Monday, June 1, 2009

Uncovering Fault Lines

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 links at the end or look for Planet Pacifica: An Inside Story at Maverick Media.

Part Three of Real Life on Planet Pacifica

The first in a series of long overdue discussions about Pacifica Radio’s national programming also took place at the Board’s March 2006 meeting. For the occasion I had invited program directors from the five sister stations to join other managers and staff at the board’s big table.

The question, obviously, was how it could be done. Since the “Save Pacifica” days the stations had retreated to a local approach, but not many people thought it was working. The only way to have more national broadcasts was to talk to all the stakeholders, KPFK’s GM Eva Georgia advised. And the trick was to “get buy in.”

Everyone agreed with her basic proposition. But the devil was in the details; specifically, how to generate new shows and get them on all Pacifica stations. As the discussion proceeded, it became increasingly vague and polemical. How about shows on the direction of the network, or an annual production calendar, or using the upcoming elections as a starting point? What about shows that combined talk and music? Yes, yes, some people said, but we also must go beyond what’s popular.

“Make the programs irresistible,” Bernard White advised, “and the stations, I’m sure, will take them.”

Well, maybe. But most of the suggestions avoided the real issues: how to make tough decisions, allocating resources – and time, and obtain commitments. The resources were there, yet little was happening and most national “specials” that aired didn’t make people proud.

Of all the remarks Eva’s were the most concrete. She was bright and passionate, and had somehow made things work in L.A. I had to wonder why she’d become so controversial. Despite our awkward beginning (she had also applied for the ED job) she was backing my move to have managers from across the country confer more often. “Let’s have the operations group be effective,” she said, “a place where we look at program proposals – without a ‘must carry’ and without a fight. And then we preempt.”

For others, however, nothing short of full involvement by everyone – from board committees and staff to volunteer producers – would be enough. As Los Angeles Producer (and KPFK staff delegate to the national board) Alan Minsky put it, “Participatory structures are at the core of everything.” But that was precisely the rub, how to get anything done when so many, often-conflicting interests were involved.

I mulled it all over back in Berkeley. Basically, the weekend had gone well. People were thinking about how to rebuild trust and create a stronger national identity. I had received the board’s go-ahead to hire a network programming “coordinator” –once they approved the job description, of course. They’d also approved funds for the settlement of a lingering lawsuit brought by former KPFA producer Noelle Hanrahan. Most of station’s staff didn’t want her back, but a trial would be expensive and destructive. Maybe Pacifica was moving on after all, I thought.

Someone had even stepped up to take the Berkeley station manager job. KPFA’s development director, Lemlem Rijio, was born in Ethiopia, attended college in the US, and had worked for Pacifica a few years. Married, petite and self-assured, she had turned down my initial offer to serve as interim manager for up to nine months, but reconsidered after reporting for the station at the L.A. meeting.

The choice didn’t please those who felt that she was too chummy with the “entrenched” staff. They wanted an outsider who would shake things up, even though that had gone poorly during Roy Campanella’s brief tenure. Lemlem was part of the group that had pressed for his removal, yet that also meant she knew the players and the terrain, and might bring some calm and order until a permanent leader could be found. No one could predict how long that would take.

When I left Pacifica at the end of 2007 Lemlem was still Interim GM. My successor Nicole Sawaya, as her last official act before leaving Pacifica herself in September 2008, made that appointment permanent.

* * *

All in all, my first year as ED went relatively well. In addition to selecting new station managers for two of the largest stations – KPFA and WBAI, I hired National Technical Director Jon Almeleh and Network Programming Coordinator Nathan Moore, and negotiated a long-awaited contract with Free Speech Radio News, the collective that produced Pacifica’s half-hour daily newscast.

The number of national specials increased, the affiliate network surpassed 100 stations, work began on digital conversion, and a new weekly program highlighting Pacifica’s broadcast history, using the unique and extraordinary Pacifica Radio Archives, began to air. When the FCC announced that it would accept applications for non-commercial radio licenses for the first time in more than a decade, Ursula Ruedenberg successfully pressed for the network to join forces with other independent media advocates in the Radio for People campaign, which recruited local groups to apply for the frequencies.

Despite some local resistance, I also managed to get a 10-week national election series on the air. Drawing on the skills of more than 50 people from Pacifica and affiliate stations, the program, Informed Dissent, focused on key Congressional races and how corporate power, race, class, and the media influence the electoral process. It was carried on dozens of stations across the country during the fall, and seemed a hopeful step toward inter-station programming collaboration. There was little promotion within Pacifica, however, scheduling at some sister stations was unpredictable, and local management was cool to its continuation.

My most controversial decision concerned Pacifica’s most difficult station, WBAI. By June 2006, it was clear that Interim GM Indra Hardat couldn’t control Bernard White, and that the program director considered her a “bean counter” undeserving of his respect. In fact, without consulting her, he had announced plans for changes in the program grid. Looking them over, I saw little except a new music block in the evening and new time slots for the same programs. Suggestions that the station needed to reinvigorate its arts programming and appeal to the city’s 30 percent Latino population had been ignored. As a result, I blocked Bernard’s attempted programming power play.

Since the bylaws prevented me from directly disciplining White, however, and Hardat was too intimidated to use her authority despite my backing, I decided to replace her with someone he couldn’t ignore. But doing that quickly would require national board support, since the Justice and Unity Coalition (JUC) and the station’s Unpaid Staff Organizing Committee demanded local control of all hiring processes. If that happened, agreeing on a replacement could take years.

My strategy was to recruit someone not embroiled in WBAI’s factional warfare but familiar to some key players and willing to step into the lion’s den. Once I had such a person lined up, I could break the news to Hardat, return her to her old job as business manager, and let a local search committee look for additional candidates. My “safety” candidate turned out to be Robert Scott Adams, a black former station manager who had been a leading contender for the same job at WPFW a year before. Though local board members in DC wanted him, my predecessor Dan Coughlin had gone with the station “insider,” Ron Pinchback.

At least 22 people applied for the WBAI job over the summer, but after interviewing several of them the local search committee concluded that no one was qualified. Due to repeated scheduling snafus, Adams wasn’t even interviewed. Clearly, the locals preferred the status quo, despite their own criticisms of Hardat, to anyone I might choose.

In late September, when I told the national board what had happened, an overwhelming majority backed my decision to hire Adams anyway. The JUC never forgave me, and, as it turned out, Adams was no more able to control Bernard White than anyone else.

Toward the end of the year, local station board elections came off on schedule and without many disputes. In fact, turnout modestly increased, although it represented only 11.5 percent of listener-members and 35 percent of staff. On the other hand, despite an increase in working capital and control of expenses, underlying financial problems persisted. Audience decline and a drop in memberships was placing pressure on Pacifica’s remaining, largely aging supporters to contribute more. In many cases, fund drives had to be extended to meet budget goals. Legal, governance, and employee benefits costs were rising, and the budget process, which focused primarily on individual stations, didn’t sufficiently emphasize network-wide needs such as retooling infrastructure, training, development, and marketing.

The PNB’s decision to hire Dan Siegel as corporate counsel made it easier to respond to disputes and complaints. But requests for his participation in Board sessions, as well as calls for legal opinions, increased. Considering the cost of settlements and other assistance, the total legal bill from October 2005 to September 2006 was $325,000, up 182 percent from the previous year. CFO Hicks predicted that it might go even higher next year.

Next: War at Home

Previous Installments:

One: Rethinking the Experiment

Two: WBAI’s Delicate Condition

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