Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Planet Pacifica: Making Democracy Work

Excerpts from remarks at a KPFT planning retreat, January 2008

When rumors fly through the Pacifica Radio community or attacks get especially nasty, people often blame provocateurs and charge that the government is out to get radio’s voice of the people. There’s some basis for this suspicion. The FBI had Pacifica in its sights as early as 1958, and took a special interest in 1962 when former Special Agent Jack Levine gave KPFA an interview. Levine exposed the Bureau as a threat to democracy and a tool of J. Edgar Hoover, its vain and obsessed director. According to Mathew Lasar, who reviewed Freedom of Information Act files, the Bureau poked, prodded, and harassed the organization for years, even planting agents disguised as private citizens.

In the last decade, however, charges of counter-intelligence operations directed against the organization have been speculative at best, and occasionally excursions into free-range paranoia. When messages critical of program hosts or local activists are posted on Internet lists and websites, their authors – some long-time Pacifica members – are sometimes charged as accomplices in an alleged government conspiracy to destabilize the organization. Board members and station managers aren’t exempt from insinuations that they’re part of the plot.

Personally, I found no solid evidence of a government operation during my tenure as Executive Director. But even if a disinformation campaign was being pursued, it would be overkill. At this point, the Pacifica community is capable of destabilizing itself without a federal assist. Outside forces aren’t responsible for the current bylaws or listener activist distrust of staff, the slow response to the digital age, confusion about the basic mission, programming gridlock, financial decline, or misbehavior of board members and volunteers.

Part of the problem is the version of democracy put in place after Pacifica was “saved.” The five stations have about a million regular listeners. Of this total, about 10 percent make financial or volunteer contributions, qualifying them to participate in local elections. Of that total, little more than 10 percent actually return ballots. Due to proportional voting, it takes at most about 300 votes for election to a station board. In other words, LSB members draw their right to govern from less than one percent of the listeners. And in order to win, candidates often resort to negative appeals, especially charges that the process is corrupt and Pacifica isn’t democratic enough. In general, the elections tend to perpetuate an atmosphere of confrontation and suspicion.

They also take at least eight months to conduct, cost more than $200,000 each time, consume considerable staff and airtime, and lead to interminable legal disputes. Most non-profit boards recruit people with specific skills needed by the organization. Pacifica has replaced this with an election process that creates warring factions on every station board.

In the past, Board meetings have frequently featured rude outbursts and other disrespectful behavior. Roberts Rules of Order are often abused, becoming weapons of obstruction rather than tools to promote rational discussion. E-mails are used to spread rumors and promote debates of marginal relevance. In many cases, factional alliances manipulate the rules. Productivity suffers and questionable behavior opens the organization to legal liability. All this has the effect of alienating potential supporters or future board members.

Voting is not a panacea. It’s a mediated form of political engagement, and can sometimes divert energy from more effective forms of political and social action. Just because a group is elected, that doesn’t always mean it makes the best or even the right decisions.

Since the status-quo encourages competition rather than cooperation, a viable alternative would need to provide incentives for actively seeking common ground. For elections to be constructive, the process must reward helpful ideas rather than negative appeals. Pacifica might consider having some at-large, appointed board members, people who have needed skills and aren’t so entangled in the internal political struggles.

The organization could also benefit from some form of open-source governance, an emerging “post-national” approach that draws from the collective wisdom of a whole community. An open-source model could help de-couple setting policy from station management. A small step in this direction is to post all the policies – local, national, financial – in one accessible public registry and update it regularly.

The current structure is, in part, a form of grassroots democracy. As much decision-making as possible is granted to the lower geographic level of organization. This sounds fine, but means in practice that power resides with local institutions – the stations – and not with individuals. In contrast, participatory systems give people equal access to decision-making regardless of their standing in a local chapter or community. The question is who and what Pacifica seeks to empower.

In the digital age, people can listen to any station they want, at any time they want. They are no longer bound by geographic proximity or access to an FM frequency. Some way needs to be found for people who support Pacifica, but don’t work at or contribute to a specific station, to participate as members. They represent a vast untapped audience and certainly shouldn’t be viewed as outsiders. In short, claiming to have a democratic structure doesn’t end the discussion. The real issues are what form of democracy works best, and who is really a member of the community in this new era.

Beyond a fresh look at listener democracy, Pacifica also needs a serious review of its outdated mission statement, which currently adds to the confusion, and a radical overhaul of its bylaws. Perhaps being the loyal opposition, covering the stories that other media ignore, is the path ahead. But if so, where and how do dialogue and national programs fit in? Is it really a network or merely a convenient umbrella for local stations that basically go their own ways? Resolving such questions will help to determine the best formats and schedules to serve the mission and attract more listeners. It might even lead to less internal warfare.

Planet Pacifica will resume sometime in the future. Keep in touch with Maverick Media for frequent updates on politics, perception management, alternative media, Vermont, and Pacifica today.

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