Monday, June 8, 2009
Part Six of Real Life on Planet Pacifica
When rumors fly across Planet Pacifica or attacks get especially nasty, people often blame provocateurs and charge that the government is out to get radio’s voice of the people. There is some basis for this suspicion. The FBI had Pacifica in its sights as early as 1958, and took a special interest in 1962 when former Special Agent Jack Levine gave KPFA an interview.
Levine exposed the Bureau as a threat to democracy and a tool of J. Edgar Hoover, its vain and obsessed director. According to Mathew Lasar, who reviewed Freedom of Information Act files, the Bureau poked, prodded, and harassed the organization for years, even planting agents disguised as private citizens.
In recent times, however, charges of counter-intelligence operations directed against the organization have been speculative at best, and occasionally excursions into free-range paranoia. When messages critical of program hosts or local activists are posted on Internet lists and websites, their authors – some long-time Pacifica members – are sometimes charged as accomplices in an alleged government conspiracy to destabilize the organization. Board members and station managers aren’t exempt from insinuations that they’re part of the plot.
As Executive Director, I found no solid evidence of a government operation. But even if a disinformation campaign was being pursued, it would be overkill. The Pacifica community is capable of destabilizing itself without a federal assist. Outside forces aren’t responsible for the new bylaws or listener activist distrust of staff, the slow response to the digital age, confusion about the basic mission, programming gridlock, financial decline, or misbehavior of board members and volunteers.
Part of the problem is the version of democracy put in place in 2002. As this point, the five stations had about a million regular listeners (down about 20 percent since then). Of this total, about 10 percent make financial or volunteer contributions, qualifying them to participate in local elections. Of that total, little more than 10 percent actually return ballots in the board elections.
Due to proportional voting, it takes at most about 300 votes for someone to be elected to a local station board. In other words, LSB members draw their right to govern from far less than one percent of the listeners. And in order to win, candidates often resort to negative appeals, especially charges that the process is corrupt and Pacifica isn’t democratic enough. In general, the elections have tended to perpetuate an atmosphere of confrontation and suspicion.
They also take at least eight months to conduct, cost at least $200,000 each time, consume considerable staff and airtime, and lead to interminable legal disputes. Most non-profit boards recruit people with specific skills needed by the organization. Pacifica replaced this with an election process that perpetuates warring factions on every station board.
Board meetings have frequently featured rude outbursts and other disrespectful behavior. Roberts Rules of Order are often abused, becoming weapons of obstruction rather than tools to promote rational discussion. E-mails are used to spread rumors and promote debates of marginal relevance. In many cases, factional alliances manipulate the rules. Productivity suffers and questionable behavior opens the organization to legal liability. All this has had the effect of alienating potential supporters or future board members.
Voting is not a panacea. It is a mediated form of political engagement, and can sometimes divert energy from more effective forms of political and social action. Just because a group is elected, that doesn’t always mean it makes the best or even the right decisions.
Since the status-quo encourages competition rather than cooperation, a viable alternative would need to provide incentives for actively seeking common ground. For elections to be constructive, the process must reward helpful ideas rather than negative appeals. Pacifica also needs some at-large, appointed board members, people who have needed skills and aren’t so entangled in the internal political struggles.
In addition, the organization might benefit from some form of open-source governance, an emerging “post-national” approach that draws from the collective wisdom of a whole community. An open-source model could help de-couple setting policy from station management. A small step in this direction would be to post all the policies – local, national, financial – in one accessible public registry and update it regularly.
The current structure is, in part, a form of grassroots democracy. As much decision-making as possible is granted to the lower geographic level of organization. This sounds fine, but means in practice that power resides with local institutions – the stations – and not with individuals. In contrast, participatory systems give people equal access to decision-making regardless of their standing in a local chapter or community. The question is who and what Pacifica seeks to empower.
Beyond a fresh look at listener democracy and organizational structure, Pacifica Radio sorely needs a serious review of its 60-year-old mission statement, which adds to the confusion, an overhaul of its bylaws, and new revenue streams, including carefully screened underwriting. Individual contributions, mainly via on-air fund drives, won’t be enough, and CPB funding is unreliable.
