Pacifica Goes Corporate
by Jeffrey Blankfort
It was not an unfamiliar scene. Armed
UC campus police "protecting" the Board from angry but non- violent
protesters whose placards and occasional vocal outbursts were the limits of their discontent with an unresponsive, centralized authority. Except that this was not the University's Board of Regents, but the National Board of Pacifica Radio, meeting appropriately at what used to be the School for the Deaf and is now the university's Clark Kerr campus, named after the chancellor who, fittingly, presided over the Berkeley institution during the Free Speech Movement .
For the longer-term Pacifica Board members it was also a familiar scene. Beginning in February, 1993, with the launching of a secret Strategy for National Programming aimed at replacing a substantial portion of its listener-sponsorship with grants from corporate foundations, accompanied by the purge of radical programmers from its airwaves, virtually every one of Pacifica's three-times-a-year board meetings have been picketed by angry listeners and former and present staff members. The sole exception has been Houston where KPFT's staff and programming have been so gutted that it hasn't had a local news show in three years.
What brought some 120 protesters to the
Clark Kerr campus conference hall on the last Sunday morning in February
was the news that the National Board was going to take an historic
vote that would permanently disenfranchise the local advisory boards
of Pacifica's five FM stations: the Bay Area's KPFA, New York's WBAI,
Los Angeles's KPFK, Washington's WPFW and KPFT, and consolidate control
over the network in the hands of a self-selecting governing board
composed of individuals with no connection to Pacifica's radical past or
with any radical history of their own and chaired by a Clinton aplogist
and his appointee as chair of the do-nothing US Civil Rights Commission,
Prof. Mary Frances Berry, Acting under what appeared to be a stage-managed
last- minute threat from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB)
to bring Pacifica's governance structure into compliance with federal law,
or otherwise risk of the loss of $750,000 in federal grants due in mid-March,
the Board went for the money, unanimously passing, without discussion,
amendment to the foundation's bylaws that unseated the two representatives from each station on the National
Board whose combined ten votes heretofore gave them a potential voting majority over the remaining at-large
members. Following the vote, in a pre-arranged maneuver, the local advisory board (LAB) members announced that they were resigning from their local boards and were promptly converted into at-large members of the National Board. This change of hats was designed to bring Pacifica into compliance with federal law and the guidelines of the CPB which require a distinct separation between the advisory and governing boards, a law that Pacifica has long flouted while the CPB looked the other way.
If the bylaw change seems confusing , it
may be illegal as well, since technically, if one is resigning from one
board which they legally represent to join another, there is, presumably, an obligation to inform the first board.
Moreover, the Pacifica's critics have retained a lawyer, Dan Siegel, who claims that Pacifica, as a non-profit
corporation chartered in California, has violated state law which requires a 45 day notice to all voting members
before considering disenfranchising a class of members, in this case, the local advisory boards.
Aside from the legal questions, what remains of Pacifica, from the station founded as the first listener-sponsored radio station by Lewis Hill 50 years ago, is a self-selecting, self-perpetuating entity, accountable to neither its listener-sponsors, nor its local station staffs with no need to be concerned about the communities they serve. At the same time, as Larry Bensky pointed out after the vote was taken, Pacifica has expanded its share of the network's overall five-station budget from 3% of the revenues in 1977 to 17.2% in 1999, and enlarged its staff from three and a half persons twenty years ago to thirteen today, with more apparently on the way.
This view of Pacifica's lack of accountability
is disputed by Elan Fabri, Pacifica's new Communications
Director, a recent hire for a post established two years ago to shield then embattled and now departed Pacifica Executive Director Pat Scott from an inquiring press and now serving the same purpose for her hand-picked
successor, Lynn Chadwick. It is clear from Fabri's reply to the SF Bay Guardian's Adam Clay Thompson, that she hasn't a clue about the history of the organization she is working for:
"The current board structure is accountable,"
she said. "We have bodies that we are accountable to, such as the IRS,
the CPB, the FCC," a response, which is not only funny, it is a clear
example of the present mind-set at the network. But what happened
on Sunday morning wasn't played for laughs. The 15-0 vote was done
quickly before the most of the standing and sitting room only crowd
arrived, seeming to justify the paranoia that Pacifica has been captured
by the National Security State. The presence of a personal security
Mary Berry who boasted that he was a bodyguard for Bill Clinton and an ex-Navy Seal, neither claims likely
considering his amateurish behavior, raised the general level of suspicion.
