Monday, June 30, 2008

Michael Parenti: Dubious Design, Part Two

An adapted excerpt from God and His Demons, a forthcoming book by Michael Parenti

Since scientific theories in all fields contain some unanswered questions, why is evolution singled out by the intelligent designers as the one gap-ridden speculative theory? The answer is glaringly evident: evolution is in direct collision with Genesis. If evolution is true, then the Bible’s description of how God fashioned the world in six days and created humans in their present form seems much the fairy tale. And if Genesis is a fairy tale, then of what validity is the remainder of the divinely dictated tome that serves as the unerring fundament of Judaic-Christian belief?

The response offered by the scientific defenders of evolution is predictable and somewhat incomplete: “We have no way of testing and demonstrating the truth or falsity of non-natural spirit forces that are presumed to be acting in nature.” It would be nice if someday someone would add, “and neither do the intelligent designers.” That is the real problem. Of course, scientists cannot move outside their fundamental paradigm and demonstrate divine causation, but neither can the designing creationists.

This is a crucial point because the burden of proof for intelligent design is on the designers. Where is their field work, their laboratory experiments, their observational reports and accumulated evidence measuring the effects of ID vectors on various natural forces and entities, all the things we would expect from a scientific inquiry interested in “hard facts”?

This is the problem with teaching ID: what would you actually teach? How could you judge the reliability of what you teach? How do we determine what is or isn’t evidentiary if one can postulate a priori an unseen supreme designer lurking behind everything? In the two decades since ID has emerged, it has generated no important experiments or insights into biology, and looks less and less like a science and increasingly like a theological polemic.

Advocates of ID seem untroubled by their own scientific illiteracy. One of them asserts that there is no evidence of a protracted evolution because “all the vertebrate groups, from fish to mammals appear [in the fossil record] at one time.” Not true, George Monbiot responds; the first fish fossils and the first mammal fossils are separated from each other by some 300 million years.

ID proponents make much of the human eye. Given the intricacy and delicate precision that enables it to perform its marvelous function, and “the purposeful arrangement of parts,” the eye could never have developed from hit-and-miss mutation and natural selection, the argument goes. If evolution were true, there would be fossils of particular animals without vision and others with varying degrees of eye development strung out across the ages, but “such fossils do not exist,” the intelligent designers maintain. But such fossils do exist, Monbiot reminds us; the fossil record does indeed stretch across the ages with countless eyes “in all stages of development.”

As for the creationists, it is not that they have questions about particular aspects of evolution, as might we all. Rather they deny that it ever happened. They believe the book of Genesis is literally true. Possessed of the absolute truth as they see it, they are not prone to tolerate alternative perspectives. They are not interested in a pluralism of views. They do not want to supplement evolutionary theory but to replace it. , even as they call for more tolerance in secular schools and increasingly greater exposure for their own “explanation.”

Its proponents insist that ID is not religiously anchored; it requires neither miracles nor a creator. They avoid mention of the six-day jiffy creation and other biblical narratives. But if ID is not supernatural, then how does it act as a first and perfect universalistic template for all this imperfect unfinished world? How can it create the natural world in all its wondrous and presumably irreducible complexity if it is itself merely a component of that complexity? Here is a designer that is the source of all creation’s form and content but which itself cannot be subjected to any kind of scientific study, a designer that supposedly is fixed in nature yet transcends ordinary materiality.

The designers centered at the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank in Seattle, revealed their religiously motivated hand in their now infamous and strikingly candid, in-house document, “The Wedge Strategy,” written in 1999 and leaked to the public some time later. According to “The Wedge Strategy,” the ultimate goal of intelligent design is “nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies” replacing scientific materialism “with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

The authors of this document blame evolutionary theory and materialistic science for most of the world’s evils. They write, “Thinking they could engineer the perfect society through the application of scientific knowledge, materialist reformers advocated coercive government programs that falsely promised to create heaven on earth.” In sum, ID is not a field of study; it is a refined fundamentalist preachment in service to a reactionary political agenda.

The creationists and ID designers appear to be championing free speech and diversity of ideas when they urge that students be taught more than just Darwinism. In fact they themselves are not interested in a pluralism of views. They do not favor the teaching of every theory of creation.

There are as many stories of how the world began and how it is held together as there are tribal mythologies and tales. The fundamentalist Jesus worshippers are concerned only about the Genesis narrative, the one they want accorded exclusive standing in the schools.

Thus in 1999, creationists on the Kansas state board of education removed nearly all references to evolution from the curriculum. Such references were restored only after Kansas voters ousted the creationist bloc in 2001. In short, the creationists do not want to supplement evolutionary theory but to replace it, which – as demonstrated in Kansas – is exactly what they do when afforded the opportunity.

* Michael Parenti’s lastest books are Contrary Notions: The Michael Parenti Reader (2007), Democracy for the Few, 8th ed. (2007), and The Culture Struggle (2006). The above is adapted from his forthcoming book God and His Demons. For further information about the author, visit

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Gore Vidal: “US Isn’t a Republic Anymore”

The Bush regime has killed the constitutional links that made the US a republic, said Gore Vidal, renowned US historian, novelist and social critic in an interview with Tehran-based Press TV. President Bush has rid the country of the Bill of Rights, habeas corpus and the entire legacy of the Magna Carta in the name of “war on terror,” Vidal charged.

Press TV is the first Iranian international news network to broadcast in English on a round-the-clock basis. Speaking over the phone with Afshin Rattansi, Vidal also criticized the US House of Representatives for not impeaching President Bush for many high crimes, such as the disclosure of CIA agent Valerie Plame's covert status. But he praised Rep. Dennis Kuchinich for at least drawing up articles of impeachment against the president.

Vidal has long said the administration has both an explicit and covert expansionist agenda. Bush and his associates are magnets in the oil and gas industry, he says, and have had clear aims to control the oil of Central Asia – after gaining effective control of the oil of the Persian Gulf, a project that took a new twist with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991.

Regarding 9/11, Vidal has written the US intelligence community clearly warned that it was coming but the event provided political cover and a pretext for plans that the administration already had in place for invading Iraq – plans that can be traced to the waning days of the first Bush family presidency.

Here is a transcript of that June 28, 2008 interview:

Press TV: We hear that Michael Mukasey is going to become the latest of the President's Attorney-Generals to be subpoenaed, this time over his conversations with Bush and Cheney. Does this show that Congress is serious about calling the executive to account?

Gore Vidal: No, Congress has never been more cowardly, nor more corrupt. All Bush has do is to make sure certain amounts of money go in the direction of certain important congressmen and that's end of any serious investigation. After all, one of the bravest members of Congress is Dennis Kucinich, who brought the article of impeachment into the well of the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives must then try the president, and then after that it goes to the Senate for judgment. However, none of these things will happen because there's nobody there except for Mr. Kucinich, who has the courage to take on a sitting president who is kind of a Mafioso.

Press TV: How can it just be one person among so many hundreds of Congressmen who wants the impeachment of George W. Bush in these circumstances?

Vidal: Well it's because we no longer have a country. We don't have a republic any more. During the last 7 or 8 years of the Bush regime, they've got rid of the Bill of Rights, they've got rid of habeas corpus. They have got rid of one of the nicest gifts that England ever left us when they went away and we ceased to be colonies - the Magna Carta - from the 12th century. All of our law and due process of law is based on that. And the Bush people got rid of it. The president and little Mr. Gonzales, who for a few minutes was his Attorney General. They managed to get rid of all of the constitutional links that made us literally a republic.

Press TV: You have often written about the US's superpower status in terms of the history of previous superpowers. Do you think we're witnessing the end of US power, as some suggest. Will the White House be seen like Persepolis?