Perhaps being the loyal opposition, covering the stories that other media ignore, is the path ahead. But if so, where and how do dialogue and national programs fit in? Is it really a network or merely a convenient umbrella for local stations that basically go their own ways? Resolving such questions will help to determine the best formats and schedules to serve the mission and attract more listeners. It might even lead to less internal warfare.
Whatever the answers are to the many questions nagging at Pacifica, one thing is certain: It needs to catch up with the digital revolution. To stay relevant, it will have to fully embrace the Internet and devote substantially more to retooling for this new form of production and distribution.
Podcasting is an ideal format for specialized information and shows with unique audiences, allowing programmers go far beyond a station's reach. With listeners able to choose the shows or items they want, relevance rather than production values and locality becomes a main factor. As search engines improve, podcasting will be more about items and less about shows. More people will also become their own producers, collecting the items or music they want and bundling them together.
Pacifica needs to produce more content specifically for podcasts, cultivating online hosts and opening opportunities for new voices to create segments and programs that won’t be aired on the terrestrial stations. It would also help to stop preaching to the choir, and offer more shows that promote real dialogue, at least the discussion of varying progressive viewpoints.
Some content will combine audio, video and text. Media players with TV screens are becoming more common, and it won’t be long before many stations have regular webcast shows. In addition, listeners will be able to participate in live, interactive video streams of talk shows, watching the on-air personalities and other listeners who are streaming themselves. They’ll be able to interact with the hosts and each other.
Two-way communication is quickly replacing one-way broadcasting as the dominant mode of connectivity. Hardwired systems dominated by proprietary radio components are becoming adaptive platforms. Just as PCs replaced mainframes and brought computing to the masses, wireless systems are replacing central transmission towers with millions of interactive end-user devices. In this new world, successful radio stations will be general online content producers.
In mid-2006, I outlined a possible future for Pacifica during a public meeting in New York. Asking the audience to suspend their disbelief and use their imaginations, I described an audio production center with multiple channels and schedules open to frequent change, a place that breaks down distinctions between listeners and producers, a hothouse for the cultivation of talent and a laboratory for new ideas, a place where people converge and contribute. To do that, however, Pacifica stations must become audio resource centers offering state-of-the-art training and a variety of platforms to get messages — news, information, opinions, music, humor, drama and more — out into the world.
Given the current state of affairs, it’s difficult to say whether anything close to this will come to pass. But before such a transformation can even begin, Pacifica needs stable management, a streamlined approach to governance, and a dramatic turn from suspicion and fear to tolerance and mutual respect.
Until then, no matter whom the board chooses to manage Pacifica it is likely to remain, as described to me back in 2005, a dream job from hell.
One: Rethinking the Experiment
Two: WBAI’s Delicate Condition
Three: Uncovering Fault Lines
Four: Pacifica’s War at Home
Five: End of a Media Dream
PS. For more detailed proposals concerning reforms and changes that could help, check out my reports to the PNB as Executive Director, particularly June and September 2006, and January 2007. For those disappointed that I haven't revealed more, please keep in mind that as a former staff member I am limited by confidentiality rules, especially those regarding personnel, executive committee meetings, and terms outlined in the agreement I signed in January 2006. Those who feel that this series has gone on too long or helped too little (or not at all) will be happy to know that it ends here. May the Pacifica community prosper and find a constructive way forward in the years ahead. -- GG
Friday, June 5, 2009
Part Five of Real Life on Planet Pacifica
Shortly after the January 2007 Pacifica National Board meeting in Houston, PNB member Berthold Reimer sent a revealing e-mail. “It is not up to the PNB to micro manage the Executive Director who should have the leverage to make decisions and implement them,” he wrote. “If the PNB is not happy with the way the Executive Director implements its directives, the PNB can decide not to renew the contract of the Executive Director or have an extraordinary session to terminate him/her. Short of that, we should let him do his job.”
