KPFK Programmers Ordered to Mainstream Content; Advocacy Journalism is "Out"
By Lyn Gerry
May 26, 1998

Some of the criticisms leveled at the programming changes which have taken place at Pacifica radio in the past three years are that the air has become less diverse and intellectually stimulating, more predictable and politically mainstream. Listeners have complained that presentations by radical speakers such as Noam Chomsky are only aired during fundraising. Others, such as poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, have described a "lowering of intellectual levels at the station, at Pacifica." Activists have remarked they are less and less welcome on KPFK's air. Many have noted that programs which served constituencies without wealth and power have been virtually eliminated. Defenders of the changes have pointed to programs such as Democracy Now! as a refutation of the criticisms. They have asserted that Pacifica is merely trying to improve its production values, although it has been reported that Democracy Now! producer Amy Goodman has been pressured to "include more pro-Clinton" points of view. These defenders of the current orientation have accused critics of among other things, imagining this rightward drift. In a presentation made by KPFK Manager Mark Schubb to 30 KPFK programmers earlier this month, a plan to expressly target programming to the political center was articulated.

According to witnesses,*  Mark Schubb drew a horizontal line across the chalkboard. He pointed to the left side of the line and explained that this end represented people who "would listen to and support KPFK no matter what KPFK does, or what it airs." He pointed to the opposite, right, end of the line; "These people here," he said," will never support KPFK." He then drew a circle toward the center of the line and explained that the audience represented by that middle area is the target programmers should aim at, as they represent the area of potential audience growth. This instruction, one concerned programmer remarked, follows on a series of memos prohibiting calls to action, "agitprop journalism" and expressions of "point of view." Those attending Schubb's presentation were told that Pacifica was aiming for "balance" and "objectivity." "If you're gonna do a program on Jews, "Schubb reportedly said, "you better include a Nazi."

One of the attendees described the presentation as "smooth, coherent, logical and based on a false set of assumptions." While this theory may sound reasonable, the reality is that it is not working as a strategy to increase listenership, either at KPFK or throughout public broadcasting generally. PBS television, which was the first to embrace these theories, has recently been having meetings where managers admitted this strategy has failed to increase audience, according to a staffer of PBS' Frontline. What it is doing is replacing devoted and grateful audiences who did not have their informational needs served elsewhere with less loyal audiences whose less specific needs are more easily satisfied across the broad spectrum of available media.

This theory of audience expansion has been promulgated since the early '90's by a cadre of public media consultants, which includes Lynn Chadwick and David LePage's "Healthy Station Project" and David Giovannoni's  "Audigraphics." Not coincidentally, Chadwick is now in the number two spot in Pacifica, and poised to take over as Executive Director in the wake of the removal of outgoing CEO Pat Scott, who implemented these new programming policies. David Giovannoni is also among the professional programming consultants that have been employed by Pacifica, paid for with the donations of the constituencies Pacifica was planning to abandon. Pacifica Radio's 1995 annual financial report shows expenditures of $188, 278 for "consultants" in its "program service expenditures" category. In 1996, $152, 182 was reported. The latest annual report declares $95, 711 in this category. [More detailed breakdowns of these sums have not been made publicly available]

What do these consultants advise? In February 1995, Pacifica program managers were sent to a presentation given by David Giovannoni as part of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB) annual conference. Giovannoni counseled, "Programming that is more geared toward a slightly more moderate audience will be more inclusive. The more programming skirts the edge, the more people will be excluded."

Giovannoni thinks that, "in general for many listeners politics is not as important as being entertained." He also said, "doubling the [stations'] CUME is a reasonable goal." CUME refers to the total number of people who listen to the station over the course of a week, in the terminology of audience research consultants.

Most everybody who believes in the ideas of social justice, peace, creative empowerment and self-education articulated in Pacifica's founding mission would be pleased to see these ideas spreading in wider circles throughout the populace. The real question is: is the policy of mainstreaming of content succeeding in achieving the expressed goals of either furthering societal transformation or increasing the audience? The statistical information upon which these consultants base their theories, the Arbitron ratings, suggest that it is not increasing the audience.

KPFK's most recent CUME statistics, according to the Winter 1998 Arbitron survey, show a weekly audience of 134,000 in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. In the Winter 1994 survey, before these changes were made, KPFK's CUME was measured at 145,400. This certainly does not represent a doubling in the number of people listening. Because of the small sample on which these figures are based and inherent statistical sampling error, this 11,000-person decrease may in fact may in fact represent stagnation as opposed to decline. However, a look at the statistics from Winter 1997 suggest that the 134,000 people now listening are not the same people who were listening 4 years ago. One year ago, Arbitron statistics reported KPFK's CUME at 105,000. The numbers suggest the possibility that after an exodus of one group of listeners, the station is gaining different listeners who have been attracted by the new programming orientation. One could not be certain without access to new versus renewing subscriber statistics, as well as the comparison of number of listeners to number of subscribers, who represent a small percentage of total listeners. These statistics have not been made public.

Pacifica management personnel have an economic stake in justifying the present course of action and proclaiming its success. After the recent Arbitron survey results were released, KPFK Program Director Kathy Lo posted a message in the station claiming that listenership was up by more than 20 per cent since last year, a self-serving misrepresentation of the data. The actual numbers of the survey results were not posted. These numbers are available to anyone who reads the Public Radio satellite schedule; the room at KPFK where this information resides is now off limits to all but a few paid personnel.

