Progressive Media’s Fragile Democracy: Pacifica radio, the original listener-supported network, is hovering on the edge of insolvency, while legendary station WBAI is under siege. It has happened before. But this time it could mean the end of the network. And what does it say about progressive media and democracy?
Former CEO Greg Guma goes behind the headlines. In this episode, the latest WBAI shutdown, Dan Coughlin’s journey, and the struggle that remade Pacifica governance. Plus, clips from the 2006 election series, Informed Dissent, and from a rare 1970 “War and Peace” recording, with dozens of famous voices — part of the longest live reading in radio history.
“This is one of those cases where justice delayed is justice denied,” warned the judge. It wasn’t a case about the President or some other crucial national matter. It was about a local radio station, and District Judge Paul Engelmeyer was urging the two sides to make a deal, and offering some advice before sending the case back to state court. He had just ruled that he didn’t have jurisdiction to hear it.
|Arthur Schwartz in in front, WBAI mikes in the back.|
On the other side was the Pacifica Foundation, which owns WBAI’s broadcast license, and its new interim CEO John Vernile. On Oct. 7 Vernile shut down the station’s studios in Brooklyn and replaced local shows with a feed from Pacifica and other statios. Producers, board members, and supporters went to state court and claimed the layoffs were illegal. They won a restraining order, and half the local board passed a series of motions reversing the network’s actions.
But Pacifica also went to court, federal court, and there another judge blocked the WBAI group from reclaiming station operations or access to airtime.
On the surface, the dispute is about who has the power to make decisions about WBAI under Pacifica’s bylaws. But the disagreements run much deeper. Pacifica’s current national leadership claims the layoffs were necessary due to the station’s poor financial condition. WBAI staff and supporters say the move was an attempted coup meant to silence radical voices.
“I had never seen a major market station in worse shape,” Vernile claimed in a court document. As a result, he said, the network was using its own cash reserves and those of its other stations to cover WBAI’s costs.
The other side conceded that the station has been losing money. For years. Still, the shutdown interrupted a fund drive, which might have helped. And they insisted that the financial arguments are just a cover story. The real goal, they charged, is to silence politically radical hosts.
One piece of evidence involves a station promo in August in which the phrase “Stop Trump” was used during a spot on national immigration policy. In a written warning to Station Manager Berthold Reimers on Sept. 27, Vernile called the promotion an FCC “compliance violation.”
He wrote: “Advocating for and lobbying for political candidates on WBAI’s air endangers WBAI/Pacifica’s IRS and New York state charity status and FCC license and will not be tolerated.” The layoffs came not long after that.
The local faction contends that Pacifica’s bylaws don’t give the foundation’s executive director the power to “seize a radio station.” Network officials say the layoffs weren’t a seizure since Pacifica owns WBAI’s equipment, space and FCC license.
On Oct. 15 WBAI producers held a rally outside of New York’s City Hall and called the shutdown a “rogue effort to destroy WBAI.” Dozens of supporters voiced support for the 60-year-old station. One called it the lifeblood of radical activism in New York. That’s quite a claim.
Both New York City Council Majority Leader Laurie A. Cumbo and Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams, prominent progressives in the city, attended the protest and backed the local resistance. “There is a movement to destroy independent communications across this entire country, and this has become ground zero,”Adams said. “We’re about to fight to keep this station alive.” It suggested that defending WBAI was becoming part of the Trump resistance.
“We are not going to allow WBAI to fall,” added Cumbo. He also called the shutdown an act of gentrification. And he said: “This voice, this access to information, is so critical for each and every one of us, and if we want to talk about a progressive New York City, we cannot be progressive if ideas that are progressive have no place to live, to flourish, or to be disseminated.”
A Network Divided
By the time I was hired Pacifica Radio had been through more than a decade of internal struggle. Worried about a possible corporate take over in the 1990s, the members of the staff, board and volunteers at the five owned stations had fought back, in court, in the studios and on the streets, and eventually created a new, more democratic governance structure.
But that didn’t prevent factions from forming at various stations, or avoid contested board elections and bitter charges that the process was unfair, or even rigged.
When I became CEO in 2006, the organization was battle-weary, but recovering and financially stable. Its next two years would be more peaceful than most. We launched new shows and settled some old lawsuits. But the animosity and tribalism did not go away.