I appreciated the sentiment, but the argument contained two interesting assumptions. The first was that I actually had a contract. In reality, I had been working without one for more than a year at that point, and an attempt to negotiate some basic terms had been derailed by stalemate in the Personnel Committee.
He also implied that the intent of the Board was often clear. On the contrary, there was rarely anything close to consensus. Divisions were especially apparent when the topic was “must carry,” the idea that some programs should be aired on all stations. Whether the example was Spanish language news, a national special, or a board-backed editorial, viewpoints varied and local control was a sore point. This became painfully clear when I attempted to mandate carriage of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
At the urging of the PNB, I had issued an editorial statement on Habeas Corpus shortly after passage of the Military Commissions Act in 2006 undermined this basic right. In adopting its motion on this topic, the board also voted for follow up, initiatives such as having the editorial posted on various websites, related programming to be developed locally, regular updates, and station broadcasts of statements by local or national experts. My editorial was aired, but local management’s response to the board’s initiative was cool and inconsistent.
Then, in mid-January 2007, KPFA host and correspondent Larry Bensky urged national coverage of the Judiciary Committee’s questioning of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The Senators would be quizzing him in less than a week about warrantless surveillance, suspension of Habeas Corpus, torture, and extension of domestic spying by the CIA and military. Covering key hearings was a Pacifica mainstay, and this looked like a golden opportunity to pursue the issue at hand. A proposal was quickly circulated to managers and national staff members. Technical arrangements were put in motion.
Prior to the hearing, confirmation was received from managers at four of the five stations that it would be carried live. Some were reluctant, but realized we were fulfilling the board’s instruction to “use the resources of the foundation to educate and inform the public on the dangers of this legislation, specifically including… consistent on-air coverage of the issue.” As it turned out, CSPAN ignored it, mainstream media coverage was minimal, and the questioning was dramatic, essentially starting the process that led to Gonzales’ resignation. But the reaction within Pacifica was even more revealing. Several board members charged that I had over-stepped my authority.
During a teleconference the following evening, I argued that the decision reflected a broad consensus and urged the directors to support my efforts to have Pacifica “act like a network.” In response, Bob Lederer, a WBAI delegate and JUC member, argued that there was a big difference between the general principle of maximizing coverage and mandating a particular program. The Board hadn’t authorized national carriage of the hearing, he said, and therefore stations shouldn’t have been required to air it. Referring to the 1990s, the bad old days when such decisions sparked rebellion, he wanted the board to make it clear that the National Office couldn’t impose anything except the authorized editorial.
Several Board members felt that collaboration was preferable to “must carry,” and that short notice forced stations to preempt popular shows without sufficient time. One member, WPFW delegate Acie Byrd, submitted a motion that said my action wasn’t authorized and I should henceforth refrain from imposing any program on the stations, unless and until the board spoke on the issue. The motion didn’t pass, but the discussion made it clear just how limited the power of Pacifica’s CEO could be.
Quite a few national specials were produced during the succeeding months, and most stations aired them. On the other hand, more lawsuits were filed, and the board ignored most of my recommendations for reorganization and programming, as well as repeated warnings about a looming financial crunch. When managers and national staff developed a unified policy to deal more strictly with obscenity violations, unpaid staff in New York almost succeeded in getting the board to block it. Local control advocates were mobilizing to protect station “autonomy” from my network-oriented agenda, and my early supporters were falling away, at least in part because I hadn’t satisfied their desire to “clean house.”
In late 2006, rather than offering me a contract the board had decided to conduct an evaluation. The process took months and asked more than 140 people -- national staff, station managers, and every national and LSB member – to rate my work. Some of the locals hadn’t even met me, and most had little notion of what I did. Basically, it was a referendum, a vote on whether I should get a raise, keep the job, go on probation, or be fired. I took to calling it an “evalu-lection.”
