Sunday, November 10, 2019

Planet Pacifica: Identity Crisis

Progressive Media’s Fragile Democracy: After decades of struggle at Pacifica Radio over the control of local stations and program content, suspicion and distrust have led to hostile factions, crisis management, repeated lawsuits, and a byzantine, burdensome structure that has proven almost impossible to sustain. In this episode, Pacifica’s last decade: management fights, national collapse and succession struggles, along with audio excerpts of comedy, news and “radical” history from the 2006 network series, Informed Dissent.

A little skepticism can be a good thing. But too much can be dangerous, destabilizing, even contagious  — especially when it turns into deep suspicion and enduring distrust. At Pacifica Radio, after decades of struggle over the control of local stations and program content, it has led to hostile factions, crisis management, repeated lawsuits, and a bystantine, burdensome structure that has proven almost impossible to sustain.

The latest showdown erupted on Oct. 7 when a new ED, John Vernile, with apparent national board backing, shut down WBAI’s studios in Brooklyn and replaced local programs with a feed from Pacifica stations and other sources. The pretext was that the station’s debts were threatening the entire network.

By late October, however, the national board had reversed itself and suspended Vernile — who’d just been hired! In early November, in a court filled with WBAI backers, board members, producers and staff, a State Supreme Court Judge ruled that local programs should go back on air. 

It sounds like a Hollywood ending, right? Plucky underdogs beat the stiff-necked establishment. But the station was still a financial train wreck. According to NBC News, its last audit showed about $263,000 in assets, but $7.5 million in liabilities.

In short, there is more to this story than a simple struggle between right and wrong, scrappy locals vs. arrogant national officials. The truth is that Pacifica Radio has been at war with itself for decades, in the courts and on the streets.

Opening Questions

When I became Pacifica’s Executive Director in January 2006, several disputes were brewing, as usual. At WPFW it was the national board delegate election. At WBAI local board members were at odds over what some considered a “racially insensitive” remark. In Houston activists wanted KPFT’s general manager fired. And inquiring minds at all five major stations wanted to know: Was the new Executive Director a breath of fresh air — or an incompetent conspiracy nut. That was one of the rumors.

During a staff meeting a day before the Pacifica National Board’s quarterly meeting, I finally met most of the national staff and station managers. To my surprise, these marathon weekend gatherings — held on a rotating basis in New York, DC, Houston, L.A. or Berkeley — were the only times key managers and personnel actually got together to exchange ideas. 

At first I just listened. But eventually I couldn’t resist asking some questions. The network’s most popular show was Democracy Now!,which brought in more than $2 million annually in contributions. But during the hijack years it had become an independent production. Was there interest in launching another national show, one that Pacifica would own and direct? Congressional elections were coming up in the fall, an ideal moment to try something new. Everyone claimed that they agreed, but I sensed reluctance. In the end, Pacifica did produce a collaborative 10-week fall series called Informed Dissent, hosted by Mitch Jererich.

According to the agenda, I was expected to moderate a discussion about governance and management. The distinction wasn’t at all clear, and disputes over the exercise of power – in other words, over democracy vs. efficiency, and participation vs. production – were frequent and contentious.

The next day I provided a preliminary analysis. According to the new bylaws, the National Board was supposed to “ensure” that the Foundation’s purposes were fulfilled, monitor its finances and station activities, supervise its top managers, and delegate powers and duties consistence with the law. The operative words were “monitor” and “supervise.” 

OK. But what about the executive director and chief financial officer? The bylaws said that the ED was “responsible for general supervision of the foundation” and its top managers. Beyond that, I was expected to promote the mission, based on whatever powers the board decided to delegate. The CFO’s authority was more narrow. He was basically supposed to maintain the books and financial records, deposit and disburse funds – as directed – and provide the ED and Board with an account of transactions and the financial condition of the organization. For both jobs, reality was very different. But that’s another story.

Let’s just say, there was obviously confusion, especially when it came to supervision. Pacifica’s emphasis on broad participation made boundaries an enormous challenge. The goal was to get things done efficiently and on schedule; it was radio, after all. Yet the bylaws mandated processes that placed serious limits on managers and staff. As a result, disputes often arose about how various people and groups interpreted what was down on paper. Words were usually less important than the organization’s embedded culture and values. In the end, ideology and perceptions tended to trump precedent or legal authority.

During that first weekend, I also asked how staff and board members saw the line between those who governed and managed? Was the Board micro-managing? And if so, what would it take to change that? In Uneasy Listening, Matthew Lasar’s second book about Pacifica, he used a provocative term – anarcho-feudalism – to describe how Pacifica operated. Another word I heard was balkanization, referring to the organization’s tendency to divide into turfs and territories. Both suggested turf wars and the use of arbitrary authority. How did they feel about that diagnosis?

