Thursday, May 1, 2008

Managing Pacifica: Strategy & Struggles

Vermont was frigid when I returned home from my first week as Pacifica Radio’s Executive Director. Yet it was still a welcome change from the tumult inside the Pacifica bubble. For the past six years I’d been living in Winooski, a mill town adjacent to Burlington, the largest city in the state. “Large” means something very different in the Green Mountains than it does in Berkeley or DC, of course. Burlington has a population of less than 50,000 people, and Winooski, known as the Onion City, is one mile from end to end. My house was 80 years old, all hardwood floors and funky rustic charm, and shared with four younger friends.

In a week I would set out on a cross-country road trip, with stops along the way at each Pacifica station to meet staff and see local dynamics first hand. But first I needed to catch my breath and take stock of the situation.

During the previous week I’d heard lots of talk about transparency, often mentioned as if it was democracy’s magic bullet. But like a number of overused words, it was subject to varying interpretations. For some, it simply implied a willingness on the part of managers to be more open about their plans; for others, it meant something more, a requirement to submit any proposed action to board members for review. I seriously doubted whether that was workable.

Any decision could be questioned and potentially reversed, it seemed, yet the national board and its committees were consistently backlogged. This led to delays, lost opportunities and missed deadlines. As a result, transparency ended up exacerbating a tendency toward crisis management. Without sensible delegation of authority the organization would continue reacting too slowly to challenges and opportunities.

Another word I kept hearing was inclusion. Mostly, it meant attention to under-represented communities, primarily communities of color. But no fair and effective process for doing that was in place, and something more seemed to be implied. How did inclusion relate to Pacifica's factional culture? Did the community agree on specific goals? And what precisely was meant when a related term – diversity – was used? Did it refer exclusively to race or include more categories? These sensitive human resources, governance, and political questions were not being forthrightly addressed.

Harsh criticisms were coming from all directions. While I understood the need for skepticism and a willingness to air differences, it was shocking to hear and went far beyond constructive criticism into the realm of insulting characterizations, paranoia, and a deep well of distrust that poisoned the atmosphere. In several cases, I was expected to be a mediator or disciplinarian. Sometimes that would be possible. But the behavior problems weren’t restricted to staff, and a change in the general culture would come only if decision makers and other leaders modeled the behaviors they wanted to see. In other words, intemperate speech and demonization would have to stop if disputes and litigation were going to be reduced. Exactly how was that going to happen?

My initiation had been both revelatory and discouraging. Most staff members sounded wounded and almost desperate for respect, reluctantly sharing grievances as if they were psychologically battered children. Their ire was often directed at members of the boards, who in turn often looked at them as insubordinate delinquents responsible for Pacifica’s stagnation or decline. In less than a week, I’d been urged to fire almost every general manager and program director in the network.

The job was beginning to look more political than administrative, as if I’d become the mayor of a polarized community or superintendent of a troubled school system. But I hadn’t been elected – in fact, even my “selection” looked a bit tainted – the exact powers of the office were in dispute, and, due to the organization’s frequent elections, half of those who had supported my candidacy were no longer on the board.

Safe at home, I conducted a preliminary assessment with the help of Otis Maclay, a veteran producer connected with KPFT in Houston for two decades. If I was to be an effective leader in this fractious community, an understanding of the current board dynamics and power structure was essential. The board’s new chair, for example, was Dave Adelson, one of the litigants who brought the former regime to its knees. He’d backed Eva Georgia for the CEO job, but his main priority was to reinvigorate Pacifica through digital production and distribution. Dave hoped to renew the organization’s old volunteer ethic through the creation of a cyber-based civic community that reached a vast new audience. To the extent that I moved the network in that direction, I might have his backing.

In all, it looked like I had the support of about eight out of 22 Board members, not enough to prevail in close, contentious voting. On the other side was a core group of about six people who weren’t happy with my arrival. The key would be the remaining swing voters, including most of the WPFW delegation and “wild cards” like KPFT’s Ken Freeland.

