Not so Pacific at Pacifica

Is the troubled progressive radio network drifting to the right -- or just cleaning up a worn-out '60s message?

Published June 13, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

is the Pacifica radio network purging its ranks of leftists? It may seem odd to ask such a thing of a network that regularly features political commentary by people like Noam Chomsky, that airs a national talk-show called "We the People" hosted by Jerry Brown, and that defines its very mission as "challenging the status quo." But a group of longtime Pacifica supporters, many of them former employees, is convinced that an effort is underway to squelch the spirit of radicalism at America's oldest alternative radio network. The person to blame, they say, is not Newt Gingrich, who has repeatedly tried to abolish Pacifica's federal funding on the grounds that the network is too liberal, but Patricia Scott, the new executive director of the Pacifica Foundation, whom critics feel is out to blunt the network's cutting edge.

On one level, the turmoil at Pacifica simply reflects an internal struggle over decision-making and control, with volunteer programmers at the network's five member stations increasingly incensed with Scott's seemingly draconian management style. But viewed through a broader lens, the controversy is rooted in a deeper struggle to define the mission and purpose of an avowedly progressive radio network in an age of right-wing talk shows and conservative politics, a challenge that confronts not just Pacifica but the left as a whole.

"Pat Scott wants to turn Pacifica into NPR lite," says Maria Gallardin, a former development director at KPFA Berkeley, one of Pacifica's five member stations, and a co-founder of Take Back KPFA, a group that formed in 1993 after Scott began firing many of the community and volunteer programmers who have formed the backbone of the network for years. Browsers who visit the Free Pacifica! Web site will find a slew of articles and documents accusing the new Scott regime of implementing a top-down counter-revolution: eviscerating local programming, shuttering board meetings from public scrutiny, and moderating the network's politics. It's all part of an effort, Gallardin believes, to refashion Pacifica in the pallid version of NPR, catering to a broader, "more yuppie" audience that prefers light programming and tepid neo-liberalism of the Bill Clinton variety to the unvarnished radicalism of the network's past.

"It's true that some people have lost their programs," concedes Dick Bunce, Pacifica's Deputy Executive Director. But he insists the overhaul was necessary to keep the network afloat in changing times. Squeezed by commercial talk radio on one side and declining federal funding on the other, Pacifica, Bunce says, was steadily losing market share. "We're based in five major markets, and could be listened to by one in five households. Yet we found that our programming had not been through much change or innovation... We were using museum-quality technology. Our audiences were stagnant... Meanwhile, competition had increased dramatically." The new Pacifica, he says, will retain its cutting edge but expand its audience -- as has indeed been done in recent years under Scott -- by featuring more national programs that can compete head-to-head against commercial radio and NPR. As an example, he points to Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now," an iconoclastic news show that Goodman calls "the exception to the rulers," and that has held its own against "All Things Considered" in Albuquerque and elsewhere. Of course, more national programming -- or strip programming as it is called -- inevitably means less of the eclectic, grassroots, community-based shows that critics contend are what make Pacifica unique.

Bunce has a point: upgrading quality was necessary and long overdue at Pacifica. During the 1960s, the network could ride the wave of the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, airing lively commentary by the likes of I.F. Stone, Bertrand Russell, Malcolm X and Daniel Ellsberg. But by the 1980s, as these movements faded, liberalism receded, and a reinvigorated conservatism took hold, the old formula ran out of steam. Too many programs, hosted by volunteers and produced on shoe-string budgets, were narrowly focused, technically inept and politically stagnant, evoking the atmosphere of "a private club for a few people to talk to their friends," in Scott's words. Pacifica, like the Left more generally, featured a veritable smorgasbord of niche programs on identity politics, each catering to a particular ethnic group, with less and less broad-ranging commentary and analysis to captivate a wider audience.

Norman Solomon, a syndicated columnist and media analyst with Fairness & Accuracy in News Reporting (FAIR), agrees that some of the old programming had to go, but also echoes those who criticize the new regime's brusque "unaccountable" management style, and its "creeping Clintonism" in the political realm. The network that honors May Day and International Women's Day, for example, recently hired the American Consulting Group, a notorious union-busting law firm, to advise it on worker-management issues, and illegally attempted to eliminate volunteer workers from having a voice in union affairs at WBAI, the network's New York branch. Pacifica has also implemented an absurd gag rule on its own employees, so that, during fund-raising drives, listeners may hear death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal assail the criminal justice system, but not critical assessments of how Pacifica itself treats its own workers (as a fitting pay-back, some workers recently appeared on NPR's "On The Air" to explain their grievances).

In the May 5 issue of The Nation, Left gadfly Alexander Cockburn lashed out at Pacifica on these and other counts, asserting that the basic trend at the network over the past few years "has been the inexorable extermination of dissent." Both Cockburn and Solomon perceive an effort at Pacifica to moderate material that cuts too sharply against the grain -- a trend seen elsewhere on the left these days, which fears marginalization as the political spectrum shifts further and further to the right. Scott responded in The Nation's June 9 issue, noting that 85 percent of Pacifica programming remains local, while steps to refurbish the network have resulted in a 51 percent jump in listenership. Alongside Scott's reply, however, appeared an embarassing letter from R. Paul Martin, chief steward of the union at WBAI, who echoed Cockburn's charges and added that Pacifica "is now spending listener-sponsor's money... fighting charges of unfair labor practices."

Scott and Bunce claim the critics are conflating their effort to upgrade quality with an alleged attempt to alter political content. Perhaps. Yet, as Gallardin notes, it did take a struggle by Take Back KPFA to prevent management from scrapping a popular news program by veteran reporter Dennis Bernstein, whose reporting was deemed too radical. Others claim that national management, while vaunting the success of Goodman's "Democracy Now," has quietly been pressing her to soften the pitch and go easier on liberal Democrats. Doing so might make it easier for Pacifica to raise money from liberal foundations and reposition itself on the national political map. But it will only deepen the internal strife that has wracked the network, while further muddling its already confused identity.

By Eyal Press

Eyal Press is the author of the new book "Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times". His work has appeared in The Nation, Lingua Franca and other publications.

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