I also asked whether they thought the bylaws were part of the problem, and whether trust was a factor. In a poll of hands, most people answered yes to both. Finally, after noting that Pacifica’s managers were frequently, even routinely, under fire, I posed two final questions: How did this community really feel about leadership? More to the point, was the nature of executive authority in some ways fundamentally at odds with how Pacifica saw itself?

Mushroom Cloud Theater: The Bigger the Flag

Succession Struggle 

A year later, after the January 2007 National Board meeting in Houston, one member, Berthold Reimer, who later became WBAI Station Manager, circulated a revealing e-mail. 

It is not up to the board, he wrote, “to micro manage the Executive Director who should have the leverage to make decisions and implement them. If the Board is not happy with the way the Executive Director implements its directives, it can decide not to renew the contract or have an extraordinary session to terminate him/her. Short of that, we should let him do his job.” 

As the current Executive Director, I appreciated the sentiments. But there were at least two assumptions. One, that I actually had a contract. In fact, I had been working without one for more than a year, and an attempt to negotiate terms had been derailed in the Personnel Committee. 

And two, he implied that the National Board’s intent 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. You know, like a network. 

But whether it was a national special, Spanish language news, or a board-backed editorial, local control was a sore point. This became painfully clear when I attempted to “mandate” the national broadcast of a US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. 

At the direction of the national board, I had written and read an on-air editorial about Habeas Corpus, shortly after passage of the Military Commissions Act in 2006 undermined this basic right. Then, in 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 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. As it turned out, we were right. CSPAN ignored it, mainstream media coverage was minimal, and the questioning was dramatic. It essentially started the process that led to Gonzales’ resignation. But the reaction within Pacifica was revealing. And mixed. Several board members charged that I had seriously over-stepped my authority. 

I reminded them that the decision reflected a broad consensus and urged the board to let Pacifica “act like a network.” In resply, Bob Lederer, a WBAI delegate, said that the Board hadn’t specifically authorized national broadcast of the hearing. Therefore, stations should not have been required to air it. Period

Other Board members felt that voluntary collaboration was preferable to imposing a “must carry.” One person submitted a motion saying my action wasn’t authorized and I shouldn’t impose any more programs on stations. It didn’t pass. But the debate made it clear how limited the power of Pacifica’s CEO could be, depending on the issue. There were deep suspicions about the use of executive power — and doubts about what being a network really meant. 

Several national specials were produced during the next months, and most stations did air them. But new lawsuits were also filed, and the board ignored most of my recommendations for reorganization and programming changes, as well as repeated warnings about a looming financial crunch. 

When managers and national staff developed a 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,” and my early supporters were falling away, in part because I hadn’t satisfied their desire to “clean house.” 

Rather than offering me a contract the board decided to conduct an evaluation. The process took months and asked more than 140 people -- national staff, station managers, and every national and local board member – to rate my work. In the end, most staff members chose not to participate, apparently fearing that I might “retaliate.” How sad and telling.

About two thirds of those who did respond said I was doing all right, at least well enough to keep my job. But some thought I was unilateral, unresponsive, and presumptuous, especially in appointing a new general manager at WBAI. Although the comments and ratings were anonymous, it was easy to tell that most of the critics were from New York. The WBAI-based Justice and Unity Coalition wanted me gone. 

End of the Dream 

During the next months, the board spent hours debating what to do. The “greg-istas,” as my supporters dubbed themselves, wanted me as CEO as long as possible. Their opponents wanted to pick my successor before some of their board terms ran out. One member thought I should be fired immediately. We eventually settled on a date and an exit package. A hastily-formed search committee rushed to recruit a replacement in time. 

The only person interviewed by the board was Nicole Sawaya, who had been fired a decade earlier. Two months after starting work, despite a multi-year contract and broad backing, she quit. It wasn’t a big surprise.

Over the winter, there were negotiations to woo her back. Meanwhile, stations found it hard 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 March 2008, Sawaya agreed to return. The next shock came in July,  as budgets were being developed. The National Board had voted to convene, but the national office didn’t follow up and the quarterly meeting had to be cancelled. Soon after that, without explanation, Chief Financial Officer Lonnie Hicks disappeared from work. There was no announcement, but rumors had it  that he was on “paid leave to deal with family matters.” Later, more rumors suggested that an investigation of his activities was being pursued – also that he might sue. In the end, after briefly returning to his job, Hicks was officially removed — and did sue.

