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by John Tarleton
A year ago, Duane Bradley was protesting the policies of the Pacifica Radio network. He made his living selling herbs and vitamins to Houston-area health food stores. Today, he is the general manager of Houston’s Pacifica affiliate and works out of the same office he had in 1989 when he was forced to resign as program director for criticizing the network’s planned shift toward more NPR-style programming.
“I truly believe in what Pacifica stands for,” says Bradley, 48, who first volunteered at KPFT as a teenager in the early ’70s, shortly after the station went on the air. “I believe I can effect more positive change in the world with my work at Pacifica than I can teaching people about the uses of Hawthorne berries.”
A Grassroots Victory
The Pacifica Radio network was launched at KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, in 1949 by World War II-era conscientious objectors who believed open dialogue was essential to creating a more pacific (hence the network’s name) world. The nation’s only listener-sponsored radio network grew to include stations in Los Angeles (1959), New York (1960), Houston (1970) and Washington, D.C. (1977) while giving a national voice to progressive movements. Yet, for a network founded on pacifist ideals, Pacifica has been plagued by an unusual number of internal battles over the years.
The largest, most recent battle raged through the network during much of the past decade as grassroots activists squared off against Pacifica national board members who wanted to move the network toward more upscale, mainstream programming. The crisis gained national attention in July 1999 when Pacifica shut down KPFA for three weeks and arrested over 50 staffers before relenting in the face of massive street protests. Eighteen months later, Pacifica management executed a “Christmas Coup” at WBAI in New York, firing the station’s general manager and program director and then banning over two dozen producers and programmers including Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now.
Besieged by protests, sit-ins, boycotts, email pressure campaigns and a flurry of lawsuits, the old Pacifica national board capitulated in an out-of-court settlement last December. “The people who knew how to organize were on our side,” says historian Matthew Lasar, author of Pacifica Radio: Rise of an Alternative Network. “They had talkers on their side, people like Mary Frances Berry or The Nation. The people who knew how to organize demonstrations, print up T-shirts and buttons, pass out flyers were all on our side.”
The dissidents consolidated control at a January board meeting in New York. What they found wasn’t a pretty site.
“Pacifica and everything in it was a wreck,” says Carol Spooner, lead plaintiff in the listener lawsuit and now a national board member herself.
The network was over $6 million in debt and could barely pay its light bill. The outgoing board had also burned through $10 million in cash reserves during its final year in power, Spooner said.
The new management has since reduced Pacifica’s outstanding debts from $4.8 million to $1.3 million and has also been able to cover a $1.5 million operating deficit with the help of record fundraising around the network. However, according to Spooner, Pacifica will have no cash reserves at the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. Also, Pacifica still does not have a budget or a working accounting system.
“We blew it. We need to get our act together,” Spooner says of the budget chaos. “We’re a bunch of leftists who don’t know how to balance a checkbook.”
Democracy Comes to Pacifica, Sort of
Spooner, 55, a legal researcher and lifelong KPFA listener, joined the fray in the summer of 1999 and convinced the California state attorney general’s office to support her listener lawsuit which contended that Pacifica had illegally altered its bylaws to create a self-appointing national board. As a part of the court settlement, Pacifica’s interim national board has 15 months to craft new bylaws and hold first-ever elections in its five signal areas for new local and national boards.
“The organization is really moving onto uncharted ground,” says Lasar, who was a KPFA commentator during the 1980s. “By democratizing itself, it’s making good on its own rhetoric. It’s always praised more democracy everywhere else — in Florida, in the university, in Indonesia — everywhere except Pacifica.”
What exactly that democracy will look like remains unclear. At the moment, the interim board is reviewing three models of Pacifica governance, two kinds of membership, four ways to elect a local board, two ways to count votes and eight ways to elect a national board. KPFA has held listener elections for the past two years using a form of proportional representation that is weighted to ensure that at least 50 percent of the board’s members are people of color and 50 percent are women.
Some members of WBAI’s local advisory board have proposed a constituency model of representation in which different community organizations with a stake in the station’s programming would be selected to send representatives to sit on the local board. Supporters say the constituency model would bring more cultural diversity to the network while critics question how it could be implemented without cronyism.
“I think staff and producers are frightened that democratization will threaten their positions,” says Rob Dickey, a New York member of the Pacifica Matters collective which airs near-weekly webcasts on Pacifica governance issues.
Of the five stations, KPFT in Houston has probably changed the most dramatically. The station has thrown open its doors and the community has poured in. Of 30 new programs recently added to the station’s schedule, 28 are locally produced. A country and western jukebox under the old regime, KPFT now supplements Democracy Now! with nationally syndicated programs like Free Speech Radio News, Between the Lines, and Alternative Radio with David Barsamian. Members of the Houston Independent Media Center are producing a Monday evening newscast that may morph into a daily program. KPFT’s $390,000 spring fundraising drive netted $100,000 more than any fund drive in the station’s history.
Bradley is cautiously optimistic that the 50,000-watt station can stay afloat in the heart of Bush country and provide the diverse, challenging programming that has been Pacifica’s hallmark for 53 years. “Radio engages you,” he says. “It forces you to use your imagination.”
This story originally appeared in the New York Indypendent.
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