It’s election season again at Pacifica radio, the five station listener supported radio network, and that means another season of mud slinging, dishonesty, lawsuits, and wasted money. This time I’m not participating—that means I’m not endorsing any slate and I’m not voting in the election at my local station: KPFA-FM in Berkeley.
For the uninitiated, here’s Pacifica radio’s internal democracy in a nutshell. Periodically the network’s bona fide listener subscribers and staff (paid and volunteer) vote for local boards of 24 members each. These boards have some authority over budgets and key management hirings. They also appoint delegates to the network’s ultimate authority: the Pacifica Governing Board, which appoints a new Executive Committee every year. The Governing Board oversees the Pacifica Foundation, which owns all Pacifica property, including the network’s five FM licenses in Berkeley, Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, D.C. and Houston.
Worse by any standard
But by any metric, democracy at Pacifica has been a disaster. Has it alleviated Pacifica’s famously contentious atmosphere? No. In fact, the internal life of Pacifica has arguably become much worse on a day-to-day level. Has it helped to improve the network’s air sound? To the extent that there have been improvements, they have taken place in spite of Pacifica governance, not because of it.
Are Pacifica’s finances in better shape because of its democratic structure? Hardly. According to its latest audit, Pacifica Radio earned $12,594,835 in revenue in 2009, a calamitous drop of $4.2 million from 2008, which saw revenue of $16,768,908. In other words, Pacifica lost the equivalent of a third of its earnings for last year. Most of that decline was in listener support and donations, which tanked by 27 percent.
Two more years of decline like this, and I fear that for all practical purposes, Pacifica will cease to exist. But that doesn’t stop the organization from spending a queen’s ransom on what seems to be the most important activity to its leadership: governance and the network’s failed system of listener-subscriber elections, in which only slightly more than a tenth of the subscribers actually participate.
A “gross exaggeration”
How much do these elections cost? Who knows? According to this financial document, in 2009 Pacifica spent over a quarter of a million on “board expense”— $265,687 to be exact. Another $323,074 was spent on “communications expense,” and $331,640 went to “community events and development.” I’m guessing that somewhere in that cool 900K is the actual sum spent to keep that scary circus otherwise known as Pacifica governance in the manner to which it has grown accustomed.
I’ve got the numbers from earlier years (documents folder here). In 2004 the network spent $206,571 in “board election expenses.” In 2005 it was $183,941. Pacifica’s finances web site doesn’t include the audits for 2006 through 2008. And for some reason this latest audit doesn’t break that figure down.
But maybe some recent correspondence can help. Media scholar and Counterpunch author Ian Boal put the last election’s cost at $700,000. “This is a gross exaggeration,” a former National Board Chair protested in a response. ”The election cost less than half that amount, including lawsuits.”
Maybe or maybe not. But for the sake of argument, I’m presuming that the last round cost Pacifica around a third of a million dollars, “including lawsuits,” which have become a normal part of Pacifica’s internal life. So if we speculate that in 2006 through 2008 election expenditures stayed at the lowest figure available (2005: $183,941), Pacifica has spent close to a million on its politicians over the last six years. That’s the equivalent of salaries and benefits for two dozen reporters, on-air hosts, and producers.
So how did we get into this mess? That requires an analysis of how we got in. Here’s mine.
When this new system was initiated, Pacifica had just recovered from the awful management coups at KPFA and WBAI-FM in New York City from 1999 through 2001. The crude philosophy behind these actions backfired, of course, especially after 10,000 KPFA subscribers demonstrated on behalf of their closed station and reacted with alarm to Pacifica National Board deliberations to sell the license.
Thus came ever louder calls to reclaim the organization, which lunged Pacifica in the opposite direction: the excruciatingly democratic by-laws of 2002, partially summarized above. This reform had its heart in the right place, but the conditions for its success were never met. Making democracy at Pacifica radio work would have required an enormous commitment from progressives across the country. The task needed an influx of skilled people and money. But none of that materialized in 2002 and 2003. Quite the contrary, the national celebrities who very actively supported the democratization of Pacifica from 1999 through 2001 walked away from the project.
To be fair, they had bigger fish to fry by 2002: Web 2.0 and its possibilities beckoned, the Bush regime was in full swing, the war in Iraq was impending.
