February 17, 1999
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WHEN LEW Hill founded Pacifica radio 50 years ago, he envisioned an independent, community-sponsored broadcast network that would be devoted to peace and social-justice issues. But over the past few years, Pacific management has been eroding that vision -- and a proposal coming before the Pacifica board Feb. 28 would undermine much of the Pacifica ideal.
As A. Clay Thompson reports, the plan would eliminate any representation from local station advisory boards on the Pacifica national board. Instead of a majority of the network board members being elected from local boards, the entire network board would be self-selected and self-perpetuating. The move would make it far easier for the board to move Pacific away from its local constituency and position the organization to please big private foundation funders. Potentially, some critics fear, it could lead to the sale of KPFA in Berkeley or WBAI in New York -- both immensely valuable assets.
Pacifica officials say the move is necessary to meet federal guidelines and thus ensure Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding. But that's not true: CPB officials say that there are numerous ways to meet the requirements, including, for example, a fully elected national board, drawn from fully elected local boards. Even KQED, which is not known for democracy, elects its board from its membership. And if Pacifica is worried about the unlikely possibility of a right-wing takeover, the board could be split between appointed and elected members.
But none of those ideas, which would encourage democracy and member participation, are under discussion. The only item on the agenda is a move to concentrate control of one of the nation's most important public-interest broadcasters in the hands of a few unaccountable people. That would be a disaster.
The changes are the latest in a series of moves Pacifica and KPFA have made that shift the emphasis in both funding and programming away from listeners and the community. A San Francisco Central Labor Council resolution states that the network's new strategy plan "threatens any remaining vestiges of Pacifica as a genuine alternative to the corporate media."
The problem is that Pacifica's management, like the management of an increasing number of nonprofits, is beginning to tailor its mission to the desires of the big funders -- the foundations -- who, as we have reported in detail (see "Pulling Strings," 10/8/97), are increasingly undermining the public-interest progressive and environmental agenda. And like many groups that receive foundation grants, Pacifica refuses to disclose what grants it has received and applied for, for how much money, and with what conditions.
For an organization devoted to progressive journalism, that sort of secrecy is inexcusable. Pacifica shouldn't apply for, or accept, any foundation grants unless the network is willing to make public the applications and the full details of the funding.
KPFA members should attend the Feb. 28 meeting and demand that the Pacifica board reject the power grab, devise an alternative, more democratic system of choosing board members -- and adopt a policy ending the dangerous, insidious practice of relying on secret foundation funding to operate a supposedly progressive media network.
P.S. A clear lesson in the dangers of accepting foundation funding: the San Francisco-based Independent Media Institute, which operates the Alternet wire service for the alternative press, put out a story this week on micropower radio -- but did nothing on the national Pacifica story and has blacked out the Pacifica-reform movement for years. IMI has gotten funding from the Tides Foundation, based at the Presidio, where David Salniker, a former KPFA general manager, is a key official. IMI executive director Don Hazen gave former Pacifica director Pat Scott -- who led the way toward programming changes aimed at positioning Pacifica for foundation funding -- a "media hero" award at its first Media and Democracy Congress in 1996.
So the alternative press is unable to rely on foundation-funded IMI for accurate information about foundation-driven changes at the nation's leading alternative radio network. Wonderful.
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