Thursday, October 1, 2015

Pacifica Radio: What Went Wrong?

In late 2008, faced with layoffs, a crash crunch, lawsuits, and a long-term decline in listenership, the National Board of Pacifica Radio, the original listener-supported network, decided to seek a $1 million dollar loan, reportedly using station assets as collateral.

In response, Ricco Ross, chair of Los Angeles station KPFK-FM’s Local Board wrote to Chief Financial Officer Lonnie Hicks and the National Board, calling for greater transparency and consultation in such decision making, and asking sister stations in Berkeley, New York, Houston, and Washington, DC to stand with KPFK against the action.

The letter concluded: "This appropriation of station assets without notice and consultation sets a precedent that endangers every station in Pacifica." A motion passed by the KPFK LSB called for the National Board “to require a repair and repayment plan as a condition for its approval of any collateralized loan agreement." Almost a third of the loan would go toward payment of a smaller loan obtained the previous summer.

Since August, the organization’s Executive Director and Human Resources Director had resigned, staff was reduced at most stations, and many national staff positions were cut. On the other hand, CFO Hicks returned to work in October after a three month leave of absence. A new ED job description was written, but the search had yet to begin. Meanwhile, discussion forums speculated about receivership, bankruptcy, and breaking up the network. National Board Members and most managers remained silent.

At KPFA, the resignation of Business Manager Lois Withers was announced. According to an editorial posting on Pacificana, a KPFA-based online forum, “While Ms. Withers is known by many as capable and responsible in her position as Business Manager, the more recent memory of her tenure was marred by her role in escalating a simple volunteer matter into a disproportionate action of calling the Berkeley Police into the KPFA building and exacting violence on volunteer programmer, Nadra Foster. The original charges? Using the phones, and printing paper.”

A dispute also brewed over the KPFA Local Station Board’s decision to hold its November monthly meeting outside of the local signal area, along with postponement of the next meeting until January 2009. In New York, a lawsuit over the 2007 station board elections at WBAI had yet to be settled. Other lawsuits against stations and the network drove up legal costs. In Washington, DC, questions were being asked about the financial results of a 30th anniversary gala for WPFW.

Nevertheless, compared with recent news about station collapse and a phantom foundation set up to salvage what's left after bankruptcy and investigations, those were the good old days.

Such developments bring to mind my last in-person words to the PNB as Executive Director, delivered at a quarterly meeting in Los Angeles on July 27, 2007. I’d just come to an agreement with the Board on the terms of my departure; I’d offered to remain on the job until a thorough search could be done, and to help with a transition, but the Board passed on that option. Still, many of the problems and issues being discussed were addressed in that 12-minute report. It was, in abbreviated form, my basic assessment of Pacifica’s situation.

A financial crisis was likely and imminent, I said, but much could be done. Specific proposals to reform and revitalize Pacifica – many under discussion for years – were presented again. In short, the diagnosis was public and a plan was on the table. But some in governance and management weren’t persuaded, enough at least to make timely action next to impossible. Here’s what I said:

Report to the PNB, July 27, 2007

When I applied for this job, some of the Board members said that they were impressed with the fact that I’d studied the organization and its problems pretty seriously, and, in a sense, I got here by examining Pacifica as a journalist might and reflecting back to the Board what I’d found. Since then, however, there has been at times less interest in what I’ve learned by actually doing the job, and, at times, also limited enthusiasm for some of my proposals to address the problems that I’ve identified. But so it goes.

For the record, however, I’ve made several proposals and would like to reiterate them. I’ve suggested management reorganization, including more accountability of local management to national priorities and standards. There has been some controversy about that. I’ve advocated more aggressive and coordinated national programming, including a new national program and local programs carried by all sister stations, and national editorial priorities that are reflected in programming across the network. I’ve suggested that, like any other news organization, this one should have editorial priorities which change as circumstances change. Right now, I believe that those editorial priorities ought to be: ending the war on terror, health care for all, a restoration of democracy, and building ecological security. That is not to say that other issues and sub-issues are not also important. But these represent issues of great national concern, and which would – if reflected in national programming -- distinguish Pacifica as an independent radio network.

I have also argued for a serious investment, more serious than we have been able to provide so far, to technological re-tooling, including Internet channels with interactive content, more investment in new equipment, and increased distribution that empowers more listeners. I’ve suggested – and we are making some progress on this – more coordinated marketing and promotion with a serious and consolidated development and outreach budget, and training for affiliate stations. And finally, increased leadership within the independent media community, and work with other organizations on free speech campaigns.

But how has it gone? Slowly. Management organization has run up against concerns about local autonomy and, I think, a suspicion about the possibility that there could be another national power grab. Collaborative programming – we’ve made some improvements there, but there remains a sentiment that each station should control its own airwaves and that substantive changes should never be made without a long, thorough and, some would say, seemingly interminable process of consultation with many stakeholders.

