Pacifica Imperiled?
by Laura Flanders
from In These Times, Sept 5, 1999

Perhaps you've heard there's trouble at Pacifica - the 50-year-old, listener-supported radio network. In March, Pacifica's national management dismissed the popular station manager at Berkeley station KPFA and fired two programmers for breaking the network's ban on discussing internal affairs on-air. Someone fired shots through Pacifica's windows, and a standoff followed without negotiations. On July 13, managers hauled a reporter from the studio for breaking policy, interrupting a live broadcast. Massive protests and scores of arrests ensued. Pacifica padlocked the station,  "for security reasons, " and hired armed guards with union-busting expertise to keep paid staffers out. Then came thousands-strong demonstrations, a solidarity concert, a labor speak-out and a lawsuit. Seventeen California legislators proposed auditing Pacifica's tax-exempt status, and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown joined a chorus of progressive leaders calling for the resignation of Mary Frances Berry, the chairwoman of Pacifica's governing board.

Interviewed in July, Berry said the situation was painful, but changes "which include altering Pacifica's bylaws so that local advisers may no longer sit on the executive of the national governing board" were well intentioned. "Pacifica needs to broaden its listenership and  "diversify" its audience", she says, and to professionalize, making management more accountable. Taking her at her word, and looking beyond the drama at Berkeley, here's how the plan has played out.

On the listenership front, when management locked union members and volunteers out of KPFA they didn't just abandon their Berkeley listeners - the folks whose gifts pay Pacifica's bills - they also imperiled their contact with audiences nationwide. Engineers at KPFA normally supervise the distribution of programming to some 70 stations via Pacifica's satellite. The tricky technology was sold to affiliates last year as an alternative to the one operated by National Public Radio. When management rebuffed a devoted KPFA technician's offer to maintain the system during the crisis, they seriously impaired the service.

Dozens of stations experienced problems receiving Pacifica's daily shows Democracy Now! (DN!) and Pacifica Network News (PNN) as well as the whole lineup Pacifica syndicates, including the mediawatch program CounterSpin, NACLA's Our Americas and This Way Out, a gay and lesbian magazine. In some places, those programs are what diversify the airwaves. Facing suddenly empty air time, some affiliates began to comment that they need a new network they can trust. So much for increasing listenership.

As for accountability, national programmers - of which I am one - have seen their work arbitrarily censored and edited by Pacifica management and station staff. In Washington, WPFW's staff cut headlines and stories about Pacifica from PNN, and aired shortened shows complete with credits, leaving the impression that producers were ignoring the story (even as management was talking to commercial media). WPFW pulled CounterSpin without notice because it addressed Pacifica affairs. Program director Lou Hankins told me,  " We're not putting that garbage on our air."

On July 14, DN! was pulled for the same reason at the Washington and Los Angeles stations. D.C. listeners heard WPFW switch to music mid-show, but Hankins told the Washington Post's Frank Ahrens that he'd aired DN! in full,  " front to back. " Censoring the Pacifica news is a direct violation of what Berry said publicly in June "that it was the board's understanding" that Pacifica programmers would cover the story.

Still, Lynn Chadwick, Pacifica's executive director, forbade the July 14 DN! program from being put on Pacifica's Web site even though she was interviewed on the show. Visitors find a statement from the site's host: "Web Active cannot provide its visitors with Democracy Now! if Pacifica does not provide the broadcasts."

That same week, PNN and DN! producers were shocked by a plan to put the L.A. and D.C. station managers "who've been most aggressive about censorship" in charge of national programming. Berry says the plan is canceled, but there has been nothing in writing and every reason for doubt.

As for professionalism, Working Assets, the telephone company that gathers donations for nonprofit groups, thinks Pacifica's current management can't be trusted with money. Working Assets members supported Pacifica to the tune of some $60,000 a few years back. Witnessing the escalating crisis, President Michael Kieschnick took Pacifica off the 1999 donor-ballot, after he wrote twice to Chadwick requesting a meeting and she failed to reply.  "We couldn't be sure the money would be well used," Kieschnick says. Some fear Pacifica plans to commercialize. Kieschnick observes,  "They've done the opposite - lost their only commercial funder."

On July 28, Berry announced KPFA would reopen, promising producers would be  " free " to say what they liked. Inside, the staff found their workplace showered in glass. Those hired to board up the station had driven bolts right through the windowpanes. As In These Times went to press, Pacifica's guards are still barring staff from KPFA's transmitter.  " We're free to clean up," says news director Mark Mericle,  " but we can't broadcast. "Chadwick says the power will be transferred soon.

Perhaps it will all turn around. I don't see how, with the current management in place. No worker enjoys airing bad news about the precious network she loves, but we at Pacifica are charged with sharing information. We need a noncommercial network run by managers who care to reinvigorate, not embarrass, the listeners and broadcasters they serve.