A grimly serious peace activist with a penchant for long e-mails, Ken had requested a private audience during the board meeting. His basic message: KPFT’s manager Duane Bradley was selling out the station, suppressing activist content, and cutting relevant public affairs programs in favor of safe music shows and BBC news. Like others across the network, he was fixated on Democracy Now!, which had been moved to a later morning time slot in Houston. For Ken and his allies, who felt the time change undermined DN’s drive-time audience, this alone was a sufficient reason to get rid of Duane.

Since I wasn’t prepared to grant that request, my best bet might be a strategy that sat well with the remaining non-aligned delegates. Counting votes made me uncomfortable, but it looked unavoidable. Without a functioning board majority, I had little chance of initiating significant changes in management and programming. Talking it through with Otis, I began to think that one key might be a stronger presence, along with additional staffing and improved infrastructure, in the nation’s capitol. Sam Husseini had already pointed to the need. Building up Pacifica’s DC base might spur changes at WPFW, lead to a revised role for DC Bureau Chief Verna Avery Brown, and persuade some additional Board members to give me a chance.

The need for intrigue was discouraging but nothing new. There had been struggles for the heart and soul of the organization almost from the start. By 1953, only four years after KPFA went on the air, a battle over the direction of the station already pitted Lew Hill and his tony, handpicked advisors against station manager Wallace Hamilton. Hamilton and his supporters thought the station should be an “experiment in anarcho-syndicalism,” functioning as a collective and showcasing unpopular points of view. Hill favored a more centralized leadership and dialogue without a political litmus test. The result was a civil war and ultimately a “palace revolution” in which Hill and his allies used wealthy contributors to financially starve the station and recapture it.

Within a few years, it happened again. Reformers who wanted a voice in station policy charged that the foundation was mismanaged and bloated with salaried staff. But this time Lew wasn’t up for the fight. Spinal arthritis had led him to inject large doses of cortisone. Depression, a stroke, and a suicide attempt followed. That winter, a group of listeners confronted the founder about the need for a more democratic process. “KPFA is not that kind of a group,” he replied.

By summer 1957, both the station and Hill were in deep crisis. The advocate of dialogue had become rigid and isolated, frequently misinterpreting what people said, no longer able to empathize, and contemptuous of those who sought a “mass discharge of emotion” in political activity. The station was equally disoriented, in broadcaster Elsa Knight Thompson’s words “a terrifying mess.”

On August 1, Lew Hill broke the stalemate by taking his own life. His final brief poem explained that he was acting “not for anger or despair, but for peace and a kind of home.” Nonetheless, his desperate exit provided the catharsis Pacifica needed. Challenged to prove that the institution could survive without its “creator,” his colleagues staged KPFA’s first large-scale, on-air fund drive. In little more than a month, the station went from deficit to surplus. His demise also released the pent-up energy of a new generation of programmers with a decidedly different vision. Hill’s mission statement wasn’t ditched, but in practice the station moved from dialogue to opposition. Wallace Hamilton’s vision had prevailed, a station that would celebrate dissent, a platform for ideas beyond the confines of “mainstream” media. Ironically, the death of the “father” had led to the station’s rebirth. It was the dawn of alternative radio.

Half a century later, however, Pacificans still talked about the original mission statement as if nothing fundamental had changed. Even those who had recently recaptured the foundation – and created a radically “democratic” structure that Hill would have adamantly resisted – acknowledged no contradiction. Each faction cloaked its arguments with references to the founding principles, yet at the same time insisted that their political agenda was the one true path.

How could anyone lead an institution burdened with such paradox? A friend had advised that the only way was to approach the role with a “messianic” mind-set. Vaguely uncomfortable with the idea I asked what he meant. “You have to be bold and selfless,” he explained, “but also assume that eventually you are going to be crucified.” It was tough to admit, but sounded about right. No matter what I did, there would be resistance and controversy. Suicide wasn’t an option, but in the end it might well be necessary to risk professional “assassination.” Anyway, it was too late to turn back.

To be continued…

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