The battle for indie radio

After seven years of bitter infighting, the dissidents have retaken control of Pacifica, the venerable left-wing radio network. Now comes the hard part.

Published June 20, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

It was a familiar sight to listeners of Pacifica, the independent, radical-minded radio network: An e-mail from a DJ, warning that Pacifica's central powers were planning sweeping changes for his radio station. "WPFW's existence as D.C.'s last bastion of cultural programming is being seriously threatened in the immediate future," the message claimed. A "vocal minority" of hijackers, "none of whom were elected," intended to remake WPFW as "an all-talk station." If listeners didn't want that to happen, they should make their feelings known at a teach-in the following week.

For the past seven years, Pacifica has seen purges and protests, a management bent on radically revamping its five stations and a growing body of dissenters opposed to its plans. (For the record, I was one of those dissenters, writing periodically about the gentrification process afoot at the network.) In a nutshell, Pacifica was trying to slicken and tone down its eclectic, largely left-wing programming mix and to move power from local stations to the national office, from volunteers to paid professionals. The warning about WPFW, written by "Latin Flavor" host Jim Byers, resembled countless earlier e-mails by outraged programmers and listeners. Except this time, the alleged hijackers were the dissidents.

Late last year, armed with lawsuits and faced with an increasingly inept foe, the dissidents retook the Pacifica board. Station managers left their posts at the Los Angeles, Houston, New York and Washington outlets. (The fifth station, in Berkeley, Calif., was already under the protesters' control.) When Byers sent his e-mail in March, what we were witnessing was not revolution, but aftermath.

The Washington story has a happy ending, or at least has settled into an unstable state of peace. The teach-in took place, and everyone was civil. The accused "vocal minority" -- the station's local advisory board, drawn from its listeners -- assured everyone that the rumors were untrue; it had no desire to wipe the music from the jazz-oriented outlet's schedule. Byers and company conversely conceded that the outlet's public-affairs lineup should be expanded. And for the first time, everyone got to talk with everyone else.

Pacifica, the nation's oldest noncommercial radio network, has entered a new chapter of its history, as the people who brought down the previous regime now face the task of reconstruction. It's an enormous challenge: If the ousted leaders' crude attempts to "mainstream" Pacifica had brought it to the brink of bankruptcy (a threat which has by no means receded), one could also argue that much of the network's traditional political programming had come to seem ossified and irrelevant.

Although the former rebels have now taken the network's helm, the infighting at Pacifica is not over. There have been several inside-out moments like the conflict at WPFW, not all of them resolved so benignly. But you shouldn't start quoting "Animal Farm" just yet.

The dissident movement was always an alliance of convenience, with many visions of a liberated Pacifica contending within it. Each station now has to work out just what a Pacifica station should be broadcasting, and, more important, how it should make such decisions in the future. If the network survives a financial crisis it has inherited from the previous administration, it may yet remake itself as a compelling alternative to both commercial and public radio. If it succeeds, even those who have paid little attention to Pacifica's troubles may find themselves glad that this particular war was won.

The first Pacifica station, Berkeley's KPFA, was founded by Lewis Hill in 1949. Hill had conceived it while working in a conscientious objectors' camp during World War II, but it was the mind-deadening experience of working in commercial broadcasting after the war that shaped his views of what radio ought to be. "If a sound is worth passing through the magnificent apparatus of a microphone, a transmitter and your receiving set," he once wrote, "it ought to convey some meaningful intelligence."

To foster that intelligence, Hill argued, stations should stop thinking of the audience as a manipulable mass. Instead, they should restore power to the actual broadcaster and his listeners, and favor programming with a spirit of dialogue and inquiry.

In five cities across 53 years, Pacifica has moved through several radically different incarnations. It was a highbrow Berkeley station in the 1950s, run by anarcho-pacifists but funded mostly by arty liberals. It was the home base for New York's Yippies and their kin in the late 1960s. It was a "cosmic cowboy" compendium of roots music and sharp satire in Houston in the 1970s. By the '80s, the standard template for a Pacifica outlet (except in Washington, where jazz has always dominated the schedule) was a collection of left-wing political interest groups, music lovers from outside the pop mainstream and foreign-language constituencies, all sharing one frequency and each clinging tenaciously to its airtime. The result was a patchwork of brilliance, mediocrity and doctrinaire tedium.

