|25 February, 2000
The Pacifica Foundation Board of Directors
Pacifica's audience has never been larger: over 800,000 people tune in to the service each week; nearly 40,000 are listening at any moment. But roughly 40,000,000 people live under a Pacifica signal. For most Americans, Pacifica simply does not exist. In fact, for most of Pacifica's listeners, it is not a lifeline of ideas and information. It is merely an hour-or-two per week add-on to their NPR and commercial radio listening.
The audience gains of the last five years are huge by Pacifica standards, but they are too little too late. I am not saying that the 40,000 people listening at this moment are insignificant. I am saying that, in context, they are an insignificant number.
Number is important. Because significant radio programming without a significant listening audience is not a significant public service.
Pacifica has lost its influence. It is a faded reflection of its proud history. This organization that invented public radio journalism...that brought provocative new voices and ideas to the microphone...that advanced the art of radio, is today an anachronism on the FM band, arrested in its development by a small group of people who are similarly stuck in time.
In contrast, the non-commercial radio that Pacifica helped invent enjoys unprecedented programmatic strength, public support, and a highly focused public service mission. It is on the verge of realizing its full potential in the mature radio medium.
But not Pacifica. At one time, we could say that Pacifica was simply "under-performing." The time for polite euphemism is over. By any objective measure of public service, Pacifica has crossed the line from "under-performance" to "irrelevance."
During the last 25 years, other idealists have learned how to fulfill their missions by responding to the way that people use radio. Many at Pacifica rebelled against this knowledge and still reject it to this day. They have confused content with form; free speech with effective use of the medium; and personal liberty with professional responsibility. And in doing so, they have kept Pacifica's ideals from spreading as far as five powerful FM stations could have carried them.
In the last few years, several enlightened leaders within Pacifica have attempted to rejuvenate its grand mission by applying proven broadcasting practices. They have been only sporadically successful. Their efforts to revive Pacifica's public service have been frustrated by people who, in the name of principle, have attacked these leaders personally. For the rest of us in public radio, it has been painful to witness.
I believe in Pacifica, and I believe in what it is trying to do. But my knowledge of radio tells me that Pacifica can serve its political factions or it can serve its FM audience. It can not do both. Programming for the programmers rather than for the audience is dysfunctional and counter-productive. Our objective measures can demonstrate this down to the last listener.
The diversity of Pacifica's voices demands multiple channels of communication. The searchable, addressable Internet not only offers these channels, it welcomes and nurtures voices in the minority. Internet technology frees the listener and the speaker from having to meet at the same place, at the same point in time. The Internet is the right medium for Pacifica in the 21st century.
Don't get me wrong - FM radio will remain the dominant form of real time audio delivery for at least another decade. But FM stations need coherence to survive, and coherence does not seem possible given Pacifica's current structure.
Pacifica's challenge, then, is to redefine and reorganize itself in the service of its mission in the 21st century. Do not limit your thinking. Pacifica is not in the FM business - it is in the business of ideas and ideals.
This is my professional opinion. My personal opinion is that this is a very sad time. The voice of Pacifica spoke to me many years ago, and it played an important role in my professional development and personal thinking. In the intervening years, I have watched it squander its capital on familial divisions that have virtually run you out of the radio business.
I am saddened when I think of the lost opportunities. Yet I am energized by the thought of hearing Pacifica on other outlets - not bound in time or space, instantly retrievable at any time, from anywhere, in the world.
In sum, if you are to advance Pacifica's ideals, you must reinvent Pacifica. Move your best thinking and your core values forward into new media; lose the rest.