Vidal: Well it won't make such good ruins, no. It'll be more like the tomb of Cyrus nearby. They managed to destroy the United States. Why? Because they're oil and gas people and they're essentially criminals. I repeat that this is a criminal group that's seized control of the country through what looked like an ordinary election. But there's some very nice films and documentaries about what happened in the year 2000 when Albert Gore won the election for president and they saw to it that he couldn't serve. They got the Supreme Court – which is the Holy of Holies ordinarily in our system – to investigate and then accuse the thieves of being absolutely correct and the winners and Mr. Gore and the Democrats of being the cheaters.

It's the first law of Machiavelli, whatever your opponent's faults are, you pick his virtues and you deny he has them. That's what they did when Senator Kerry ran a few years ago for president. He's a famous hero from the Vietnam War. They said he was a coward and not a hero. That's how it's done. When you have a bunch of liars in charge of your government you can't expect to get much history out of that. But later on we'll dig and dig… and we will dig up Persepolis.

Press TV: Senator Obama talks about change but of course he has courting Wall Street as well as the Israeli lobby. Do you see any prospect of change with him as president?

Vidal: Not really. I don't doubt his good faith, just as I do not doubt the bad faith of Cheney and Bush. They are such dreadful people that we've never had in government before. They would never have risen unless they were buying elections as they did in Florida in 2000, as they did in the State of Ohio in 2004. These are two open thefts of the Presidency.

When I discovered that this did not interest the New York Times or Washington Post or any of the press of the country I realized our day was done. We are no longer a country, we are a framework for crooks to go in and steal money – knowing that they'll never be caught and they'll be admired for it. Americans always take everybody on his own evaluation. You say I'm a state and they say, "Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, he's a state, isn't that great." And you accuse the other people of your crimes before you commit them. It's an old trick which was known to Machiavelli who wrote about it in his handbook, The Prince.

Press TV: Finally, that issue which is exercising so many minds in the Middle East and beyond. You, yourself have written about so many Imperial wars of the United States. Do you think Bush and Cheney would risk another war in what Mohammad El Baradei of the IAEA calls a fireball?

Vidal: They are longing to but they have spent all of the money. They have got it in their own private companies like the Vice President and a company called Halliburton which is stealing more money and should be on trial sooner or later before Congress. But perhaps not, who knows? But it's well known in Washington, these people are leaking away the money of the country. Well, there's no more money. They are longing for a war with Iran. Iran is no more a harm to us than was Iraq or Afghanistan. They invented an enemy, they tell lies, lies, lies. The New York Times goes along with their lies, lies, lies. And they don't stop. When the public is lied to 30 times a day it's apt to believe the lies, is not it?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Pacifica Radio: Tea & Tension at KPFK

Eva Georgia never had a honeymoon period. Within six months of her appointment as General Manager at KPFK in Los Angeles some people were mobilizing to have her removed. Critics charged that she had exaggerated her accomplishments in South Africa, as well as her academic credentials. She was accused of reckless spending and giving herself a raise. As she struggled to make changes some volunteers and board members called her dictatorial and questioned whether opening up time for more Latino-oriented shows would work.

Financial performance appeared to back up her strategy. Listener support jumped by more than half a million during her first year, and although it dropped in her second it rebounded in 2005. KPFK’s on-air fund drives became the most successful in the network. The same thing couldn’t be said about listenership, however. After a strong recovery in 2003, Arbitron ratings pointed to a decline. Even Eva’s critics felt that the rating service didn’t accurately reflect Pacifica’s audience. And it didn’t take into account new listeners who were using the Internet. But the trends for public radio weren’t encouraging, and despite successful work to make KPFK sound more hip and youthful the overall picture suggested that fewer people were giving more money and a new audience had yet to be captured.

The programming grid was certainly eclectic. Each weekday morning began with a bilingual newscast, followed by Democracy Now!, Sonali Kolhatkar’s Uprising, and a diverse mix of local voices. Arts, cultural and health programs – a different focus each day – filled the afternoon, followed by more political offerings produced by various collectives and personalities. After the local evening news and Free Speech Radio News’ internationally-focused round up, shows on women, gays, labor, the Middle East and legal issues preceded a Latino block and some late evening music. Roy of Hollywood, a KPFK staple for decades, ruled the roost from midnight to four. Some of the talk and opinion was over the top, but there was certainly much diversity.

When I called ahead to arrange a visit in February 2006, Eva wasn’t especially eager to meet. Given the weird start of our relationship I couldn’t blame her. She had gone after the top job and almost had it when this “white guy” from Vermont appeared out of nowhere. Her opponents had used every criticism over the past four years to undermine her support. There were even unsubstantiated rumors that she hit on her subordinates. She had a right to be suspicious and a bit aloof.

Instead, Program Director Armando Gudino shepherded me through the first floor studios and offices. He was a big man with an easy-going manner and sharp sense of humor. The staff was busy but seemed friendly enough. When we reached the newsroom only one person was inside, a member of the Free Speech Radio News collective. Armando waited at the door and Fernando Velasquez, the station’s co-news director, peaked in from behind. I walked over and introduced myself.

“I want to talk to you about FSRN,” she began. I already knew that the news collective felt that it wasn’t being paid enough. Begun by striking Pacifica News Network stringers in 2001, it had eventually replaced Pacifica Network News and grown into an independent news gathering organization with about 200 correspondents worldwide. FSRN wanted a contract with Pacifica (I led negotiations that produced one signed seven months later), better pay for its stringers, and, perhaps down the line, re-integration. But it also wanted to maintain editorial control, the freedom to cover or air whatever the group chose. The operative word was autonomy.

“Good,” I replied. “I want to talk too. To begin with, I have a question. What does autonomy mean to you?”

I knew we couldn’t go into depth, but I was curious about how much independence FSRN really wanted and whether the group was open to increasing collaboration with other Pacifica news operations. If re-integration were to happen the issue would have to be addressed.

Instead of answering she got angry. I was intimidating her, she said, and she didn’t want to talk to me anymore. The reaction was a shock. I glanced back at the two men behind me. They looked away and edged out of the room.

Moving back, I grabbed a chair and sat down. “What’s wrong?” I asked. She didn’t want to discuss it. “If I said something that bothered you I apologize.” She turned away. I waited silently for a few moments, hoping she’d reconsider. But it was easy to see she was seething, so I said goodbye and left.

The station tour continued. However, before I left the building to meet with Eva for a cup of tea, I received word that the FSRN member was deeply offended and might file a complaint. This seemed strange. Producer Alan Minsky, a new member of the National Board who represented staff at the station, took me outside to offer some perspective. She was a good journalist and a nice person, he explained, but probably felt that being asked a question about FSRN by her “boss” was threatening. She might have felt surrounded by three men, he speculated.

It made sense, sort of. We had entered the room without advance notice, three men of “authority.” I stood rather than immediately sitting down, with Armando and Fernando behind me. Perhaps she saw it as an ambush or expression of male dominance. But even if I hadn’t been sufficiently sensitive about the dynamics, threatening to file a grievance seemed a bit extreme. It occurred to me that perhaps I was the one being sandbagged, somehow set up for an encounter that would provide an excuse to claim that the new ED was an abusive chauvinist. Or was I just internalizing Pacifica’s paranoid undercurrent?

“I’m not going to become the issue here,” I said. “If she goes ahead with this maybe I should just get in my car and head back home.”

Alan managed to calm me down. Just wait and see, he advised. “You can do some good here,” he said.

When I sat down with Eva she said basically the same thing. Her own experience was that people inside Pacifica often exaggerated problems and spread vicious rumors based on lies and distortions. Personally, she wasn’t sure how much longer she could take it. If I quit, I suggested, maybe they’ll give you the job. As far as I could tell, she seemed qualified.

“No,” she answered. “They’ll never let me have it. And after what I’ve been put through I wouldn’t take it even if they asked.”