The day before a scheduled talk about it with the board in late April 2007, I received the results. Most staff members had opted not to participate, apparently out of fear that I might “retaliate,” and about half of the 59 responses came from Local Station Board members. About two thirds of those who did express an opinion said I was doing all right, at least enough to keep the job. The rest thought I was unilateral, unresponsive, and presumptuous in appointing a new GM at WBAI. The comments and ratings were anonymous, but it was easy to tell that the New York-based JUC contingent wanted me gone.
I’d had about enough myself. In a letter to the board, I suggested that a search committee be formed while I relocated to the East Coast in order to focus on the stations there, especially WBAI. Reminding them that I had originally agreed to stay for no more than three years, I offered to continue until at least mid-2008, enough time to conduct a thorough search and choose a long-term replacement. What I didn’t anticipate was that the proposal would be used to show me the door as soon as possible.
For the next three months, the board spent countless hours debating what to do. Rather than giving the organization a shot at a peaceful and well-planned transition I had inadvertently provided the opening for another power struggle. The “greg-istas,” as my supporters dubbed themselves, wanted me to remain as long as possible. Their opponents wanted to pick my successor before some of their terms ran out. One Board member thought I should be fired immediately. I could have resisted leaving, but that would have plunged Pacifica into a distracting battle that brought other work to a halt. We eventually settled on September 30, 2007, and a hastily-formed search committee rushed to recruit someone in time.
In the end, Nicole Sawaya was the only candidate interviewed by the board. Still, it looked at first like Pacifica had finally found a leader the entire community could support. Two months later, despite a multi-year contract, higher salary, and broad-based backing, she resigned.
Over the winter, as negotiations proceeded to woo her back, Pacifica’s stations found it harder to keep pace with rising costs, particularly health insurance, legal fees, and governance. On-air fund drives weren’t meeting their goals, most stations had meager cash reserves, and WBAI was a half a million behind its fundraising target, mired in its internal power struggle, and unable to pay its central services fees.
In early March 2008, Sawaya agreed to return. What changed her mind wasn’t revealed, but a fight with CFO Lonnie Hicks over financial control, an issue I had raised repeatedly, did result in a Board decision to grant her the right to directly supervise the national financial staff. One of her first big decisions was to cut the budget for Free Speech Radio News (FSRN) by 25 percent. What shocked some Pacificans wasn’t so much the cutback but the fact that it was done without prior discussion. Sawaya explained that the financial crunch required strong and immediate action. The Board decided to let it stand.
The next surprises came in July, just as budgets for the next fiscal year were being developed. The National Board had voted to convene in person that month, but the managers in the national office failed to follow up and the meeting had to be cancelled. Soon afterward, without explanation, Hicks disappeared from work. The Board made no announcement, but news leaked out that he was on “paid leave to deal with family matters.” Later, there were rumors that an investigation of his activities was being pursued – and that he might sue.
Sawaya announced her decision to resign (again) in early August, but asked those who knew not to say anything for a month. At meetings, she meanwhile tried to convince the Board and National Finance Committee that Pacifica needed to act like a network and “centralize” various functions, especially accounting and reporting. Directors listened, but nothing changed. As she departed in late September, after nine months actually on the job, she pointed to "dysfunctional” governance and “shoddy and opaque” business practices that were plunging the organization into a financial crisis.
Pacifica’s Human Resources director (the second in three years) also left for a new job elsewhere in September, 2008, and the National Board began to discuss what was being calling a “national office collapse.” Some nevertheless hoped to quickly recruit a new Executive Director. That process would take months, however, and pending recommendations to re-expand the CFO’s authority and apply strict performance standards to all managers were likely to get in the way.
Even if a new chief executive could be found – and the Board overcame its divisions to agree – there were still the elephants in the room: Pacifica hadn’t figured out how to resolve its financial crisis, and, even more difficult, restructure its programming and management to reverse the long-term decline in listenership and income.