After two years, rather than become the center of yet another internal power struggle, I stepped aside to make way for another chief executive, someone who had been fired years before. But she did not appreciate the new structure and soon left. One of her successors resorted to barricading herself in the national office rather than accept a replacement.
In the last decade Pacifica stations have lost funding and listeners in an increasingly diverse, digitally-driven world. At the start of the Iraq war, being a radio voice of opposition helped its stations to expand audiences and revenues. But President Trump has so many enemies that it’s harder to stand out these days. Still, you might expect that the danger of fascism would bring people together. Think again.
In September 2018, a new CEO was hired after a lengthy search. But within nine months Maxie Jackson was forced out. Then Board Chairman Grace Aaron became CEO, a job some said she hoped to keep. However, a new chief had actually been lined up, in secret. Finally, the board was forced to issue an announcement. The new man, John Carlo Vernile, promised to focus on “activity that engages audiences, expands opportunities for financial support and stabilizes national operations.”
But who was Pacifica’s new leader? A former Sony Music and EMI executive, basically a salesman and promoter who had been a premiums vendor for a Pacifica station. Unfortunately, he brought no experience in managing a democratic rather than a corporate enterprise. It showed.
A crisis quickly developed at WBAI, once a great station but long in debt and listener free-fall. According long-time WBAI supporter Steve Brown, one faction of its local board, together with several national board members, wanted to lease the station to a corporate division of Time Warner. The goal, ostensibly, was to “stabilize” the operation. But Brown claimed the move, would actually destroy it.
Whatever the truth, a month later the Pacific Board of Directors abruptly laid off most of WBAI’s staff and replaced its local programming with shows from Pacifica’s four other stations. Network spokespeople claimed that the decision to shut down WBAI’s operations in Brooklyn, New York had been in the works for months, calling it an essential step to save the larger foundation from ruin.
In an October interview with the New York Times, Vernile added that the station had fallen short of its fund-raising goals in recent years, and was unable to make payroll and other expenses. This had frequently forced the Foundation to bail it out. “Listeners in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston and Washington, D.C., have been supporting the efforts in New York,” Vernile argued. “It has gotten to a point where we can no longer do that.”
On the other hand, WBAI supporters, board members and staff called the move a coup meant to silence radical voices. “WBAI and Pacifica had been under strain for years,” added the Times. “Pacifica has not released any financial statements since 2017, when its auditor cited doubts that the organization could continue as a going concern.”
How could it happen? The original listener-supported network, with stations in five major cities and more than 100 affiliates, once reaching millions with important alternative voices, including Amy Goodman, hovering on the edge of insolvency. What does it say about the prospects for both progressive media and democracy?
Dan Coughlin’s Journey
The chance to be Pacifica Radio’s Executive Director came my way by accident. Years before I had met an activist librarian on a plane by striking up a conversation about Z, a left-wing magazine she was reading. I was editing Toward Freedom, another small but respected publication that covered international affairs from a “progressive perspective.” The librarian and I hit it off, and she provided a stream of news, ideas and leads for articles over the next decade. She was also a loyal yet disgruntled listener to a Pacifica station. So, when the top job became available, she let me know.
Dan Coughlin, the previous ED, had resigned months earlier after three years on the job. Growing up in England, he had covered crime for Interpress Service in New York before moving over to Pacifica in 1996 by way of Democracy Now!,an election series that became a network hit and made Amy Goodman a household name in progressive circles. After producing DN!for two years, he took over Pacifica Network News – just in time to become embroiled in a fight for the organization’s future.
Even before Pacifica evolved into a national network with five owned stations and dozens of affiliates, there were internal battles. But until the 1990s each station totally controlled its own programming and that kept most of the fighting local. Then rumors began to circulate that “central” management and the national board wanted to seize control of content to increase listenership, and shift the funding model from reliance on listener donations toward foundations.
By 1999, when the board amended the bylaws to make itself self-appointing, ostensibly to comply with a Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) requirement, Pacifica’s community-based culture was actively resisting what was often called an attempt to “hijack” and “mainstream” the organization. For Coughlin, the question became: Should PNN, a daily newscast aired on more than 60 Pacifica affiliate stations, cover the deepening crisis?