I wasn’t sure I believed that. Eva was apparently ambitious and certainly charismatic, a natural leader. But after four years under fire she was showing signs of wear. If that’s what happens when you take a controversial stand – or just ask the wrong questions, I thought, how long could I possibly last?

Part Ten of Pacifica Radio: A`Listening Tour

Next Week: PRA, Elections and Civic Media

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Dubious Design, Creationism, and Evolution

An adapted excerpt from God and His Demons, a forthcoming book by Michael Parenti

What is called "creationism" is the belief that in six days the Judeo-Christian god created the universe and all the earthly species including humans in finished form much as they exist today. For centuries this view prevailed throughout the western world. Even after evolutionary science had emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the scenario sketched in Genesis remained the only one acceptable for most of Christendom. Not until the early twentieth century did Darwinian science enjoy a fully receptive hearing in the scientific and academic communities of the United States.

But today, rather than riding triumphant, evolutionary science seems to be barely hanging on in the arena of public opinion. A 2007 Gallup poll reported that only 49 percent of the US public accepted evolution and 48 percent did not. Another survey found 42 percent of Americans held strict creationist views. And various school districts throughout the country have experienced furious dust-ups over the teaching of evolution.

Of late there has emerged a more refined offshoot of creationism called intelligent design (ID). It argues that living organisms are so irreducibly complex they could not have evolved haphazardly over the eons from more primitive forms but were precisely created in one fell swoop by a higher intelligence.

In their assault on evolution the creationists and ID protagonists summon an urgent refrain. To quote from a statement by an anti-Darwinian school board in Dover, Pennsylvania: “Darwin’s Theory is [just] a theory. . . . The Theory is not a fact. Gaps exist in the Theory for which there is no evidence. . . . Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. . . . Students are encouraged to keep an open mind.”

Critics of evolution almost have a point. There certainly are “gaps” in an evolutionary theory that is neither fixed nor final. But the same holds true of all scientific theories, be it nutritional science, meteorology, astronomy, biology, geology, or physics. Science frequently produces theories that contain unanswered questions and invite varying interpretations.

Truth be told, there are no fixed and final scientific laws. Many scientists do not even like the term scientific laws, preferring to speak of “scientific theories.” For it is in the nature of science – when practiced at its best – to keep everything accessible to further investigation and conceptualization. Seemingly triumphant scientific breakthroughs can open up additional areas of inquiry that lead to still more unanswered questions.

Be this as it may, an established body of science is not something to be dismissed out of hand just because it harbors unanswered questions. That a scientific theory is incomplete does not give us license to ignore all the evidence it has accumulated. The data provided by paleontology, geology, zoology, entomology, molecular biology, and other fields make a strong case for evolution and have yet to be explained away by the intelligent designers.

Scientists have been devising new ways of charting how life develops from simple to more complex forms, which is the essence of evolutionary theory. By reconstructing ancient genetic materials from long-extinct animals, they have been able to show how evolution created a new and more complicated component of molecular structure from existing parts.

By its very nature, life depends on adaptability. This means that change, complexity, and development are inevitable components of the natural world. Not all organisms reproduce with uniform success. Reproductive capacity arises directly from how well creatures (including human ones) are able to compete for resources, both against other species and against other members of the same species – and against problems presented by the natural elements themselves.

Not only competition but a highly evolved cooperation may advantage various species. Given this infinitude of interactive forces, it would seem improbable for evolution not to be happening.

Indeed evolution continues before our very eyes as demonstrated by the recently discovered ways that viruses and other microbes acquire new traits, adapt to new habitats, and move toward becoming new species in a matter of days. New pathogens such as SARS, HIV, and more virulent tuberculosis bacilli continue to evolve. Unfortunately it is their evolutionary capacity that is likely to make these microbes resistant to antibiotic drugs. Evolutionary theory explains their dramatic adaptability; the Bible does not, nor do the intelligent designers.

There is something else to be said about scientific theory. When intelligent designers insist that evolution is a theory and not a fact, they are juxtaposing theory and fact as two mutually exclusive and competitive concepts. This is a view commonly held by laypersons who know nothing about science, who assume that there are “hard facts” on the one hand, and airy theories facilely spun out of one’s head on the other.

So we are admonished to stop “theorizing,” stop devising abstract speculations that by definition are more fanciful than factual. Sometimes “theory” is even made to stand for something that is presumed by many to be ipso facto false, as in “conspiracy theory.”

In both the natural and social sciences, however, theory is something more than mere speculation. Theory is the generalizable distillation of empirical investigation, the payoff that comes from gathering and connecting a heap of pertinent facts. It takes facts to build a scientific theory but it takes a theory to organize and make sense of the facts.

Theories are valued for their explanatory power. A developed and confirmed theory is what science aims for. It is the gold standard of scientific inquiry. The theory of gravity and the theory of relativity are not lacking in facts just because they are theories. To dismiss something as just a theory and not a factual science does not make sense from a scientific point of view. Theory is not all that “soft” and, for that matter, facts are sometimes not all that “hard” or firmly fixed.

This essay concludes on Monday, June 30...

Michael Parenti’s lastest books are Contrary Notions: The Michael Parenti Reader (2007), Democracy for the Few, 8th ed. (2007), and The Culture Struggle (2006). This two-part essay is adapted from his forthcoming book God and His Demons. For further information about the author, visit

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

KPFK: The Price of Stifling Dissent

In 1999, shortly after Lynn Chadwick replaced Pat Scott as Executive Director of Pacifica Radio, a new phase of its internal war began. Chadwick had begun her radio career as a volunteer at WPFW and served as president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters for more than a decade, receiving the Edward R. Murrow Award for "transforming the organization into an industry leader." But her tenure at Pacifica was tumultuous, especially once the national board gave itself the authority to select its own members – supposedly in response to a Corporation for Public Broadcasting dictate – and major changes in KPFA’s format were attempted. This and subsequent heavy-handed tactics, including a lockdown and alleged union-busting, led to four lawsuits and large public protests.

At KPFK in Los Angeles, after Vince Ivory, a volunteer for 14 years and producer of a “community calendar” show, went to a demonstration outside the building, General Manager Mark Schubb sent him packing. Fernando Velasquez, a producer and programmer in both Spanish and English, got the same treatment for the same basic offense.

Freelance writer Robin Urevich was also “banned,” in her case for writing about Pacifica in an outside publication. She had been a Pacifica reporter for six years and recently won a Golden Mike Award for Best Reporting by a Network. One publication that printed her story was Toward Freedom, the magazine I’d been editing for the past half decade. After outlining the history of the conflict, she acknowledged that programming had become “more polished” in recent years, but argued that the overall atmosphere didn’t allow for dialogue, questions or creativity. She talked about a “siege mentality” in which critics were viewed as enemies.

“The station has paid a price for stifling dissent,” she concluded. “People who came to KPFK assuming they’d be able to report on issues they were passionate about are mostly gone. Newsroom conversation is less about issues and more about where to find a job at the very radio and television outlets that come under so much criticism on the station’s own airwaves. It’s next to impossible to encourage news and public affairs staff to question authority outside the station while suppressing disagreement inside. In short, the ‘world of ideas’ that KPFK promises in station promos is an increasingly narrow one.”

Schubb’s next move was to require that volunteer programmers, even those who produced shows at their own expense, give up at least partial ownership to the station. To remain on the air producers would have to sign what was called a “Y2K contract.” Many refused and had their shows cancelled, including Roz and Howard Larman, who had been co-hosting Folk Scene, one of the station’s most popular programs, for three decades.

For many Pacifica loyalists this was too much. But Schubb seemed oblivious, and further deepened the discontent by providing a tone deaf defense during an interview with The Los Angeles Times. "People use radio like an appliance," he said. "If they find something they enjoy listening to, they'll listen to it. It's a wonderful time slot. Whatever we put there, we'll find an audience."

