Saturday, March 15, 2008

Life on the Outside + Inside Pacifica


They say you better listen to the voice of reason
But they don't give you any choice 'cause they think that it's treason

-- Elvis Costello, Radio Radio

It should have been a dream come true but I just couldn’t stop worrying. Smiling nervously at the crowd, hundreds of radio people gathered at the Portland Hilton for the annual get-together of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, I suppressed my anxiety and began to speak.

“It's good to be with media makers who don't believe that climate change is just a rumor,” I said, “who don't think immigrants coming to the U.S. for a better life should be turned into criminals, and who didn't need over three years to figure out that the administration manipulated public opinion and distorted reality to go to war in the Middle East.”

I meant it. But the idea was to break the ice with a tough audience.

Less than six months earlier, I’d been home in Vermont, co-editing a struggle weekly, writing articles and working with reporters from around the world. If someone had predicted then that I would become the CEO a radio network, I would have laughed.

I’d been doing my thing in the “alternative” media world for more than 30 years. Along with writing and editing, I’d done some scripts for documentaries, organized protests and conferences here and there, coordinated a few social justice groups, and run community bookstores. In other words, I was a communicator and a manager, and sometimes a trouble-maker. Yet none of that prepared me for Pacifica, a multi-million dollar non-commercial network with hundreds of employees – most of them in unions, a thousand volunteers – many demanding to be called “unpaid staff,” a complex democratic governance structure, and a history of rough internal struggles.

I’d been Executive Director for three months, but this was my first public speech to an audience beyond the Pacifica Radio community. “Although I've been a journalist,” I shouted over the luncheon din, “I also have come to believe that words aren’t always enough. That's why I went to the border between Nicaragua and Honduras with other members of Witness for Peace during the Contra war, committed civil disobedience in front of the gates of a GE armaments factory, ran for local office as a progressive insurgent, and, more recently, spoke out publicly against the Iraq war and attacks on fundamental rights.”

I’ll come back to all that later. For the moment, just know that after several months of wrangling Pacifica’s Board of Directors offered me the job -- vacant almost six months -- before the 2005 holidays. I didn’t immediately say yes. Instead, I spend the next ten days anxiously quizzing staff members over the phone and, quite frankly, looking for a good reason to decline. Unable to find one, I accepted on New Year’s Eve.

Three weeks later, I was in Berkeley learning the office ropes, reviewing finances and pending lawsuits, hearing complaints about sexist comments and reports of late night, marijuana-filled shenanigans at KPFA, located next door, and approving some hastily-conceived coverage of the president’s State of the Union address. Four days after that I flew to Washington, DC for my first Board meeting as ED, CEO and President of the foundation. Baptism by fire, anyone?

Now I was in the Hilton’s Grand Ballroom, speaking to radio producers, managers, technicians and hosts from across the country, trying to explain who I was, what I believed, and why they should expect anything different than the usual quarrels and disappoints. At first they seemed more enthusiastic about the meal provided by the network than anything I had to say.

“What have I learned along the way?” I asked rhetorically. “That corporate media's handling of the news has become increasingly unreliable over the years. In fact, mainstream journalists find it difficult, if not dangerous, to cover stories that do not fit neatly into what is known as the Washington Consensus. Meanwhile, corporations have developed sophisticated strategies to promote the stories they want to see, and prevent others from being aired or published. The result is perception management, a highly effective form of social engineering.”

I’d been writing for years about such manipulation. As The New York Times ultimately confirmed, plants at more than 800 news and public information organizations carried out assignments for the CIA in the 1950s and 60s. The FBI meanwhile used dailies like The San Francisco Chronicle to place unfavorable stories and leak false information. Sometimes journalists were unwittingly exploited, but too often they knew what they were doing: writing dubious stories that made government speculation and falsehoods sound true. When challenged, they vigorously protected their sources.

In the1980s, CIA Director Bill Casey had taken the practice to the next level: a systematic, covert "public diplomacy" apparatus designed to sell a new product – counter-insurgency in Central America. Reinforcing that old chestnut, fear of communism, the Reagan-era campaign linked it to Nicaragua's Sandinistas, Muammar Qaddafi, and other designated enemies. Sometimes this involved "white propaganda" – stories and editorials secretly financed by the government – much like the videos and commentators funded by the George W. Bush administration. But other operations went "black" – that is, they pushed obviously false story lines.

Manipulating public opinion involves much more than simple propaganda these days. Both businesses and governments have developed a toolbox of tactics to promote the stories they want to see and prevent others from being aired or published. In some cases, this involves what has become known as spin, arguments aimed at moving opinion in a specific direction. In other words, perception management is about more than just censoring or pushing an individual story. Rather, it involves the creation of an overall environment that promotes the uncritical acceptance of questionable information and assumptions – and too many people willing to promote them.

