It was a classic Pacifica radio moment over at the network’s flagship station, KPFA in Berkeley, on Tuesday. Having laid off the Morning Show staff, new Pacifica Executive Director Arlene Engelhardt thought she had it all figured out. She was going to pipe in programming from KPFK, KPFA’s sister station in Los Angeles.
The dumped crew, however, had another plan. They got to the building first, piled into KPFA’s studios with a lineup of supporters (including me) and announced the news themselves. Demonstrators were already getting ready to march outside, as they had the day before.
“We come to you with a very heavy heart,” explained Morning Show co-host Aimee Allison, “yesterday the Pacifica Foundation cancelled the Morning Show and fired the entire staff. It’s been my utter honor to serve the community for the last three years here.” That was just the beginning of the show.
But Engelhardt wasn’t fazed by this. When Morning News reporter Aileen Alfandary noticed her angrily milling about the scene, she invited Pacifica’s new boss to explain her position. Previous Exec Directors would have fled in an instant. Engelhardt stood her ground.
“You know there are great concerns,” she began with a tone of supreme exasperation, “about how we’re going to keep this station going, given that the station lost a million dollars last year, or the year before this. The year that just ended lost $500,000, and it’s heading into this year unable to make it’s payroll.”
For those of us who have been following this drama for a while, KPFA’s red ink numbers have become something of a whack-a-mole affair. In last week’s debate between Engelhardt, Pacifica Chief Financial Officer LaVarn Williams, and Morning Show host Brian Edwards-Tiekert, I heard three 2009 figures cited: $900,000, which then got lowered to about $500,000, then was raised back up to $950,000 as the conversation went on.
Now it’s a million. If it gets any higher, I’m going to float a credit default swap on the station.
We told you so
To be fair, KPFA is obviously losing money. The staff and KPFA’s Local Station Board proposed an alternative “sustainable” budget which would allow the signal to get through this lean period without trashing its best programmers. Engelhardt rejected the proposal out of hand.
But before I get any further up on my high horse here, I’ve got to admit something. I like Arlene Engelhardt. She’s got courage, stamina, and personality—albeit a somewhat hard boiled one in this context. She reminds me of one of my favorite mid-20th century actors, Gladys Cooper, who played Professor Henry Higgins’ mother in My Fair Lady.
And she must have known what she was getting into. Her friends at community station WMNF in Tampa, Florida, from whence she came, warned her a year ago that her stint at Pacifica “could be a volatile experience.”
So at the risk of pissing my friends over at Save KPFA off, I think I want Engelhardt to stick around. Why? Because the situation at Pacifica radio is likely to get much, much worse over the year, and not because of its internal troubles. I’ve got a feeling that a real enemy is coming at us soon, and someone tough like her would come in handy.
But before Engelhardt can make a credible go at KPFA oversight, she’s going to have to learn the rules, most of which apply to the other four Pacifica stations as well.
Rule #1: Nobody ever leaves Pacifica
If you listened to KPFA this morning (Wednesday), you heard Brian Edwards-Tiekert helping Mitch Jeserich do his Letters to Washington broadcast later in the day. He’s not going anywhere. He’s going to stay and fight this.
That’s no surprise. As someone who has been involved in Pacifica politics for thirty years (and written about the other thirty), I’ve seen Pacifica station managers make the same mistake over and over. They dump people, and think their victims will just crawl off, presumably saying something like “Shucks! Oh well. Better polish up the resume and move on.”
Forget it. Take a look at the endorsers of Independents for Community Radio (ICR), the rival slate to Save KPFA (which supports the sustainable budget). There’s one person on the ICR list who has kept up with Pacifica governance for almost third of a century (he used to be the foundation’s President). Another’s been around for at least a quarter. Heck, a decade ago I used to run into a guy who was canned at WBAI in the 1960s and still was active in Pacifica affairs. He might still be.
