Monday, June 8, 2009

Pacifica Radio – What Can Be Done

In the midst of a national economic decline, the original listener-supported radio network has been experiencing its own financial and organizational meltdown. As Executive Director in 2006 and 2007, I was in a unique position to identify many of the dilemmas facing this important progressive media organization. This concludes an article chronicling my experiences and efforts to avert a crisis. To learn more, see the links at the end or look for Planet Pacifica: An Inside Story at Maverick Media.

Part Six of Real Life on Planet Pacifica

When rumors fly across Planet Pacifica 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 is 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 recent times, 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.

As Executive Director, I found no solid evidence of a government operation. But even if a disinformation campaign was being pursued, it would be overkill. The Pacifica community is capable of destabilizing itself without a federal assist. Outside forces aren’t responsible for the new 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 in 2002. As this point, the five stations had about a million regular listeners (down about 20 percent since then). 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 in the board elections.

Due to proportional voting, it takes at most about 300 votes for someone to be elected to a local station board. In other words, LSB members draw their right to govern from far 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 have tended to perpetuate an atmosphere of confrontation and suspicion.

They also take at least eight months to conduct, cost at least $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 replaced this with an election process that perpetuates warring factions on every station board.

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 had the effect of alienating potential supporters or future board members.

Voting is not a panacea. It is 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 also needs some at-large, appointed board members, people who have needed skills and aren’t so entangled in the internal political struggles.

In addition, the organization might 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 would be 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.

Beyond a fresh look at listener democracy and organizational structure, Pacifica Radio sorely needs a serious review of its 60-year-old mission statement, which adds to the confusion, an overhaul of its bylaws, and new revenue streams, including carefully screened underwriting. Individual contributions, mainly via on-air fund drives, won’t be enough, and CPB funding is unreliable.

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.

Whatever the answers are to the many questions nagging at Pacifica, one thing is certain: It needs to catch up with the digital revolution. To stay relevant, it will have to fully embrace the Internet and devote substantially more to retooling for this new form of production and distribution.

Podcasting is an ideal format for specialized information and shows with unique audiences, allowing programmers go far beyond a station's reach. With listeners able to choose the shows or items they want, relevance rather than production values and locality becomes a main factor. As search engines improve, podcasting will be more about items and less about shows. More people will also become their own producers, collecting the items or music they want and bundling them together.

Pacifica needs to produce more content specifically for podcasts, cultivating online hosts and opening opportunities for new voices to create segments and programs that won’t be aired on the terrestrial stations. It would also help to stop preaching to the choir, and offer more shows that promote real dialogue, at least the discussion of varying progressive viewpoints.

Some content will combine audio, video and text. Media players with TV screens are becoming more common, and it won’t be long before many stations have regular webcast shows. In addition, listeners will be able to participate in live, interactive video streams of talk shows, watching the on-air personalities and other listeners who are streaming themselves. They’ll be able to interact with the hosts and each other.

Two-way communication is quickly replacing one-way broadcasting as the dominant mode of connectivity. Hardwired systems dominated by proprietary radio components are becoming adaptive platforms. Just as PCs replaced mainframes and brought computing to the masses, wireless systems are replacing central transmission towers with millions of interactive end-user devices. In this new world, successful radio stations will be general online content producers.

In mid-2006, I outlined a possible future for Pacifica during a public meeting in New York. Asking the audience to suspend their disbelief and use their imaginations, I described an audio production center with multiple channels and schedules open to frequent change, a place that breaks down distinctions between listeners and producers, a hothouse for the cultivation of talent and a laboratory for new ideas, a place where people converge and contribute. To do that, however, Pacifica stations must become audio resource centers offering state-of-the-art training and a variety of platforms to get messages — news, information, opinions, music, humor, drama and more — out into the world.

Given the current state of affairs, it’s difficult to say whether anything close to this will come to pass. But before such a transformation can even begin, Pacifica needs stable management, a streamlined approach to governance, and a dramatic turn from suspicion and fear to tolerance and mutual respect.

Until then, no matter whom the board chooses to manage Pacifica it is likely to remain, as described to me back in 2005, a dream job from hell.

Previous Installments:
One: Rethinking the Experiment
Two: WBAI’s Delicate Condition
Three: Uncovering Fault Lines
Four: Pacifica’s War at Home
Five: End of a Media Dream

PS. For more detailed proposals concerning reforms and changes that could help, check out my reports to the PNB as Executive Director, particularly June and September 2006, and January 2007. For those disappointed that I haven't revealed more, please keep in mind that as a former staff member I am limited by confidentiality rules, especially those regarding personnel, executive committee meetings, and terms outlined in the agreement I signed in January 2006. Those who feel that this series has gone on too long or helped too little (or not at all) will be happy to know that it ends here. May the Pacifica community prosper and find a constructive way forward in the years ahead. -- GG
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