Another alleged comment cemented his image as a manager out of step with Pacifica’s mission. According to Amy Goodman, it happened during a September 14, 2000 meeting with the network’s general managers. Schubb took the opportunity to repeat a criticism he’d been making for some time, Amy wrote in a memo. His view was “that audiences don’t want to hear graphic details of police brutality before breakfast, or as he said last year ‘before I have my coffee’.”

Schubb denied making the comment, but the news spread like wildfire. Until he was finally put on administrative leave and then terminated in January 2002, whenever picket signs appeared outside the station some of them usually included the image of a coffee cup.

Steven Starr, the Interim GM brought in to replace Schubb, was a New Yorker who had worked with L.A.’s Independent Media Center. This new, Internet and event-driven media model had emerged in 1999 during the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. The Los Angeles IMC was launched to coincide with the Democratic National Convention held in the city in the summer of 2000. By the time Starr was hired, more than a hundred IMCs had been established around the world.

His tenure included a strong fund drive and some promising changes. But he lasted only two months. His replacement was engineer, producer and station operations manager Roy Hurst, another interim choice. About four months later, however, Eva Georgia was selected as permanent general manager. Eva had developed and managed community stations in South Africa, and worked briefly in southern California. She was a woman of color with a compelling personal story and a talent for outreach.

The following year senior producer Armando Gudino became program director, a decision not without its critics. Folk Scene was brought back, though eventually moved from Sunday night to Saturday morning. Fernando Velasquez also returned, now as co-director of the News Department. Robin Urevich worked for a while with Free Speech Radio News and later returned to the station. The station’s broadcast installation on Mt. Wilson was completely rebuilt. And Sonali Kolhatkar, a former Cal Tech computer programmer and astrophysicist active in Afghan women and refugee groups, became host of the local morning public affairs show.

It sounds almost like a fairy tale ending. Unfortunately, Pacifica stories don’t have neat endings and are anything but predictable.

To start, Schubb didn’t leave without a fight. Instead, he filed a lawsuit claiming contract violations, retaliation for alleged whistleblowing, and discrimination. The whistleblowing claims were based on a presentation to the Board in January 2002 during which he charged that grant money earmarked for KPFK’s transmitter was used to cover business expenses. In other words, he accused the organization of defrauding the grantor.

The contract charge centered on a policy in the Pacifica handbook. According to the organization’s personnel manual, he claimed, he was terminated without being allowed the benefit of “progressive discipline,” a gradual process during which he would have been given the chance to mend his ways.

But the most dangerous accusation was that he had actually been fired not because of his management record but rather because he was a straight white male. His evidence was a public comment by National Board Chairperson Leslie Cagan, who was on the search committee for a new WBAI general manager at the time. Cagan argued, “We don’t want to end up with five white men as our station managers. I have nothing against white men, but as a national organization, we cannot have five white men. I might add five straight white men, just to put it out there.”

Both Cagan’s comments and the process used to fire Schubb created serious legal exposure. According to research on California employment cases, every white male who had filed a reverse discrimination case in recent years won a favorable verdict. There was enormous pressure to avoid a runaway jury. Pacifica’s commitment to racial diversity in hiring might prove to be unpopular, especially since a trial would be held in Glendale, a white middle class area near the station. In reality, Cagan had no control over Schubb’s termination. But a jury might see it differently. Insurance could also be a problem. If Schubb’s lawyers could prove that any of his claims were the result of intentional conduct, coverage would probably be denied.

Despite all this, the case dragged on for two years. Pacifica and Schubb finally settled in February 2004. He walked away with a reported $325,000, less whatever he paid his lawyers. Pacifica’s insurer covered much of the total. The experience left the Board and management with tough lessons, especially that any comment made by a board member or manager – whether written or oral, and however offhand – could come back to haunt the organization.

Part Nine of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

Next: Meeting Eva & A Tense Encounter

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, Presente!

Pacifica Radio: Roots of the Revolution

The Pacifica Foundation obtained the best site on 5600-foot Mt. Wilson above L.A. to run over 110 kilowatts of radio power, enough to reach six million people, in the late 1950s. Its new station, KPFK, would have the strongest FM signal in Southern California, reaching from Santa Barbara and Los Angeles to the Mexican border and San Bernadino mountains.

From the start it was a bold and innovative operation. One of the early fundraising events was a Renaissance Pleasure Faire at which people dressed in period costumes. Pacifica ultimately broke off its relationship with the weekend event due to financial losses and outside pressure, but there were hundreds of imitators in the succeeding decades. Two years after the station’s 1959 launch it won a Peabody award for excellence in broadcasting. The following year it broadcast women’s history profiles of Dorothy Healey and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, later used during US Senate hearings to buttress charge that Pacifica was a communist front organization. In 1974, General Manager Will Lewis was jailed for refusing to give the FBI tapes of Patty Hearst that had been provided to the station by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

After Pacifica’s first executive director, Sharon Maeda, attacked the station in the early 1980s and tried to secure corporate underwriting from Exxon, KPFK’s scholarly program director, Clare Spark, fired back by reading a resolution drafted by herself and other Program Directors on the air. But Spark also preferred the traditional dialogue and culture-based interpretation of Pacifica’s mission to the more recent protest orientation. The network and its stations should focus on "people who write books," not "people who write bumper stickers," she said. The argument foreshadowed the struggle to come over control of programming and the direction of the network.

The match was truly lit when Pat Scott became KPFA General Manager and then Executive Director in the mid-1990s. Joining NFCB President Lynn Chadwick on a Corporation for Public Broadcasting task force, she backed the idea that community radio should be more ratings-driven. As far as many Pacificans were concerned, that was bad enough. But Scott went further, issuing a communique to all stations. On behalf on herself and the national board, she said that anyone who wasn’t willing to help the board reconfigure local programming to increase audiences was “advised to resign.” It became known as the “my way or the highway” memo.

Two weeks later, the broadcast schedule at KPFA was dramatically changed, including the cancellation of established shows. The fight climaxed four years later in a lockout and massive protests. Scott’s next move was a surprise takeover of KPFK and changes in station management. That came to be called the “Wednesday Night Massacre.” A listener-activist group calling itself the Pacifica Accountability Committee was formed, drawing support from L.A. and Berkeley. But their early efforts to write and push for new bylaws were ignored. Financial records were moved to Washington, DC in 2001, once discovery began in the then-pending lawsuits to remove directors for breaches of fiduciary duties.

A central figure in the struggle was KPFK General Manager Mark Schubb, who held the job from 1995 to 2002. Considering the volatility of the period it was a remarkably long tenure. Schubb was both respected and feared, and became known for sulking, slamming doors, and imposing programming changes. His loyal cadre – later known as the “Schubbistas” and their own label, “The Third Faction” – included Marc Cooper, who had been national news director until he was fired for confronting the national board in 1983 and later returned as a controversial on-air host at KPFK. Cooper served as Schubb’s informal consigliere for the rest of the 90s, and “The Third Faction” became famous for making extreme accusations about its opponents.

One of the early casualties was Lyn Gerry, KPFK producer, engineer and union shop steward. After a confrontation with Schubb over labor issues and other matters in 1995 she was fired and “banned.” But Gerry didn’t walk away quietly. She became a Pacifica activist and used the Internet to help organize the growing resistance. Other casualties of Schubb’s drive to remake the programming grid were Blase Bonpane, a well-regarded programmer fired – apparently without explanation – after 25 years on the air, and Loraine Mirza, a news staffer and host of Islamic Perspectives, who allegedly injured her back while removing boxes full of research without help after she was terminated.