What has happened at KPFK follows the same pattern observed by PBS, the constituencies whose interests are no longer being served are voting with their feet. Why, one might ask, is Pacifica's management not honest enough to admit that its strategies for audience expansion have failed, as PBS management is now doing?

I would like to suggest that increasing audience is not the real goal, and that increasing revenue is; revenue which will insure the perpetuation of an income stream for those who directly and personally benefit, Pacifica management. In this, they have succeeded.

In the same four-year period, management salaries have risen 25 percent. According to Pacifica's IRS 990 forms, the Executive Director, paid $55,000 in 1994, now earns $70,000. Station managers have received a ten thousand dollar raise from 40k to 50K. Labor salaries have not increased, by the way, and financial constraints have been used as a justification for the lay-off of the unionized workforce. KPFK's paid, unionized staff was reduced by over half in this same period.

According to Pacifica financial statements, listener support income has risen across the whole network from $4, 598, 687 in fiscal 1994 to $6,291,916 in fiscal year 1997. This has been touted in Pacifica press releases an evidence of the success of the new policies. What about the other side of the equation, fundraising expenditures, the money spent to make money? In 1994, total fundraising expenses were reported as $1,410, 015. In 1997, they had risen to $2,510, 438.

Looking at KPFK specifically, listener support was tallied at $1,034, 682 in 1994. In the recent fiscal year ending in October 1997, listener support totaled $1, 303, 176, an increase of almost $267K.  Expenditures on fundraising activities have also risen at KPFK during that same time three-year period– from $272, 824 to $422,693 - almost 150 thousand dollars.

This represents a net increase of $117K in listener support dollars at KPFK. One might ask Pacifica's Governing Board why they think the bad faith, loss of service, negative publicity and failure to increase listenership over the past 3-4 years is worth such a relatively small increase in revenue.

Listener support is not the only revenue Pacifica gets. Pacifica's annual reports show revenue lines from stocks, bonds, grants and leases of property, including the side band frequencies of Pacifica's FM transmitters which are being leased to commercial providers of stock market reports, paging services and muzak. Last year, a radio reading service for the blind, which had leased space on one of KPFA's side band frequencies for over a decade was not renewed because they could not pay enough. Though there has been a less than stellar net increase in revenues from listener support as a result of all these alleged improvements in programming, the overall increase in revenue from other sources has improved dramatically, about 25 per cent - from 8.1 million dollars to nearly 10.9 million across the network.

One ought to ask Pacifica's Board of Governors to what end this increased revenue is being applied. One might also ask what the motivation is. Pacifica's Governing Board members, who have been aggressively centralizing and consolidating power over the same time period, serve as volunteers and are not supposed, as custodians of a public charity, to financially benefit from their activities. Have they improperly benefited? No one can say without an independent, public and line by line financial audit by a CPA specializing in fraud detection. Whether or not personal financial gain has occurred on the part of paid managers or putative volunteer governors, other agendas are not precluded. Listener- sponsors and those who rely on the public service Pacifica has traditionally provided should ask themselves what those agendas might be, and make an effort to discover and document what they are for the public record.

A wide variety of people have been involved in implementing, supporting or, at least, not opposing the changes in Pacifica's direction. The proponents of these current changes have articulated a truism that Pacifica, both organizationally and in terms of its service to the public through radio programming, needed improvement.  Station personnel have been pitched programming changes on the basis of improvement of production values, in order to make information more accessible. The false choice presented is radical content/lousy craftsmanship versus "balance" and "professional" sounding productions. This is a conflation of form and content.

Well-recorded material, elegant editing, well-documented research and focussed interviewing techniques have nothing to do with the viewpoints expressed. Improvements in these areas are achieved through training of personnel and dedication of material resources. If these had been the goals of an organization with a radical mission of public education, management would have invested these resources in the activists, the scholars and the artists who previously comprised the programming staffs at Pacifica stations. Why didn't they?

It is my contention that for Pacifica to actually achieve the goals of "being a leader of the progressive movement" and creating a real alternative media network which will serve in the cultural development and political enfranchisement of the broadest number of Americans possible, no other approach will work.

Pacifica's management has made the same "mistake" as the Democratic Party made, abandoning its traditional constituencies for the "Reagan Democrats." The result has been that many of those constituents, and their most active ones at that, have turned to third parties or ceased to participate in electoral politics altogether. I am not so sure that this was an accident. As a result of these changes Democrats have gained electoral victories and increased the power and opportunity of certain groups and classes to rob the public coffers – while the have-nots have less.

At Pacifica, fundraising has become increasingly like The Shopping Channel, with support based on expensive giveaways. There are more people listening who can afford to donate $300 for a package of CD-ROM movies. How does that advance the goals of a non-profit educational organization with a stated mission of social justice and peace?


Authors note* Although the meeting at KPFK at which this mainstreaming plan was articulated was widely attended and the information not "confidential," the current atmosphere is such that any staffer paid or unpaid known by KPFK management to have criticized its policies would be subject to reprisals. For this reason, I have not used the names of my sources. The figures I have quoted however, are a matter of public record and may be verified by anyone who cares to look.


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