The bylaw amendment passed despite an active campaign to seek other alternatives, waged on and off the internet by former and present listener-supporters from the five-station area and former staff and unpaid staff from KPFK and WBAI. They were bolstered by a letter to Board Chair Mary Frances Berry from Professors Noam Chomsky, Ed Herman and Howard Zinn, whose authorship Berry questioned when I spoke with her the day before. After the vote, Berry acknowledged the voluminous criticism she and other members of the board had received regarding this issue, and referred, cavalierly, to the Chomsky, Herman and Zinn letter and their call for further democratization of Pacifica.
Well, she said, "we're no less democratic
than we were before," which occasioned Bill Mandel, in the public
comment session, to point out that Berry was admitting that Pacifica wasn't democratic, a conclusion that
everyone in the room but Berry and most of the board had already reached. In a recorded conversation, Berry told me that she signs letters for various groups many times, and that Zinn was a friend of hers and would never write to her like that, and besides, she said, he probably didn't know anything about what was going on at Pacifica, a statement insulting to Zinn and demeaning to Pacifica, as if the latter was not important enough to rate his concern.
In their letter, the three professors expressed
their concerns about the "increased centralization of power and
decision-making that bring Pacifica closer to the private corporate model," informing Berry that Pacifica's
"legitimacy grew from the knowledge and confidence of its listeners that it was based and directed from within
their respective communities and spoke to their interests."
No description could be further from Pacifica's
new structure. What was important about Sunday's vote is
that, while arguably making Pacifica's governance process "no less democratic" than before -- it was already devoid of the slightest democratic taint -- it totally isolated the National Board from its stations and its listener-
sponsors and left it answerable to no one but the federal government. It also left the station local advisory
boards without any possibility of doing what the federal law intended, to "advise the governing board of the
station whether the programming and other policies of the station are meeting the specialized educational and
cultural needs of the communities served by the station, as determined by the advisory board."
Even under the past setup, advising the
national board had been difficult, because unlike other community
radio stations in the country, Pacifica stations have no local governing
boards. To get around that, Pacifica arranged to have two members
from each station advisory board be selected by their local board to sit
on the governing board. While this did not provide for anything resembling
what the law intended, it at least gave the
local boards, themselves self-selected, a regular, if weak link to the national board.
Now, a Pacifica press release explains
that "Local Advisory Boards will continue to have input to the
Governing Board through the Council of Chairs." Which is as likely as a camel passing through the eye of a needle. The council is made up of the five Local Advisory Board chairs who get together on a conference call before each board meeting and talk about the problems at their respective stations, and then the chair of the station hosting the meeting gives a report for all the boards. So instead of ten reps from the local boards we now have one, a reduction in representation of 90%. Welcome to Alice in Wonderland. Proving how well this new system works, in her turn at the microphone, KPFA Advisory Board Chair Sherry Gendelman spoke only about what was happening at KPFA, which led to a middle-level dressing down from Chair Berry when she finished.
Of course, how all this works is a mystery
to most of Pacifica's listeners as it was to the public in attendance.
Thanks to the gag rule in place at all Pacifica stations, discussing Pacifica's
internal affairs in any critical way over the air is strictly forbidden
(although some WBAI programmers have recently gotten away with challenging
the rule). All they knew is that they were losing what used to be
theirs and what they dearly cherished, a station and network that had been
the voice of the resistance from the times of HUAC and Joe McCarthy, of
FSM through the Vietnam War and up into the 80s when it spoke for
the opposition to US intervention in Central America and the movement against
South African apartheid. . Now, as former programmer Nancy Delaney
described it during the public comment period, it sounds like "the Better Homes and Gardens of the air."