In 1996, Schubb issued a directive ordering programmers and board operators to immediately cut the feed if anyone discussed “dirty linen” on the air. Noncompliance would result in “permanently being removed from the station.” The phrase dated back to the 60s, when “abusing the air” to discuss internal disputes was first prohibited. Two decades earlier the manager of KPFK had been fired for violating the “dirty linen” rule. But until Schubb’s memo it hadn’t been strictly enforced.

Disgruntled Pacificans saw this as a virtual Gag Rule. Anyone – employee or volunteer – who said anything about an internal disagreement would be automatically and promptly shown the door. For the next six years Schubb’s rule remained in place, with especially dire results at KPFK and WBAI. It took a revolution and a court order to end the practice. After a while Schubb got a nickname – The Gagmaster.

Part Eight of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

Next: The Price of Stifling Dissent

Thursday, June 19, 2008

KPFA: Hanrahan vs. Bernstein, et al

Speeding along I-10 toward Los Angeles to visit KPFK in mid-February 2006 as Pacifica Radio’s Executive Director I received my first briefing on the case of Noelle Hanrahan v. The Pacifica Foundation; KPFA; Jim Bennett; Dennis Bernstein; and DOES 1-20, inclusive. Filed in California Superior Court, the lawsuit accused Pacifica, and specifically Bernstein, of gender and sexual harassment, discrimination, abuse, retaliation, and unlawful termination. A large San Francisco-based law firm, Howard Rice Nemerovki Canady Falk and Rabkin, had been hired to defend Pacifica and possibly settle prior to a trial. Frank Birchfield, who was handling the case, rang my cell phone to bring me up to date.

Hanrahan, who made a name for herself by chronicling the controversial death penalty case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, became a part-time associate producer for Flashpoints in December 2000. Less than a year later relations with the famously cranky Bernstein turned sour. As far as KPFA’s management was concerned, it was just a clash of personalities. But Hanrahan called it harassment and claimed that Bernstein had threatened to force her out unless she agreed to “do what I tell you to do.” Bernstein claimed that Hanrahan was the one being “verbally abusive” and objected when she described herself as “senior producer” and “co-host” of the show.

Both complained to Jim Bennett, who was GM at the time. “I am an award winning, qualified host and producer and I have produced the entire show on many occasions,” Hanrahan wrote. “I will not be bullied and sexually harassed.” Bennett investigated and decided there was no merit to her complaints.

At one point Bernstein discussed their ongoing conflict on the air. In response, Bennett reamed him out and suspended him for ten days without pay. A mediator attempted to negotiate a truce by getting Bernstein to cede 20 minutes of airtime during each hour for Hanrahan to produce her own segments. At the end of the show the credits would say that Flashpoints was produced “by Dennis Bernstein with Noelle Hanrahan.” But the conflict wouldn’t go away. In the months that followed some employees claimed Hanrahan became increasingly difficult, abused them, and wanted Bernstein’s job.

In early 2002 she filed another complaint. This time Hanrahan charged that Bernstein had “demeaned” her and “engaged in an abusive conversation.” Bennett investigated again. Most staffers considered her the disruptive party. There was more mediation, but both antagonists insisted that it was the other who refused to communicate or play fair. Hanrahan claimed that a campaign of gender and sexual harassment was underway but didn’t offer specifics. Finally, in February, she was removed from the Flashpoints team and offered another on-air position.

Before a deal could be struck, however, an angry argument between Hanrahan and another member of the Flashpoints group broke out in a hallway. This time she was disciplined – with a mandatory, paid vacation. According to court documents filed by Pacifica, she used the time to publicize her grievances, including a flyer with what management considered “false and defamatory statements.” If she wanted to return to work, they told her, she would have to stop, retract any false statements, participate in conflict resolution, and consider the offer to work on another show. She rejected the terms and remained on paid leave for the next six months.

On September 15, KPFA said goodbye to Noelle Hanrahan – almost. Though removing her from the payroll, the station decided to continue health insurance coverage and provide childcare reimbursements for the next two and half years. When the coverage ended she decided to sue.

Now the case was heating up. Unless a settlement was reached both sides would begin taking depositions, a costly process. In order to win Hanrahan might only have to prove one of her many charges. The harassment accusation was unlikely to persuade, Birchfield felt, but the paper trail was sketchy and her attorneys might be able to establish that KPFA’s management was negligent in handling her complaints. His preliminary conversations with Bennett and his assistant Phil Osegueda suggested that, after almost three years, they didn’t remember some of what had transpired. Thus, their depositions might provide ammunition for the other side.

The good news was that Hanrahan sounded willing to settle. But her terms might not be possible to meet. She wanted $250,000, plus reinstatement and assurances that she would never have to deal with Bernstein and Bennett again. Was her return to KPFA a possibility, and how much might the board be willing to offer to have the case settled? I hadn’t discussed the matter with anyone yet and it would take a few weeks to find out.

“The sooner the better,” Birchfield explained. A settlement conference was being arranged for early March and it would be advantageous to know where the organization stood before that happened. With a 22-member board, including eight new members, that was much easier said than done.

Next Week: KPFK & the Struggle for the Network

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pacifica Radio: Network or Movement?

During my visit to Pacifica Radio’s Houston station, National Board member Ken Freeland assembled more than a dozen people, including seven disaffected members of the local station board, to provide their analysis of what was wrong with KPFT. Programs had been removed from the schedule without consultation, they charged, and “peace activists” were no longer welcome. Station Manager Duane Bradley was a passive-aggressive dictator and outright liar who promoted “corporate values,” they also claimed, and Program Director Ernesto Aguilar was a sycophantic “brown nose” who did his bidding.

“The take back never happened here,” said LSB member Michael Woodson, and the management was addicted to music. “It’s Pacifica-lite.”

These station critics wanted more stimulating discussions on the air, live news broadcasts whenever possible, open access to information on the fundraising records for various shows, and a return of public affairs programs, especially Democracy Now!, to prime time positions. Listener-members should be able to exercise control over management, they added, but the current board majority refused to hold them accountable. The proposals included establishing a “judicial branch” within the governance structure, as well as a “Freedom of Information Act with big teeth.” More than anything, it seemed, they wanted Duane Bradley to be removed.

After listening to each person around the large table present grievances and suggestions, I offered some preliminary reactions. In order to function effectively, there had to be a boundary between governance and management, I said. Though I agreed that Pacifica’s main purpose was to offer progressive and educational programming, the extreme negativity of the attacks reinforced a culture of resentment and disrespect. Respect for dissent was vital but disagreements ought to be expressed with civility and some compassion.

“What I’m wondering,” I concluded, “is whether you are trying to run a network or create a government? From what I’m hearing, it sounds like the latter.” The room was silent. No one seemed to have a clear answer. As the months proceeded, I would often repeat that question, addressing it to local groups and even the national board.

My own view was that the confusion over this choice reflected an underlying problem. The most active members of the community recognized that the main purpose of Pacifica was to produce radio programming, yet they also saw themselves engaged in a cultural project that went beyond that. Many of them were attempting to build an alternative society, and every aspect of their work needed to reflect its values. For many Pacifica wasn’t merely a non-profit foundation, it was a bold and utopian social experiment in what they saw as real democracy.

Later that night I visited with Otis Mcclay and Curt “Scooter” Schroell, a creative and irascible sound editor, and appeared on their webcast show, “Radio4Houston.” It was a great way to unwind after a tense encounter. Playing my own intro on a keyboard, I talked frankly about what I was seeing on my journey through Pacifica-land. People phoned in from as far away as Alaska to get a response from the new Executive Director. This reinforced my sense that, as the reach of the Internet grew, it was changing the nature of “radio.” Not all programs needed to be broadcast via a terrestrial station to reach their target audience, and listeners no longer needed to be within reach of a transmitter. Almost anyone with a computer could hear any program that was streamed, or retrieve it at their convenience. Two years later, you could still hear what I said that Wednesday in mid-February, 2006.