Sawaya announced her decision to leave (again) in August, 2008. Meanwhile, at meetings she tried to convince the Board and Finance Committee that Pacifica needed to “centralize” functions, especially accounting and reporting. Directors listened, but nothing changed. Departing, she pointed vaguely to "dysfunctional” governance and “shoddy and opaque” business practices that were plunging the organization into financial crisis. 

That September, the National Board began to discuss what was called a “national office collapse.” Even if a new chief executive could be found – and the Board could agree – there were elephants in the room: the financial crisis, and how to restructure programming and management to reverse the decline in listenership and income. 

By the end of the year, staff was cut at most stations. So were several national positions. Then, after another round of Board elections, the balance of power shifted again, and discussions online speculated about receivership, bankruptcy, and breaking up the network

A new Board chair, Grace Aaron of Los Angeles, became Interim ED. A decade later, by the way, she would step in again after another CEO was abruptly terminated. In April 2009, WBAI was $128,000 behind on rent, and owed another $75,000 in back payments for its coveted transmitter atop the Empire State Building. It was losing at least $500,000 a year, required repeated short-term bailouts, and owed the national office almost $1 million in back payments for central services. 

The station had weathered storms before. But this time the troubles could not only bring down WBAI but threaten the future of Pacifica itself. In May 2009, faced with the station’s imminent eviction from its New York studio, Aaron changed the lock at the transmitter site, removed the General Manager, as well as the powerful Program Director, Bernard White. As expected, the Justice and Unity Coalition and other White supporters threatened to protest, boycott, and possibly sue — unless this latest “national coup” was reversed. 

The search for a new Executive Director had just begun. 

In 2010, Pacifica finally settled on a permanent new ED, Florida feminist radio host Arlene Engelhardt. The intensity of conflict settled down a bit. For a while. But revenues from on-air fundraising continued to decline. Only KPFT in Houston had permanent management. 

By 2015, however, the organization had dismissed yet another executive director, the latest tumultuous step for an organization plagued by financial troubles and acrimonious management turnover. Summer Reese, who had been named the next executive director in November 2013 after holding the job on an interim basis for a year, had been terminated by Pacifica’s national board in March 2015. 

Before agreeing to step down she briefly barricaded herself in the National Office.

Reese’s dismissal was the latest in a series of changes both downsizing and destabilizing Pacifica and its stations. In August 2014, WBAI, deeply in debt, had laid off 19 of 29 employees, including the entire news staff. Five years later — with another ED and Board — the remaining staff was locked out and the station/s operations were briefly shut down again. 

No one faction is exclusively responsible for Pacifica’s decline. But snap dismissals have been no better than bolt cutters in solving the underlying trouble — a crippling, possibly chronic deficit of trust. According to Casey Peters, Pacifica’s National Election Supervisor in 2007, a “vacuum of power” had developed after my departure. It wasn’t the first time, of course. “With obvious instability at the top,” he wrote in his final report, “the election campaigns descended into chaos.” 

In June 2009, after her initial staff cutbacks at WBAI, Aaron had removed another General Manager, Ron Pinchback of WPFW in Washington, DC. That station had also lost listeners and fallen short on fundraising in recent years. But critics suspected racial motives: like Bernard White and Lonnie Hicks, Pinchback was African-American. That suggested to some people that the changes were really a purge of top Black managers. The fact that most replacements were also Black was rarely mentioned. 

Amy Goodman expressed “dismay” about White’s removal in a letter to Pacifica management. But the new CFO LaVarn Williams replied that he and previous managers were responsible for a “failure model” that jeopardized both “your program and the whole foundation.” Despite the popularity of Democracy Now!, Amy’s influence had become limited over the years, mainly governed by a mutually lucrative contract to air the show and assist with fundraising. 

Upset about staff cutbacks, Kellia Ramares, long-time journalist and board operator at KPFA, delivered her own swan song at a National Board meeting that July. After more than a decade with the network, including an arrest during the bad old “hijack” days, she announced that she was leaving. 

“Pacifica hires an election supervisor while they cannot keep a news tech at quarter-time hours?” she asked, rhetorically. “Is this the business of elections or radio?”

The critique went deeper still. Ramares said: “I now question the entire alleged movement that calls itself progressive.” Acknowledging that all media were taking an economic hit, she nevertheless concluded: 

“Citizen journalism, available across the political spectrum, but a special darling of the left because of its free speech nature and alleged purity of purpose, is destroying the ability of journalists to make a living. Paid journalists can’t compete with free. Is it progressive to expect, or even to demand, to receive free work in a society that demands that we pay for our food, clothing, housing and health care? Is it progressive to give donations to an institution for its infrastructure, but not to care about whether the workers in that institution can pay their bills?” 