Technological investment has been delayed by a tendency to create budgets from the bottom up, an approach that leaves overall issues that concern the national organization for last, and makes reductions in spending on network-wide needs the easiest solution when money is tight, as it is now. And coordinated marketing, which has been discussed with the term “branding,” has also proven difficult in an organization where no one really speaks for the organization without fear of being blindsided from within. There is not much consensus about image, except perhaps to be a passionate cheerleader for every good cause that comes along. I’m not denigrating those things, but a laundry list of causes is not a very effective way to market a radio network.

Meanwhile, Pacifica is grappling with several crucial issues: Adapting to fundamental changes in audio distribution, declining listenership and the erosion of Pacifica’s traditional revenue source, and, after five years with a new experimental structure, the need to make some serious adjustments. The current digital distribution project is an attempt to address one of these issues, and election-related bylaws changes acknowledge and address another. But declining audience and listener loyalty can only be fully addressed by looking hard at programming, and this is linked to unresolved questions about Pacifica’s mission and organizational structure.

Our CFO predicts that Pacifica is facing contraction and a cash crunch in the near future. But even if that doesn’t happen, and can be avoided in the next few months, the underlying problems remain and will resurface.

Earlier, I’ve mentioned that a re-evaluation of Pacifica’s mission is in order. This mission dates from Lew Hill’s 1946 prospectus for KPFA, arguably still the most crucial document in the organization’s history. One the key parts said that Pacifica would “engage in any activity that shall contribute to a lasting understanding between nations and between individuals of all nations, races, creeds, and colors; gather and disseminate information on the causes of conflicts between any and all such groups; and promote the study of political and economic problems, and the causes of religious, philosophical, and racial antagonisms.”

You know these words. This remains a fundamental philosophical statement for Pacifica. The idea behind these words is that peace can emerge from dialogue – that is, diverse groups openly communicating with one another. Not objective indisputable truth – none of us have that – an open exchange of ideas that helps us to know each other as human beings, dialogue that demonstrates the possibility that we can have peace in practice.

But today, too often, we have instead argument, an often angry struggle over ideology, airtime, and assigning blame that keeps Pacifica from creating constructive connections between people. On top of that we sometimes even have censorship; self-censorship actually, groupthink, avoidance of tough but necessary disagreement. So, I repeat: Pacifica’s mission needs serious study and reflection, a real long-overdue dialogue about the fundamental intentions of this organization – in this time.

The organization also needs a serious look at democracy as it is being practiced here. I hear it said that Pacifica is a “bold experiment,” a representative democracy of listeners. But to me it looks very much like a confederation, a very tentative association of communities –the stations – that view themselves as relatively sovereign, and operate under a common constitution – the bylaws – but with a weak central authority – the national office. My experience is that this structure makes it difficult to reach decisions, and to ensure that, even when decisions are made, that they’re actually carried out. It’s difficult to make even the simplest bylaw amendment, for example to increase efficiency, save money, or improve continuity.

The national organization is, by design, dependent on the stations, which view themselves as semi-independent. Without local cooperation and agreement, the central organization can’t provide essential services, and as a result, the funding of priorities like research, national infrastructure, development, and marketing is consistently neglected. In some quarters there is open hostility to the national organization, as if it’s some kind of parasite feeding off the stations. Therefore, it’s not very surprising that some managers and staff sometimes refuse to implement decisions made by the national board or national office.

In short, what I am saying, and what I have been saying for a year and a half, is that Pacifica’s confederal structure doesn’t work. For democracy to function compromise is essential. A minority that loses will only play along if it feels that the winning side is playing fair. This becomes difficult when groups adopt a stance of moral absolutism, or form factions. And we see both here. When factional disagreement becomes public and intense, the organization suffers from disunity, charges and counter-charges about the conduct of the elections, fraudulent or unethical conduct, and repeated attacks on so-called enemies. This is beginning to seriously undermine the legitimacy of the organization’s democratic process.

So, I ask you once again, as I asked when I traveled across the country: Are we running a media organization, or are we trying to build an alternative government? I hope it’s the former. ...

I don’t expect everyone to agree with my assessment of the situation, but I think it would be irresponsible if, after two years, I didn’t share with this community what I’ve learned and some of the reasons why I am leaving. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe a new Executive Director can make this organization work just as it is. I hope so, and I’ve greatly appreciated the opportunity to help. Pacifica remains, despite everything I’ve said, a unique and important institution, and I sincerely hope it will continue to make a significant contribution to lasting understanding between nations and people in the years ahead.

FURTHER PACIFICA READING: Check out Quiet Meltdown for more on the crisis; Planet Pacifica is the inside story of my early months as CEO, combined with episodes from Pacifica’s history. AUDIO: Report to the PNB, Greg Guma, July 27, 2007.
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