The next day I hung around the station, did an on-air interview during the midday newscast, and helped Program Director Ernesto Aguilar handle a dispute with African American activist-producers who felt that he’d reneged on a promise to provide significant space for special programming during Black History month. Ernesto preferred to avoid conflict and, perhaps as a consequence, sometimes implied agreement when he actually had reservations about a proposal. I tried to mediate, urging both sides to express their concerns and listening for points of agreement. It didn’t solve the problem, which resurfaced the following winter. But the activists felt they’d been heard – with the new ED as their witness – and Ernesto breathed a sigh of relief that the disagreement wouldn’t erupt into a public fight.

On Friday I set off by car for the West Coast. But Pacifica work didn’t stop. The National Board was moving into gear after welcoming eight new members and reforming its dozen committees. That Thursday I’d listened in on a Finance Committee session and, after checking into a motel in the Texas Panhandle the next night, convened a meeting of the ad hoc committee formed to search for a new corporate counsel.

At the January PNB meeting it had been decided that the organization needed to retain a lawyer to handle pending lawsuits and the many issues that required legal expertise. Since the Board didn’t feel comfortable letting me make the choice without oversight, the first step was selection of a board member from each station to “populate” a search committee. CFO Lonnie Hick was asked to join them, since such a decision had financial implications.

There were several strong personalities, with divergent agendas, on the committee. WPFW’s Ambrose Lane had a law degree and had been at the center of a recent legal dispute. KPFA board member LaVarn Williams was the new chair of the National Finance Committee and had pressed for an inspection of Pacifica records during the last days of Dan Coughlin’s administration. Lydia Brazon, a new national board member from KPFK, had been involved in one of the lawsuits that brought the previous regime to its knees and was a key advisor of KPFK General Manager Eva Georgia.

Before considering potential candidates, the group wanted to agree on criteria and the interview process. Knowledge of non-profit, California and labor law were high on the list. But a law firm’s commitment to diversity in hiring was also considered important. It would help to know something about Pacifica’s history and culture, and of course, the charge for services couldn’t be ignored.

Rather than using Roberts Rules of Order, the required practice at meetings of the full board and standing committees, I opted for a less rigid process. We would build an agenda on the spot, assign time limits, give everyone a chance to speak, and make a decision or move on as time and issues dictated. Meetings would last no more than two hours, and we’d agree on the date and time for the next session before adjourning. Everyone was thankful for a vacation from more formal, motion-driven rules.

We completed the agenda within the time limit and decided to bring forward the names of some possible candidates the next time. It had gone pretty well. No raised voices or snide comments. I went to sleep optimistic that we’d find a qualified firm within a month or so. Finally I would have a legal advisor to call on when the inevitable complaints and requests for advice and opinions began to pile up. Within a week I realized that it couldn’t happen soon enough.

Part Six of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

Next: KPFA -- Hanrahan vs. Bernstein, et al

Monday, June 16, 2008

KPFT: Overhauling the “Texas Jukebox”

General Manager Duane Bradley was on the air pitching when I arrived at KPFT in Houston. Pacifica Radio’s Texas station was in the midst of its Winter 2006 fund drive and about a half dozen volunteers were fielding calls in the first floor meeting room as Duane paced, touting the unique and vital role of Pacifica and its Houston outlet. The building was a converted home in a residential neighborhood, a bit too small to meet the station’s needs and yet somehow comfortable. It felt like I was joining an extended family in the middle of a major project.

Over the weekend I’d driven across the south, stopping along the way to talk with Ginny Welsch, the driving force behind affiliate station WRFN-LP, also known as Radio Free Nashville. One of many low-power stations launched in recent years, it had signed on just nine months earlier. Like many community-based stations, its core mission was to be “a voice for the voiceless,” she said.

WRFN carried Democracy Now! and Free Speech Radio News as part of a mix that was 60 percent talk and 40 percent music, mainly produced by about 100 locals. Ginny’s current focus was to get high school kids involved in developing shows, a priority that expressed her commitment to diversity. What she needed from Pacifica, beyond access to its wealth of programs from around the country, was training in newsgathering and editing, along with advice on how to produce programs that other stations might want to air.

The meeting was encouraging, since it suggested that Pacifica remained a source of inspiration and potential resources for emerging stations. Low power radio didn’t reach huge audiences but stations could be launched with limited money in smaller communities. They represented a promising way to expand the network’s reach.

KPFT was considerably larger, a 36-year old full-power station with a strong signal that reached far beyond the boundaries of the sprawling Texas city, beaming talk and music to multi-ethnic communities along the Gulf Coast. After recovering from two KKK-backed bomb attacks on its transmitter back in 1970, it went on to become the first public radio station to broadcast programs in 11 different languages. For a while it had one of the most eclectic FM formats in the country.

Duane Bradley was briefly the station’s program director in the late 1980s, and subsequently joined KPFT’s local advisory board. But the dominant personality throughout the 1990s was Garland Ganter, who started as news director, then became program director, and was appointed general manager in 1994 – just as the struggle over the long-term direction of the network began. As station manager and later national programming director, Ganter supervised a format conversion that replaced so-called “radical” programming with music and more inoffensive fare. As at KPFK and KPFA, shows with an overtly leftist perspective were dropped, along with those in foreign languages or geared to specific ethnic communities. It was all part of a national plan to “mainstream” Pacifica in hopes of attracting a broader audience. Grassroots activists considered it an unconscionable sellout.

In 2002, Ganter resigned and Bradley returned, this time as general manager of KPFT. Otis Maclay, a long time producer and radio personality at both KPFT and WBAI, was hired as program director, and the “Texas Jukebox” format was gradually replaced with more traditional Pacifica programming. But after a promising spike in audience during the first year of the Iraq war, Arbitron ratings recorded a 25 percent drop in listenership in 2004. The following year was only marginally better. Overall, Pacifica was losing ground, but the trend was especially noticeable at the Houston station.

With both audience and financial stability at risk, Duane decided that something had to be done. Local activists and a majority of the station board wanted a mission-driven morning drive time schedule with Democracy Now! At 7 a.m. Maclay supported that position and the change was made. However, he was soon transferred to a newly created consulting role as national technical director and replaced locally by Ernesto Aguilar.

Despite some promising signs and a visit to Houston by Amy Goodman, DN’s early morning spot on the schedule lasted little more than a month. Although it was still aired weekdays at 9 a.m. and re-broadcast in the evening, most of the morning public affairs shows were replaced by music and lighter talk. Flashpoints, a controversial program out of KPFA that often focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was moved from 7 p.m to 11. Public affairs remained in the mix to a greater extent than at WPFW, but the emphasis had shifted.

The strategy appeared to work. The station showed modestly improving audience and financial numbers. But some of the activist community felt abandoned and betrayed. Upon joining the national board – just as I became Executive Director – KPFT delegate Ken Freeland presented me with his bill of particulars.

In a widely-distributed critique Ken wrote that “current management has demonstrated that they are not fit stewards of our airwaves. If management were embezzling money belonging to the station, few of us would sit back and not demand action. But management is doing something that is morally not much different, it is playing Robin Hood in reverse, stealing prime airtime from KPFT’s best programming, our world and national news and information programming, and lavishing it on select local programmers, whose programs do not answer to this indispensablepart of Pacifica’s mission. The backwards march of our program lineup over the past year or two is unconscionable.”

I couldn’t help sympathizing, at least somewhat. But it was a difficult balancing act – keeping the station solvent and growing while considering the demands of diverse, not always compatible constituencies. In addition, I had hit it off early with Duane, who avoided the type of angry, defensive rhetoric I heard in some quarters. Listening to him tout the importance of Pacifica during on-air pitches with Amy Goodman I sensed that he understood the stakes, though he might be playing it a bit safe. Ken, in contrast, was adamant, judgmental, and trapped in the typical Pacifica dynamic of conflict and blame.

