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Don't Destroy Pacifica to Save It . . .but Modernizers Seal Its Doom

Radio: Management needs to resolve the KPFA crisis, and dissidents must not view any change as a sellout.

July 23, 1999|MARC COOPER | Marc Cooper is a contributing editor to the Nation magazine. His weekly syndicated "Radio Nation" show and his daily program air on Pacifica's KPFK in Los Angeles

Ironically, as its Los Angeles station, KPFK-FM, is experiencing one of its best years ever, the viability of Pacifica Radio as America's only politically progressive media network is in grave peril.

The national Pacifica management unleashed the current round of troubles in April when it dumped popular station manager Nicole Sawaya of Berkeley affiliate KPFA. An on-air staff rebellion ensued and Pacifica was denounced on the hour as authoritarian and unresponsive. A few programmers were canned for their defiance, but the mutiny was left unfettered for 100 days. Pacifica neither sought serious compromise with its enraged KPFA staff nor did it move to quell the on-air rebellion.

Finally last week, when Pacifica moved ham-fistedly to regain control over KPFA, it bumbled, and big time. It banned any more on-air dirty laundry. One obstreperous on-air host defied the order, and Pacifica took his bait. All hell broke loose. Minutes later, KPFA's signal was pulled off the air and replaced with archive tapes; staff was put on paid leave and dozens of staff members and protesters who had entered the building were arrested for refusing to leave. The station has since become the target of near daily protests.

Surely, dismissing KPFA's manager was an error. And Pacifica's handling of the aftermath is no less horrific. But the explosion that has rocked KPFA is but a symptom of a deeper conflict brewing inside Pacifica for the last five years.

Underlying the conflict is a tension between two visions of what Pacifica can and should be in the next millennium. One view, shared by many of the dissidents, is that the five Pacifica radio stations and the network's 50 affiliates serve mostly as a high-frequency tomtom for activists, the equivalent of a mimeographed bulletin of the left that makes little effort to reach beyond its current constituencies. Indeed, to some in this camp, any sign of listener growth or increased funding is a priori evidence of a sellout.

The competing view, which I endorse, is that Pacifica should grow beyond the fringes into a sort of national newspaper of the left, with some intellectual heft and depth and, yes, even some occasional analytical distance from the movements to which it is sympathetic. And it is toward this vision that Pacifica has tried in its bumbling way to move. But every tentative step has been met by a war of distortion from former staff and activists claiming political betrayal and encroaching dictatorship from the national office.

Unfortunately, the summary dismissal of KPFA's manager and the tragi-comedy that ensued not only has plunged the network into chaos but has turned Pacifica's national management into a caricature drawn by its most virulent enemies: the leaders of America's only progressive radio network acting like cut-rate Jaruzelskis. But the other side bears equal responsibility. It also has become a caricature of the right's most fervent fantasies: a bunch of lefties ripping apart their own institution.

Worse are the personal attacks. The handful of people who work in Pacifica's national office for low wages and the dozen or so volunteers on its nonprofit board may very well be incompetents, as some protesters insist. But one reason for their intransigence is the hellish level of harassment they have suffered in this crisis. Pacifica's critics have branded them criminals and Pinochetistas and accused them of plotting to seize the network for personal gain. The phone numbers, e-mail addresses and even the home addresses of the board and national staff have been posted on the Internet, resulting in round-the-clock harassment.

Both sides must step back from the brink. Pacifica management must immediately settle the crisis it provoked in Berkeley. That means real compromise. Part of the battle of the last five years has been to hold staff members accountable. But management must set the example. If Pacifica Executive Director Lynn Chadwick must leave to get us to the next level, then she must leave now.

On the other side, those critics who wish to "save" Pacifica should exercise caution to not burn it down in the process. They have to understand that change and growth are necessary. Even before this crisis, Pacifica's signal covered 22% of America but had rallied only 1 million or so listeners and far below 100,000 subscriber/sponsors.

A way must found to discuss needed change without provoking a wave of unfounded rumors of sellout and corporatization. Differences have to be expressed without resorting to satanization. Serious mediation, tentatively undertaken this week, is the only way out. Both sides have brought Pacifica to the brink. Both sides working together have to pull it back.

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