“Can we do well while we do good,” she concluded, “or is progressivism just a fancy name we give our struggle and poverty in order to make our marginalization seem noble?” 

Bottom Line

So, how did it go during my time as Executive Director of Pacifica? Not as well as I had hoped. Still, not as bad as it might have gone. 

Attempts at reorganization ran up against protests about local autonomy and suspicions that there might be another national power grab. We improved collaboration in national programming, but the core demand remained that each station should control its own airwaves. 

The network’s technological investments and digital development were delayed by volunteer suspicions about digital licensing and budgets developed from the station up, an approach that left national issues and needs for last. When money was tight, cutting network-wide needs was often the easiest solution. And coordinated marketing? That was virtually impossible when no one really spoke for the organization — that is, without fear of being blindsided. 

Pacifica was grappling with several long-term challenges: adapting to fundamental changes in audio distribution, declining listenership, and the erosion of its traditional revenue source — individual contributions from at least 2 percent of the audience. But audience decline and listener loyalty could only be addressed by looking hard at programming. And this was linked to deep questions and confusion about Pacifica’s mission, goals and structure.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

The Year That Was: A World of Changes

VIDEO DIARY: Thoughts, ads and visions (12/18 - 10/19)  Uncle Sam gets an A... Orson Mansplains as Shadow does the wild thing... off to Arizona... Mom’s place... Ferlinghetti’s lament.. Bad dream of the future... Bennington memories... Fields of Change... Bernie Sanders on the human spirit... Real Change... Climate change and ecological security... Journalism and change... Miro’s mistake... Preservation and Change... and the People’s Republic podcasts

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

From Fragile Paradise to Fields of Change

Bennington in Changing Times

Opening a Senate investigation of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in March 1968, Sen. J. William Fulbright described what was taking place across the country as a “spiritual rebellion” of the young against a betrayal of national values. The war in Vietnam was coming home.

In Bennington a cultural storm was brewing as newcomers arrived in Vermont during the late 1960s. At its center were the schools. Fifty years later, photos and ideas from this video essay helped to inspire an exhibit in 2019 (6/28-11/3) at the Bennington Museum, Fields of Change: 1960s Vermont.  The sound track includes music by John Cage, Spirit, Donovan, Bob Dylan and Eric Anderson; guitar and vocals by Dave Putter; photos, narration, piano solos and editing by Greg Guma. With thanks to Jamie Franklin.

Although the epicenters of the counterculture movement were located in and around Brattleboro and Plainfield and throughout Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the Bennington area boasted its own artists, artisans, photographers, clothing designers and political activists whose work brought the larger story to the local arena, sometimes resulting in opposition.”


In March 1968, Sen. J. William Fulbright described what was taking place across the country as a “spiritual rebellion” of the young against a betrayal of national values. Over half a million troops had been mobilized to fight in Vietnam. The operative logic was that it might be necessary to destroy the country in order to save it.

Then a shot rang out in Memphis and ended the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Demonstrations erupted in 125 cities.  More than 20,000 arrests. The mobilization of federal troops and the National Guard. Two months later, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, just after winning the California primary. 

By Summer, there had been over 220 major demonstrations on campuses across the country. 

By then I had moved to Vermont. And I wasn’t the only one. Thousands of us came. I was with a group of young idealists who wanted to distribute and distribute films. The first step was to create film societies across the Northeast. 

The name of our dream was the American Film Academy.

“Strange country up here; New Hampshire and Vermont appear to be the East's psychic answer to Colorado and New Mexico – big lonely hills laced with back roads and old houses where people live almost aggressively by themselves.” — Hunter Thompson

That’s Kitty when she was around 20. We’d fallen in love and gotten married. She was from Shaftsbury, but we found a place in the Village of Bennington. And kindred spirits. 

Then a cooler place on Depot Street, with a health food store downstairs. We called it the Gingerbread House. But that was later...

In September, some young Republicans hired us to produce a multi-media light show for a state GOP meeting at the Paradise motel. It was a strange idea — but the Academy was in trouble and we were desperate. The reaction was less than enthusiastic. 

Afterward, Liz Dwyer wrote a scathing article for the Bennington Banner. It was so upsetting that we had to reply in a letter to the editor. We saw ourselves as creative entrepreneurs. But some people saw us as part of an unwelcome invasion:

As AFA employees, we are upset most about the glib manner in which our organization is maligned by people who do not understand our work and are afraid to inquire about it.” 

