Friday, June 17, 2016

Lost Radio Horizons: Before the Fall on Planet Pacifica

 Talking to Pacifica, 2006
It should have been a dream come true. But I couldn't stop worrying. Smiling nervously at the crowd, hundreds of radio producers, hosts and tech people gathered at the Portland Hilton for the annual meeting of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, I beat back anxiety and began to speak.

"It's good to be with media makers who don't believe that climate change is just a rumor," I told them, "who don't think immigrants coming to the US for a better life should be turned into criminals, and who didn't need over three years to figure out that the administration manipulated public opinion and distorted reality to go to war in the Middle East." 

It was sincere. But also a good way to break the ice with a radical audience ten years ago. Looking back, things don't seem to have changed that much. Denial, resentment and lies are still politics as usual. 

Six months before that I'd been home in Vermont, co-editing a statewide weekly newspaper, writing articles and working with correspondents from around the world. If someone had predicted that I would move to Berkeley and run a radio network, I would have checked their pupils. Friends don't let friends drive crazy.

For a long time I had been working in the world of progressive politics and independent media, writing and editing, developing documentaries, attending protests and organizing conferences, getting arrested for good causes, and taking part in assorted campaigns. In Burlington, Vermont's largest city, I'd edited newspapers and magazines, and helped win a non-violent political revolution that put Bernie Sanders and other progressives in charge for three decades. In Vermont and New Mexico I led social justice groups. In Burlington and Santa Monica I ran bookstores. Basically, I was an organizer, manager and communicator, and, on a good day, a change agent. Reinforcing the image, I'd even named one of the book businesses Maverick.

Yet none of that prepared me for Pacifica, a multi-million dollar left-wing media network with hundreds of union employees, a thousand volunteers - demanding to be called "unpaid staff," a labyrinthine democratic governance structure, and a storied history of rough internal struggles. I had been Executive Director for three months, and was delivering my first talk to an audience beyond the Pacifica community.  

"Although I've been a journalist," I explained over the luncheon clatter, "I also have come to believe that words aren't always enough. That's why I went to the border between Nicaragua and Honduras with other members of Witness for Peace during the Contra war, why I committed civil disobedience in front of the gates at a GE armaments factory, ran for local office as a progressive insurgent, and spoke out publicly against the Iraq war and attacks on fundamental rights..."

At first they were more enthusiastic about the meal being provided by the network than anything I had to say.

"What have I learned along the way?" I asked the room. "That corporate media's handling of the news has become increasingly unreliable over the years. In fact, mainstream journalists find it difficult, if not dangerous, to cover stories that do not fit neatly into what is known as the Washington Consensus. Meanwhile, corporations have developed sophisticated strategies to promote the stories they want to see, and prevent others from being aired or published. The result is perception management, a highly effective form of social engineering."

That is precisely why alternative sources are important, despite their battling factions, difficult personalities and frustrating structures, I said then. And I still believe it. "Small, accessible and affordable technologies can help people to challenge the knowledge monopoly of elites. And radio is one of the most accessible vehicles for alternative viewpoints. It's intimate, production can be inexpensive, and can reach people through hundreds of outlets around the country and sometimes the world. And at community-run stations there is certainly more diversity and programmatic pluralism than almost anywhere else in media."

People were starting to pay attention. But what they wanted to hear most was my vision for the country's original listener-sponsored radio network. I had been working on that since my first days on the job. In a nutshell, I explained, my agenda was to get more local voices on the air, to revitalize the network's moribund national programming, to maximize its human and overstretched technical resources, to honor and expand its diversity, and to encourage people to work together with more mutual respect. 

As modest as this may sound, it would have been as reasonable to promise peace in the Middle East. But I didn't know that yet. And thus I proceeded to read excerpts from the statement developed more than a half century earlier by Pacifica founder Lew Hill. They were noble ideas - to be an outlet for the creative skills and energy of the community, to promote the full distribution of public information, to provide access to and use of sources of news not brought together in the same medium. With each, I offered examples of how the idea could be applied in the early years of a new century.

