Robert McChesney on Pacifica crisis

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Jan 26 08:00:21 MST 2001

NATION Magazine
COMMENT | February 12, 2001

Pacifica--A Way Out


[McChesney is a Monthly Review editor]

The following is another in a series of reports and opinion pieces on
events at Pacifica. We welcome comments from readers and remain committed
to airing diverse points of view. --The Editors

The "Christmas coup" at New York's WBAI-FM radio, in which Pacifica
management changed the locks in the middle of the night, just hours before
summarily firing three longtime station employees, marks another dismal
turn of events in the recent history of America's pre-eminent network of
community radio stations. Nation readers no doubt recall the lockout at
Pacifica's KPFA-FM in Berkeley in 1999. In that case, virtually the entire
KPFA community of listeners and staff organized against the lockout, and
Pacifica's national management was forced to relent.

It will be more difficult to do that at WBAI. Pacifica management learned
an important lesson from the KPFA debacle, which was not to permit the
station staff to be united in its opposition. At WBAI, Pacifica's national
management chose a well-known program host, Utrice Leid, to replace the
fired station manager. Leid has been a visible figure at WBAI over the
years and has the support of some on the staff and in the community. (I
have been a guest on her WBAI program and have always had an enjoyable
time.) She has stated her opposition to censorship and her support for
WBAI's traditional values.

Any notion that this was going to be a calm transition exploded on January
23, when Leid restricted access to a WBAI Local Advisory Board meeting at
WBAI's offices in lower Manhattan. The LAB is a Corporation for Public
Broadcasting requirement, and it has been holding meetings at the WBAI
office for the past twenty-five years. When participants in the prospective
meeting protested, the police arrested nine people for trespassing.

On the all-powerful eighteen-member Pacifica National Board, a marginalized
minority of six opposes the firings at WBAI. One of the six, Leslie Cagan,
says that Pacifica executive director Bessie Wash, who quarterbacked the
Christmas coup and installed Leid, refuses even to discuss the matter with
her. (I tried unsuccessfully to reach Wash and Leid.) In a strongly worded
statement on January 18, the dissidents called for a reinstatement of the
three fired employees, a return to traditional labor-review practices, a
full national board meeting to consider the crisis at WBAI and an end to
the high security "martial law" environment at the station. These are fair

What happens at Pacifica is not a minor issue of concern only to those who
work at WBAI and the other Pacifica stations, or who live in one of the
five Pacifica cities. We all need a healthy and vibrant Pacifica. It is the
most widely consumed progressive medium in the United States; it is the
basis for a national community radio network; it has considerable potential
for growth. For all the talk about the Internet and the digital revolution,
radio is the true people's medium. And in the commercial wasteland that US
radio has become under deregulation, the prospects for noncommercial radio
look better than they have for a very long time.

Nor are the problems at Pacifica anything new; there is a long history of
internal squabbles. My general sense from afar was that both sides had
their flaws, while opportunism masked by political posturing abounded. But
in the past few years matters have changed. The newly aggressive national
management has shown minimal respect for fair play or the values of
community broadcast and little interest in preserving Pacifica's
distinctive dissident and independent political focus.

The authoritarianism at WBAI is highlighted, as it was at KPFA, by the
unwillingness of the Pacifica management to speak fully and honestly about
its strategies and plans. To the limited extent that Pacifica has attempted
to justify its actions at WBAI and KPFA, it has been on the grounds that
these stations need to expand their audiences dramatically. I am quite
sympathetic to that position [see McChesney, "From Pacifica to the
Atlantic," October 11, 1999], but Pacifica's actions do not lend credence
to this claim. The attack on WBAI, as on KPFA, seems more about seizing
power, with the concerns of the audience, existing or potential, nowhere to
be found.

This, then, points to the core problem: The management structure at
Pacifica is inappropriate for this kind of enterprise. The notion of a
self-appointed board of directors having all the legal power makes sense
for a small nonprofit group where a small number of people do almost all
the labor and strongly influence the board. But at Pacifica this model
makes no sense. The Pacifica stations were built up by the staff and
listeners over the past fifty years, yet they have hardly any legal power.
Many of the current board members have scarcely any prior hands-on
involvement with Pacifica and seemingly know little about community radio
in theory or practice, yet they hold nearly all the legal cards. That is
why their numerous opponents have been reduced to demonstrating, filing
long-shot lawsuits and hassling board members in hopes they will quit.

The solution is therefore simple: Revise the legal structure of Pacifica so
that it better reflects the actual nature of the five stations and how they
do operate, and should operate. Give the staff and listeners more formal
power. But the solution is also maddeningly complex. There is no simple way
to restructure Pacifica to be democratic and effective and to make everyone
happy. Some of those currently disgruntled may never get gruntled.

The proposal developed by numerous people, including FAIR founder Jeff
Cohen, seems like the most prudent course: a transitional slate of a dozen
highly respected progressive figures should be appointed to the existing
board ( (Disclosure: I
was recommended to be on this slate in the original proposal; due to
increased obligations, I now cannot accept such a post.) This transitional
board would then make a formal study of how Pacifica could be restructured
to be more democratic, more relevant and more open to audience expansion,
while remaining true to its core values.

This proposal has been endorsed by progressives ranging from Jim Hightower,
Michael Moore, Martin Espada, Alice Walker and Studs Terkel to nonprofit
media consultant Herb Chao Gunther, foundation president Hari Dillon,
Barbara Ehrenreich, June Jordan, Tom Morello, Carlos Muñoz Jr., Jill
Nelson, Ramona Ripston and Howard Zinn. The dissident members of Pacifica's
national board have called for precisely such a long-term and sweeping
re-evaluation. As board member Cagan told me, "The lack of democracy within
the institution makes it impossible to have any open and honest discussion
of the problems facing Pacifica." The plan can be carried out in accordance
with Pacifica's current bylaws.

Tragically, as this goes to press, the board majority is moving in the
opposite direction. It proposes to revise Pacifica's bylaws so that it will
be "very much modeled on a corporate structure, not a nonprofit one,"
according to Cagan. This would, in effect, destroy Pacifica. The current
board members must remember that they do not own Pacifica; it is not their
plaything. They should not revise the bylaws and should adopt the Cohen
proposal. Their legacy would then be that they were responsible for making
Pacifica a strong and viable model for community broadcasting and media for
the coming decades.

Louis Proyect
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