“We are teachers, students, and artists....We do not circulate underground or low-life films... In fact, we are now supplying the films for the YMCA film program.”

By then, two of us had taken temporary teaching jobs at The Prospect School, a progressive elementary school in North Bennington. Its aim was to deepen each child’s experience of the world through individualized instruction and working with all kinds of materials. The kids were free to move around, talk with others, and pursue their own projects and ideas.

It was great work. But soon I took a very different job, reporter and photographer for the Bennington Banner ... and found myself working with Liz Dwyer, the editor who had panned our light show. We became great friends.

On my third day the editor, Tyler Resch, took me to a school board meeting, drew a diagram of people around the table. And left. It was sink or swim. And a political storm was brewing. A new high school had been built. But it was also at the center of Bennington’s cultural divide. Its alma mater, “The Impossible Dream,” turned out to prophecy. An idealistic plan for progressive local education was about to be derailed.

The school superintendent resigned and a dispute had developed over who would replace him. The elementary school board wanted the Assistant Superintendent. The supervisory union wasn’t so sure.

It looked like a minor dispute. But it was really part of a bitter struggle, a local culture war, and the stakes were the future of education and community life.

A Golden Age

In the 1930s Martha Graham was instrumental in making Bennington College the epicenter of the modern dance world. The Bennington School for Dance, precursor of the American Dance Festival, was an innovative laboratory where pioneers experimented, trained students, and created early works that defined modern dance.

A generation later the area became a nexus for modern art. As the story goes, it began with art critic Clement Greenberg and painter Helen Frankenthaler. They were soon joined by Paul Feeley and other painters who helped connect the emerging avant-garde movement based at the college with the New York art scene. 

By the 1960s the community was hosting a veritable artist colony — although many folks did their best to ignore it. An article in Vogue even updated Vermont history, calling painters like Anthony Caro, Kenneth Noland, Vincent Longo and Jules Olitski the new Green Mountain Boys.

The original Green Mountain Boys were a revolutionary era militia led by Ethan Allen, who met at the Catamount Tavern in Old Bennington. It burned down in 1871.

A century later Greenberg’s idea was that art should be disciplined, but without sacrificing vitality. The concept combined distance with enjoyment and freedom. Bennington seemed perfect ... not far from New York and Boston, but sufficiently removed. An ideal place to play out an unusual artistic vision.

But the golden age was over by the time I arrived. And a conservative political storm was brewing. At its center was the high school.

Impossible Dreams

Mt. Anthony Union High School was thriving ... a new campus, engaged students, creative faculty. Even professional level productions of big musicals like West Side Story, The Fantasticks, and My Fair Lady. 

It wasn’t all about the arts. There were also innovative vocational programs and volunteer projects like DUO, a state idea. The name stood for “do unto others” and it let high school students spend half of a School year on a project that responded to a real community need. 

But what made Mt Anthony different was a creative spirit, and the dynamic head of the music Department, Jack Carton.

But a power struggle was brewing between two tribes. And then the state Commissioner of Education stepped in.

To break the superintendent stalemate he unilaterally merged Bennington’s Supervisory Union with another board and appointed its superintendent to head the new “super district.” George Sleeman could keep his job. But his rise had been blocked. His allies were stunned and his brother would not forget. The struggle between modernists and traditionalists would continue for years.

After that the first public flashpoint was a high school musical, and the spark was the poster. The poster was banned and on opening night the house was half-filled. It almost felt like a boycott. I didn’t realize it at first, but a moral majority culture war had just begun.

Yet protests were also growing — against the Vietnam War, and the culture war at home. 

Fifty years later it all became an exhibit at the Bennington Museum.

Greg Guma, a journalist, magazine editor, community organizer, and the author of several books including The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution, supplied numerous photographs and much of the background information for the exhibition. Like many young, progressive activists and hippies, Guma moved to Vermont after graduating from college. “It was 1968 and I was fairly traumatized by what was going on during my final semester,” he said. “The war, the election of Nixon, the protests, the assassinations. Like a lot of people, I wanted to flee the violence and try to find better values in a less complicated environment.”

Guma got a job as a reporter and photographer at The Bennington Banner where he chronicled many of the historic changes taking place in the state. “I was one of only two reporters, so I was exposed to many aspects of society,” he said. “I watched the culture war unfold.” — Stratton Magazine, 8/30/2019

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Planet Pacifica: Growing Pains

Progressive Media’s Fragile Democracy: The original idea was to nurture an open exchange of ideas that could help people come to know each other as human beings, dialogue that demonstrated the possibility of peace in practice. But over 50 years Pacifica evolved into something else: a national progressive radio network, a source of “alternative” news and viewpoints, and a platform for many underserved constituencies.

