Friday, March 20, 2015

Managing Pacifica: How It Began

(Originally posted on March 20, 2008)

Shortly after I landed a post-college media job – reporter for a daily newspaper in southern Vermont – an angry reader complained about my bias in a letter to the editor. “I strongly doubt that he could cover the proceedings of a dog show without incorporating a message,” the critic charged. Clearly, I wasn’t amusing this member of my audience.

But by then I didn’t care. In fact, the attack was encouraging. I wasn’t going for laughs or trying to satisfy expectations. Between age six and twenty-two my goals had shifted – from pleasing people to challenging their assumptions, and from merely entertaining to also informing.

Reporting should convey more than just facts, I thought. Current events ought to add up to something, and journalists are kidding themselves if they believe that they can divorce their personal viewpoints and conclusions from what appears on the page or goes out over the airwaves. As I told the headhunters who thought I might have the right stuff to handle Pacifica Radio, what I'd tried to do over the years was “mass market some radical ideas” and provide a counter-narrative to the diet of misleading infotainment people were being force fed every day. They thought it might be a good fit.

The chance to work at Pacifica came my way by accident. More than a decade earlier I’d met an activist librarian on a plane by striking up a conversation about Z, a left-wing magazine she was reading. Even before 9/11, you rarely saw people on airplanes engrossed in “alternative” publications. At the time I was editing Toward Freedom, a smaller but respected magazine that had covered international affairs from a “progressive perspective” since the early 1950s. We hit it off, and she provided an invaluable stream of news, ideas and leads for articles over the next decade. But she was also a loyal yet disgruntled listener to a Pacifica station, and when the top job became available, she let me know.

At first it didn’t feel right. The ideal candidate for Executive Director, said the job announcement, should have at least 10 years of relevant job experience, including non-profit management, and preferably two years as General Manager of a noncommercial broadcasting station. I’d run non-profits and had experience editing and publishing newspapers and magazines. In the late 1970s I’d been a stringer for Pacifica and Vermont Public Radio. But my only recent radio work was a two-year stint co-hosting a university radio morning show – before being cancelled and banned from the premises. As it turned out, being banned was a plus.

Dan Coughlin, the previous Executive Director, had resigned months earlier after three years on the job. After growing up in England, he had covered crime for Interpress Service in New York before moving over to Pacifica in 1996 by way of Democracy Now!, an election series that became a network hit and made Amy Goodman a household name in progressive circles. After producing DN! for two years, he took over Pacifica Network News – just in time to become embroiled in a fight for the organization’s future.

Even before Pacifica evolved into a national network with five owned stations and dozens of affiliates, there were internal battles. But until the 1990s the fact that each station handled its own programming kept most of the fighting local. At that point, rumors began to circulate that “central” management and the national board wanted to seize control of content to increase listenership and shift the funding model from reliance on listener donations toward foundations.

In 1999, when the board amended the bylaws to make itself self-appointing, ostensibly to comply with a CPB requirement, Pacifica’s community-based culture began to actively resist what was soon labeled an attempt to “hijack” and “mainstream” the organization. For Coughlin, the question became: Should PNN, a daily newscast aired on more than 60 stations, cover the deepening crisis?

Early that year, after KPFA Station Manager Nicole Sawaya and popular correspondent Larry Bensky were abruptly fired, staff began to defy a long-standing policy of not airing internal grievances. Going on the air, some charged that Pacifica was a top-heavy bureaucracy hungry for mainstream legitimacy, preoccupied with ratings, and unaccountable to the community. There was even evidence that the board might consider selling stations. Listeners could read about major developments -- arrests inside KPFA, a staff lockout, street protests -- in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and other corporate outlets. But Pacifica’s news operations were under orders to keep the struggle off the air. For a while Coughlin went along.

In late October, however, when 16 affiliate stations declared “A Day without Pacifica” and boycotted its programs, he decided to break PNN’s silence, airing a report on the protest and what was called, in a monument of understatement, a labor-management dispute. “This summer, more than 100 persons were arrested, and thousands took to the streets at the oldest listener-sponsored station in the country to protest Pacifica staffing decisions,” the item announced. “The 16 Pacifica stations from 11 states called for the network to adopt new open, accountable governance and to continue to support community-based journalism, which they said had made Pacifica great.”

The report lasted only 37 seconds. Yet, when Coughlin returned to work after a long weekend, a terse e-mail from ED Lynne Chadwick was waiting. “You’re no longer news director,” she announced. A day later, he was reassigned without notice to a murky “Task Force on Programming and Governance.” Although he remained on staff for another year, his removal from PNN confirmed the suspicions of dissidents that censorship had replaced free speech and editorial independence at Pacifica.

Two years later, in 2002, after a titanic struggle and multiple lawsuits produced a new board and a decidedly decentralist structure, he returned – this time as Pacifica’s first “post-revolution” chief executive.

Unfortunately, he inherited a mess – millions in debt, missing records, an aging audience, and a legacy of distrust. Yet he somehow managed, with the help of loyal listeners and a strong financial team, to bring the organization back to relative stability. What remained unclear was why and how, despite a major save, he had gone from Golden Boy in 2002 to object of scorn three years later. The accusations included shady payouts, lax oversight, and “contempt” for the new bylaws and democratic structure. A protest was staged outside the main office in Berkeley during his last day on the job. Just how did all that happen?

The deeper I looked the more convoluted and intractable the problems appeared: Charges and counter-charges of secrecy, waste, racism, sexism, harassment and violence, turf battles over local fiefdoms, manipulation, and alleged fraud. It seemed like a fratricidal war with no end in sight. A friend who worked in community radio, hearing that I was up for the top job, mildly defined the main issue as an “actual and perceived lack of transparency.” But he also mentioned poor fundraising and development, ineffective mediation of personnel problems, and legendary racial battles over the control and “color” of programming.

It reminded me of how easily reality can be blurred by misinformation. That July, Jeff Ruch, the director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, had issued a relevant assessment of a much larger and even more dysfunctional organization. "The federal government,” he concluded, “is suffering from a severe disinformation syndrome." Could this be what was afflicting Pacifica? Theories presented as facts, information massaged to promote a specific spin, cherry-picked evidence. Whether intentional or not, Pacifica’s convoluted politics and history seemed to have created, as Bob Woodward put it his book that summer about Watergate secret source Deep Throat, “an entire world of doubt."

Who could unravel this mess, no less get the larger community to look beyond its debilitating bitterness and distrust? Probably not a middle-aged activist editor from one of the smallest, whitest states in the country. But I wasn’t too concerned, since it didn’t look remotely possible that I would get the job. It was flattering to be interviewed, but I essentially saw the invitation to Houston to meet Pacifica's leaders as little more than an opportunity to offer an informed outsider’s assessment.

NEXT: 9/11 Theories and Pacifica’s Fear Factor
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