Another result was a long history of dissident movements that supported various contrary notions of what Pacifica ought to be, depending on when they discovered the network and what they were doing there when they decided things were going sour. Many of these never had a vision larger than the restoration of their favorite shows.

"The great mass of people came to the fight because what they like got attacked," says David Adelson, head of the local advisory board at Los Angeles' KPFK and lead plaintiff in one of the lawsuits against the outgoing national leadership. "They didn't come to it from a point of view of listening and thinking, 'You know, things really need to change.'"

Even so, there are a number of inchoate, sometimes overlapping models for the network's future. One group sees Pacifica as an advocate for a host of leftist movements. (Within that set, naturally, different figures regard different movements as paramount.) An overlapping camp -- based around the daily program "Democracy Now!" -- wants to build Pacifica as a national voice for hard-hitting public-affairs programming, in what Matthew Lasar, author of the 1999 history "Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network," calls "the grand Pacifica dissenting style." Other Pacificans have similar visions, Lasar adds, "but on a much more local level."

This bleeds into another approach, in which the stations serve, in one much-used phrase, as "the voice of the voiceless," with more airtime devoted to low-income and minority communities. Yet another model, in Adelson's words, favors programs in which "you're not constantly trying to demonstrate that your point of view is correct." Instead, as he puts it, "You're trying to explore. The programming inquires deeply into features of our life that we don't frequently have the opportunity to inquire into ourselves," then expands its boundaries by fostering such discussions off the air as well as on.

And then there is a faction based at two bastions of the left-liberal press, the Nation and the L.A. Weekly. The former publication has its own show, "RadioNation," while journalists from both organs enjoyed a fair amount of airtime in Los Angeles under former KPFK manager Mark Schubb. Members of this group generally favored the Schubb administration's approach to programming, though they sometimes criticized the national board for its mismanagement. Several still have airtime in Los Angeles, but they exert most of their influence from the outside, via those two publications.

"The thing that bugs me about the Nation the most is that they won't admit that they are a faction within the organization," comments one observer who requested anonymity. "They constantly represent themselves as taking the higher ground, and refuse to acknowledge that they are, like other Pacifica factions, a close-knit group of people within the network with specific interests in terms of airtime, exposure for the Nation itself and their own careers."

This party's line was laid out in a March L.A. Weekly article by Ella Taylor, whose film criticism sometimes runs on KPFK. Taylor praised the outgoing station management as a group of "'60s activists who have become intellectuals and argue that the left must work from within society and refine itself through dialogue and debate." The new crowd, by contrast, were also "'60s activists" who had become "hard-line Marxists or self-appointed guardians of minority identity, who believe that any contact with corporate capitalism and white elites contaminates and dilutes the cause."

The shrillest exponent of the Nation line, "RadioNation" host and L.A. Weekly writer Marc Cooper, routinely paints the dissidents-turned-managers as creatures of the far-left fringe, citing the kookiest e-mail he gets -- such as accusations that he's a CIA agent -- as typical of the anti-Nation forces. As we shall see, there are in fact more cogent criticisms of Nation-style radio.

On a national level, the debate over Pacifica's future is taking second place to the crisis in its present. By the final days, the old Pacifica board was, at best, shockingly inept: It left the network with a deficit of more than $5 million, most of it run up in the last 15 months. Apologists for the board blame the dissidents for the debts, noting that the network spent nearly $1.5 million fending off their lawsuits. But looking at the mess they left behind, one gets the impression of a group more willing to drive Pacifica into bankruptcy than to compromise with their critics.

It wasn't just legal costs that pushed Pacifica into the red. There was $90,000 for public relations, more than $200,000 in consulting fees, some $230,000 for a security firm to gather intelligence on dissident activists, a stunning $237,000 in bank charges, and a number of payments that seem downright corrupt, morally if not legally. Most notably, the board promised almost $500,000 in severance packages in its final days, offering golden parachutes to 20 executives. Meanwhile, individual executives ran up heavy hotel bills and other personal expenses, spending $320,000 on the corporate American Express card -- more than 5 percent of the entire organization's annual budget -- in just six months.

