[sixties-l] The battle for indie radio (fwd)

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Date: Thu Jun 27 2002 - 12:04:04 EDT

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    Date: Thu, 20 Jun 2002 10:30:13 -0700
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: The battle for indie radio

    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.

    By Jesse Walker
    June 20, 2002

    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
    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

    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 ^A'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 board. "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
    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
    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, 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
    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, "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.
    Jesse Walker, an associate editor of Reason Magazine, is the author of
    "Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America" (NYU Press).

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