Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Why Pacifica Radio Fights

The news from the outside world wasn’t promising in late January, 2006. Hamas had just won the Palestinian elections but the US, Israel, and several European countries weren’t willing to deal with the new regime unless its leaders renounced armed struggle and calls for Israel’s destruction. In other words, another stalemate. In Iraq, the US army commander admitted that the military was overextended in its “war on terror.” That sounded suspiciously like a setback. And in Washington, DC, a de-classified Pentagon document revealed that disinformation intended for foreign audiences was making its way back onto the computers and TV screens of the folks back home. That’s known as blowback.

On Planet Pacifica, nonetheless, such unsettling developments took a back seat to the normal array of internal tussles as members of the National Board convened in the nation’s capital for three days of parliamentary politics. Among other matters, a dispute was brewing over WPFW’s delegate election, board members from WBAI were at odds over what some considered a “racially insensitive” remark, Houston activists wanted KPFT’s general manager fired, and inquiring minds wanted to know whether the new Executive Director was a breath of fresh air or an incompetent conspiracy nut.

During a marathon staff meeting the day before the Board’s first public session, I’d finally talked with most of the national staff and station managers. To my surprise, this was the only time key network personnel actually got together to exchange ideas. The group was then known as the Administrative Council, and its interaction consisted mainly of previewing what each person planned to tell the Board. Some of them considered the entire exercise little more than a “dog and pony” show. For a while I sat back and listened.

Hours passed and the discussion meandered from on-air pitching – everyone agreed that station fund drives were taking too many days – to attracting younger listeners, changing the program mix, getting more grants, and launching a Spanish language newscast. At one point, KPFT Manager Duane Bradley brought up underwriting, a potential revenue stream for stations finding it harder to keep up with expenses. It was time, he said, to “adapt to reality.” But Pacifica had long avoided underwriting, on the assumption that it could lead to program sponsorship by questionable corporate sources. Duane acknowledged that the U-word, as he called it, was one of several that normally couldn’t be uttered. As I learned, other controversial words included “market,” “quotas,” “identity politics,” and “business” – as in “Pacifica should operate like a business.”

Eventually, I couldn’t resist posing a question. Since the network’s most popular show was Democracy Now!, which brought in more than $2 million in donations but was actually an independent production, I asked whether there was interest in launching a new national program that Pacifica would own and control. Congressional elections were coming in the fall, an ideal moment to try something new. Everyone said they agreed, yet beneath the surface I sensed considerable reluctance.

How could I frame such diverse issues? According to the agenda, I was expected not only to provide a general report but also moderate a discussion about the role of governance and management. Concerning the latter, the distinction wasn’t all that clear, and disputes over the exercise of power – in other words, the dynamics of democracy vs. efficiency, participation vs. production – were frequent and highly contentious.

The next day I provided a preliminary analysis. “According to the dictionary,” I began, “to govern is make policy, to regulate, to restrain, to exercise a determining influence on something. It’s basically about control. To manage, on the other hand, is to direct, to handle, to discipline or persuade, to succeed in accomplishing or achieving something. In other words, execution.”

How did that play out at Pacifica? According to the new bylaws, the National Board of Directors was supposed to “ensure” – a word repeated several times – that the Foundation’s purposes were fulfilled within the law, monitoring its finances and station activities, supervising its top managers, and delegating powers and duties consistence with the law. The operative words were “monitor” and “supervise,” I explained.

Fair enough. But what about the executive director and chief financial officer? Well, the bylaws said that I was “responsible for general supervision of the foundation” – I couldn’t help pointing out that Article 9, Section 7 actually called it a business – which meant implementing Board decisions in five areas: administration, personnel, programming, finances, and public relations. Beyond that, I was expected to promote the mission, based on whatever powers the board opted to delegate. Despite his expansive self-definition, Lonnie Hick’s authority as CFO was much narrower. He was basically supposed to maintain the books and financial records, deposit and disburse funds – as directed – and provide me and the Board with an account of all transactions and the financial condition of the organization whenever asked.

It sounded clear but there was obviously confusion, especially when it came to supervision. For the Board it was supposed to be about understanding what went on – overseeing the general direction of the network, delegating effectively, and ultimately being in charge. For managers, on the other hand, it wasn’t just a matter of seeing what was happening but actually making things happen. However, Pacifica’s emphasis on broad participation made defining the boundaries an enormous challenge.

The goal was to get things done efficiently and on schedule, yet the bylaws mandated processes that placed serious limits on managers. As a result, disputes frequently arose about how various people interpreted what was set down on paper. Words on a page were usually less important than the organization’s culture and values. In the end, ideology and perceptions tended to trump precedent or legal authority.

Put simply, the relationship between governance and management was difficult and strained. I also suggested one of the reasons – a constant struggle between pulls toward centralization and decentralization of power, with many sub-systems and constituencies vying to influence not only how the organization ran from day to day but where it was going. It didn’t help that many people had very different ideas about its mission.

In 1985, the Board had hired a consultant, Florence Green, to conduct a management audit of the network. The result was a revealing list. Let’s call it Pacifica’s Top Ten Troubles. Here they are:

1. No workable system for training, managing or evaluating volunteers

2. Decisions are inconsistent, ignored or just not implemented

3. Unclear roles for various boards, plus conflicts between boards and staff

4. Poorly-defined relationships that frequently aren’t followed

5. Weak training, unclear rules, and a preference for political correctness over skills

6. A tendency to view Pacifica as a refuge or therapeutic community, which makes problem-solving exhausting

7. Missionary zeal (this one was actually considered both a weakness and a strength)

8. Two dysfunctional forms of communication -- The Benevolent Dictator and Passive approaches. (In the former, directives are issued without regard to appropriateness or skill, and, as result, are often ignored. In the latter, the communication is too unclear to be useful or so indirect that concerns are more often shared informally or behind people’s backs.)

9. Some people have nowhere else to go -- and resist change

10. It’s no longer the only game in town

Not every item was related to management or governance. But 20 years on, as I read them to the board, the list hadn’t much changed.

I finished with a series of questions. For instance, how did they see the line between the responsibilities of those who govern and manage? Were they micro-managing, and if so, what would it take to change that? In a recent anti-war film, Why We Fight, when director Eugene Jarecki had posed the film’s title as a question, the first answer was almost always “freedom.” But when he probed deeper, the consensus fell apart. How about Pacifica? Why did it fight? Free Speech, democracy, diversity, or something else?

In Uneasy Listening, Matthew Lasar’s second book about the network, he had used a provocative term – anarcho-feudalism – to describe how Pacifica operated. Another word I’d heard was balkanization, referring to the organization’s tendency to divide into territories. So, how did they feel about that diagnosis?

I also asked whether they thought the bylaws were part of the problem and whether trust was a factor. In a poll of hands, most people answered yes to both. Finally, after noting that Pacifica’s managers were frequently, even routinely, under fire, I posed two crucial final questions: How did this community really feel about leadership? And, more to the point, was the nature of executive authority in some ways fundamentally at odds with how Pacifica saw itself?

Next: Practical Idealism and Pacifica Realities

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