Part Five of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

Next: Pacifica Radio: Network or Movement?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Pacifica Radio: Mixed Messages at WPFW

Pacifica Radio’s DC station is currently located in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, in renovated digs above the City Paper, a local weekly. When I visited in early 2006, the staff I met was exclusively Black, a state of affairs that one board member had described as representing a significant achievement, the attainment of “100 percent diversity.” Apparently the comment wasn't meant to be ironic.

We met in the spacious main room and I got the distinct impression that they hoped to keep things pretty much as they were. Better coordination would be nice, I was told, especially the Berkeley office’s willingness to pass on the names of national donors who lived in the DC area. But the main message was that local “autonomy” should be respected. In other words, don’t force the station to conform to a “national” vision of programming.

Ensconced in a corner office, one of the few relatively private spaces at the station, Verna Avery Brown required special attention. Her current job title was DC Bureau Chief, but there were no other members of the “bureau” except a few journalists who filled in when Verna was ill or on vacation. Her days revolved around developing five minute news breaks known as Headline News. Each installment consisted of a few stories, most rewritten from other sources. Sometimes she included audio excerpts from Democracy Now! Rarely did she leave the building to attend a news event or develop a story on her own. She also hosted a local weekly show and, if a topic sparked her interest, occasionally produced or hosted special broadcasts.

Verna had an effective radio voice and came across as supremely confident about her professionalism. When Dan Coughlin became ED, she’d returned to Pacifica as his deputy. But now she felt isolated. Her job description had changed, the executive and finance office had been moved from Washington to Berkeley, the Pacifica Radio Archives was in Los Angeles, and the rest of the national staff was in New York. Although she defended her work on Headline News, she also felt tethered to a daily schedule that precluded pursuing other projects. Verna wanted a budget that would allow her to hire staff and expand the daily news operation. Either that or she wanted a new job, preferably Network Programming Coordinator, a position that I would fill once a related National Programming Policy was approved.

I tried to be encouraging without promising anything. It was too soon to know whether Verna could effectively handle a more demanding administrative post, or where she might fit into a reorganized management picture. But it was impossible to ignore that in certain quarters she was considered an overpaid lightweight. As deputy director, she had received the third highest salary in the organization. When Coughlin took the main office to Berkeley and changed her title, he’d avoided conflict by leaving her pay the same. Some members of the national staff with equivalent or even more demanding jobs were getting almost $30,000 less and knew it.

Compounding the problem, her daily news briefs weren’t carried by all sister stations, or aired only occasionally during the day. Verna claimed the service was popular with affiliate stations, but it wasn’t clear how many carried it, or how often. Pacifica die-hards also complained that the content, despite her professional voice, wasn’t fresh or compelling, and that some days – without notice – Headline News simply wouldn’t be distributed.

Verna did have supporters and understood how Pacifica’s office politics worked. But it’s unlikely that she knew just how many people, from board members to managers and staff, wanted her to go. The drumbeat was as loud as the clamoring for Bernard White’s ouster from WBAI in New York, and actually more widespread. Nevertheless, even if I did decide they were right I recognized that she wouldn’t leave without a fight – and possibly another lawsuit the organization didn’t need.

The DC leg of the journey also included a briefing from Pacifica’s FCC lawyer John Crigler, a testy encounter with several disgruntled members of the local station board, talks with other veteran journalists eager to see the network get serious about covering breaking news, holding court at Busboys and Poets as Sam Husseini brought over local activists for frank discussions, and long teleconferences with the PNB and its Coordinating Committee. By the time I hit the road again my head was reeling.

Since FCC rules weren’t my strong suit, I welcomed Crigler’s orientation. Yet it was worrisome to learn the details of two obscenity complaints against WBAI. Not only did they require a legal defense but might end up costing the organization up to $33,000 each in fines. The word on use of station sub-channels wasn’t much better. Income from the leasing of these sidebands was rapidly drying up as tenants pressed for conversion to high definition (HD) radio. Pacifica had yet to develop a policy or plan.

WPFW’s dissident local board members were upset about several things. Most immediately, they felt that the election for delegates to the national board had been mishandled and planned to challenge it. Beyond that, they echoed the criticisms I’d already heard about General Manager Ron Pinchback’s unresponsiveness and programming – too much music and not enough public affairs for a progressive station in the nation’s capital. With Bush in the White House and a war in Iraq, went the critique, how could a Pacifica station – especially one that called itself “The Messenger” – possibly justify running music about 19 hours out of every 24? Actually, the answer was simple. It paid the bills, and substantially altering the mix after so many years risked alienating existing listeners without being certain that new ones would be as generous. But this wasn’t an explanation many people wanted to defend in public.

After almost a week immersed in conflicts and problems at the two East Coast stations, it bordered on the surreal to hear the Pacifica National Board’s Coordinating Committee calmly discuss plans for a retreat on diversity and civility. They wanted to improve “interpersonal relations” between board members, discourage “uncivil speech,” promote anti-racism, and, in the words of one Board member, “let people know there are consequences” for going over the line.

Finally someone asked, “Where are the existing policies written?” No one seemed to know.

Part Four of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

Next week: KPFT

Monday, June 9, 2008

WPFW: Avoiding the Tough Questions

The youngest of Pacifica Radio’s five sister stations, WPFW, was launched in 1977 as a source of alternative programming in the nation’s capital. But the approach differed from the older stations. Although news and public affairs were part of the mix, most of the airtime was devoted to music. Its mission statement, while acknowledging the overarching purposes of the Pacifica Foundation, reflected this local priority.

“Jazz, a major American art form which grows from the African American experience, will be the major music programming,” it announced. “WPFW will act as archivist, educator, and entertainer on behalf of this under served national culture resource.” Over the years it had become one of the leading jazz stations in the country, along the way adding blues, reggae, hip hop, world music and other forms that reflected the evolving taste of its primarily African American audience.

My guide to the Washington, DC media scene was Sam Husseini, the journalist and activist who had introduced me to the DC Radio Coop during my first week on the job. Sam had chaired the Local Advisory Board for WPFW during the struggle for control of the network. Prior to the National Board’s attempted power grab in 1999, these boards had appointed PNB members. At that point Dave Adelson and others filed a lawsuit alleging illegal bylaws changes and unfair labor practices. The suit was settled in late 2001.

Four year later, Sam wasn’t pleased with the way things were going, either locally or nationally. Bessie Wash, the former WPFW General Manager who had helped stage the infamous “Christmas Coup” as Executive Director, was long gone. But Sam felt that her successor, Dan Coughlin, had appeased local management and let the network drift. Lou Hankins, Wash’s controversial replacement as GM of the DC station, known for not returning phone calls, was also history. But his successor Tony Regusters, a former press secretary for California Democratic congresswoman Maxine Waters, had recently been replaced by Ron Pinchback, a former program director who seemed less than eager to rock the boat and just as capable as Hankins of ignoring calls, e-mails and input he didn’t want to receive.

A week earlier, during a staff teleconference, Ron had been cool to the latest national programming initiatives, a daily newscast in Spanish and a series of specials on the impacts of Hurricane Katrina. WPFW didn’t have a significant Latino audience, he explained, and accepting funds from an outside group to produce a “town hall” broadcast on Katrina would “set a precedent.” His approach was to avoid outright opposition, but raise enough questions to have the decision postponed – until either his concerns were addressed or it was too late to preempt local programming. “I’ll be blunt,” he would often say, then proceed to be anything but that.

Sam set up appointments with a variety of local progressives. At Plymouth Congregational Church, Greyland Hagler argued for programs that addressed spiritual issues. “We have abdicated this whole area to the Right,” he said. “We have to open the door to spiritual discussion and real dialogue that allows for disagreement. To embrace a larger audience we have to stop talking to ourselves.”

