---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 20 Jun 2002 10:30:13 -0700
From: radtimes <email@example.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
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
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
"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
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
edition of the program "Jewish Voices." The next show's host, Bob Buzzanco,
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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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