Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Pacifica: The Voice vs. the Authority

Before arriving in Berkeley as Pacifica Radio’s new CEO in January 2006, I received a flood of warnings about challenges on the horizon – flat revenues, an aging audience, “entrenched” programmers, over-stretched staff and failing equipment. Pointing to a general drop in public radio listeners, Lonnie Hicks, the Chief Financial Officer, was forecasting layoffs unless something changed. Pacifica badly needed to attract more listeners, especially younger ones. There were also employee complaints, unresolved lawsuits, contract negotiations, and immediate programming decisions, plus a National Board meeting at the end of the week on the other end of the country.

The main business headquarters was located on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Berkeley’s multi-cultural downtown district, just an unmarked entrance near the corner of a small building complex purchased in the 1990s. Next door, KPFA looked from the outside like an art deco theatre, complete with small marquee and coming attraction posters. Inside, the station was airy, natural light streaming down on a wide central stairway, studios, offices and alcoves humming with life and electronics.

In contrast, the national office felt cluttered and cramped. Five foot partitions separated seven members of the staff; four were Lonnie’s finance team, plus a general office assistant, the Human Resources Director, and a part-time Development Specialist who worked mainly on fundraising projects. Upstairs, Lonnie had a long alcove just outside the door to the office of the Executive Director. The rest of the national staff, the programming, outreach and technical people I actually supervised, were scattered across the country.

The Executive Director’s office was large and anonymous, dominated by a huge “executive” desk. There were no windows to the outside world, just a small skylight. The furnishings included a cheap conference table, several chairs, two large white boards covered with outdated notes, and a pile of file boxes and unopened computers. An interior window overlooked most of the cubicles downstairs. Gazing out at an assembly line below, I momentarily felt like the foreman of a small factory. In this case, the assembly line mainly pumped out numbers and reports. Walking around the desk, I took my place at the high-backed leather chair, settled in, and tackled some of the issues at hand.

The State of the Union address by the President was coming up. Would Pacifica cover it? And if so, how and by whom? To my dismay nothing had been decided and the speech was only a week away. Ambrose Lane, who had been caretaking as Interim ED for six months, seemed unconcerned. After a day I had the back story. National programs and specials became less frequent after the “take back,” and usually were proposed and organized by local producers or Verna Avery Brown, the DC Bureau Chief.

Shortly after becoming ED, Dan Coughlin had axed Pacifica Network News. The program cost about $1.2 million a year, and for a while creditors threatened to force the organization into bankruptcy. At some stations the power and phones were almost turned off. Things were better now, but limited funding for shows was available in the national budget, and the only regular national broadcasts were Democracy Now! and Free Speech Radio News, both independent productions that Pacifica purchased but didn’t control. As if that wasn’t a sufficient handicap, station managers and program directors weren’t eager to give up air time, even for a special, unless it was negotiated far in advance and didn’t displace popular shows. And due to an un-written law that “national” wasn’t to dictate that individual stations “must carry” a program – under any but the most extreme circumstances – they didn’t have to.

Two weeks before I arrived, Pacifica had aired live coverage of the Senate hearings on the appointment of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. The show, including gavel-to-gavel broadcasts and interspersed commentary, was co-anchored by Verna and Larry Bensky, host of a weekly show and the network’s ad hoc national correspondent. It was a time-tested format and both had been with the network for a long time. But it hadn’t gone well.

One of the original "underground" newscasters and talk show personalities on "alternative rock" stations in San Francisco, Bensky had been a literary and political journalist since the 1960s, working in New York, Paris, and San Francisco, editing for The Paris Review, New York Times and Ramparts Magazine, and writing for the L.A. Times and The Nation. His first stint with KPFA was in the mid-70s as station manager, but he returned as a national correspondent in the 80s and over the years became a familiar voice of authority, guiding listeners through countless scandals and hot stories, perhaps most notably his award-winning coverage of the Iran-Contra hearings.

In the midst of the Save Pacifica campaign, Bensky defied the “gag rule” and went on the air to discuss the board’s ham-fisted management and “empire building.” He was fired for that. Two years later, however, he was back again, this time as host of Sunday Salon, a weekly chat show on which he interviewed luminaries and discussed whatever concerned him.

Verna’s career had begun in commercial radio news, but she joined the Pacifica Network News staff in 1988 and eventually anchored its daily news broadcast. At the start, she was, in her own words, “clueless.”

In a speech given years later, explaining why she ultimately joined the protest against management in 2000, she explained, “The Green party, the socialists, the Libertarians - I could have put what I knew about them in my eye and still not blink. Chlorofluorocarbons - bovine growth hormones - the Chiapas Indians - East Timor - none of this meant a thing to me. I may as well have landed on another planet - and as a general assignment reporter I was expected to learn these issues, care about them and portray them in such a way that others might be informed.” She did listen and learn, and came to “see the invisible geopolitical, socio-economic connections between the lives of all people of color across this continent, this world, the controlling forces of the IMF and the World Bank, the impotency of the U.N, the U.S. military industrial complex – and for the first time I saw the puppets and the puppeteers.”

Two years after Verna said that, she was back too, at first as Deputy Executive Director under Coughlin, and later, when the rest of the national staff relocated from DC to Berkeley, solo chief of the Washington bureau and self-described “voice” of the network.

The trouble was: the voice and the authority couldn’t get along. According to observers, Verna found Larry domineering and dismissive, an on air bully and off air chauvinist, and he considered her a political light-weight whose slip ups and puff-ball questions dragged down the quality of a show. Thus, in the midst of the Alito hearings, he had decided it wasn’t worth the trouble anymore and walked out, vowing never to appear with her on the air again.

For a few days, I looked for some way to incorporate both broadcasters on the State of the Union show without having them on mike at the same time. Verna had submitted a proposal, and no one else had much to offer. In the end, Larry wouldn’t play, leaving Verna to co-anchor an evening with Ambrose live out of a hip DC restaurant, Busboys and Poets. The ambience was lively, but the commentary was the usual “Bush bashing” and, predictably, not every sister station took the feed. Among the staff, the attitude was generally unenthusiastic. Some were critical of the content, others resentful that Verna was pulling down one of the highest salaries in the organization for producing what they considered mediocre shows and rip-and-read daily headlines.

Part Two of "Managing Pacifica: In the Bubble."

Next: Unraveling Rumors

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