Thursday, May 28, 2009

WBAI’s Delicate Condition

In the midst of a national economic decline, the original listener-supported radio network has been experiencing its own financial and organizational meltdown. As Executive Director in 2006 and 2007, I was in a unique position to identify many of the dilemmas facing this important progressive media organization. This 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 Planet Pacifica: An Inside Story at Maverick Media.

Part Two of Real Life on Planet Pacifica

During the March 2006 meeting of the Pacifica National Board, held just two months after I became ED, a report from WBAI put the network’s problems in high relief. As Indra Hardat, the station’s Interim General Manager, and Program Director Bernard White took their places at opposite ends of the board’s large horseshoe the seating itself underlined the distance between them. I’d asked them to attend and explain what was happening. The idea was to get the divisions crippling the station out into the open.

Hardat had been interim GM for almost a year. She talked about “team spirit” and connections being made, but the station was still running in the red. The problems, she claimed, were lack of cooperation from the local board and poor communication with White. What WBAI needed, in her opinion, was “more women of color in programming” and a “sane and equitable work environment.”

Then she dropped a bombshell. “I am surprised that incidents of violence are being downplayed,” she said, “because it’s real, it’s happening. I have been the victim of verbal abuse more than three times in the last month or so.”

The room was stony silent. To understand the “conditions I have been forced to work under,” she went on, “We need to have some background. There are certain producers, LSB members and staff who never wanted me to be the IGM and have never hesitated to show it. And that’s a fact.”

She talked about Valerie Van Isler, the former GM who had originally put Bernard White in charge of programming – before both of them were fired in 2000. “She was attacked on a weekly basis by different members of the staff, and she took it quietly,” Indra recalled. “Folks, I’m not going to take it quietly. I’m not going to swallow it. Because I’m a woman, and a woman of color, I’m not going to take abuse.”

Van Isler had been “demonized” but she wasn’t the enemy, Indra claimed. “She was just trying to be objective and not belong to any of the camps. I’m the independent party. I do not believe in any factions or anything like that.” This was starting to sound a bit disingenuous. “We need dialogue with the programming department, and maybe mediation. But so far, on any kind of programming changes or preemptions, I’ve not been informed or included.” The excuse was that she wasn’t “qualified” in radio or programming, she added. “But I think it’s because I’m a woman.”

Bernard was prepared for the attack. Disarming yet stern he offered a starkly different portrait. Pacifica was “suffering from post-traumatic coup syndrome,” he said. The primary players who had hijacked the organization were gone, but “many of their supporters are still around and are involved in a well-funded, public campaign to destabilize WBAI.” Here lay the real threat to the station’s solvency.

He didn’t name Steve Brown, but the words left little doubt. The conspiracy’s “chief architect, financier and spokesman” was using “venomous poison pen e-mails” and “fabrications” to undermine trust with the listeners. And without trust, he predicted, the station would die. The fact that the attack focused on him was significant, he claimed, but his real concern was what it was doing to the station.

So, there it was: a serious conflict of perceptions, style and priorities between the station’s two top managers, and beneath the surface an ongoing struggle that dated back years. The comments that followed revealed still more.

For Lisa Davis, a new board member from New York, the real problem was racist remarks and charges of “corruption” leveled at Chief Financial Officer Lonnie Hicks. “I’ll be all night telling you about that,” Indra shot back, referring to her suspicions about the CFO, “and I would probably be fired for that.” Don White, a mild-mannered, veteran activist from Los Angeles, was concerned about the whole culture at the station and whether the GM was really in charge. “Is there a kind of culture that could be threatening to people entering the building?” he asked.

No, it was safe at the station, the two managers insisted. Violence was down since the bad old days. But discussions about programming were minimal and strained. “The only time I’ve talked with her,” Bernard said, “is when she talked with me about what I should do.” Making it plain that he wasn’t taking orders he quickly returned to Steve Brown’s critical e-mails.

Another new board member, WPFW’s Acie Byrd, asked what they could do to improve the situation. Indra’s solution, to the financial crunch at least, was more music and arts programming. Bernard was skeptical about that and thought the station needed more attention to race, like an anti-racism workshop the board had been through the day before.

Indra wouldn’t budge from charges of “verbal abuse” and gender discrimination; Bernard professed a willingness to cooperate – despite the attacks. “Hey, I’m not perfect,” he sighed. “But you have to work with what you have.”

PNB Chair Dave Adelson tried to push past the stalemate. Looking at Bernard, he said, “People are motivated to defend you. But I don’t see Indra representing a faction, and some of the ‘he-she’ disputes are about a challenge to you. You getting along is the only way to de-escalate this war.”

“We need a united front,” Indra agreed.

“I’ve said we should sit down and talk,” Bernard answered.

“But you won’t talk. You walk away,” she shot back.

In the end, the combatants at least agreed to mediation, and I was ordered to investigate Indra’s charges. But there were no obvious solutions to the underlying problems – declining ratings, financial failure, and a racially-charged, divisive atmosphere.

Next: Uncovering Fault Lines

Previous: Rethinking the Experiment

Monday, May 25, 2009

Real Life on Planet Pacifica

In the midst of a national economic decline, the original listener-supported radio network has been experiencing its own financial and organizational meltdown. As Executive Director in 2006 and 2007, I was in a unique position to identify many of the dilemmas facing this important progressive media organization. This article chronicles my experiences and efforts to avert a crisis, continuing a narrative begun last year. To read previous installments, see Planet Pacifica: An Inside Story at Maverick Media.

Part One: Rethinking the Experiment

“What are we trying to accomplish here? Are we trying to expand an extraordinary radio network, to support programming that addresses the mission I’ve described, or are we trying to create a government? If it’s the latter, we’re doing quite a job.”