In fact, folks at Pacifica radio even stick around after they’re dead. Down at KPFK in Los Angeles, Zen essayist Alan Watts, who was integral to Pacifica politics in the 1950s, is still broadcasting over the weekends.
Why is this? People don’t hook up with Pacifica radio because they’re looking for a “career.” They want something else. So if you are a Pacifica General Manager, before you dump somebody, you have to ask yourself one question. If I fire this person, is s/he actually going to leave?
Rule #2: Your stump speech doesn’t matter – what matters is who is listening
Engelhardt keeps trying to present numbers as the cold hard facts in this story. But at Pacifica radio, the real cold hard facts are people.
Because Pacifica depends to a great extent on volunteer or low paid labor and listener donations, power is broadly distributed across the organization. People have a strong sense of ownership in the network. It was like this even before Pacifica launched its disastrous experiment with elected governance boards, which needs to end as soon as possible.
So as the Executive Director, you may think that you have a great rap about the budget, or the need for more diversity, or relevance, or whatever is in your stump speech. But the people around you have their own equally compelling (to themselves) narratives about what’s going on—reinforced by self-appointed experts in their faction (like me).
Since they’re not going to obediently nod their heads at your every word (or even cooperate with your layoff notices) you have to ask yourself another question. Do I really have enough support at Pacifica to accomplish my current goals?
Remember the great KPFA shutdown of 1999? I tried to convey this to the key players in that drama, Lynn Chadwick and Mary Frances Berry. Purging people left and right, they steadfastly refused to ask the question. They were going to completely overhaul Pacifica radio, they told me. Berry called up and gave me the party line about diversity and relevance. Chadwick took me out to lunch.
I told them the yogurt was about to hit the fan. But they were so impressed with their stump speech that they just pressed on and on, eventually shutting down KPFA in the summer of that year.
The ensuing riot lasted about three years. Today you’d never know they were here.
Look at what Engelhardt’s got as a result of Monday’s bloodbath: furious staff, furious listeners who are not going to pledge in KPFA’s next fund drive, and a new slate (Save KPFA) taking the majority on KPFA’s Local Station Board. The Save KPFA folks are pissed because, incredibly, Engelhardt refused to meet with them shortly after they won the majority of seats on the LSB.
My guess is that Engelhardt thinks she can weather this storm—that some scenario like repeating Democracy Now! twice in the AM with a shorter volunteer Morning Show will pick up the slack and keep listeners. I suspect she’d like to fill the station’s schedule with syndicated programming, but dare not because ICR, which has the ear of her CFO, wants to pack KPFA’s air sound with its supporters. Good luck with all that.
Bottom line: People at Pacifica don’t bow down just because you wave around scary numbers. You’ve got to work with who you’ve got.
Rule #3: Cheer up, because it always gets worse
I’m just going to say it. Pacifica radio is completely unprepared for another direct attack from the Republican Party. Remember all the craziness from the Gingrich years? The 1995 government shutdown? The Contract With America? A big piece of that was an assault on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
If you want the agonizingly detailed version of that episode, read my second book on Pacifica. Bottom line: the Repubs used some of the more horrific fare being broadcast on Pacifica back then, in particular the ethnic nationalist stuff coming out of KPFK in Los Angeles, to bash the CPB, because it was giving Pacifica money.
Does anyone doubt that Pacifica will once again wind up in that crossfire now that the GOP has taken back the House? They’re already using the firing of Juan Williams to call for the defunding of public broadcasting. If Pacifica appears on the Glenn Beck blackboard over this, who is Engelhardt going to ask for help? The 9/11Truth activists on the current Pacifica governing board? I don’t think so.
Ironically, it’s the very people Engelhardt is battling tooth and nail right now who will be in the best position to defend the organization—the people her current allies denounce as corporate gatekeepers and, worst of all, Democrats.
Wake up Arlene. Get your head out of that financial ledger and figure out who your real friends are. You’re going to need us and, yes, we are going to need someone like you.