Placards prepared by Take Back KPFA the night before anticipated the result: "When Was the Last Time a Board Member Voted No?" "Once Again, the LAB Members Have Been Intimidated by the Exec. Board," and "History May Not Remember What We Did Here, But It Will Not Forget What YOU Did Here!" They were added to demands, written on a number of others, calling for elected boards, democratically elected by listener-sponsors.
The unanimity of the vote, nevertheless,
was particularly distressing to the KPFA listener- supporters who
attended the last meeting of the station's advisory board earlier in the week when the locals voted unanimously for a substitute resolution that would table the by-law amendment pending further discussions on a wide range of governance issues with the CPB. Assurances had come privately, as well, from LAB members in other areas that they would support postponing the vote so that it seemed likely, until they arrived in Berkeley on Friday, that the push for compliance had been temporarily delayed since a two/thirds vote would be necessary for the bylaw amendment to pass. As it was, KPFA's resolution was never introduced leaving the bewildered crowd with a sense of betrayal.
There is no question that the previous
arrangement in which each station had sent two of its members,
including, minimally, and with a sop to political correctness, one person of color, to sit as representatives on the National Board, was in violation of federal law and CPB Guidelines which were essentially set up for individual community radio stations, not a network. Until last September the CPB ignored the violation took and continued to provide Pacifica with approximately $1.5 million in federal funds annually, to which Pacifica, like any non-profit on the foundation dole, became addicted.
This all changed in late August of last
year when outgoing Pacifica Executive Director, in her last month
on the job, called the CPB President and CEO Robert Coonrod asking him if Pacifica was in compliance with
CPB regulations concerning the relations between the governing board and the advisory boards, knowing full
well that he would answer in the negative. What is curious is that Scott, an admitted former member of the
Communist Party, had received a statement of fulsome praise from Coonrod, a former Deputy Director of the
Voice of America and Radio/TV Marti, when she announced that she would be leaving Pacifica in April of last year but would stay on the job until October when her successor would be selected. One of the two changed
their political ideologies and it doesn't appear to be Coonrod.
"Pat Scott is one of the gutsiest managers
I know in public broadcasting," he said in a press release. "For
more than a decade, she's given Pacifica and the industry her personal best. She guided the effort to
implement the much needed reform that is returning Pacifica to a leadership position in community radio."
As most of Scott's many critics correctly assumed, her successor, Lynn Chadwick, was already in place, working side by side with Scott in Pacifica's Berkeley office as her assistant executive director. It had seemed strange to many at the time that Chadwick, the long-time head of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB), and a publicly-funded radio careerist would take a job as second in command at Pacifica unless she had some assurances that she would be Scott's likely replacement.
Chadwick also drew praise from Coonrod.
At a CPB gathering in Washington, D.C. on October 22, 1997,
celebrating the Thirtieth Anniversary of The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, he singled out Chadwick for
using NFCB funds to pay for the CPB party. In his speech that night, the former deputy US propaganda chief
made the following comment: "Let me also draw special attention to our friends who generously helped underwrite this celebration and to our organizing committee, Lynn Chadwick of the NFCB, Robert O'Leary of the Mobil Corporation, PBS, APTS and NPR." Wonderful company for the person directing the operations for a network that once prided itself on being "the voice of the voiceless" and another piece of evidence for those who see in the passing events the neutering, if not takeover, of Pacifica by the federal government.
Both Scott and Chadwick were more than
familiar with CPB regulations and clearly saw a way to use federal
regulations designed to ensure at least the appearance of community control over public radio stations as a means of achieving its opposite. In fact, both had served previously on the CPB Task Force that voted to stiffen the funding requirements for community stations. And both of them knew what their buddy Coonrod's answer would be: Pacifica's governance structure was out of compliance with federal law.
In a letter
dated Sept. 14, he replied, as anticipated, suggesting, without
a direct threat, that Pacifica do
something about its noncompliance. Scott dutifully sent Coonrod's letter to Pacifica's lawyer, John Crigler, who, wonder of wonders, agreed with Coonrod. His letter of October 12, on inspection, could have been written by the CPB, What is critical here is that there is no evidence in any of the correspondence that Pacifica asked Crigler to make the case that, since CPB had allowed Pacifica to function in a non-compliant manner during their entire relationship, a reasonable time period would be allowed for Pacifica to bring its governing structure into compliance. Nor did Crigler, surprisingly, recommend that such a prudent path be taken. The ducks were being put into place.