By the end of 2008, staff had been reduced at most stations, and several national positions had been cut. After another round of PNB delegation selection, the balance of power shifted again. Discussion forums speculated about receivership, bankruptcy, and breaking up the network as a new Board chair, Grace Aaron of Los Angeles, became Interim ED. She had been among the most vocal local board members demanding Eva Georgia’s dismissal during my tenure.
Hicks briefly returned to work as CFO, but was terminated early in 2009, replaced by an old nemesis, former National Finance Committee Chair LaVarn Williams. As predicted, Hicks filed a lawsuit, alleging that he was dismissed because he was African American and a whistleblower. Clearly, he had a taste for irony, considering his frequent warnings about escalating legal costs, the fact that a majority of the Board and national staff were minorities, and that he had fought as hard as anyone to hold back information from the board and membership.
In May 2009, as the network’s crisis continued and WBAI fell deeper into debt, facing eviction from its New York studio, Aaron changed the lock at the transmitter site, removed General Manager Tony Riddle, who had replaced Robert Scott Adams, as well as Program Director Bernard White, and appointed Williams Acting GM of the troubled station. Justice and Unity members and other White backers in New York threatened to protest, boycott, and possibly sue unless this latest “national coup” was reversed. All this, and the search for a new ED had barely begun.
In other words, Pacifica was still at war with itself.
Next: What Can Be Done
Previous Installments: One: Rethinking the Experiment
Two: WBAI’s Delicate Condition
Three: Uncovering Fault Lines
Four: Pacifica’s War at Home
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
In the midst of a national economic decline, Pacifica, the original listener-supported radio network, has been experiencing its own financial and organizational meltdown. As Executive Director in 2006 and 2007, I was in a unique position to identify many of the dilemmas facing this important progressive media organization. This article chronicles my experiences and efforts to avert a crisis, continuing a narrative begun last year and reporting on recent developments. To read previous installments, see the links at the end or look for Planet Pacifica: An Inside Story at Maverick Media.
Part Four of Real Life on Planet Pacifica
When the Pacifica National Board met in January 2007, the prospects for a productive year looked bright. Eight new Board members were seated without incident, and the mood was conciliatory, even respectful. An informative discussion about the need to move rapidly on digital distribution led to a decision to develop a plan that would “aggressively establish Pacifica’s presence on the internet.” At the end of that weekend in Houston, resolutions on political issues ranging from the Iraq War and press freedom to Haiti and a pending death penalty case were passed.
What a difference two months can make. By March of that year, two new lawsuits had been filed – one by a staff member in Los Angeles, another by a Local Station Board member in Houston. In Washington, DC, an attempt to remove the General Manager was initiated. In Berkeley, listeners and dissatisfied staff joined forces to protest a policy restricting “calls to action” that they considered a new “gag rule.” Fundraising boycotts were being threatened in both Berkeley and L.A.
After a successful International Women’s Day national broadcast, questions were raised about the race and ethnicity of the program’s producers and other consultants. The implication was that top management lacked a sufficient commitment to racial diversity. And when a board member offered to develop the digital distribution plan, critics charged that hiring him as a short-term consultant would be unethical, if not illegal.
Looking across the network, every station manager and program director was under attack, and people were again rallying for combat over what they saw as harassment, retaliation, and new threats to democracy, transparency, and free speech. The groups mounting these challenges obviously believed their causes were just. With rare exceptions, they didn’t want to bring Pacifica’s recent, modest progress to a halt. But justifications notwithstanding, that was the danger.
A dramatic case in point was the Los Angeles lawsuit that had been simmering for more than a year. The basic accusation, leveled by KPFK Co-News Director Molly Paige, was that Station Manager Eva Georgia had sexually harassed her and retaliated when she resisted the alleged overtures. Rumors had been circulating since 2005 and contributed to the national board’s decision not to give Georgia the top job.
When Paige was hired despite her “mainstream” background and political inexperience, some people did question the decision. Due to clashes with the station’s program director and the other news director, Georgia assumed direct control over the newsroom for six months and attempted to mediate. But the initially cordial relationship between the women sparked office gossip, especially since Georgia was an open lesbian. According to Paige, things veered out of control when Georgia supposedly suggested that they become sexually intimate. Paige said she declined, and that attraction then turned into hostility.