Meanwhile, the legal costs themselves ballooned, without anyone keeping track of expenses. (Toward the end, no one was making financial reports to the board.) "At one point there were five big Washington law firms representing Pacifica," notes Dan Coughlin, the network's interim director.

With the bills coming due, the national network is faced mostly with fighting fires. It's successfully negotiated down some of the debt and some of the severance packages, and has made substantial cuts in the network's operating expenses. Meanwhile, revenues have increased, with all five stations raising record amounts in their March pledge drive.

But there's a long way to go. It's not that no one in the national office is thinking about programming. As Coughlin says, "We can't just move forward without understanding what went wrong in the past, and how to improve the situation for the future." But with millions to be paid, Pacifica's immediate concern is avoiding bankruptcy.

On the local level, it's another story -- or, more precisely, five other stories. In Berkeley, for example, the entire station rebelled against the national board back in 1999. As a result, comments Matthew Lasar, "Whatever debate there might be at KPFA about what direction it should go in, there isn't a lot of wiggle room for change."

One consequence is a feeling in many quarters that the station has grown stale. Its formerly activist and controversial local news operation is now dominated by rip-and-read wire copy, while it has become nearly impossible to eliminate programs that have gotten tired or to recruit fresh voices to take their place.

That said, the station has its defenders. "I understand why people say it's gotten encrusted," comments Lasar, who lives in nearby San Francisco. "But I have to say, on a very subjective level, that I love listening to it. I think KPFA does a lot of really great stuff."

A similar situation holds in New York, where WBAI's staff was in open revolt even before the rebellion in Berkeley. With the so-called "Christmas coup" of December 2000, Utrice Leid replaced Valerie Van Isler as general manager and a series of broadcasters were banned from the air. Now the old staff is back in place and, again, there's little room for radical change (although Van Isler plans to leave later this year). So whereas three years ago it was not uncommon to hear KPFA and WBAI described as the only real Pacifica stations left, the most wide-open debates about the network's future are now taking place in Houston and Los Angeles.

At Houston's KPFT, similar rumors about the station's new direction have been swirling in all directions, in what interim program director Otis Maclay, a Pacifica stalwart who started at New York's WBAI in 1967, describes as "an absolute McCarthy campaign" full of ad hominem attacks. A typical flurry came when Monica López, a reporter from the Berkeley-based "Free Speech Radio News," came to Houston to cover the Enron scandal and related stories. Naturally, KPFT allowed her to use its facilities. In the e-mail netherworld, this became a sinister plot by a Berkeley cabal to "take over" the KPFT news department and make the Houston station "a repeater signal for KPFA." No such conspiracy ever materialized.

The conflict in the Middle East has also left a mark, especially after a particularly pro-Israel edition of the program "Jewish Voices." The next show's host, Bob Buzzanco, began his program with a nasty retort: "Sorry for that digression into the Fox network. We now return to regular Pacifica programming." Pro-Israel listeners immediately called for Buzzanco's head. The issue at stake, arguably, wasn't Israel vs. Palestine so much as the ideal of open debate. One of Buzzanco's supporters, Curt Schroell, says that both the pro-Israel show and Buzzanco's response made him cringe -- but that's OK. "I expect to hear more cringe radio at KPFT," he says. That, he feels, is the price of free speech.

KPFT still hasn't hired a permanent program director. Maclay hopes to keep the job, but there's a frantic campaign against him, aimed more at the people he associates with than the material he actually broadcasts. But for all the infighting, if only one Pacifica outlet emerges from this mess as a strong and compelling radio station, it will probably be this one.

Under the previous manager, Garland Ganter, KPFT adopted the tagline "The Sound of Texas," a slogan that at its best meant rootsy country and blues and at its worst meant bland yuppie-rock piped in from a public station in Pennsylvania. Now the slogan has changed slightly, to "The Sounds of Texas." The idea is to diversify the schedule without losing the best of the old. "What we're trying to do," Maclay says, "is not fire any listeners."

One of the few really enjoyable elements of KPFT's programming in the last few years has been its willingness to put local musicians on the air, playing live from the station's studios. Maclay wants to expand on this and even hopes to build a better studio for the visiting musicians to use. At the same time, he hopes to expand the non-music programming as well.