Listen to "#11 Planet Pacifica: Growing Pains" on
Part Two: In this episode, how Pacifica Radio began, WBAI’s legendary “free form” past, and early shots in progressive radio’s civil war. Plus, Dustin Hoffman reading part of War and Peace in 1970, sounds of the 1979 March for Gay Rights, and comedy from Mushroom Cloud Theater.

Confrontation and war, or understanding and reconciliation. Sometimes it’s a tough call. And leaders can make all the difference. It isn’t easy and the country has certainly had all kinds. So has Pacifica Radio, the original listener sponsored network. It has also often been at war with itself. But it didn’t start out that way.

Pacifica Radio’s founder, Lew Hill, was the son of an Oklahoma millionaire. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. He also studied Kierkegaard and Gandhi at Stanford, and then became a conscientious objector. But he came up with the idea for a pacifist-oriented radio station elsewhere, at first while working at a remote, church-funded  Civilian Public Service camp in Coleville, California. It was one of many camps set up for those who refused to fight in World War II.

It was a time of emerging anticommunist fever, known in time as the McCarthy era, after the powerful and unscrupulous Wisconsin Senator. Hollywood screenwriters were jailed for refusing to discuss their political activities. During KPFA’s first months on the air, union leader Harry Bridges was imprisoned for concealing his ties with the Communist Party. A dozen California Communist leaders were convicted for violating the Smith Act, which made it a crime to advocate the overthrow of the government. 

KPFA, the first Pacifica station, went on the air in April 1949. Initially it reached relatively few people in the San Francisco Bay Area on the new FM dial. Radio broadcasting had been around for about thirty years. Serious radio news reporting was only a decade old, beginning with coverage of the 1938 Munich agreement and increasing tensions in Europe.

Radio broadcasting had become a hugely profitable enterprise, especially for the two large networks, CBS and NBC, and independent stations in larger markets. They in turn were the guardians of a reactionary, middlebrow national culture. There were only a few main commandments: keep it clean, keep it friendly, and avoid controversy whenever possible.

The Pacifica Foundation would be different. Yet for Hill and early volunteers and hosts, the purpose of the new FM station was dialogue not revolution, and education, not profit. But certainly not Communism. Even pacifism, which had helped inspire its birth, played only a marginal role as KPFA struggled to find a place in Berkeley’s then relatively insular university community.

Hill’s interest in launching a station was further fueled by a job announcing at WINX in Washington DC toward the end of World War II. At first, it brought him together with Joy Cole, a kindred spirit who shared his anti-war sentiments and general desire to create a better world. They married in 1944. But ultimately Hill couldn’t accept the restrictions and distortions that had become commonplace in commercial radio. His qualms ultimately became intolerable in May 1945, when he was handed a story about “the people at Tule Lake.”

He knew what that euphemism really meant. Tule Lake was the site of one of the most infamous internment camps for Japanese Americans during the war, a so-called "segregation camp" in northern California that warehoused more than 18,000 people for several years. It had just closed.  Hill, who knew about it from work nearby as a war resister, refused to read a misleading report and turned in his resignation.

A year later, after moving to San Francisco, he submitted his proposal for a radio station to the Federal Communications Commission and wrote a fundraising prospectus. The idea was that people who were committed to nonviolence could reach beyond the choir, beyond ivory tower intellectuals and war resisters, and reach the “average man” by bonding with the community through a station. 

In what became the single most important document in Pacifica history, he outlined the purposes of a new educational foundation in a series of bold, idealistic statements that remained central to its self-image for six decades.

Hill’s vision was that the foundation’s main project, KPFA, would “engage in any activity that shall contribute to a lasting understanding between nations and between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and color.” He wrote that it would “gather and disseminate information on the causes of conflict between any and all such groups, and promote the study of political and economic problems, and the causes of religious, philosophical and racial antagonisms.” 

And how? Through dialogue – through diverse groups and people openly communicating with each other on the air. The objective wasn’t to discover and convey indisputable truths. it was to nurture an open exchange of ideas that could help people come to know each other as human beings, dialogue that demonstrated the possibility of peace in practice.

By the time I became CEO more than half a century later, however, Pacifica had evolved into something else: a national progressive radio network, a source of “alternative” news and viewpoints, a platform for many underserved constituencies, but also for identity politics, and too often for “politically correct” wisdom, as well as angry internal bickering over process, ideology, air-time and assigning blame — all of which prevented the network from making a bigger impact on public discourse. Or, as Hill more modestly hoped, creating constructive connections between people.

