Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Pacifica’s War at Home

In the midst of a national economic decline, Pacifica, 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 article chronicles my experiences and efforts to avert a crisis, continuing a narrative begun last year and reporting on recent developments. To read previous installments, see the links at the end or look for Planet Pacifica: An Inside Story at Maverick Media.

Part Four of Real Life on Planet Pacifica

When the Pacifica National Board met in January 2007, the prospects for a productive year looked bright. Eight new Board members were seated without incident, and the mood was conciliatory, even respectful. An informative discussion about the need to move rapidly on digital distribution led to a decision to develop a plan that would “aggressively establish Pacifica’s presence on the internet.” At the end of that weekend in Houston, resolutions on political issues ranging from the Iraq War and press freedom to Haiti and a pending death penalty case were passed.

What a difference two months can make. By March of that year, two new lawsuits had been filed – one by a staff member in Los Angeles, another by a Local Station Board member in Houston. In Washington, DC, an attempt to remove the General Manager was initiated. In Berkeley, listeners and dissatisfied staff joined forces to protest a policy restricting “calls to action” that they considered a new “gag rule.” Fundraising boycotts were being threatened in both Berkeley and L.A.

After a successful International Women’s Day national broadcast, questions were raised about the race and ethnicity of the program’s producers and other consultants. The implication was that top management lacked a sufficient commitment to racial diversity. And when a board member offered to develop the digital distribution plan, critics charged that hiring him as a short-term consultant would be unethical, if not illegal.

Looking across the network, every station manager and program director was under attack, and people were again rallying for combat over what they saw as harassment, retaliation, and new threats to democracy, transparency, and free speech. The groups mounting these challenges obviously believed their causes were just. With rare exceptions, they didn’t want to bring Pacifica’s recent, modest progress to a halt. But justifications notwithstanding, that was the danger.

A dramatic case in point was the Los Angeles lawsuit that had been simmering for more than a year. The basic accusation, leveled by KPFK Co-News Director Molly Paige, was that Station Manager Eva Georgia had sexually harassed her and retaliated when she resisted the alleged overtures. Rumors had been circulating since 2005 and contributed to the national board’s decision not to give Georgia the top job.

When Paige was hired despite her “mainstream” background and political inexperience, some people did question the decision. Due to clashes with the station’s program director and the other news director, Georgia assumed direct control over the newsroom for six months and attempted to mediate. But the initially cordial relationship between the women sparked office gossip, especially since Georgia was an open lesbian. According to Paige, things veered out of control when Georgia supposedly suggested that they become sexually intimate. Paige said she declined, and that attraction then turned into hostility.

The lawsuit, filed in California’s Superior Court in February 2007, claimed not only that Paige was subjected to numerous forms of harassment, including demeaning references to her as a “white woman,” but also that Pacifica’s management failed to do anything about her “intolerable working conditions.” One of her numerous assertions was that I had admitted that her treatment was retaliatory, yet told her I no longer wanted her to bring complaints to my attention. The latter was a distortion, the former untrue.

Reading the complaint, I noticed several pertinent omissions and misstatements in Paige’s allegations. For example, we had never met in person and only spoken briefly over the phone. At that point, she was about to file a complaint with the Department of Fair Housing and Employment, and I still hoped to mediate the dispute. She didn't discuss the alleged harassment with me, instead asking for help with stringer payments. I looked into that, but Georgia and Program Director Armando Gudino said that not all such requests could be granted because the budget was limited.

Once the complaint was filed, I sent Corporate Counsel Dan Siegel to Los Angeles to investigate the charges and report to the board. He concluded that Paige’s case wasn’t very convincing, and even if everything she said was true, it wasn’t sexual harassment. Likewise, her claims of retaliation – specifically that the format of the evening news had been changed and her requests to cover certain stories in the field had been denied – didn’t add up to discriminatory retaliation. He did, however, urge that I let him deal with her lawyer rather than continue attempting to resolve the matter myself.

Before Paige sued, Pacifica offered her a cash settlement, a common cost-saving strategy even when the charges are weak, and I agreed to make someone else her direct supervisor. But Paige wasn’t interested in settling. She wanted Georgia fired, and actively sought support for that position at the station and on the local board. During one of my visits to KPFK, a staff member recounted Paige’s attempt to persuade him to file a related complaint. Others expressed a desire to see both Paige and Georgia leave. As months passed, the national board became more intent on defending Pacifica (and, by extension, Georgia) and less interested in settling, even if that was cheaper than going to court.

Georgia had critics other than Paige, including several program hosts, staff members, and members of her local board. The hosts and staff didn’t like her brusque management style, and the anti-Eva board faction accused her of misspending company funds. It didn’t help that she was hot-tempered and often went into victim mode when attacked.

As her supervisor, I provided support, sometimes overruled impulsive decisions, and urged her to be less reactive. It was an awkward relationship. After all, she had almost been ED herself, and knew she had lost the job in part due to the rumors of sexual harassment. She was also being fed gossip that I wanted to fire her. In truth, I was approached to do just that. But I rejected the idea and eventually reached the conclusion that, despite her prickly temperament and management weaknesses, Georgia was a creative thinker who had made tough decisions, successfully modernizing the station and increasing its appeal to Latinos and younger listeners.

Beyond that, I was appalled by some of the tactics her enemies employed, particularly racist taunts and unsubstantiated charges circulated to the local news media. Perhaps the worst was a mid-2007 article in Hustler by Bruce David. Accompanied by a cartoon that depicted Georgia as a female King Kong clutching a tiny white woman and a winning publicity photo of Paige, the article alleged that white heterosexual staff members were “being terrorized by a contingent of militant lesbian women of color.” A frequent Hustler contributor, David admitted that a major source of his discontent was criticisms of himself and the magazine on KPFK programs.

Moving from the marginally reportorial to the hysterically editorial, he concluded, “It is our fervent hope that Molly Paige not settle her lawsuit out of court. Molly, we urge you to rake Eva Georgia and her sycophants over the coals just the way we believe they tried to rake you over them. Put an end to this reign of fear and intimidation that you and others have had to endure. Make them pay through the nose!”

Most of the attacks weren’t quite so blatant and offensive. But what the Hustler writer shared with some of the anti-Eva crowd at the station and on the board was an almost gleeful pleasure at the prospect that, unless they got what they wanted, the network would suffer dire legal and financial consequences.

Disillusioned and psychologically battered after four years on the job, Eva Georgia left in October, 2007 – within weeks of my own departure.

Next: End of a Media Dream

Previous Installments:

One: Rethinking the Experiment

Two: WBAI’s Delicate Condition

Three: Uncovering Fault Lines

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