Maclay's model for Pacifica is radically different from Ganter's -- not, he says, "an object-subject model, where you feed the listener and they consume," but "an interactive model, where you're telling the listeners, 'Hey, come down to the station and play. Be involved with this medium to the extent that you want.'"

Not that much has changed on the Houston schedule so far. But by replacing one daily three-hour music block with a diverse, constantly changing lineup of shows covering everything from labor issues to Tejano culture to poetry, the station has already increased its locally produced talk programming from 6 to 21 hours a week. It's also rethinking the syndicated material it airs, and has already dropped Public Radio International's daily newsmagazine "The World" in favor of "Flashpoints," a more radical program produced at KPFA. (It was in a Flashpoints interview that Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., made her infamous accusations about President Bush's alleged foreknowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks.)

KPFT plans still more new programs, from a teachers' show to a show produced by and for those they teach. "There's a school where they have a recording studio," says Maclay. "The kids go there after school, they're just doing wild stuff. We're looking at getting them involved.

"We're determined to have this be a real Pacifica station," he adds. "That means offering things that are not heard in other places. We've got probably 15 talk shows in this town, besides what we do, and they are all absolutely right-wing. Though G. Gordon Liddy's show got dumped -- he was too hot for Houston."

When I half-jokingly suggest that KPFT could give Liddy a time slot, Maclay replies, "I would seriously consider it. I don't agree with him, but of all of the right-wing talk shows, he's by far the most interesting. He's somebody who has a connection with what he believes, some underpinnings. Most of these other guys are disc jockeys who discovered that if they talk right-wing, they can make money. Liddy at least would engage with some issues." And engagement, Maclay feels, is what Pacifica should be about.

Then there's Los Angeles. It's hard to say what shape the station there will take: The new general manager, Eva Georgia, has only just been hired. Two things are sure, though: At least some of the people at KPFK the station are thinking creatively about how it might be improved, and whatever direction the station goes will mark a change from the immediate past.

The previous administration's philosophy had been to build an audience with predictable "strip" programming, in which a listener knows he'll hear the same sort of show at the same time each day. The former managers claim to have doubled or even tripled their listenership this way, but the figures don't quite add up. "There are different definitions of growth," notes David Adelson. "The type they were trying to optimize was time spent listening by a core audience," that is, by people who listen to you more than other stations. Under Mark Schubb, KPFK increased the number of listeners who donated to the station by about 20 percent and increased the amount of money they were bringing in by 100 percent -- but didn't actually increase the total number of listeners at all.

Since the recent regime change, a few programmers have left, but the basic structure of the schedule has stayed the same, with personality-driven talk shows dominating the morning and afternoon drive times. It's unclear how far KPFK will move from this model, but Adelson thinks the issue needs to be discussed. "It's not that I dislike it particularly," he says. "What I object to with personality-driven programming is that you're trying to form a bond of trust between the audience and the programmer. The audience takes what the host is saying as true based on that trust as opposed to their own critical analysis of what's being said."

So what's the alternative? "You ask questions about what the evidence is for each assertion," Adelson replies. "When somebody talks about how the paramilitaries and death squads in Latin America are linked to the right-wing government or the U.S. or whatever, I would like somebody, rather than using that as a starting point, to ask, 'How do we know that?' There's a difference between preaching to the choir and teaching the choir. The choir can go out and talk to other people in the community, but not if they're just echoing things that they're already comfortable believing."

There's a clear tension between this model and the popular stereotype of Pacifica as an outpost for ideologues, and Adelson, although clearly a man of the radical left, is uncomfortable with the idea that Pacifica should limit itself to "left-wing radio." The point isn't that it should attempt a "Crossfire"-style "balance," but that its hosts should be as willing to question their own ideological framework as they are to probe the cracks in other points of view. Adelson also calls for more "unmediated voices," presented without a host poised to interpret everything into familiar political categories.

Along those lines, he proposes that KPFK start covering community sports, such as the extensive networks of city soccer and basketball leagues in which so many of Los Angeles' Latino and African-American residents participate. "The city soccer leagues have every low-income immigrant community in Los Angeles involved in them," Adelson says. "You have people who are specifically tuning in to hear that, and you could put on a program right after which is specifically dealing with issues of interest to those communities. These are people who come from places that have an actual political spectrum, who are familiar with political discussions and have a particular take as immigrants on what it means to be in this country, what their expectations are of it, and why they left."