But there were less noble reasons for the abandonment of the cause. Various luminaries in media and the academy (Zinn; Ellsberg; Chomsky) offered rhetorical support to Pacifica democracy on behalf of individual Pacifica programmers and staff who were, in fact, just trying to save their jobs or shows at the stations. Not a few individuals who cheered the process on read the Pacifica fight less as a institution building project, and more as a metaphor for the larger corporatization of media. And the losers in the struggle—those who supported the old regime—certainly weren’t going to lend a hand to Pacifica’s reconstruction.
Bottom line: the American Left was willing to fight the Pacifica war, but it wasn’t willing to stick around for the peace. And democracies don’t just magically work by themselves. They need resources and stability to flourish. Instead, democratized Pacifica radio found itself starved for support during a period of declining radio listenership and revenue.
Into this void stepped elements who until then had been excluded from Pacifica governance. In my opinion, no one will ever describe them better than Boal, also horrified by the present situation—”the esperantists, propeller heads, world government paranoiacs, and stranded Maoists who are regularly elected with as few as two hundred votes out of the many tens of thousands of listeners at each station.”
Apparently the chair to WBAI’s Local Station Board as of January thought he was being reasonable when he assured a New York Times reporter that, while he embraces various 9/11 conspiracy theories, “He draws a line at those who believe that the planes that hit the World Trade Center towers were holograms.”
Earlier the Pacifica National Board’s governance committee considered a funding disclosure motion “the objective” of which was “to have [Democracy Now's] Amy Goodman tell us where she’s getting money and what the money is buying.” The reason for the motion, its advocate explained, “is because there has been a lot of debate about whether Amy Goodman has received CIA conduit foundation funding from the Ford Foundation and other places known long time suspected conduits for CIA funding.”
Boal correctly identifies the problem as stemming in large part from Pacifica’s single transferable voting system, which picks winners who have received very few votes. But it’s also what the by-laws don’t require that has contributed to the problem. First, almost all LSB seats go to elected listener delegates. A smaller portion go to station staff elected by the staff. That excludes a huge constituency on the Left—talented people who have something to contribute, but don’t want to run in elections.
Second, Pacifica’s by-laws don’t establish a clear firewall between governance and programming. So most individuals elected to Pacifica’s boards see their job as in some capacity acting as the program director for their respective Pacifica station. At one Berkeley LSB meeting that I attended, the discussion was ostensibly about approving the station budget. But several board members launched into rants about how the problem with the budget was that they experienced KPFA’s programming as too dull; that was the real issue.
In the last election, a Bay Area newspaper endorsed candidates who promised to try to get the paper’s editors air time on KPFA.
In short, most of Pacifica’s “board members” don’t actually see themselves as board members, preoccupied with the unglamorous but necessary work of such folk—budgets, recruitment, capital campaigning, strategic planning, and such. They really want to be their station’s general manager or program director, or spend their days telling those people what to do. Their campaign statements are inevitably about “taking back” their station because it isn’t radical, diverse, militant, conspiracy focused or what-have-you enough. And once they get their board seat, they find themselves confronted by other self-appointed saviors with contrasting agendas, and paralyze their board’s potential usefulness with their disagreements.
Some folks have offered services in contrast to the above, it should be noted. Here in the Bay Area, the Concerned Listeners slate has fought the good fight to bring skills and sanity to the governance table. But they’ve been consistently bludgeoned by the propeller heads. Anyone would be. Pacifica governance as it is currently constructed is a losing game for the reasonable person.
The (hopefully) future
What should replace this mess? Assuming that Pacifica survives the next few years, I’d like to see governance go back to something like what it was around 1998—smaller, self appointed local station boards that elect delegates to the national board; some kind of mechanism of recall for lousy board members; some kind of clear proviso that board members have nothing to do with programming. That’s it in the summary version.
Doubtless those of you who have always found me annoying and reactionary are cheering this post (Lasar withdraws! Hooray!). Those of you at least somewhat sympathetic to my viewpoint may forward it to one or more of the slates running in this election cycle. You will probably be told that now is not the time to leave the field of battle. The situation is dire (it always is). The very future of your respective station is at stake, and your absence (being what a wonderful, indispensable person you are) would literally represent the death blow to Pacifica radio, or some significant portion of it.
I, on the contrary, think that your non-cooperation with this farce could actually help Pacifica radio. The organization’s current by-laws stipulate that these elections must receive ballots equal to 10% to claim legitimacy. Let’s send a message to Pacifica’s bloated political class that it is anything but legit.
And next time you pledge money to your local Pacifica station (as do I), include a note stipulating that you want your donation to be used for programming, not elections or board related administrative costs.
It’s your call. As for me, I’m out. I supported this experiment, but it has failed.