The lawsuit, filed in California’s Superior Court in February 2007, claimed not only that Paige was subjected to numerous forms of harassment, including demeaning references to her as a “white woman,” but also that Pacifica’s management failed to do anything about her “intolerable working conditions.” One of her numerous assertions was that I had admitted that her treatment was retaliatory, yet told her I no longer wanted her to bring complaints to my attention. The latter was a distortion, the former untrue.
Reading the complaint, I noticed several pertinent omissions and misstatements in Paige’s allegations. For example, we had never met in person and only spoken briefly over the phone. At that point, she was about to file a complaint with the Department of Fair Housing and Employment, and I still hoped to mediate the dispute. She didn't discuss the alleged harassment with me, instead asking for help with stringer payments. I looked into that, but Georgia and Program Director Armando Gudino said that not all such requests could be granted because the budget was limited.
Once the complaint was filed, I sent Corporate Counsel Dan Siegel to Los Angeles to investigate the charges and report to the board. He concluded that Paige’s case wasn’t very convincing, and even if everything she said was true, it wasn’t sexual harassment. Likewise, her claims of retaliation – specifically that the format of the evening news had been changed and her requests to cover certain stories in the field had been denied – didn’t add up to discriminatory retaliation. He did, however, urge that I let him deal with her lawyer rather than continue attempting to resolve the matter myself.
Before Paige sued, Pacifica offered her a cash settlement, a common cost-saving strategy even when the charges are weak, and I agreed to make someone else her direct supervisor. But Paige wasn’t interested in settling. She wanted Georgia fired, and actively sought support for that position at the station and on the local board. During one of my visits to KPFK, a staff member recounted Paige’s attempt to persuade him to file a related complaint. Others expressed a desire to see both Paige and Georgia leave. As months passed, the national board became more intent on defending Pacifica (and, by extension, Georgia) and less interested in settling, even if that was cheaper than going to court.
Georgia had critics other than Paige, including several program hosts, staff members, and members of her local board. The hosts and staff didn’t like her brusque management style, and the anti-Eva board faction accused her of misspending company funds. It didn’t help that she was hot-tempered and often went into victim mode when attacked.
As her supervisor, I provided support, sometimes overruled impulsive decisions, and urged her to be less reactive. It was an awkward relationship. After all, she had almost been ED herself, and knew she had lost the job in part due to the rumors of sexual harassment. She was also being fed gossip that I wanted to fire her. In truth, I was approached to do just that. But I rejected the idea and eventually reached the conclusion that, despite her prickly temperament and management weaknesses, Georgia was a creative thinker who had made tough decisions, successfully modernizing the station and increasing its appeal to Latinos and younger listeners.
Beyond that, I was appalled by some of the tactics her enemies employed, particularly racist taunts and unsubstantiated charges circulated to the local news media. Perhaps the worst was a mid-2007 article in Hustler by Bruce David. Accompanied by a cartoon that depicted Georgia as a female King Kong clutching a tiny white woman and a winning publicity photo of Paige, the article alleged that white heterosexual staff members were “being terrorized by a contingent of militant lesbian women of color.” A frequent Hustler contributor, David admitted that a major source of his discontent was criticisms of himself and the magazine on KPFK programs.
Moving from the marginally reportorial to the hysterically editorial, he concluded, “It is our fervent hope that Molly Paige not settle her lawsuit out of court. Molly, we urge you to rake Eva Georgia and her sycophants over the coals just the way we believe they tried to rake you over them. Put an end to this reign of fear and intimidation that you and others have had to endure. Make them pay through the nose!”
Most of the attacks weren’t quite so blatant and offensive. But what the Hustler writer shared with some of the anti-Eva crowd at the station and on the board was an almost gleeful pleasure at the prospect that, unless they got what they wanted, the network would suffer dire legal and financial consequences.