There was ambiguity from the start. The goals, when Hill put them in writing, tended to shift with his audience. In pitches to the Ford Foundation and a 1952 book, for instance, he dropped words like “pacifism” and “peace” and replaced them with “personal freedom” and “imagination.” 

Rather than bonding with the community by discussing the local and familiar, the station offered “serious cultural broadcasting” to secure the support of two percent of the area’s total FM audience. Just two percent. This “two percent” formula became central to his theory of sustainable listener sponsorship through voluntary subscriptions. For the first five years, however, not enough listeners sent in money and the station depended on wealthy benefactors and major foundations.

Matthew Lazar noted years later in Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network, early announcers would often boast that as an advertisement-free station, KPFA didn’t need to appease commercial influences. True. On the other hand, Lazar added, “this freedom did not protect Lew Hill and his band of utopians from the strict ideological requirements of the liberal corporate state.” 

Birth of a Network

In January 1960, Harold Winkler, Pacifica Radio’s president and also KPFA station manager, received an unusual phone call from New York. A former political science professor at the University of California, Winkler had resigned in protest over a required loyalty oath for faculty members. Luckily, he was independently wealthy. 

On the other end of the line was Louis Schweitzer, a Russian-born millionaire, radio station owner, and also a president – in his case president of the Peter Schweitzer Division of Kimberly-Clark. He knew about Pacifica and he had a radical proposition. 
A few years before, Schweitzer, an eccentric radio enthusiast, had bought a station for $34,000, subsequently offering New York City the latest music and intellectual programs. But he found the choice between losing money on quality and making a profit by going commercial personally frustrating and philosophically untenable. The station’s greatest success had come during a New York newspaper strike. “That was not what I wanted at all,” he told Winkler. “I saw that if the station ever succeeded, it would be a failure." So, he asked, did Pacifica want it?
For a decade, KPFA in Berkeley had been the only listener-sponsored radio station in the country. But after planning for four years and raising $200,000, the Pacifica Foundation had just launched a second station – KPFK in Los Angeles – an independent operation with its own board, station manager, and local base of supporters. Pacifica had obtained the best site on Mt. Wilson to run over 110 kilowatts of power, enough to reach six million people from Santa Barbara and Los Angeles to the Mexican border and San Bernadino mountains.

Now, without paying anything, it could own a completely equipped FM station in New York, the Big Apple, smack dab in the middle of the FM dial. It was a no-brainer. And it was happening, largely, because of two wealthy men.  
The station that ultimately became WBAI began lower on the dial in 1941 as WABF, a commercial station, but moved to the 99.5 frequency in 1948. In the early 1950s it was off the air for two years, but came back in 1955 with call letters that reflected the name of its current owner, Broadcast Associates, Inc. WBAI. By the time Schweitzer made his donation, it was worth about $200,000.
With KPFK and WBAI joining the flagship station, KPFA Pacifica expanded rapidly from a station to a network reaching three major metropolitan areas — with a potential audience of sixty million people. But along with growth came challenges, and for too long the organization remained oblivious and unprepared.

The fourth station added was KPFT, a full-power station in Houston with a signal that reached far beyond the boundaries of the sprawling Texas city, beaming talk and music to multi-ethnic communities along the Gulf Coast. There were two KKK-backed bomb attacks on its transmitter in 1970. But it recovered and went on to become the first public radio station to broadcast programs in 11 different languages. For a while it had one of the most eclectic FM formats in the country.
The youngest of the five sister stations, WPFW, was launched in 1977 as a source of alternative programming in the nation’s capital. But the alternative differed from the formula at the older stations. News and public affairs were part of the mix, but most of the airtime was devoted to music. The mission statement, while acknowledging the purposes of the Pacifica Foundation, reflected this local priority.

“Jazz, a major American art form which grows from the African American experience, will be the major music programming,” it announced. “WPFW will act as archivist, educator, and entertainer on behalf of this under served national culture resource.” Over the years it became one of the leading jazz stations in the country, along the way adding blues, reggae, hip hop, world music and other forms that reflected the evolving taste of its primarily African American audience.

But the most legendary station was WBAI. In 1965, it sent the first American reporter to cover the war from North Vietnam. Joining resources with the other Pacifica stations, it broadcast live anti-war teach-ins. At a time when even the underground press wasn’t receptive to feminism, it put groundbreaking shows like “CR” on the air. When Columbia students seized the campus in 1968, it covered the occupation uninterrupted.

There was also Bob Fass’s “Radio Unnameable,” a weekend collage of music, poetry and talk, a radio’ version of the underground press. Identifying with the counterculture and anti-war movement, Fass took his mike to demonstrations and invited movement leaders into the studio to discuss their plans. He ran the show like a switchboard, connecting people and getting them involved. He broke the mold and invented something new – freeform radio. 

