The Pacifica radio network is the largest noncommercial, nonstate, noncorporate-controlled broadcaster in the United States, and its signals can reach more than one in five American homes. Given this immense reach, Pacifica is valuable not only in terms of its potential to affect public discourse, but also in direct financial terms: The combined worth of its broadcast licenses easily exceeds $300 million.
So I'd like to thank Steve Carney for his ongoing coverage in The Times of issues at Pacifica, the parent network of KPFK-FM (90.7) here in Los Angeles.
In his most recent article ("Pacifica Works to Restore 'Democracy Now!"' Sept. 21), Carney refers to three lawsuits pending against Pacifica. The central legal basis of these suits is that Pacifica's board of directors in 1999 changed foundation bylaws to give themselves complete control over their own composition, without the consent of local advisory boards, whose voting rights were eliminated. This change in bylaws was a crucial final administrative step in an extended process begun nearly a decade ago to fundamentally alter Pacifica as an institution. (Similar changes have occurred at public radio stations across the country over the last two decades.)
The essence of this reconfiguration was a move from a volunteer-driven, decentralized institution--more or less open to direct community participation, featuring a wide diversity of voices speaking from and to a wide diversity of audiences--to a "professionalized" and more centralized institution engaged in target-market programming to increase revenues and audience share by cultivating increased listening times from a larger core audience.
In order to effect this change, literally hundreds of people network-wide had to be removed, in part because the changes in format dictated a move from monthly programming and a large number of programmers to more consistent daily programming with fewer voices.
Thus, it is ironic that Pacifica executives claim, as Carney reports, that their goal is to increase diversity of the audience. It is hard to reconcile that claim with the fact that here in L.A., a city in which more than half the residents are people of color, there are no people of color among the weekday drive-time public-affairs programmers. This is a stark contrast to the situation prior to the reconfiguration that began in 1995.
In the last five years, KPFK has approximately doubled the money it raises while its subscriber figures have remained well below its peak in the early 1980s and while the cumulative listenership remains largely stalled as well.
At the same time, the station has been without a news director or a locally produced news program for months, and only recently has there been an attempt to revive a decimated apprenticeship program. The station rarely broadcasts local events or speakers, as it once did.
When broadcasters at Pacifica have attempted to notify listeners of crucial changes to the institution they support, the response has been to fire and ban them, claiming that they have violated standards of responsible journalism. The current standoff with "Democracy Now!" anchor Amy Goodman arose originally from her continued insistence in closing the morning news show with the line, "From the studios of the fired and the banned...."
Carney reports that Pacifica's executive director, Bessie Wash, has refused to air current "Democracy Now" programming on the grounds that the foundation's FCC license could be jeopardized if it allowed the show to broadcast off-site unsupervised. But other Pacifica broadcasters regularly broadcast off-site. It seems more likely that the conflict is over content and control.
This is all very odd for a station and network whose listeners are constantly assured at fund-drive time that this is "their" radio (though of late they refer to themselves as a "valuable programming service").
At the recent telephone meeting of the Pacifica board, five new directors were elected, along with new foundation officers. Perhaps the new directors will demonstrate a commitment to ensuring that the individuals and communities that Pacifica purports to serve have a direct participation in what happens at Pacifica in the future.
Alternatively, we may have to await the resolution of the legal challenges.
In either case, it is my opinion that the struggle at Pacifica will not be resolved until listener-sponsors become formal members of the foundation with voting rights, and listeners and volunteers have the ability to know about and affect what happens at the station and the network whose bills they pay.
David Adelson, a research physiologist living in Venice, has been a member of KPFK's local advisory board since 1996 and its chairman since 1999. He is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits against Pacifica.