--Remarks to the PNB, March 2006

When Pacifica Radio’s national board met in person during my time as the network’s Executive Director, it was normally an all-weekend affair. Actually more than a weekend: Managers and staff started arriving Wednesday for a full-day, staff-only summit on Thursday.

The location rotated according to a required order and timing, another bright idea, evidently designed to equalize local participation, by the reformers who recaptured the network about years ago. The trouble was that housing about 40 people for four days in New York, plus a meeting hall big enough to accommodate an audience and “public comments” by local activists, could cost double the price of the same digs in Houston, while a summer session in Houston could be almost unbearable. In short, it was an arbitrary, potentially costly arrangement.

On the other hand, the gatherings did bring together people from disparate cultures, and, if the mood was right, could build momentum for new ideas. My plan for the March 2006 session in Los Angeles, held just two months after I became ED, was to lay out the problems and get some early “buy in” for a network-oriented thrust. As Affiliates Program Coordinator Ursula Ruedenberg delicately put it during a “thematic” discussion that weekend, national programming “is very thorny just beneath the surface. It set the stage for what happened in the 90s. There began to be pressure to work as a national network,” she recalled, “and that process aroused all sorts of issues.”

At least the timing and location looked good. The board was about to adopt a National Programming Policy, which would trigger the hiring of a coordinator. Theoretically, he or she could pull together people and programs across the country. Meanwhile, outside the hotel in the streets of Los Angeles, over a half a million people were gathering for “La Gran Marcha,” part of a nationwide protest against a proposed law to raise penalties for illegal immigration and classify the undocumented – or anyone who helped them – as felons. Over the next few days hundreds of thousands more showed up in Denver, Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, and Nashville. In the wider debate over immigration the protests not only demonstrated opposition to the bill but called for a “path to legalization” for the millions entering the country without permission.

It was a perfect issue for Pacifica, and the Board promptly took time out to join the march. For KPFK it was a golden programming opportunity. The station went live for five hours that day, airing reports and coverage in Spanish and English, the first show of its kind. Yet the other sister stations didn’t take it as a national feed, preferring local coverage or the usual shows.

Latino programming was at the top of the agenda. Largely at the urging of KPFK, the Board had decided that a daily Spanish language news show should be launched nationally. New York and DC Latino activists were also lobbying for more airtime. They had a point. The demographic trends in signal areas and nationally pointed to a large “under-served” audience. According to Arbitron, Latinos spent more time listening to the radio than any other ethnic group. In fact, Spanish-language media – Univision, Telemundo and radio stations – had helped to mobilize people for the immigration protests. In L.A. , Eddie “Piolin” Sotelo, a Spanish radio personality, persuaded friends at other stations to rally listeners and cover the event. But commercial radio’s interest in the issue was likely to fade, while Pacifica, if it made a sustained commitment, could build a large and loyal new listenership.

“I’m feeling a lot of pressure for change,” I told the board, “people waiting to see whether I will take sides, and waiting to judge. I’m bound to disappoint some people. There’s really no way to satisfy all of the expectations.” It might be possible to find some common ground, I acknowledged, but winner-take-all wasn’t the best starting point. “What we have, with certain exceptions, is a siege mentality, sometimes referred to as protecting turf.”

My strategy was to move slowly, step-by-step, protecting the staff, assessing their performance – and not becoming embroiled in every local quarrel. But that wouldn’t be easy. As usual, charges and counter-charges were flying, over money in New York, airtime and board elections in DC, and the management vacuum at KPFA. I’d been looking for an interim GM to handle the Berkeley station for a month now. No one seemed to want the job, and I had more to fill in the weeks ahead.

“What’s my vision of Pacifica?” It was time to start answering the question. “That Pacifica very soon will stop making war on itself,” I explained. “But this will require a leap of faith and an act of will.” Tolerance, respect, and diversity, all three would be needed. “And since I’ve said that I won’t use force – negative power – I’ll have to work with persuasion.”

For many people, Pacifica isn’t just about education or even media. Crossing the country I had asked many times: What are we building – a network or a government? Standing before the national board I posed the question again. “We have local and national legislative bodies,” I pointed out. “We have factions that could soon become political parties. We have expensive and politicized elections. We have dropping turnout, endless political gamesmanship, and the emergence of calls for the creation of what some might view as judicial bodies. But if it’s the former – to create radio that challenges, informs and enlightens – I think we need to rethink this experiment, take it back to the shop and debug it as soon as possible, before it makes accomplishing the mission nearly impossible.”

The goal, I said, “is to unleash often latent potential that exists both within and around the network; in other words, working synergistically both with each other but also with the larger media community that we sometimes lead and sometimes follow, an independent media movement of which we are just one part. It’s long past time that this organization retakes its place as a leading voice and a moving force in community-based media.”

The applause was encouraging when I finished the report. But the discussion that followed put the enthusiasm into perspective. Despite my good intentions Ken Freeland, a disgruntled board member from Houston, felt that I was making his job more difficult. He was particularly displeased that I had let KPFT General Manager Duane Bradley attend the Texas Music Awards, where the station was up for a prize, rather than come to L.A. and submit to his questioning.

Like other Amy Goodman fans, Ken was angry that Democracy Now! didn’t get earlier “drive time” airplay and wanted Duane in the hot seat. I felt Ken was missing the point. “There’s a lot more programming we need to develop,” I told him, and I didn’t intend to force stations to broadcast DN at a specific time. Others asked about the Spanish newscast, which had been discussed by the staff two days before. KPFK was ready to launch a daily one-hour broadcast. But some of the stations still weren’t willing to commit.

Next: WBAI’s Delicate Condition

Monday, May 18, 2009