Journalist Adam Shapiro suggested staging “international town halls” on Iraq and labor solidarity, virtual meetings that used new technology and collaborations with colleges to build bridges between communities in very different cultures. Pacifica had the advantage of existing outside the mainstream power structure, he argued, and could become a vehicle for serious examination of underlying economic and cultural conditions.

At the National Press Club we sat down with Russell Mokhiber, editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter and until recently host of a WPFW show called “Challenging Corporate Power.” A seasoned journalist who knew how to put Washington’s talking heads on the spot, he was virtually the only Pacifica broadcaster who showed up at White House briefings to ask tough, timely questions.

When Sam chaired the WPFW station board, it had called for precisely that – attending key media events to hold national and local officials accountable. In an essay published several months after my visit, he argued that if Pacifica reporters had regularly attended White House, State Department or Pentagon briefings, they might have exposed the false claims for the Iraq war before the invasion. “Had Pacifica had someone effectively covering Homeland Security issues,” he asked, “could that not have highlighted the vulnerability of the levees in New Orleans before Katrina hit? When progressive forces don't set up the structures necessary to avert disaster, should we really be surprised when it strikes and the flood waters – and death – come?”

Sam wanted Pacifica to go beyond cheap shots about the Bush regime and instead provide information with the potential to change hearts and minds. Harking back Lew Hill’s original vision, he imagined a network that encouraged open discussion, one that invited various advocates to air their differences. “The worst elements of all should be exposed,” he wrote, “the best aspect of each should proliferate. As it is, too often advocates of each of various ‘schools’ undermine each other behind the scenes.” Locally, he envisioned WPFW helping people to organize and providing training for new talent.

Instead, however, Mokhiber’s show had been regularly preempted and ultimately canceled, while the DC Radio Coop, an innovative project attracting and training younger people, was essentially purged for disrupting the complacent station atmosphere. As we sat in the Press Club watching reporters scurry by with their latest finds, the two journalists urged me to make Pacifica a serious player in the DC media circus. But I sensed their pessimism that it would actually happen.

Their analysis was that current programmers, many of them put in place by the “pre-revolution” management, clung fiercely to the on-air “real estate” they’d claimed and worked closely with the current management to resist change. Some local board members were satisfied with the status quo, others knew Pacifica was missing the mark but hesitated to act.

Part Three of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

Next: Mixed Messages at WPFW

Friday, June 6, 2008

Pacifica Radio: Facing Factions at WBAI

In private interviews at WBAI during my first visit to the station as Pacifica’s Executive Director, I heard a litany of staff complaints. People spoke of capricious programming choices, management by crisis, antique equipment, a “sick building” on Wall Street still full of 9/11 pollutants, and a toxic social atmosphere of fear and intimidation that was destroying a once great station. Interim General Manager Indra Hardat placed most of the blame on Program Director Bernard White’s shoulders, mentioning low staff morale, poor coordination during fund drives, lack of consultation on major decisions, and loss of listeners due to diminished arts programming.

In our very first meeting Indra used words like cronyism, favoritism, and vindictiveness. But the charges weren’t just directed at Bernard. Other staff members, she suggested, could be involved in misuse of resources, and the station was being billed for legal services without her approval. I’d read angry e-mails and heard unsettling rumors, yet the description was still somewhat shocking, especially coming from a station manager.

When I finally sat down with Bernard, he didn’t deny that the environment was toxic. But the real problem, he said, was a campaign to “lighten the station,” in other words a racially-motivated, millionaire-funded vendetta directed at Black leaders like him. He didn’t mention Local Station Board Member Steve Brown by name but the implication was obvious.

Sure, fundraising was a problem, he admitted, but he attributed it mainly to the natural “ebb and flow” of radio, along with trash talking by his political opponents that tended to scare away potential contributors. If allowed to do his job without interference, Bernard expressed confidence that he could get the station back on track. Unfortunately, his defensive stance and vague responses left me with little idea how he operated or what he planned to do. According to the staff, he didn’t even hold regular meetings.

An encounter that night at a union hall with about 15 key members of the Justice and Unity Coalition was considerably more revealing. Actually, it was more like a training session with a class of two. I’d brought along my old high school buddy Jack, who had run a community radio station on Long Island, to observe the dynamics.

Phase one, complete with graphics, was the JUC’s version of anti-racist education as summarized by Sheila Hamanaka, a listener-member from Rockland. “How do we judge Pacifica?” she asked rhetorically. “By what comes out of the radio. Based on that, control of airtime at Pacifica resembles a reservation system. Out of 87 shows, only 16 are hosted by Blacks. Latinos host six hours, and Asians only one.” Since “airtime is power” and “radio is an organizing tool,” she argued, “the question of who has power over the program grid is important.”

She was leading up to a key question: “Does Pacifica have an anti-racist position?” But rather than answer directly, she argued that “if a program isn’t explicitly anti-racist, then racism is the default setting.” Finally, she provided a description of what the network was supposed to be. “The Al Jazeera of North America,” she said.

For the next 90 minutes, following a disciplined agenda, the rest of my “trainers” provided their own perspectives, arguments and theories. The messages were remarkably consistent and deeply angry, filled with a stridency born of suspicion and fear. Although Local Board Chair Vajra Kilgour called the network a “beacon of truth in a wasteland of lies,” the real focus was their grievances – over union contract violations, lack of respect for “unpaid staff,” and the insults of opponents who suffered from what one person called “the real AIDs – acquired imperialist dependency syndrome.”

At the start, I’d explained that we would have to wrap up after two hours. In fairness to other local supporters, I had to leave enough time for a second meeting the same night. Yet the group opted to spend all but the last ten minutes laying out their agenda, and expressed little curiosity about my reaction. It seemed strange at the time. In retrospect, however, I realized that there was a message in this apparent disinterest.

The JUC had discipline and a vision and didn’t much care what I thought. They also had considerable influence, not only at WBAI but throughout the network. At a time when the Pacifica community could agree on little, this determined coalition knew exactly what it wanted and, using organizational rules that put a premium on “grassroots” participation, was ready to do whatever it took to win.

When I met some of their political rivals later the same night at National Board Member Patty Heffley’s apartment, the contrast was striking. This gathering was essentially a social event, complete with potluck dishes, drinks and multiple animated conversations. There was no agenda or specific expectation. Instead, after giving me time to settle and sample the spread, various people inquired about my background, opinions and plans. Legendary host Bob Fass listened closely from the sidelines and award-winning journalist Robert Knight, who had been fired by Bernard in 2004, expressed eagerness to get back on the air. Several local board members were there, including Steve Brown and Carolyn Birden, who chaired the national board’s Elections Committee. She urged me to focus on cleaning up the process.

The group, then known as List-Prog, was predominantly white but included some people of color. The JUC occasionally came up, but the main focus was how to dig WBAI out of its financial hole. The station had been missing its fundraising goals for at least two years, a situation most blamed on narrow and irresponsibly polemical programming. Though List-Prog clearly leaned left, the critique was more pragmatic than ideological.

What they shared with their rivals, however, was a deep distrust that sometimes veered into paranoia. While the JUC viewed this loose association as racist and retrograde, the basic message from List-Prog was that JUC used underhanded tactics – including physical intimidation – to maintain its grip on the station while providing cover for Bernard White. Many considered him corrupt if not crooked.

By the time we returned home it was almost midnight. We’d been immersed in WBAI’s pain and problems for almost 14 hours. Jack was startled by the intensity of the conversations, and felt the staff and board members we had met ranged from dedicated and competent to fanatic and mentally unhinged. Confiding that he probably would never have accepted such a job, he joked, “They’re not paying you nearly enough.”

Part Two of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

Next week: WPFW – Tough Questions & Mixed Message