February 17, 1999
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BERKELEY'S venerable progressive radio outlet, KPFA-FM, is in the midst of its annual fundraising drive. The station is using airtime to solicit contributions, and volunteers are calling members to remind them to renew their pledges.
But there's something the fundraisers aren't saying: changes planned at the station's parent network, Pacifica, could put the station's very existence in jeopardy -- and move it further away from its listener-sponsored, community-based roots.
In fact, critics say, the new plans will shift Pacifica's five stations away from serving their communities and will position the network to increase its appeal to government and private foundation funders.
At issue is a proposal to consolidate power in the hands of the network's governing board. Pacifica claims the changes are necessary to preserve its federal funding. Critics say the scheme will put an end to public participation -- and could lead to the selling off of some of the network's stations.
Presently, the network's national governing board is made up of two representatives from each station's advisory council, along with six at-large members. If the proposed new bylaw passes, all board members will be nominated by Pacifica's Board Governance and Structure Committee -- effectively ending local stations' representation. The plan would make it impossible for community-based critics of the stations' direction to have any formal say at the network level.
"If this happens, there goes the network. It's all over," a source at Los Angeles Pacifica station KPFK-FM, who asked to remain anonymous, told us.
Members of Pacifica's national board will vote on the proposal in Berkeley Feb. 28.
Peter Franck was a commentator on KPFA in the 1960s, served on the station's board in the 1970s, and chaired the Pacifica board from 1980 to 1984. Franck told us the plan would eliminate any semblance of internal democracy at the network. "The only ones who have any say are the board, which has been largely self-perpetuating and will now be entirely self-perpetuating," Franck said. "I don't think they're consistent with [Pacifica founder] Lew Hill's vision -- being an independent, peace- and social justice-oriented network."
Pacifica officials say federal regulations are forcing the network to revamp its power structure. In 1997 Pat Scott, at the time Pacifica's executive director, inquired about the network's organization with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the federal agency that funds community radio and TV stations. CPB representatives say they told Scott that Pacifica's governing scheme didn't conform to federal standards and that the network could lose its $1.4 million a year in funding.
The CPB objected to Pacifica station representatives' presence on the network board: the agency requires local advisory boards and central governing boards to be kept separate.
CPB vice president Richard Madden confirmed that Pacifica's governing structure is not in compliance with federal rules. But those rules, he told us, don't require power to be concentrated in the hands of the network establishment, as Pacifica's planned new structure would have it. There's no ban on, for example, station subscribers electing representatives to the board.
We asked Madden how Pacifica could set up a more democratic governing structure that complied with CPB guidelines while allowing for more local input. "You and I could probably figure out half a dozen ways to set that up," he replied.
An interview with Pacifica communications director Elan Fabbri suggested that the network isn't considering other options.
"If we vote against that measure, we will lose our CPB funding," Fabbri told us. She said self-contained, self-perpetuating governing boards like the one Pacifica hopes to establish are "standard nonprofit practice." Asked about community involvement in the stations, she replied, "The entire board is committed to ensuring that 50 percent of the people on the board are people of color."
Democracy in actionEven KQED, San Francisco's much-criticized, unabashedly corporatist public TV and radio station, has an elected board. "If a station like KQED, which has no pretenses of being radical, can have elections, why can't KPFA and Pacifica?" wonders Jeff Blankfort of station-reform campaign Take Back KPFA.
Concern for the future of KPFA, which provides some of the only labor programming in the Bay Area, prompted the San Francisco Central Labor Council to call on the governing board to democratize. A resolution passed by the council Feb. 8 urges the board to "introduce new by-laws that will provide for direct election to the local advisory boards and for the representatives on the Pacifica Governing Board itself, by Pacifica's listener-sponsors."
Last month muckrakers Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein documented the changes to come in their newsletter CounterPunch. The piece suggested that a newly centralized Pacifica might consider selling off one or more of its five stations. KPFA and WBAI in New York "have broadcast frequencies in the commercial part of the spectrum," the newsletter reported. KPFA's sale value was estimated at $60 million in 1996; it's probably worth more now.
Long committed to dissent, social justice, and egalitarianism, Pacifica has come under fire in recent years for imposing a gag rule on employees, allegedly driving out dissenting broadcasters, and hiring a notorious union-busting firm to handle a labor dispute (see "Pacifica Politicking," 3/5/97).
Most controversial have been plans to revamp programming in search of higher ratings. Defenders of the network say it's trying to update its '60s-era rhetoric -- but other observers accuse Pacifica of toning down its left-wing, pacifist politics to pursue grant money from private foundations. Backers of the changes point to higher ratings.
Pacifica's 1992 Strategy for National Programming laid out a plan for garnering foundation funding, but so far little private money has materialized. Internal Revenue Service records show that Pacifica's 1997 budget totaled nearly $9 million -- of which a meager $100,000 came from private contributions. More than half of the budget came from subscribers.
The Labor Council's resolution states that Pacifica's plan provides for "decreasing dependence on listener sponsorship by soliciting large grants from the same corporate foundations that fund National Public Radio, such as the Pew Charitable Trust."
Blankfort wants the network to give listeners, who provide the bulk of its funds, input into its direction.
"The direction they have been going is to tailor the programming and structure to fit in with requirements of corporate foundation sponsors," Blankfort told us. "The alternative is to go for a more democratic structure and not just look to the community as a cash cow."
The Pacifica National Board meets Fri/26-Sun/28, Bancroft Hotel, 2860 Bancroft Way, Berk. The public portion of the meeting takes place Sun/28, 9 a.m.-noon. Take Back KPFA mounts a picket line in front of the hotel Sat/27, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
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