But there was something even more important to say, something I wanted to share and very much hoped was true. "Pacifica has finally emerged from its extended internal crisis," I said. "And maybe it is ready to stop making war on itself." At this point the room exploded with cheers and applause. I had struck a chord, appealing to the desperate hope shared by almost everyone there that the battles and negativity of the past decade were over.

From that point onward, they heard most of the plan. In particular, a three point agenda - programming, organizing, and peace. "By programming I mean locally-generated, mission-driven national programming," I said. "By organizing I mean better internal organization to make full use of resources and talent. And by peace I mean a process of reconciliation. It's time to bury the hatchets and move on." More applause. 

But how did it go? Not as well as I hoped. For the next two years, attempts at management reorganization ran up against protests about local autonomy and suspicions that there might be another national power grab. We made some improvements in collaborative national programming, but there remained a core demand that each station control its own airwaves. Thus, no changes could be made without a long, thorough and, some would argue, seemingly interminable process of consultation with many stakeholders. As Pacificans often ruefully mused, democracy is messy. 

Technological investment was delayed or deferred by a tendency to create budgets from the bottom up, an approach that left issues of concern to the national organization for last, and made reductions in spending on network-wide needs the easiest solution whenever money was tight. Meanwhile, coordinated marketing was virtually impossible in an organization where no one really spoke for the organization without fear of being blindsided. I never saw much consensus about image, except perhaps to be a passionate cheerleader for every good cause that came along.

Pacifica was also grappling with several long-term issues: Difficulty adapting to fundamental changes in audio distribution, declining listenership and the erosion of Pacifica’s traditional revenue source, and, after several cycles with a new experimental structure, the need to make some serious adjustments. But declining audience and listener loyalty could only be addressed by looking hard at programming, and this was linked to questions and confusion about Pacifica’s mission and organizational structure.

Things went from bad to worse over the next decade. As network historian Matthew Lasar noted, in 2015 a report from the Pacifica National Finance Committee’s chair "put the network’s operating deficit at $2.17 million, with liabilities leading assets by over $4 million. Much of this money is owed to Democracy Now!" Beyond that, Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding was being delayed due to problematic accounting, and the organization struggled to recover from a divisive public confrontation. In 2014 a fired executive director and her supporters had barricaded themselves in the Pacifica national office until the board ultimately dislodged them with a temporary restraining order. Afterward, conspiracy theories flourished as California’s attorney general conducted an audit.

But those problems came later. In 2006, Pacifica was in relatively good shape, financially and organizationally, and it was time to wind up my remarks to the broadcasters in Portland. 

"There's more to the mission," I began, "and much more to say. But for now, please consider this: The tasks facing independent media in the months and years ahead are crucial. With the administration in free fall and the Right in disarray, it's time to seize the moment. The question is how. My suggestion is that we work together, set aside our minor differences and squabbles - we can get back to them later - and project responsible advocacy, real news and informed opinion. While doing that, however, we should also celebrate our differences rather than allow them to divide us; after all, isn't respect for diversity one of the things that distinguishes us from the forces that have used fear of those who are different to undermine freedom? 

"Our job, as I see it, is to bring a sharp critique and a progressive vision to millions of radio listeners, to wake up the airwaves and shake up the world. It is an opportunity we should not miss, and a responsibility we cannot afford to ignore."

Looking back, this was probably a high point of my time on Planet Pacifica. I'd given voice to a vision that resonated with many of its stakeholders. For weeks afterward, staff and Board members and people who worked at affiliate stations, whether they were in the ballroom or read the speech, said they'd been inspired. Six months later, at Pacifica's Annual Meeting, I was able to report more progress, as well as the highest revenues in network history.
But those remarks also expressed a misreading of the situation. Or perhaps just lingering faith in an elusive dream, rapidly vanishing over the horizon. After all, no speeches - no matter how popular or persuasive they seem, and not even the best of intentions are enough to change ingrained economic and political realities or a divided culture that has taken root over generations. Democracy also doesn't guarantee success, civility or harmony. It's a lesson I've seen demonstrated more than once, from New York and Burlington to Albuquerque and Berkeley.

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