At Pacifica's October Board meeting in
Houston, Coonrod's letter was presented to the board by Board
Chair Berry and Chadwick as an immediate threat, a sentiment echoed by Board Secretary Roberta Brooks, a
long-time employee of former Berkeley Congressman Ron Dellums (and now of Rep. Barbara Lee), and considered by many the eminence gris behind many of Pacifica draconian maneuvers in recent years. The board consequently voted unanimously to bring Pacifica into compliance by having its Governance and Structure Committee draft a by-law proposal to be approved at its February 28th meeting. No consideration was given or suggested to reconstruct the board in a way that it would make it accountable to its listener-sponsors such as democratic elections and only a single member of the board, Cheryl Fabio-Bradford, a LAB rep from KPFA, objected, cautioning the board against "jump[ing] into a boat to get into compliance."
Succumbing to the pressure that Pacifica applies to bring everyone into conformity, she also voted for the measure. Fabio-Bradford subsequently resigned her seat on the local board.
The proposed by-law change, drafted by
the Governance Committee, went back to the local boards. whose members
then had an opportunity to see that Coonrod's letter did not, in fact,
set a deadline for compliance and did not appear to represent any immediate
threat. Objections were raised that ranged from refusing to bow to
CPB dictates and eliminate the funding altogether, to postponing
the vote until further alternatives could be
suggested which seemed to find general agreemant. Giving up CPB funding was not seriously considered,
however, when LAB members were told what the effect would be on their stations.
It is not clear whether it dawned on any
of them that Pacifica's current "dependence" on CPB funding
represents a classic example of the addiction that occurs when organizations ostensibly committed to the
public's welfare find their budget increasingly dependent on funding from foundations, both public and private,
whose existence is based on controlling the damage those organizations might do the existing sources of their
funds, such as the Haas Foundation of Levi Strauss, the Pew Charitable Trust, etc. or in the case of the CPB, the imperial empire of the United States.
When the National Board meeting was but a few days away it appeared that there were more than enough votes on the local boards to block the by-law change. At this point, Chadwick needed to act and act quickly. Apparently, she asked Madden to send a letter threatening the Pacifica with an imminent cut-off of funds in mid-March if some change separating the two boards was not approved, and this letter was presented to the LAB members after they have arrived for the national meeting. Consider that the letter was dated February 24, and the members began to arrive on the evening of the 26th.
Now they were told, with the letter to
prove it, that if they did not vote for the by-law change, they would
personally be responsible for Pacifica losing three quarters of a million dollars. The LAB members were
under the gun. Three of their local boards had passed resolutions calling for some kind of postponement of the
vote; at KPFA it was unanimous, but now there is a new development. Several were representing their LABs for the first time. They couldn't consult with their local boards and they were forced to make a decision that their
experience and political background had not prepared them to deal with. Unlike as it was in Pacifica's radical
past, today's LAB members are not political activists and are not used to the type of manipulation to which
Pacifica subjected them. (Some, like Frank Millspaugh from WBAI, Dorothy Nasitir from KPFK, and Michael Palmer and David Acosta, two businessmen from KPFT become a willing party to it.) That is why they were selected. The trusting LAB reps were exactly where Chadwick, Berry and Brooks wanted them. The ducks were now all in a row. And they went down without a murmur..
This was the third attempt by the Pacifica
inner circle, initiated under the reins (sic) of Scott to eliminate
local input into the National Board and consolidate the centralization of power. The first effort was to prevent
station staff representatives from serving on the local boards, which failed due to station and local board
resistance; then to limit the local board to one rep on the national board with the at-large members selecting
the second rep, with no input from the staff, listeners, or the local board, which was thwarted by a legal threat
from Pacifica's critics. The third time was the charm. The National Board, under the new bylaw change will
select new additions to the board from within the signal areas of the respective stations, and at best, the
station board may suggest candidates. The members selected will be ex-officio members of the local boards
in their communities but will be under no obligation to attend its meetings, leaving the local board literally
adrift with no guaranteed access to the National Board.
