets. Proximity can breed respect, something to be considered in the response to media consolidation.
     ADAPTABILITY: The distinction been producers and consumers is breaking down. In the future, radio will be more about the user participating in the show, potentially becoming a co-producer, host or DJ. In some cases listeners will become stars, contributors and creators of content. Technological developments make it possible for them to create shows, compilations, live entertainment, and become street reporters, reaching where few press reporters choose to go. Providing tools and programming space for them to develop, edit and compile their programming is a winning strategy that reflects the revolution taking place in other media. At an affordable cost, radio has the ability to adapt, providing tools, facilities and access to content that allows more people to research, edit and compile unique documentaries, investigative reports, artistic montages and focus-specific anthologies.
     As the current media revolution continues, radio stations can also become search engines for the specific content and music on which they focus. Some stations will build their programming by drawing thematic content from a wide variety of external sources and contributors. Stations will also become multi-media providers, offering video as well as audio – from a camera in the booth to exclusive coverage of actualities and special events. We’ll increasingly see webcasts and webisodes. Recording and archiving, something Pacifica Radio has done better than other radio operations, will also be increasingly important. Promoting ongoing access to shows, interviews or news items is inevitable.
     The change underway in mass media points to two common traits: convergence and participation. In the future, effective stations will be multi-channel and multi-format. Multi-format means gearing and adapting segments and shows for various audiences, something that doesn’t have to entail major costs. Multi-channel means making the content accessible via various platforms and applications to a multitude of media devices. Radio will also be more participatory, with listeners becoming active contributors.
     In terms of journalism, it’s not about Old vs. New Media, but fair and accurate reporting versus trivialized news and public relations spin. In any case, it’s better to think in terms of AND rather than OR; in other words, “mainstream” and “new media” journalists learning from one another. If more skills are shared and the best of both “new” and “old” are combined, today’s “citizen journalists” are more likely to become tomorrow’s responsible reporters and programmers – valuable messengers who deliver information and ideas that people can use, content that educates rather than distorts public discussion.
     So, will it be chaos or conversion? As Old Media risk becoming an archaic refuge for the elderly  New Media are entering their carefree adolescence. Online platforms may eventually be viewed as public utilities, and possibly even subject to regulation to protect the public's remaining privacy rights. For now, however, the outcome of this period of transformation remains an open question.
Originally posted on March 25, 2008. Last of four parts. Material in this "State of the Media" series was first presented in January 2008 at a KPFT-FM strategic planning retreat in Houston. Previous parts include A Crisis of FactWill Newspapers Survive? and Radio's Delicate Condition.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Radio’s Delicate Condition

For at least two generations, public radio has helped people to learn about each other and their problems, and share a common cultural experience. But digital media challenge that relationship. The blogosphere has doubled every six months in recent years, and it’s a multilingual, multicultural environment. Social networks have also exploded. By 2006, traffic on MySpace had already outstripped traffic to traditional news platforms such as the New York Times and CNN.
     The question is whether broadcasting operations can catch up. To survive and remain relevant, they must adapt.
     Technology slowly seems to be turning traditional broadcasting into a dinosaur. And it’s not just radio. In 2008 NBC formally declared itself an “Internet company,” and the end of analog TV broadcasting came in February 2009, another step in the most sweeping overhaul of TV viewing since its inception. After Mega-media mogul Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace in 2005, there were rumblings that he might dump his satellite assets in favor of wireless digital TV. At the same time, the audience and credibility of public broadcasting has been undermined. Most bloggers and iPod users don’t watch much TV, read newspapers, or wait for their favorite radio program.   
     The music industry has made a painful transformation, the movie business has resisted, and cable television has developed niche marketed, sometimes high-quality programming. But to a large extent, network TV hasn't figured out what to do. Viewers are leaving -- or "aging out," but the reaction of the networks has largely been to reduce not only the cost but also the quality of programs through reality-TV and tabloid formulas. Those are just ways of denying the inevitable.
     In commercial radio, the reaction has been mainly to rely on two models – talk and formulaic music. But this is just competing for a limited audience with undifferentiated products. Even though the broadcast spectrum is a scarce resource, those with licenses are in many cases writing their own death warrants by using it inefficiently. 
     Public radio’s problems are compounded by the fact that the Bush administration tried to rip the guts out of it. Before the election of a Democratic president, George W. Bush's 2009 budget proposed cutting the allocation to public broadcasting by half over two years. Had it been approved, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would have lost $420 million of the $820 million in federal funds it was set to receive.
     Beyond that, NPR and its local stations – much like Pacifica Radio – have continued to fight over money and control. But the real problem is that more and more listeners prefer "on-demand" content. They want programs that are more meaningful to them, and they want to listen at their convenience. So far most of community and public radio, with its current distribution model, hasn't responding fast or seriously enough.
     Talented people are doing the best they can, but it’s not just a management issue. The problem is systemic. Podcasting is to public radio what apps like Garage Band and Pro Tools have been to the music industry. Large recording outfits have closed because musicians can produce appealing new music in small project studios -- or even in their apartments. The traditional music industry has been forced to embrace new forms of production and distribution. The same is true for public radio.
     Traditional radio broadcasters need to acknowledge that the era of being a music jukebox is coming to an end. New media technologies like file sharing, online music clearinghouses, portable players, and smart phones provide much more flexibility for the user. Remaining a “jukebox" – even with a lovable, knowledgeable host – is a losing battle. Kids born today aren’t likely to listen to radio over accessing a playlist, a personalized streaming radio station via the Internet, or whatever comes next.
     Some stations are attempting to become facilitators of open public media spaces. For instance, Minnesota Public Radio turned its listeners into sources and generators of news stories with what they called Public Insight Journalism. StoryCorps began generating grassroots oral histories. These are promising ideas, but radio has to go farther. It needs to become a leader in training, participation, and developing new platforms, apps and formats.
Originally posted on March 24, 2008. Third of four parts. Material in this series was first presented in January 2008 at a KPFT strategic planning retreat.
Next: The Future of Radio