Friday, April 11, 2008

Managing Pacifica: In the Bubble

First impressions, the rumor mill, national programs, KPFA’s Campanella affair, governance dilemmas, preliminary assessments, and why Pacifica fights

Part One: Marooned on the Margin


The rumor mill was churning out gossip before I reached Pacifica Radio’s national office. Once word got out in early January 2006 that I was the new Executive Director, it took only hours for some cynics to declare the Board’s choice yet another example of institutional racism. After all, why else would an apparently Caucasian male be chosen over a qualified woman of color?

One National Board member, who refused to speak with me, charged that Eva Georgia had been “set up to fail” and I’d been chosen only because of my “genes.” It was an insulting assumption, particularly given my Italian-Moorish ancestry. But an online broadside by Marc Cooper, though using my selection as its lead, actually took aim at a bigger target -- the institution’s trajectory for more than a decade -- and presented a starkly different critique. What made it odd was how similar his diagnosis sounded to my own.

During a crucial period in history, with digital technology making production easier and putting new distribution possibilities within reach, the organization had “marooned itself on the margin,” he charged. Arbitron’s ratings indicated that audience numbers for Pacifica stations, after a bump at the start of the Iraq war, had dropped below a million in signal areas with a total potential audience of up to 60 million. Some stations were making modest gains by streaming their content and podcasting archived programs, but a listener share of two or three percent was more than disappointing after more than a half century. It was an embarrassment.

The network – a word Marc used in quotes – was being “held hostage to self-serving programmers more interested in hearing themselves talk than in building a real audience. It’s a half-billion dollars rotting away,” he charged, referring to the value of the assets controlled by the non-profit parent corporation.

New York City-based station WBAI, once a hothouse that nurtured breakthrough journalism, serious leftist thought and cultural innovation, was said to be teetering on bankruptcy, its program grid “dominated by a toxic brew of crude race-politics.” KPFK, despite a strong signal and access to the coveted L.A. market, had become home to “screamers and, believe it or not, a couple of followers of the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party.” At WPFW, located in the nation’s capital, the opportunity to push back against the administration’s excesses and crimes was being missed. Instead, the station played jazz for its primarily Black audience about 19 out of every 24 hours. Marc blamed “white guilt” and a PC-cult that “permeates the internal Pacifica culture.”

It was a “magical place” in its heyday, he recalled wistfully, home for artists, activists and free-thinkers, where “libertarians and Buddhists mixed in back to back with Communists, radicals, and liberals and even some odd conservatives” like Casper Weinberger. Now, instead of teaching people how to think, it told them “what to think,” filling the air “with shrill, clumsy and dogmatic denunciations of ‘fascism’.”

His explanation of what went wrong? Self-appointed, unprofessional “community leaders” – his quotes again – had divvied up the schedule, and the whole organizational structure was controlled “by a small ultra-activist crust that knows little to nothing about journalism, radio programming or non-profit management.”

A bitter diatribe, combining some indisputable facts with several over-the-top caricatures, it culminated with the accusation that “otherwise intelligent liberals and progressives” had either quietly watched the decline, or worse, “signed onto idiotic crusades” designed to save the network by “cleansing it of any trace of nuance, ideological diversity and, for that matter, debate and dialogue.” Quite a brief for someone who claimed to “begrudge them nothing.”

Notably absent was any mention of Marc’s own role in the struggle that produced the new governance structure. After Dan Coughlin had Pacifica Network News cover the affiliate station boycott in 1999, for example, Marc complained about the brief news story, called for “more internal news democracy” – that is, more news director input into what went on the air -- and presented a decidedly pro-management slant. He was also The Nation’s main reporter on Pacifica affairs during this period, and his coverage sparked hundreds of letters pointing to his bias. Eventually, he quit his Pacifica job after national management was taken over by some of those in the “Save Pacifica” movement.

In other words, Marc’s provocative rhetoric wasn’t surprising. He was well known for criticizing leftists who backed what he considered unworthy or marginal causes. A one-time anti-war activist who grew up in Venice, California, he had been one of Chilean President Salvador Allende’s translators in his early 20s -- until a US-backed coup overthrew the government, and both Allende and some of Marc’s friends were executed by the military. His formal association with Pacifica dated to 1980 and stretched across almost 20 years. But after he left, his tendency to challenge left-wing sacred cows and conventional wisdom became more vitriolic. He publicly called Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a “thug,” characterized Native American writer Ward Churchill as a “guaranteed loser” and “clearly deranged loner on the edge of the looniest left,” and warned that Death Row celebrity Mumia Abu Jamal was "a bad choice for poster-boy of the anti-death penalty movement." He opposed the Iraq War, but had no use for anti-war activists who defended Shiite militants.

The attack on Pacifica was nevertheless troubling. For Marc, a prize-winning journalist, former news director and one-time paid host on KPFK, hiring me represented more evidence that cranks and extremists were squandering a precious resource. “Well, nice work, folks,” he concluded sourly. “Your network, as you would have it, is now officially run by someone who thinks we ought to seriously consider that something other than those airplanes took down the towers. Look forward, if you can, to more programming and fund-raising that would be better suited for a UFO cult than for a serious or credible political and cultural opposition.”

Ouch! Ok yes, I had written an article about 9/11 theories, though it was essentially a summary of someone else’s ideas rather than my own. In the old days, that was called reporting. But Marc seemed to say that covering a speaker who presented information and theories that conflicted with the official account was tantamount to an endorsement of everything the man said. What was the appropriate response, I wondered, to ignore the subject despite its popularity and the mainstream news blackout? Somehow that sounded a bit PC to me. And anyway, why did one article settle the question of how I might manage a network?

Still, more than the loaded analysis or being used as a journalistic device, the thing that bugged me was that we knew each other from a couple of weeks spent traveling together on a Nation-sponsored tour of Germany and Holland in 1982. Yet he hadn’t bothered to call and ask what I had in mind for the network, or perhaps verify whether his notions about my agenda held water. Not very professional, so it seemed. Instead, he resorted to techniques all too common on both the extreme Right and Left – selective memory, unsupported speculation, a touch of demonization, and a few crocodile tears.

Marc Cooper had left Pacifica – and maybe the Left – and yet taken the myopic, blame-focused attitude with him. But I had no time to deal with hit pieces or self-delusion. More immediate brush fires needed to be handled during those first few days.

Next: Pacifica National – The Voice vs. the Authority

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