For journalists, the pitfalls include institutional constraints, commercial imperatives, close relationships with sources that have hidden agendas, the temptation to focus on easy targets, and a tendency toward self-censorship. There is also a great danger, exacerbated by the Internet, that rumors or speculation will be confused with reality.

Journalists are supposed to be the guardians of democracy and justice, servants of the public trust who question authority on behalf of the rest of us. Unfortunately, journalistic credibility has been serious undermined by pretenders and charlatans, charges of bias, fake news, organizations that accept money for favorable coverage, the circulation of press releases as fact, hosts who confuse public affairs programming with hyping books and other products, and influential reporters who abandon skepticism in favor of misleading government claims.

That’s why alternative sources like Pacifica Radio are important, despite battling factions, difficult personalities and frustrating structures. As I told the audience in Portland that April day, “Small, accessible, and affordable technologies can help people to challenge the knowledge monopoly of elites. And radio is one of the most accessible vehicles for alternative viewpoints. It's intimate, production can be inexpensive, and can reach people through hundreds of outlets around the country and sometimes the world. And at community-run stations there is certainly more diversity and programmatic pluralism than almost anywhere else in media.”

By this time, most of the audience was starting to pay attention. It helped that a conference organizer asked for quiet. “The instant communication offered by radio clearly opens up possibilities for social change,” I explained. “Like Gutenberg's invention of moveable type, modern information technology creates at least the possibility of widespread information literacy. It might even help spur a shift in values from uniformity to diversity, from centralization to local democracy, and from organizational hierarchy to cooperative problem-solving units. But this will depend largely on the growth of a social movement that promotes self-management of information.”

It was a plausible argument. But what they really wanted to hear was my vision for the country’s original listener-sponsored radio network. Actually, I’d been working on this since my first days on the job. In a nutshell, I told them, my agenda was to get more local voices on the air, revitalize the network’s moribund national programming, maximize its human and overstretched technical resources, honor and expand its diversity, and encourage people to work together with more mutual respect. As modest as that might sound, it was all much easier said than done.

“Basically, the idea is to help reaffirm and realize the organization's mission,” I continued, proceeding to read excerpts from the statement developed more than a half century ago by Pacifica founder Lew Hill. They are still noble ideas – to be an outlet for the creative skills and energy of the community, to promote the full distribution of public information, to provide access to and use of sources of news not brought together in the same medium. Along with each phrase, I offered examples of how the ideas could be applied in the early years of a new century.

But there was something even more important to say, something I needed to share and very much hoped was true. “Pacifica has finally emerged from its extended internal crisis,” I proclaimed. “And maybe it is ready to stop making war on itself.” At this point the room exploded with cheers and applause. I had finally hit a bulls-eye, appealing to the hope, shared by almost everyone there that the battles and negativity of the past decade were over.

From that point onward, I believe they heard most of what I said. In particular, my three point agenda --programming, organizing, and peace. “By programming I mean locally-generated, mission-driven national programming,” I said. “By organizing I mean better internal organization to make full use of resources and talent. And by peace I mean a process of reconciliation. It's time to bury the hatchets and move on.” Again there was applause.

Sensing it was time to wind up, I added, “There's more to the mission, of course, and much more to say. But for now, please consider this: The tasks facing independent media in the months and years ahead are crucial. With the Bush administration in free fall and the Right in disarray, it's time to seize the moment. The question is how. My suggestion is that we work together, set aside our minor differences and squabbles – we can get back to them later – and project responsible advocacy, real news and informed opinion. While doing that, however, we should also celebrate our differences rather than allow them to divide us; after all, isn't respect for diversity one of the things that distinguishes us from the forces that have used fear of those who are different to undermine freedom? Our job, as I see it, is to bring a sharp critique and a progressive vision to millions of radio listeners, to wake up the airwaves and shake up the world. It is an opportunity we should not miss, and a responsibility we cannot afford to ignore.”

Looking back, this may have been the high point of my two-year immersion into the often byzantine world of Pacifica Radio. I had managed to articulate an analysis and a vision that resonated with many of its stakeholders. For weeks afterward, staff and Board members and people who worked at affiliate stations, whether they were in the ballroom or read the speech, said they’d been inspired. But a speech, no matter how effective, is hardly enough to change a culture that has taken root over several generations. And even in the midst of the wave of affirmation that followed, I harbored deep doubts about my ability to continue doing the job.

NEXT: Early Radio and the Birth of Pacifica

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