Adelson also has a thoughtful proposal for a new station structure, one designed to avoid the pitfalls of personality-driven strip programming while also escaping the fragmentation typical of Pacifica in the '80s. The idea is for the advisory board to take input from the listeners about the general areas they feel the stations should cover: human rights, local politics, the arts, etc. Each topic would then get its own peer review committee, charged not with coming up with, say, a Human Rights Hour, but with surveying the schedule as a whole to see how well KPFK is covering the issue. The idea is to foster breadth and diversity while avoiding the familiar Pacifica scenario in which the hosts become possessive of their particular shows and don't care what goes on for the rest of the week.

"The worst-case scenario is that what you have is a return to power politics within the station where it's a fight over programming slots and time," Adelson says. "Success at Pacifica in the past meant the ability to exclude or eliminate your enemies. Success in the future should mean the ability to synthesize disparate views."

But the station is a long way from putting these ideas into practice. It's been forming programming collectives, but rather than being interdisciplinary groups concerned with larger issues, they've reflected the more familiar contours of identity politics: A black collective, a Latino collective, etc. Nor has the notion of avoiding a one-to-one relationship between collective and program been firmly established. Adelson feels burnt out, in part because he's had such trouble communicating these ideas to others at the station.

The best hope for Adelson's most hopeful scenario -- for a station without power politics but "with a certain dynamism, so it embraces and accommodates change as a regular feature" -- may be KPFX, a new, supplementary KPFK project being built on the Web. The direct inspiration is New York's Web station WBIX, which broadcast former WBAI programs and other material "from exile" during Utrice Leid's administration. But KPFX has a somewhat different mission: to allow new blood to flow more easily into the station. Since its Web streams won't be displacing any existing shows, there will presumably be less resistance to new people brought aboard through it. If sufficient flexibility is built into the FM schedule, KPFK could import the best programs from its Web sister into its over-the-air broadcasts.

A similar arrangement is developing in Houston, where Pacificans hope to launch another Web station, tentatively titled KPFTX, later this year.

One way Pacifica has cut costs recently is by dropping its nightly newscast, the "Pacifica Network News." Few miss it: Battered by a correspondents' strike, it had been reduced to taking reports from Feature Story News, a company whose processed-cheese newscasts are featured on such alternative outlets as ABC, NBC and the Voice of America. One typical story, aired in the last weeks before the program was canceled, was essentially a paean to New York ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, notable not just for its lack of resemblance to Pacifica's usual political outlook but, more importantly, by its utter failure to acknowledge that such an outlook might exist. In its final three years, the number of non-Pacifica stations carrying the newscast dropped from 73 to 12.

Last year the striking reporters started a new show, the aforementioned "Free Speech Radio News," with a decentralized structure and contributions from correspondents around the country. The results are now heard on Pacifica, on several other stations, and on the Web. You're not likely to hear Giuliani tributes on it. You will hear a slant, though, and sometimes a rather ham-fisted one. In a February broadcast, the anchor, reading headlines at the top of the hour, declared that "prison conditions in Afghanistan are deplorable," the last word elongated just in case we fail to get the idea. It's fine to do news with a point of view, and sometimes "Free Speech Radio News" pulls it off. At other times it just sounds amateurish.

That clumsiness, says Maria Gilardin of Berkeley's KPFA, "can happen when something isn't centralized and there isn't an editorial authority. But I think there's enough of a feedback mechanism built in for it to improve. Overall, it's a really beautiful model. It's what Pacifica should have done when it created 'Pacifica Network News' -- to build it from the bottom up instead of from the top down."

Now Pacifica itself is being rebuilt from the ground up. It faces a host of pitfalls, from the lack of professionalism exemplified by that news report to the still-looming prospect of bankruptcy. But those who care about the vitality of radio as a medium -- whether they agree with the views aired on Pacifica or not -- can only hope the network survives to bring its listeners the vibrant programming mix it was known for in happier days.

By Jesse Walker

Jesse Walker is an associate editor of Reason Magazine.

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