Friday, June 5, 2009

End of a Media Dream

In the midst of the national economic meltdown, Pacifica, the original listener-supported radio network, experienced its own. As Executive Director in 2006 and 2007, I was in a unique position to identify the dilemmas facing this important progressive media organization. This article chronicles my experiences and efforts to avert a crisis, continuing a narrative begun in 2008. To read previous installments, see the links at the end or look for Planet Pacifica: An Inside Story at -- Maverick Media. 

Part Five of Real Life on Planet Pacifica

Shortly after the January 2007 Pacifica National Board meeting in Houston, PNB member Berthold Reimer sent a revealing e-mail. “It is not up to the PNB to micro manage the Executive Director who should have the leverage to make decisions and implement them,” he wrote. “If the PNB is not happy with the way the Executive Director implements its directives, the PNB can decide not to renew the contract of the Executive Director or have an extraordinary session to terminate him/her. Short of that, we should let him do his job.”

I appreciated the sentiment, but the argument contained two interesting assumptions. The first was that I actually had a contract. In reality, I had been working without one for more than a year at that point, and an attempt to negotiate some basic terms had been derailed by stalemate in the Personnel Committee.

He also implied that the intent of the Board was often clear. On the contrary, there was rarely anything close to consensus. Divisions were especially apparent when the topic was “must carry,” the idea that some programs should be aired on all stations. Whether the example was Spanish language news, a national special, or a board-backed editorial, viewpoints varied and local control was a sore point. This became painfully clear when I attempted to mandate carriage of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

At the urging of the PNB, I had issued an editorial statement on Habeas Corpus shortly after passage of the Military Commissions Act in 2006 undermined this basic right. In adopting its motion on this topic, the board also voted for follow up, initiatives such as having the editorial posted on various websites, related programming to be developed locally, regular updates, and station broadcasts of statements by local or national experts. My editorial was aired, but local management’s response to the board’s initiative was cool and inconsistent.

Then, in mid-January 2007, KPFA host and correspondent Larry Bensky urged national coverage of the Judiciary Committee’s questioning of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The Senators would be quizzing him in less than a week about warrantless surveillance, suspension of Habeas Corpus, torture, and extension of domestic spying by the CIA and military. Covering key hearings was a Pacifica mainstay, and this looked like a golden opportunity to pursue the issue at hand. A proposal was quickly circulated to managers and national staff members. Technical arrangements were put in motion.

Prior to the hearing, confirmation was received from managers at four of the five stations that it would be carried live. Some were reluctant, but realized we were fulfilling the board’s instruction to “use the resources of the foundation to educate and inform the public on the dangers of this legislation, specifically including… consistent on-air coverage of the issue.” As it turned out, CSPAN ignored it, mainstream media coverage was minimal, and the questioning was dramatic, essentially starting the process that led to Gonzales’ resignation. But the reaction within Pacifica was even more revealing. Several board members charged that I had over-stepped my authority.

During a teleconference the following evening, I argued that the decision reflected a broad consensus and urged the directors to support my efforts to have Pacifica “act like a network.” In response, Bob Lederer, a WBAI delegate and JUC member, argued that there was a big difference between the general principle of maximizing coverage and mandating a particular program. The Board hadn’t authorized national carriage of the hearing, he said, and therefore stations shouldn’t have been required to air it. Referring to the 1990s, the bad old days when such decisions sparked rebellion, he wanted the board to make it clear that the National Office couldn’t impose anything except the authorized editorial.

Several Board members felt that collaboration was preferable to “must carry,” and that short notice forced stations to preempt popular shows without sufficient time. One member, WPFW delegate Acie Byrd, submitted a motion that said my action wasn’t authorized and I should henceforth refrain from imposing any program on the stations, unless and until the board spoke on the issue. The motion didn’t pass, but the discussion made it clear just how limited the power of Pacifica’s CEO could be.

Quite a few national specials were produced during the succeeding months, and most stations aired them. On the other hand, more lawsuits were filed, and the board ignored most of my recommendations for reorganization and programming, as well as repeated warnings about a looming financial crunch. When managers and national staff developed a unified policy to deal more strictly with obscenity violations, unpaid staff in New York almost succeeded in getting the board to block it. Local control advocates were mobilizing to protect station “autonomy” from my network-oriented agenda, and my early supporters were falling away, at least in part because I hadn’t satisfied their desire to “clean house.”

In late 2006, rather than offering me a contract the board had decided to conduct an evaluation. The process took months and asked more than 140 people -- national staff, station managers, and every national and LSB member – to rate my work. Some of the locals hadn’t even met me, and most had little notion of what I did. Basically, it was a referendum, a vote on whether I should get a raise, keep the job, go on probation, or be fired. I took to calling it an “evalu-lection.”

The day before a scheduled talk about it with the board in late April 2007, I received the results. Most staff members had opted not to participate, apparently out of fear that I might “retaliate,” and about half of the 59 responses came from Local Station Board members. About two thirds of those who did express an opinion said I was doing all right, at least enough to keep the job. The rest thought I was unilateral, unresponsive, and presumptuous in appointing a new GM at WBAI. The comments and ratings were anonymous, but it was easy to tell that the New York-based JUC contingent wanted me gone.