Disillusioned and psychologically battered after four years on the job, Eva Georgia left in October, 2007 – within weeks of my own departure.
Next: End of a Media Dream
Three: Uncovering Fault Lines
Monday, June 1, 2009
In the midst of a national economic decline, Pacifica, the original listener-supported radio network, has been experiencing its own financial and organizational meltdown. As Executive Director in 2006 and 2007, I was in a unique position to identify many of the dilemmas facing this important progressive media organization. This article chronicles my experiences and efforts to avert a crisis, continuing a narrative begun last year and reporting on recent developments. To read previous installments, see links at the end or look for Planet Pacifica: An Inside Story at Maverick Media.
Part Three of Real Life on Planet Pacifica
The first in a series of long overdue discussions about Pacifica Radio’s national programming also took place at the Board’s March 2006 meeting. For the occasion I had invited program directors from the five sister stations to join other managers and staff at the board’s big table.
The question, obviously, was how it could be done. Since the “Save Pacifica” days the stations had retreated to a local approach, but not many people thought it was working. The only way to have more national broadcasts was to talk to all the stakeholders, KPFK’s GM Eva Georgia advised. And the trick was to “get buy in.”
Everyone agreed with her basic proposition. But the devil was in the details; specifically, how to generate new shows and get them on all Pacifica stations. As the discussion proceeded, it became increasingly vague and polemical. How about shows on the direction of the network, or an annual production calendar, or using the upcoming elections as a starting point? What about shows that combined talk and music? Yes, yes, some people said, but we also must go beyond what’s popular.
“Make the programs irresistible,” Bernard White advised, “and the stations, I’m sure, will take them.”
Well, maybe. But most of the suggestions avoided the real issues: how to make tough decisions, allocating resources – and time, and obtain commitments. The resources were there, yet little was happening and most national “specials” that aired didn’t make people proud.
Of all the remarks Eva’s were the most concrete. She was bright and passionate, and had somehow made things work in L.A. I had to wonder why she’d become so controversial. Despite our awkward beginning (she had also applied for the ED job) she was backing my move to have managers from across the country confer more often. “Let’s have the operations group be effective,” she said, “a place where we look at program proposals – without a ‘must carry’ and without a fight. And then we preempt.”
For others, however, nothing short of full involvement by everyone – from board committees and staff to volunteer producers – would be enough. As Los Angeles Producer (and KPFK staff delegate to the national board) Alan Minsky put it, “Participatory structures are at the core of everything.” But that was precisely the rub, how to get anything done when so many, often-conflicting interests were involved.
I mulled it all over back in Berkeley. Basically, the weekend had gone well. People were thinking about how to rebuild trust and create a stronger national identity. I had received the board’s go-ahead to hire a network programming “coordinator” –once they approved the job description, of course. They’d also approved funds for the settlement of a lingering lawsuit brought by former KPFA producer Noelle Hanrahan. Most of station’s staff didn’t want her back, but a trial would be expensive and destructive. Maybe Pacifica was moving on after all, I thought.
Someone had even stepped up to take the Berkeley station manager job. KPFA’s development director, Lemlem Rijio, was born in Ethiopia, attended college in the US, and had worked for Pacifica a few years. Married, petite and self-assured, she had turned down my initial offer to serve as interim manager for up to nine months, but reconsidered after reporting for the station at the L.A. meeting.
The choice didn’t please those who felt that she was too chummy with the “entrenched” staff. They wanted an outsider who would shake things up, even though that had gone poorly during Roy Campanella’s brief tenure. Lemlem was part of the group that had pressed for his removal, yet that also meant she knew the players and the terrain, and might bring some calm and order until a permanent leader could be found. No one could predict how long that would take.
When I left Pacifica at the end of 2007 Lemlem was still Interim GM. My successor Nicole Sawaya, as her last official act before leaving Pacifica herself in September 2008, made that appointment permanent.