From simply the standpoint of operational
procedures, Chadwick, as executive director, was the person directly responsible
for the crisis. Whether she waited, in a Macchiavellian manner, to
get a last minute letter from
CPB in order to ensure the break down of the LAB reps or whether her tardiness in asking for the clarification was simply an oversight and an example of her incompetence, there is increasing pressure from Pacifica's critics that she either resign or be fired.
As usual, the public comment session came at the end of the Board meeting after all the actions have been taken and the board members have beuin to look at their watches and consult their plane schedules.
What was important about this public comment
session was the range of those who came to criticize Pacifica (no
one, to be sure, came to praise them) of the speakers, the biggest surprise
of all being Larry Bensky, who
arrived with impressive charts portraying the degree to which money was increasingly being diverted from the
stations to pay for a burgeoning Pacifica empire. Given that Civil Rights Commission Chair Dr. Berry's idea of
listeners' civil rights is to give them a watch-timed two minutes each, and then have the time-keeper, in this
instance Communications Director Fabri, pull away the microphone, Bensky was not allowed to finish his
analysis of something every board member should have been interested in and every listener had a right to know, but they won't thanks again to Pacifica's gag rule and Berry's sense of order. When Bensky finished be received the a longest ovation of the day. He had taken a position on the side of the angels.
Among the others cut off in mid-speech
was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, now Poet Laureate of San Francisco, and a frequent
on -air contributor to the station from the time when his City Lights
bookstore published Allen
Ginsberg's "Howl," (which was read on the air, something that could never happen today); Bill Mandel, Matthew Lazar, author of a new history of Pacifica's early days, who warned the Board that "WBAI was in full revolt"
(which turned out to be an exaggeration but brought cheers from the crowd), Maria Gilardin, who then was
given the following speaker's air time, and former KPFK staffer, Lyn Gerry who had traveled up from LA and to
present a petition to the Board protesting the network's gag rule, signed by 250 present and former staffers as
well as listeners. and on.
Just as Maria was stepping to the podium,
Dr. Berry got up and walked out of the room, and, as it turned out,
never to come back, which set up a cry from the crowd, calling for Maria not to speak until Berry returned. If
that many-voiced suggestion had been followed, she never would have spoken, because Berry had a plane to catch, or so I was told after the meeting. So much for her interest in hearing from the public.
Other speakers included Dennis Bernstein,
of KPFA's Flashpoints, Sherril Flowers, arriving out of breath,
and almost in tears, who recently brokethe color line that has existed on the station's morning show since its
inception, Al Stein, a former archivist from the Library of Congress, fired a week earlier from Pacfica's Archives in Los Angeles as he was about to expose its corruption, Bob Baldock, whose production of major events for KPFA is a big-time money raiser and Mike Alcalay, whose award-winning Aids in Focus program was formerly heard on KPFA. The latter two strongly urged Pacifica to give KPFA's popular General Manager, Nicole Sawaya, formerly with KZYX, a long-term contract. Her contract is set to expire at the end of March.
One after another spoke, they with
passion and occasional eloquence as most of the board members led by
Brooks, began drifting out. Remaining were the new board appointees and ex-KPFA reps, Pete Bramson and Jewelle Taylor-Gibbs, WPFW's Rob Robinson and William Lucy, Secretary-Treasurer of AFSCME in Washington whodidn't even know the call letters of Pacifica's D.C. station. After 45 minutes, Board Treasurer and acting chair, June Makela, terminated the public comment period, saying that they had stayed overtime to give us a chance to be heard. It certainly was a chance to talk, but whether they heard was questionable.
Pacifica's critics are not giving up. In
the immediate future they plan a legal challenge to the vote and
appeal to unhappy listeners to place their contributions into an escrow account in effort to pressure Pacifica to
democratize its governing processes and to end the gag rule. On the ground, Take Back KPFA will be picketing a reception hosted by Pacifica to celebrate its 50th birthday on the evening of March 18 when the NFCB, Chadwick's old bailiwick, holds its national conference at San Francisco's Cathedral Hill Hotel.