Monday, July 14, 2008

Assessing Pacifica’s Deficit of Trust

During an early March 2006 meeting with Pacifica Radio’s attorney in the lawsuit with Noelle Hanrahan, as well as Hanrahan and her lawyers, the terms of a possible settlement were put on the table. The questions were whether the Board would agree to the financial demand, and whether people at KPFA could handle having Noelle back at the station. As it turned out, money was less the issue than her future in Pacifica.

There were also meetings of the PNB, the Finance Committee, and the ad hoc committee set up to select an ongoing corporate counsel. In between I searched for someone willing to step in as manager of KPFA on an interim basis. Most potentially qualified candidates turned down the opportunity. The people I thought could handle it felt the station was virtually unmanageable, and those few who wanted the job didn’t seem quite right.

Eventually, I persuaded Lemlem Rijio, the station Development Director, to take the job in April. She remained “Interim” GM for the next two years as the local station board struggled over a “permanent” choice. It was a controversial decision for some (Lemlem had been a critic of Roy Campanella and was considered too close to so-called “entrenched” staff), and was both praised and criticized. If nothing else it was a change, an inside management promotion rather than an outside “star” like Roy or Gus Newport, and did calm the mood at the station for a while.

In a report for the March National Board meeting, my first attempt to describe my assessment and plans, I pointed out that any decision made by the Executive Director could potentially be nullified by the board. Therefore, I asked for more and clearer delegation of authority. I mentioned the problem of civility, especially criticisms that crossed the line to “insulting characterizations, paranoia, and a deep well of distrust that tends to poison the atmosphere.” I criticized myself for raising expectations “about what could be accomplished without adequate knowledge of the organizational constraints,” and for, at times, becoming “too forceful with my own opinions.” For some it was the first time they’d ever seen a Pacifica manager admit to making a mistake. I discussed fairness, inclusion, and management instability, the problems facing fund drives, and the need to balance autonomy and cooperation in programming.

I also praised the accomplishments of the Affiliates Program and the Archives, but warned that the importance of Internet technology services had been underestimated for too long. “The risks include interrupted service, uneven quality, security breaches, and unanticipated technical failures,” I explained. “IT maintains the architecture that makes much of what stations do easier – or more difficult. Along with a programming coordinator, hiring additional IT staff (rather than the current ad hoc approach) is an important step.”

The underlying issue, I argued, “is that Pacifica’s identity as a network is a bit unclear. Like the other words I’ve mentioned, this one too is not adequately defined, in part because there is some concern that being a network could be disempowering to local stations. During my cross country trip, people occasionally questioned whether being part of a network is even important, suggesting that stations might do fine without any national staff or presence. Even if I wasn't the ED of this organization, I would find that proposition an unacceptable abdication.

“Pacifica is not only a national network, with the potential to reach literally millions of people; it is a unique national resource that must not be under-utilized. That said, reaffirming the terms of our social contract is vital, including assurances that persuasion rather than force will be the standard practice. On the other hand, Pacificans – boards, staff, volunteers – need to agree on high priorities, and I would argue that projecting a progressive counter-narrative nationwide – through public affairs, news, and culture – ought to be on the list.”

While trying to avoid fights I laid out my assessment as frankly as possible. It wasn’t especially visionary; I was saving that for later, when I had a firmer idea of what reflected both the possible and the ideal. For the moment, my bottom line was that the time had come for Pacifica “to retake its place as a leading voice and moving force in community-based media. “

As I prepared for another trip – according to the bylaws, it was time to meet in Los Angeles – my mood was relatively optimistic. It wouldn’t be easy but maybe I could accomplish something after all. I had just turned 59 and assumed the leadership of a large and legendary media organization.

Back at home in Vermont, the news was encouraging. Twenty-five years after local progressives had launched a peaceful “revolution” in the state’s largest city with the election of Bernie Sanders as mayor, a progressive had won again. Democrat Hinda Miller, a state senator and businesswoman, had been defeated by Progressive Bob Kiss, a state representative and ex-director of the local community action agency. The city had been managed by progressives, many of them friends, for all but two of those years. Plus, it was the first time a US mayor had been elected by instant runoff voting.

Going into the election, many people, even left-leaning stalwarts, predicted that the progressive “era” was over. Sanders’s successor Peter Clavelle, who initially ran for mayor as a Progressive, had returned home to the Democratic Party and endorsed Miller. But proportional voting put Kiss over the top. Former Governor Howard Dean, whose 2004 presidential campaign showed the power of the Internet to build a political movement – though Dean failed in the end – lauded the system despite the result. “I am a fan of IRV,” he said. “It is cost effective and will save the cost of a runoff election.”

If proportional voting could work in Burlington, I thought, maybe in time it will also net more constructive results for Planet Pacifica. It isn’t a magic bullet. But if more members of this virtual community can get past their resentments and anger, maybe, just maybe a deficit of trust can be replaced by a modest surplus of hope.

Next: Postscript-- Making Democracy Work

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