* * *
All in all, my first year as ED went relatively well. In addition to selecting new station managers for two of the largest stations – KPFA and WBAI, I hired National Technical Director Jon Almeleh and Network Programming Coordinator Nathan Moore, and negotiated a long-awaited contract with Free Speech Radio News, the collective that produced Pacifica’s half-hour daily newscast.
The number of national specials increased, the affiliate network surpassed 100 stations, work began on digital conversion, and a new weekly program highlighting Pacifica’s broadcast history, using the unique and extraordinary Pacifica Radio Archives, began to air. When the FCC announced that it would accept applications for non-commercial radio licenses for the first time in more than a decade, Ursula Ruedenberg successfully pressed for the network to join forces with other independent media advocates in the Radio for People campaign, which recruited local groups to apply for the frequencies.
Despite some local resistance, I also managed to get a 10-week national election series on the air. Drawing on the skills of more than 50 people from Pacifica and affiliate stations, the program, Informed Dissent, focused on key Congressional races and how corporate power, race, class, and the media influence the electoral process. It was carried on dozens of stations across the country during the fall, and seemed a hopeful step toward inter-station programming collaboration. There was little promotion within Pacifica, however, scheduling at some sister stations was unpredictable, and local management was cool to its continuation.
My most controversial decision concerned Pacifica’s most difficult station, WBAI. By June 2006, it was clear that Interim GM Indra Hardat couldn’t control Bernard White, and that the program director considered her a “bean counter” undeserving of his respect. In fact, without consulting her, he had announced plans for changes in the program grid. Looking them over, I saw little except a new music block in the evening and new time slots for the same programs. Suggestions that the station needed to reinvigorate its arts programming and appeal to the city’s 30 percent Latino population had been ignored. As a result, I blocked Bernard’s attempted programming power play.
Since the bylaws prevented me from directly disciplining White, however, and Hardat was too intimidated to use her authority despite my backing, I decided to replace her with someone he couldn’t ignore. But doing that quickly would require national board support, since the Justice and Unity Coalition (JUC) and the station’s Unpaid Staff Organizing Committee demanded local control of all hiring processes. If that happened, agreeing on a replacement could take years.
My strategy was to recruit someone not embroiled in WBAI’s factional warfare but familiar to some key players and willing to step into the lion’s den. Once I had such a person lined up, I could break the news to Hardat, return her to her old job as business manager, and let a local search committee look for additional candidates. My “safety” candidate turned out to be Robert Scott Adams, a black former station manager who had been a leading contender for the same job at WPFW a year before. Though local board members in DC wanted him, my predecessor Dan Coughlin had gone with the station “insider,” Ron Pinchback.
At least 22 people applied for the WBAI job over the summer, but after interviewing several of them the local search committee concluded that no one was qualified. Due to repeated scheduling snafus, Adams wasn’t even interviewed. Clearly, the locals preferred the status quo, despite their own criticisms of Hardat, to anyone I might choose.
In late September, when I told the national board what had happened, an overwhelming majority backed my decision to hire Adams anyway. The JUC never forgave me, and, as it turned out, Adams was no more able to control Bernard White than anyone else.
Toward the end of the year, local station board elections came off on schedule and without many disputes. In fact, turnout modestly increased, although it represented only 11.5 percent of listener-members and 35 percent of staff. On the other hand, despite an increase in working capital and control of expenses, underlying financial problems persisted. Audience decline and a drop in memberships was placing pressure on Pacifica’s remaining, largely aging supporters to contribute more. In many cases, fund drives had to be extended to meet budget goals. Legal, governance, and employee benefits costs were rising, and the budget process, which focused primarily on individual stations, didn’t sufficiently emphasize network-wide needs such as retooling infrastructure, training, development, and marketing.
The PNB’s decision to hire Dan Siegel as corporate counsel made it easier to respond to disputes and complaints. But requests for his participation in Board sessions, as well as calls for legal opinions, increased. Considering the cost of settlements and other assistance, the total legal bill from October 2005 to September 2006 was $325,000, up 182 percent from the previous year. CFO Hicks predicted that it might go even higher next year.
Next: War at Home