I’d had about enough myself. In a letter to the board, I suggested that a search committee be formed while I relocated to the East Coast in order to focus on the stations there, especially WBAI. Reminding them that I had originally agreed to stay for no more than three years, I offered to continue until at least mid-2008, enough time to conduct a thorough search and choose a long-term replacement. What I didn’t anticipate was that the proposal would be used to show me the door as soon as possible.

For the next three months, the board spent countless hours debating what to do. Rather than giving the organization a shot at a peaceful and well-planned transition I had inadvertently provided the opening for another power struggle. The “greg-istas,” as my supporters dubbed themselves, wanted me to remain as long as possible. Their opponents wanted to pick my successor before some of their terms ran out. One Board member thought I should be fired immediately. I could have resisted leaving, but that would have plunged Pacifica into a distracting battle that brought other work to a halt. We eventually settled on September 30, 2007, and a hastily-formed search committee rushed to recruit someone in time.

In the end, Nicole Sawaya was the only candidate interviewed by the board. Still, it looked at first like Pacifica had finally found a leader the entire community could support. Two months later, despite a multi-year contract, higher salary, and broad-based backing, she resigned.

Over the winter, as negotiations proceeded to woo her back, Pacifica’s stations found it harder to keep pace with rising costs, particularly health insurance, legal fees, and governance. On-air fund drives weren’t meeting their goals, most stations had meager cash reserves, and WBAI was a half a million behind its fundraising target, mired in its internal power struggle, and unable to pay its central services fees.

In early March 2008, Sawaya agreed to return. What changed her mind wasn’t revealed, but a fight with CFO Lonnie Hicks over financial control, an issue I had raised repeatedly, did result in a Board decision to grant her the right to directly supervise the national financial staff. One of her first big decisions was to cut the budget for Free Speech Radio News (FSRN) by 25 percent. What shocked some Pacificans wasn’t so much the cutback but the fact that it was done without prior discussion. Sawaya explained that the financial crunch required strong and immediate action. The Board decided to let it stand.

The next surprises came in July, just as budgets for the next fiscal year were being developed. The National Board had voted to convene in person that month, but the managers in the national office failed to follow up and the meeting had to be cancelled. Soon afterward, without explanation, Hicks disappeared from work. The Board made no announcement, but news leaked out that he was on “paid leave to deal with family matters.” Later, there were rumors that an investigation of his activities was being pursued – and that he might sue.

Sawaya announced her decision to resign (again) in early August, but asked those who knew not to say anything for a month. At meetings, she meanwhile tried to convince the Board and National Finance Committee that Pacifica needed to act like a network and “centralize” various functions, especially accounting and reporting. Directors listened, but nothing changed. As she departed in late September, after nine months actually on the job, she pointed to "dysfunctional” governance and “shoddy and opaque” business practices that were plunging the organization into a financial crisis.

Pacifica’s Human Resources director (the second in three years) also left for a new job elsewhere in September, 2008, and the National Board began to discuss what was being calling a “national office collapse.” Some nevertheless hoped to quickly recruit a new Executive Director. That process would take months, however, and pending recommendations to re-expand the CFO’s authority and apply strict performance standards to all managers were likely to get in the way.

Even if a new chief executive could be found – and the Board overcame its divisions to agree – there were still the elephants in the room: Pacifica hadn’t figured out how to resolve its financial crisis, and, even more difficult, restructure its programming and management to reverse the long-term decline in listenership and income.

By the end of 2008, staff had been reduced at most stations, and several national positions had been cut. After another round of PNB delegation selection, the balance of power shifted again. Discussion forums speculated about receivership, bankruptcy, and breaking up the network as a new Board chair, Grace Aaron of Los Angeles, became Interim ED. She had been among the most vocal local board members demanding Eva Georgia’s dismissal during my tenure.

Hicks briefly returned to work as CFO, but was terminated early in 2009, replaced by an old nemesis, former National Finance Committee Chair LaVarn Williams. As predicted, Hicks filed a lawsuit, alleging that he was dismissed because he was African American and a whistleblower. Clearly, he had a taste for irony, considering his frequent warnings about escalating legal costs, the fact that a majority of the Board and national staff were minorities, and that he had fought as hard as anyone to hold back information from the board and membership.

In May 2009, as the network’s crisis continued and WBAI fell deeper into debt, facing eviction from its New York studio, Aaron changed the lock at the transmitter site, removed General Manager Tony Riddle, who had replaced Robert Scott Adams, as well as Program Director Bernard White, and appointed Williams Acting GM of the troubled station. Justice and Unity members and other White backers in New York threatened to protest, boycott, and possibly sue unless this latest “national coup” was reversed. All this, and the search for a new ED had barely begun.

In other words, Pacifica was still at war with itself.

Next: What Can Be Done

Previous Installments:
One: Rethinking the Experiment
Two: WBAI’s Delicate Condition
Three: Uncovering Fault Lines
Four: Pacifica’s War at Home
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