May 10, 1999

Whose Pacifica?

See below for background and related information.

There's a scene in The Godfather when Clemenza, anticipating the outbreak of a full-scale war between the families, nonchalantly remarks to young Mikey Corleone: "This thing's gotta happen every five years or so...every ten years--helps to get rid of the bad blood." You could almost say the same thing about Pacifica Radio.

Just such a periodic Pacifica war erupted recently when Lynn Chadwick, the executive director of the Pacifica Foundation, summarily dismissed Nicole Sawaya, the popular manager of Berkeley affiliate KPFA. Sawaya's most egregious transgression apparently was her impolitic way of questioning some of Pacifica's internal operations. After she was let go, her enraged staff went to the mattresses. Veteran programmer Larry Bensky broke an internal rule and--in the middle of a nationwide show he was doing about the war in Kosovo--spent seventeen minutes discoursing on the Pacifica personnel battle. Pacifica retaliated and offed Bensky from his job. In his absence the staff continued to violate Pacifica's rule banning on-air dirty laundry, and the mutiny continues as we go to press [see page 2 for a letter from the Ad Hoc Committee of Listeners and Supporters].

Sawaya's firing was dead wrong and should immediately be reversed. But the deeper conflict that has been shaking Pacifica is not a clear-cut battle between Good and Evil, between Democracy and Dictatorship, between radical purity and encroaching commercialism, as it has too often and simplistically been portrayed (including in these pages by Alexander Cockburn). The bad blood that boiled over these past few weeks has been heating up for almost five years. Fueling the conflict is a tension between two visions of what Pacifica Radio can and should be as it completes its first fifty years. One view is that the five stations should be a high-frequency tom-tom for activists, the equivalent of a mimeographed bulletin of the left that makes little effort to reach beyond its current constituencies. The competing view is that Pacifica should be a newspaper of the left, an electronic Le Monde or Guardian with some intellectual heft and depth and--yes--even some occasional analytical distance from the movements to which it is sympathetic.

Both visions can be defended, and they're not mutually exclusive. But as a Pacifica programmer going back, on and off, twenty years, I unabashedly support the latter strategy as the only way for Pacifica to stop occupying only the fringe. And it is toward that second vision that Pacifica has tried over the past five years--in its awkward and inefficient way--to move. But every tentative step in that direction has been met by a relentless guerrilla war of distortion and hyperbole from former programmers and other activists who have made Pacifica a full-time obsession. They accuse Pacifica of a long list of indictable war crimes: unionbusting, creeping corporatization, "NPR-ization" and secret cabals and conspiracies to seize the network.

Framing the Pacifica conflict in this manner is absurd. Yes, a few years back, Pacifica hired a management consultant with ties to a unionbusting firm--a stupid mistake that was corrected. Today all four Pacifica bargaining units have signed enforceable labor contracts stewarded by UE, AFTRA or CWA. That the entire KPFA staff are willing to risk their jobs to defend a fired manager should put to rest the notion that Pacifica is some sort of antiunion sweatshop. As for other "crimes": If anything, they were weak half-measures that didn't go far enough in shaping a professional, effective and credible radical voice. Some programs--not enough--that had ossified over thirty years without as much as formal review were finally pulled.

Some attempts have been made to clean up some very rough air sound. Not enough, but even the few changes over the past handful of years have evidently pleased the audience. Listenership is up. At KPFA a recent fund drive went $40,000 over goal. At KPFK in Los Angeles, where I host a daily drive-time show and produce the nationally syndicated RadioNation, we now raise $40,000 a day instead of the $14,000 of four years ago. Our own recent fund drives have also gone over goal. And, no, increased revenues do not stem from sanitized NPR-ish programming. The most popular subscriber premiums are tapes and books by Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Christopher Hitchens and...Alexander Cockburn. A few years back, Pacifica got it together to produce and distribute sophisticated national programming: Jerry Brown's show, Larry Bensky's daily talk show and his Sunday Salon, Amy Goodman's Democracy Now. And just recently, Pacifica initiated its own satellite network, independent of the NPR system, and offered free receiving equipment to any community station that would carry any of its national menu (Bensky, Goodman, the Pacifica News, RadioNation, FAIR's CounterSpin, etc.). This is a turn to the right?

On the other hand, the Pacifica national administration under Pat Scott, which courageously initiated some of these moves, eventually ran off the rails. Top-heavy funding priorities, a brash management style and Pacifica's seemingly genetic inefficiency made her tenure unsustainable--it began to generate more backlash than forward movement. Scott's successor, Chadwick, has shown an aptitude for mucking things up even more while demonstrating little of Scott's original vision or energy. Chadwick's removal of KPFA's manager was a gigantic and inexcusable blunder. Not only has she sent the station into chaos at a crucial moment but she has also played into the hands of Pacifica's most virulent and irrational critics--confirming all their worst conspiracy fears.

For the KPFA staff to take the dispute on air was the second-worst way to respond. Nothing alienates an audience more than airing dirty laundry--something that could cost KPFA hundreds of thousands of dollars in listener contributions in years to come. But far worse was Pacifica's reaction to the crisis--its characteristic paralysis. As soon as Pacifica board chairwoman and US Civil Rights Commission head Mary Frances Berry heard that the entire KPFA staff was willing to commit collective on-air civil disobedience to support its deposed manager, she should have been on the first plane to Berkeley.

That she wasn't reveals the true story of Pacifica. The problem with Pacifica's national organization isn't that it's a voraciously aggrandizing power center but that it's often a pathetic power vacuum. Berry and the board have to take a more professional role in managing the network they theoretically govern; and station managers, who know best about the day-to-day operations of the network but who have been increasingly marginalized from network management, have to be given a stronger voice in national decision-making. In the meantime, the decision to fire Nicole Sawaya must be reversed, as the first step toward making Pacifica a viable progressive network in the coming century.

Marc Cooperbio

Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, hosts a daily public affairs show at KPFK Los Angeles and is a member of the UE bargaining unit.

Background and Related Information

Pacifica Radio
Pacifica Radio network's site has current news, program information, radio archives and a history of the Pacifica network. Also posted is a statement by Pacifica's founder, Lewis Hill, on the goals and values of the Pacifica radio stations.
Free Pacifica
This site documents the position and activities of those opposed to the changes at the Pacifica Radio network. Allows visitors to the site to sign the "petition to end the gag rule at Pacifica," and carries up-to-date documents, articles, press releases and press clippings on the controversy at Pacifica.

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