By the early 1980s ideological splits were emerging. One came when Pacifica’s first executive director, Sharon Maeda tried to secure corporate underwriting from Exxon. In response Clare Spark, KPFK’s scholarly program director, fired back by reading a resolution, drafted by herself and other Program Directors, on the air. The network and its stations should focus on "people who write books," she announced, not "people who write bumper stickers." The argument foreshadowed the struggles ahead over control of programming and the direction of the network.

A decade later the match was clearly lit after Pat Scott became KPFA General Manager, then Executive Director. Joining forces with National Federation of Community Broadcaster President Lynn Chadwick on a Corporation for Public Broadcasting task force, she backed the idea that community radio should be more ratings-driven. For many Pacifica people, that was bad enough. But Scott went further. On behalf on herself and the national board, she issued a communique. It said that anyone who wasn’t ready to help the board change local programming to increase audiences was “advised to resign.” It became known as the “my way or the highway” memo.

Two weeks later, the broadcast schedule at KPFA was dramatically changed. This included cancellation of established shows. The fight in Berkeley climaxed four years later in a lockout and massive protests. Before that happened, however, Scott’s next move was a surprise takeover of KPFK and changes in it station management. This came to be called the “Wednesday Night Massacre.” 

A central figure in the struggle was KPFK General Manager Mark Schubb, who head the job from 1995 to 2002. Considering the volatility of the period it was a remarkably long tenure. Schubb was both respected and feared, and became known for slamming doors and imposing programming changes. His loyal cadre – known as the “Schubbistas,” and also by their preferred label, “The Third Faction.”

In 1996, Schubb issued a directive ordering programmers and board operators to immediately cut the feed if anyone discussed “dirty linen” on the air. Noncompliance would result in “permanently being removed from the station.” The phrase dated back to the 1960s, when “abusing the air” to discuss internal disputes was first prohibited. Two decades earlier the manager of KPFK had been fired for violating the “dirty linen” rule. But until Schubb the policy hadn’t been much enforced.

Disgruntled members of the growing Pacifica community saw it as a virtual Gag Rule. Anyone – employee or volunteer – who said anything about an internal disagreement would be automatically and promptly shown the door. For the next six years Schubb’s rule remained in place, with especially dire results at KPFK and WBAI. It took a revolution and a court order to end the practice. After a while Schubb got a nickname – The Gagmaster.

Driving into New York City in February 2006, on the first leg of my orientation tour as Pacifica’s new Executive Director, I thought about WBAI’s past. Once one of the most innovative stations in broadcast history, it had won awards for civil rights coverage and helping to define the counterculture. With a transmitter at the top of the Empire State Building, a signal that reached far beyond the city limits and a roster of on-air voices second to none, the station’s influence was profound in its day. 

But now it was at war with itself. It was like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, programmer Ibrahim Gonzales told me, “complete with endless debates over the right of return, over who held the rights to a time slot.” As managers and hosts came at one another with lawsuits, purges, and fights over race and ideology, its audience was drifting away.

A key player was Bernard White. Like many others with influence, he had been with Pacifica for decades. Raised in Harlem, White studied at Queens College and held a variety of jobs, including New York school teacher, before turning to radio journalism in 1978. For several years he shared the mike weekday mornings with Amy Goodman on “Wake Up Call,” then became WBAI’s Interim Program Director in 1999. The following year, in a controversial move, General Manager Valerie Van Isler chose him to be permanent Program Director. By the end of ther year, however, White was fired, a casualty of Pacifica’s “Christmas Coup.” 

As happened again recently, central network management and the National Board had taken over the station. They changed the locks, installed an interim manager, and gave a list of “banned” employees to the security guards.
White and two dozen others fired during this period ultimately returned to WBAI in 2002. But his next decade as program director was stormy. He had solid backing from the Justice and Unity Coalition (JUC), the strongest faction on the local board. The black nationalist group embraced him as a determined anti-racist who put “activist” voices on the air. Amy Goodman considered him a comrade and friend. To his opponents, however, he was a Tammany Hall-style demagogue who abused his position, dismissed popular hosts like investigative journalist Robert Knight and health guru Gary Null, commandeered the airwaves to criticize his opponents, and frequently played the “race card” himself. 

Fairly or not, they blamed him for the station’s listener and financial decline. As I said at the start, leading a media democracy isn’t easy. 

Part One: Managing Chaos

Next: Being ED, signs of decline, and what can still be done.