Thursday, April 17, 2008

Considering Rumors & Pacifica’s CFO

It often seems like everyone has some untreated bruise or unmet expectation, a string of complaints that stretches from the East Coast to California. One of the words I kept hearing during my first days as Pacifica Radio’s Executive Director was disrespect, usually accompanied by a complex, bitter story that could date back years. In whispered tones, on the sidewalk or behind my closed office door, various versions of grudges and feuds leaked out.

Free Speech Radio News, a collective that had launched daily newscasts in 1999 as part of the affiliates boycott of Pacifica, felt exploited, wanted a contract, and was asking for almost twice as much money, employee benefits and editorial independence. FSRN critics said its core group and 200 correspondents produced an uneven show, ignored important domestic stories in favor of obscure overseas coverage, and wouldn’t engage in editorial give-and-take with local station news staff.

The only Internet specialist on the national staff, who managed national websites and internal communications, claimed he was being denied the most basic budget and accused managers of treating him like a child. Some managers and board members charged him with being a disorganized, defensive loner who rarely delivered on time.

The union stewards for KPFA staff said that young programmers, mostly black, published misogynist screeds, intimidated women, and held late-night parties in a basement studio. Programmers said some of the staff were lazy careerists who didn’t care about the listeners and suppressed truly radical views.

The new HR director, hired a few months before me, was overwhelmed, depressed, and didn’t even have a private office.

One way or another, many of the issues tracked back to Lonnie Hicks, who over the previous four years had expanded the scope of his post as Chief Financial Officer to the point where people quietly called him the Deputy ED. He rejected the description, yet proudly asserted that he was responsible “for every contract,” as well as development and fundraising plans, aspects of personnel, supervising both local and national business staff, and setting up systems “to handle most of what we need to get done.” He reported directly to the Board, he stressed, and suggested seductively that, due to the obvious division of power between the ED and CFO, “you and I are natural supporters of one another. We should vow from the start to do just that.”

This was precisely the sort of arrangement that worried many Pacificans, a united national management front that could, in a worst case scenario, potentially withhold crucial information and impose its will on the organization. “Lonnie is very much accustomed to running and being in control of most of what goes on,” one Board member wrote privately. “It may take some diplomacy and a little time for you to deal with him on that, but the bottom line is you are the ED. You are responsible for basically everything, he’s not.” Yet, whatever it looked like on paper, Lonnie knew more about the organization’s financial condition than anyone else, and his proposal suggested a form of power sharing as the practical alternative to a power struggle I might not be able to win.

Lonnie’s overall view was that three competing visions contended within the organization. When I asked what they were, he listed four: the clearinghouse, grassroots, national impact, and feeding models. The clearinghouse referred to those who didn’t want “a strong national Pacifica, just a resource provided for people doing productions. This is the most dominant,” he said. “It says Pacifica should just provide money for independent producers.” The grassroots approach was similar, but relied mostly on a volunteer-based model of community radio. National impact meant, to Lonnie, using resources to “raise local voices to the global level” and expand the reach of the network.

That left the “feeding” model. “Programmers have a vested interest in going on the air and using their shows to make money,” he said. “It began when people started making money off the revolt. In revolting against the national board, KPFA programmers told listeners not to send money to national. By my estimate, $500,000 in listener funds disappeared in 2001 and 2002. I started an investigation into who diverted that money.” Part of the reason why some people “demonized” him, he added, was that he knew about such financial shenanigans and wouldn’t put up with more “feeding.”

Another view, offered by disaffected staff and frustrated Board members, made Lonnie a master obfuscator who didn’t confer enough with the board, played favorites with the staff, rationalized his own arbitrary judgments and took credit for the ideas and accomplishments of others, all the while using his control over budgets to bestow favors or withhold funds as he pleased.

Which version was true? I didn’t know yet. It would take time and some personal experience to sort it out.

In the meantime, one of the most pressing issues was the need to replace the General Manager at KPFA. Just three days before my arrival, Ambrose Lane, who had been filling in as Interim ED for six months, had cut a deal with Roy Campanella II. After working as GM at the “flagship” station for little more than year, Roy was out, and deciding what to do next was on my desk.

Next: KPFA – How Campanella Struck Out

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