Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pacifica Radio: Network or Movement?

During my visit to Pacifica Radio’s Houston station, National Board member Ken Freeland assembled more than a dozen people, including seven disaffected members of the local station board, to provide their analysis of what was wrong with KPFT. Programs had been removed from the schedule without consultation, they charged, and “peace activists” were no longer welcome. Station Manager Duane Bradley was a passive-aggressive dictator and outright liar who promoted “corporate values,” they also claimed, and Program Director Ernesto Aguilar was a sycophantic “brown nose” who did his bidding.

“The take back never happened here,” said LSB member Michael Woodson, and the management was addicted to music. “It’s Pacifica-lite.”

These station critics wanted more stimulating discussions on the air, live news broadcasts whenever possible, open access to information on the fundraising records for various shows, and a return of public affairs programs, especially Democracy Now!, to prime time positions. Listener-members should be able to exercise control over management, they added, but the current board majority refused to hold them accountable. The proposals included establishing a “judicial branch” within the governance structure, as well as a “Freedom of Information Act with big teeth.” More than anything, it seemed, they wanted Duane Bradley to be removed.

After listening to each person around the large table present grievances and suggestions, I offered some preliminary reactions. In order to function effectively, there had to be a boundary between governance and management, I said. Though I agreed that Pacifica’s main purpose was to offer progressive and educational programming, the extreme negativity of the attacks reinforced a culture of resentment and disrespect. Respect for dissent was vital but disagreements ought to be expressed with civility and some compassion.

“What I’m wondering,” I concluded, “is whether you are trying to run a network or create a government? From what I’m hearing, it sounds like the latter.” The room was silent. No one seemed to have a clear answer. As the months proceeded, I would often repeat that question, addressing it to local groups and even the national board.

My own view was that the confusion over this choice reflected an underlying problem. The most active members of the community recognized that the main purpose of Pacifica was to produce radio programming, yet they also saw themselves engaged in a cultural project that went beyond that. Many of them were attempting to build an alternative society, and every aspect of their work needed to reflect its values. For many Pacifica wasn’t merely a non-profit foundation, it was a bold and utopian social experiment in what they saw as real democracy.

Later that night I visited with Otis Mcclay and Curt “Scooter” Schroell, a creative and irascible sound editor, and appeared on their webcast show, “Radio4Houston.” It was a great way to unwind after a tense encounter. Playing my own intro on a keyboard, I talked frankly about what I was seeing on my journey through Pacifica-land. People phoned in from as far away as Alaska to get a response from the new Executive Director. This reinforced my sense that, as the reach of the Internet grew, it was changing the nature of “radio.” Not all programs needed to be broadcast via a terrestrial station to reach their target audience, and listeners no longer needed to be within reach of a transmitter. Almost anyone with a computer could hear any program that was streamed, or retrieve it at their convenience. Two years later, you could still hear what I said that Wednesday in mid-February, 2006.

The next day I hung around the station, did an on-air interview during the midday newscast, and helped Program Director Ernesto Aguilar handle a dispute with African American activist-producers who felt that he’d reneged on a promise to provide significant space for special programming during Black History month. Ernesto preferred to avoid conflict and, perhaps as a consequence, sometimes implied agreement when he actually had reservations about a proposal. I tried to mediate, urging both sides to express their concerns and listening for points of agreement. It didn’t solve the problem, which resurfaced the following winter. But the activists felt they’d been heard – with the new ED as their witness – and Ernesto breathed a sigh of relief that the disagreement wouldn’t erupt into a public fight.

On Friday I set off by car for the West Coast. But Pacifica work didn’t stop. The National Board was moving into gear after welcoming eight new members and reforming its dozen committees. That Thursday I’d listened in on a Finance Committee session and, after checking into a motel in the Texas Panhandle the next night, convened a meeting of the ad hoc committee formed to search for a new corporate counsel.

At the January PNB meeting it had been decided that the organization needed to retain a lawyer to handle pending lawsuits and the many issues that required legal expertise. Since the Board didn’t feel comfortable letting me make the choice without oversight, the first step was selection of a board member from each station to “populate” a search committee. CFO Lonnie Hick was asked to join them, since such a decision had financial implications.

There were several strong personalities, with divergent agendas, on the committee. WPFW’s Ambrose Lane had a law degree and had been at the center of a recent legal dispute. KPFA board member LaVarn Williams was the new chair of the National Finance Committee and had pressed for an inspection of Pacifica records during the last days of Dan Coughlin’s administration. Lydia Brazon, a new national board member from KPFK, had been involved in one of the lawsuits that brought the previous regime to its knees and was a key advisor of KPFK General Manager Eva Georgia.

Before considering potential candidates, the group wanted to agree on criteria and the interview process. Knowledge of non-profit, California and labor law were high on the list. But a law firm’s commitment to diversity in hiring was also considered important. It would help to know something about Pacifica’s history and culture, and of course, the charge for services couldn’t be ignored.

Rather than using Roberts Rules of Order, the required practice at meetings of the full board and standing committees, I opted for a less rigid process. We would build an agenda on the spot, assign time limits, give everyone a chance to speak, and make a decision or move on as time and issues dictated. Meetings would last no more than two hours, and we’d agree on the date and time for the next session before adjourning. Everyone was thankful for a vacation from more formal, motion-driven rules.

We completed the agenda within the time limit and decided to bring forward the names of some possible candidates the next time. It had gone pretty well. No raised voices or snide comments. I went to sleep optimistic that we’d find a qualified firm within a month or so. Finally I would have a legal advisor to call on when the inevitable complaints and requests for advice and opinions began to pile up. Within a week I realized that it couldn’t happen soon enough.

Part Six of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

Next: KPFA -- Hanrahan vs. Bernstein, et al

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