Saturday, March 29, 2008

Applying for the Dream Job from Hell

Shortly after arriving in Houston for my job interview with Pacifica Radio, I ran into Lonnie Hicks and Ambrose Lane, two men at the center of Pacifica Radio’s power structure. Both were spiffily-dressed, Black, and even older than me.

Lonnie Hicks became Chief Financial Officer in 2002, and was both credited with bringing the organization back from the edge of financial oblivion and simultaneously blamed for its current inertia. A world-weary pro who negotiates hard and loves high-tech gadgets, he came across like an MBA Richard Pryor, garrulous without revealing too much, clever and yet cautious, a cynic with a survivor’s innate ability to adapt to prevailing political winds.

Ambrose Lane, a talk show personality in Washington DC since the 1970s, was Pacifica’s national board Chair until assuming Interim ED duties after Dan Coughlin departed. A big man with abundant self-confidence, a bellowing laugh and a blustery style, he had managed other large organizations, published magazines, written books, and, like Lonnie, raised a large family. Some years earlier, while living in Buffalo he was its first African American candidate for mayor.

At dinner I met more Board members and struck up a conversation about issues facing the organization. Before it went far, however, the headhunters found me and explained that, to avoid charges of inappropriate influence, I should henceforth eat in my room and avoid contact with the board outside the interview process. In other words, I would be essentially sequestered.

To prepare, I’d reviewed hundreds of documents, listened to meetings streamed or archived online, sampled programming, and gathered “intelligence” from friends in the media. Though the observations varied, there were common threads: The “war” might be over, but the grudges persisted and the wounds hadn’t healed. Resentment about the role, authority and financial control of the national office also lingered, and prevented Pacifica from functioning effectively as one organization rather than separate, largely autonomous local units. Further complicating matters, political factions were developing, hardening fast and charging each other not only with offenses like racism, hypocrisy, and undermining democratic governance but even with crimes, among them embezzlement, fraud, discrimination, assault, and stealing elections.

The next day about 25 people met around a long, makeshift horseshoe in one of the hotel’s nondescript conference rooms. At the end closest to the door another small table and a single chair completed the square. Relaxed and prepared, I took my seat before the jury.

The movement that recaptured Pacifica from those now known as the “hijackers” – even on the left, history is written by the winners – put in place an elaborate procedure by which, at each of the five stations owned by the foundation, members elect half of their 24 local board members two out of every three years. And that’s just the beginning. After 60 people (12 from each station) are selected through a form of proportion voting, the local boards hold their own “delegate” elections to send four people each to the national board. The whole process – from verification of voter lists to candidate nominations and the campaign season itself – takes nine months, requires election supervisors, costs more than $200,000, and produces a national Board where the youngest member is usually at least 40 years old and most directors are heading toward retirement. It also invariably leads to charges of “fair campaign” violations, vote tampering, and staff hostility to the process.

Over the next hour, various directors fired questions about my management style, relevant experience, knowledge of Pacifica, and ability to handle problems in a contentious political environment. At one point someone asked whether I’d ever been fired. Well, yes, I admitted, and recounted the time I was banned from a weekly newspaper I’d edited for more than four years for recommending that the staff might improve their working conditions by circulating a petition. The story connected, not surprising since much of Pacifica’s recent history revolves around incidents of arbitrary dismissal.

There was also a pointed question about what I might do if dealing with a racially-charged dispute. To answer that, I described a quarrel with a prominent Black organizer that began during an anti-racism training session in the late 90s. During a discussion of the civil rights movement, he blamed the women’s movement, which emerged strongly in the 60s, for stealing issues and momentum from civil rights activism. When I objected, his ire was palpable. The antagonism deepened when we sparred in print about his contention that African-Americans had little stake in the US bombing of Iraq in the 1990s. But we reconciled, I explained, when I visited his office at the local peace center to explore our differences in person. We still didn’t agree about many things when it was over, but he appreciated that I’d asked to meet face-to-face, had listened and yet stood my ground.

Before the questions ended, I offered my take on Pacifica’s post-crisis challenges – to begin “acting like a national network,” set internal bickering aside and retake its place as a leader of progressive media. “It’s called Pacifica for a reason,” I quipped, “but sometimes it seems like the name should be Aggressiva. That has to change.”

Looking around the horseshoe, I could tell the group was divided. Several Board members were smiling, but others looked skeptical. Later that night I began to understand why. One of the two other finalists was Eva Georgia, General Manager of KPFK, and a majority of the board was already convinced she should get the job. After all, she had run a Pacifica station for several years, successfully revamping local programming to appeal to minority communities. Not only that, she was a woman of color who had grown up under apartheid in South Africa and helped build community radio stations there. Plus, she was gay. In other words, a perfect fit – on paper at least -- for a progressive radio network in which race, gender and sexual identity were central to both programming and employment decisions.

The next day, as the headhunters suggested, I stayed in my room listening to the board meeting streamed on the Internet. The business was mostly approving budgets for the new fiscal year. But one board member, Rob Robinson from WPFW in Washington, DC, pressed for adoption of a national programming policy he’d been developing for more than a year. It sounded promising, but no action was taken. The General Managers also delivered their reports, and I had a chance to hear Eva. She sounded dynamic and eager to lead.

After the meeting, everyone except me was invited to attend a reception at the local station. Bored and frustrated, I prowled the lobby for a while and finally called a taxi. Surely there was no harm in socializing, especially since at least one of the other candidates was certain to be there. But before I could slip into the back seat, someone I’d met earlier warned that it would be a mistake. “What’s the big deal?” I asked.

“They might say you were trying to influence the vote.”

“Wait, who’s they? And isn’t Eva there?”

“Yes, she is. But let me explain a few things.” Glancing around nervously to make sure no one was watching, my only private contact in the last 24 hours led me upstairs to the empty fitness center and proceeded to fill in the blanks. Three people had been invited for interviews. But the third candidate, a well-connected Black communications lawyer and former talk show host who had produced for TV and radio, worked for civil rights, served on foundation boards, and even won an Emmy, had come across poorly and been dropped from consideration. It was down to Eva and me – the “old white guy” from Vermont.

“So, that’s it,” I concluded. The reply was a shocker. Eva might be the front-runner, but there were reasons why some people didn’t want her to be the next ED – namely, that they thought she wasn’t always truthful and may have misused funds, said my Deep Throat. Even more startling was the accusation of harassment, the kind of allegation that could ruin a career and injure an organization.

“It’s not over yet. You have some support,” said my source. “The question is whether you really want this job.” Yes, that was precisely the question, and I didn’t have the answer. “Well? If you do, you need to go for it. Otherwise, you’re wasting our time.”

Sleep didn’t come easily that night. What had begun as a chance to present some ideas to a receptive audience had become much more serious. Did I want to lead such a troubled institution? Was I was bold – or deluded – enough to think that I could “rescue” an organization that some people described as unmanageable? And not only that, could I make a difference?

I can’t say that I wasn’t warned. No previous occupant of the job for more than a decade had survived beyond a few years, and most were discredited or forced out in considerably less time. One friend claimed it was more difficult than being president. Another called the position “the dream job from hell.” I dismissed such descriptions as amusing exaggerations. But what made it irresistible, despite the warnings, was the fact that I had been preparing for this kind of work for much of my life.

Next: Challenge or Folly?

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