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.
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
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
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?”
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.