Early that year, after KPFA Station Manager Nicole Sawaya and popular correspondent Larry Bensky were abruptly fired, staff began to defy a long-standing policy of not airing internal grievances. Going on the air, some charged that Pacifica was a top-heavy bureaucracy hungry for mainstream legitimacy, preoccupied with ratings, and unaccountable to the community. There was even evidence that the board might consider selling stations, a fear that often spread during times of stress.
Listeners could read about major developments — arrests inside KPFA, a staff lockout, street protests — in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Postand other corporate outlets. But Pacifica’s news operations were under orders to keep the struggle off the air. For a while Coughlin went along.
In late October, however, when 16 affiliate stations declared “A Day without Pacifica” and boycotted its programs, he decided to break PNN’s silence, airing a report on the protest and what was called, in a monument of understatement, a labor-management dispute. Here’s what it said:
“This summer, more than 100 persons were arrested, and thousands took to the streets at the oldest listener-sponsored station in the country to protest Pacifica staffing decisions. The 16 Pacifica stations from 11 states called for the network to adopt new open, accountable governance and to continue to support community-based journalism, which they said had made Pacifica great.”
The report lasted only 37 seconds. Yet, when Coughlin returned to work after a long weekend, a terse e-mail from ED Lynne Chadwick was waiting. “You’re no longer news director,” she announced. A day later, he was reassigned without notice to a murky “Task Force on Programming and Governance.” He remained on staff for another year, but his removal from PNN confirmed the suspicions of dissidents that censorship had replaced free speech and editorial independence at Pacifica.
Two years later, in 2002, after a titanic struggle and multiple lawsuits produced a new board and a decidedly decentralist structure, Dan Coughlin returned – this time as Pacifica’s first “post-revolution” chief executive. Unfortunately, he inherited a mess – millions in debt, missing records, an aging audience, and a legacy of distrust. Yet he somehow managed, with the help of loyal listeners and a strong financial team, to bring the organization back to relative stability.
What remained unclear was why and how, despite a major accomplishment, he went from Golden Boy in 2002 to object of scorn three years later. The accusations included shady payouts, lax oversight, and “contempt” for the new bylaws and democratic structure. In fact, a protest was staged outside the main office in Berkeley during his last day on the job. Just how did all that happen? This was the job I was about to start?
The deeper I looked the more convoluted and intractable the problems appeared: Charges and counter-charges of secrecy, waste, racism, sexism, harassment and violence, turf battles over local fiefdoms, manipulation, and alleged fraud. It seemed like a fratricidal war with no end in sight.
A friend who worked in community radio, hearing that I was up for the top job, mildly defined the main issue as an “actual and perceived lack of transparency.” But he also mentioned poor fundraising and development, ineffective mediation of personnel problems, and legendary racial battles over the control and “color” of programming.
It reminded me of how easily reality can be blurred by misinformation. Jeff Ruch, the director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, had recently issued a relevant assessment of a much larger and even more dysfunctional organization: The federal government. He concluded that it was “suffering from a severe disinformation syndrome."
Could this also be what was afflicting Pacifica? Theories presented as facts, information massaged to promote a specific spin, cherry-picked evidence. Whether intentional or not, Pacifica’s convoluted politics and history seemed to have created, as Bob Woodward put it his book that summer about the Watergate secret source Deep Throat, “an entire world of doubt."
Yes, years before the rise of Donald Trump, millions of people were already living in fantasy worlds. According to a 2009 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 45 percent of Americans believed that health care reform would create “death panels” that withhold medical care for the elderly, 55 percent thought it would provide health insurance to illegal immigrants, and half said it would pay for women to have abortions – none of them true.
Some already thought that climate change was a hoax, that Obama was a Muslim, and that the government should impose literacy tests for voting. Still others saw ecological (or economic) catastrophe looming the day after tomorrow, thought martial law was imminent, or wanted states to seize public resources as “trustees” of the commons.
As sociology professor Peter Phillips explained, too many people, especially consumers of TV news, were “embedded in a state of excited delirium of knowinglessness.” Not to mention alienation, misinformation and confusion. Pacifica was certainly not immune.
Next: How Pacifica began, the growth of a listener-supported radio network, WBAI’s legendary “free form” past, Dustin Hoffman reads War and Peace, sounds of the 1979 March for Gay Rights, Mushroom Cloud comedy, and early shots in progressive radio’s Civil War.