Monday, July 7, 2008

Pacifica Radio: Elections & Civic Media

Before returning to Pacifica Radio’s business office in Berkeley, after weeks on the road visiting stations as I relocated across the country, a few more stops needed to be made. First, a briefing with some Los Angeles volunteers who explained the intricacies of Pacifica’s election process. The meet was arranged by Lydia Brazon, a national board member representing KPFK.

For some people elections are the heart of what has been achieved by the Save Pacifica movement – more than a hundred elected local board members for the five sister stations, chosen by Pacifica members through a complex form of proportion voting. Each listener-member, volunteer and staff member can support multiple candidates by ranking their choices. A computer program calculates the results, making it possible for various constituencies to be represented.

But the process takes months, what with determining eligibility, nominations, public forums and public service announcements designed to level the playing field, the mailing of more than 80,000 ballots and booklets with candidate appeals, and the tabulation and certification of each station’s results. According to the new bylaws, at least 10 percent of members must vote in each local election for the outcome to be valid, and it has been getting more difficult each year to legitimately achieve quorum.

Within a month I would have to select a National Election Supervisor to manage the entire process (In April 2006 I picked Les Radke, over the objections of some), someone who understood this unusual approach to elections and had enough patience to handle the inevitable complaints. That overseer would in turn recruit Local Election Supervisors for each station. It might also be necessary to contract with an outside firm specializing in this type of computer-based voting. The whole shebang would cost more than $200,000 (slightly less in 2006) and require the cooperation of managers and staff at every station. The latter certainly wasn’t assured. For many staff members the elections were a time-consuming nuisance and ended up producing boards that demanded far too much involvement in day-to-day decisions for their taste.

That evening I was the main speaker at a community meeting. After explaining how it happened that a Vermont editor had become the CEO of a radio network, I took questions for about two hours. People seemed surprised that I had a decent grasp of the myriad challenges. After that I drove downtown for a late-night talk with Dave Adelson, the new chair of the national board.

Dave was neurophysiologist, former chair of the KPFK board, and, during the Save Pacifica movement, lead plaintiff in a key lawsuit. He had supported Eva Georgia’s candidacy for ED, as he explained it mainly because she was tough and wouldn’t “take shit” from people. On the other hand, he advised me not to act too fast but rather to watch the dynamics before making any strong moves. His analysis centered on the notion that Pacifica had been “privatized” by people who thought of airtime as their personal real estate. The idea that the network was supposed to foster a civic community had been lost along the way. It would be difficult to change that, he believed. But he had a big idea.

Dave’s idea involved the growth of digital media and the Internet. Increasing numbers of people, especially the young, were already getting their media via devices like iPods. They didn’t see the point of making an appointment to hear a show when they could download it at their convenience. If Pacifica provided major online platforms for content – and encouraged people to use them as a viable alternative to terrestrial radio – it could foster a new form of civic media. Over time it wouldn’t matter as much who had the 8 a.m. time slot. An unlimited number of shows could be distributed. Listeners could even become their own program directors, assisted by Pacifica in setting up virtual channels.

But making all content, including existing shows, available online meant that questions of ownership and copyright had to be resolved. The stations owned any shows produced by staff members, and the CPB provided a blanket agreement that allowed non-commercial stations to air commercially-owned music. But most Pacifica shows weren’t produced by staff; they were created and hosted by individual volunteers and collectives. And music distributed digitally wasn’t covered by the CPB’s deal with the recording industry. As soon as possible Pacifica needed to work out an arrangement with its volunteers, resolving the ownership issue and winning support for licensing agreements that would allow the network to distribute hundreds of programs to a vast new and much younger audience.

It was a lot to absorb, and I didn’t completely get it the first time he tried to explain. Dave had a scientist’s fascination with subtle details and tended to rhapsodize about his vision of the future. But it was clear that he had a plan and had taken on a leadership role within the board to make something very specific happen. He too wanted to know if he could count on my support.

Part Twelve of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

Next: Following the Money

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