The Squandering of Pacifica Radio

Everything in me screams to NOT write this posting. It’s just not worth the pain such endeavors normally evoke. When I’ve done it before, I’ve been slandered, muddied, slashed, booed down, accused of everything short of being Jack Abramoff’s secret lover. I’ve even been accused of having a hand in the death of Chilean President Salvador Allende, who I had the privilege of working for before the 1973 coup. But here goes, anyway. I can’t help myself:

The potentially biggest media resource – and really one of the largest institutions of any sort—on the American Left has taken one more giant and voluntary step toward oblivion.

The five-station, listener-sponsored, half-billion dollar Pacifica Radio network has just named a new executive director. Predictable enough that the new guy, Greg Guma, comes straight out of the pwogwessive bubble of Burlington. But what catches the eye is how Guma – who will now oversee the five stations—has written with enthusiasm about truly off-kilter conspiracy theorists like David Ray Griffin who argue that 9/11 was NOT caused by the four Al Qaeda—commandeered planes. Instead, Guma asks us to take seriously the proposition that the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were the product of a Reichstag-like plot engineered by the Bush Administration.
That proposition was described as “monstrous” by former CIA agent Bob Baer writing in The Nation magazine a couple of years ago (Baer’s story was the basis of the movie Syriana). Baer’s reaction to the same loon praised by Guma is the proper one: The Bushies may be liars but that is no reason to lie to ourselves and swoon over preposterous conspiracy theories.Unless, of course you are the new Executive Director of the Pacifica network. To be frank, for those of us who actually pay some attention to this matter, the selection of a non-credible fringie like Guma is hardly a surprise. Pacifica has been in accelerating decline for two decades – especially in the last five years (disclaimer: I did a daily drive-time show on Pacifica’s KPFK in Los Angeles from 1998-2001. I quit when an extreme know-nothing faction who believed that I and others were engaged in a dark "corporatist" conspiract to -gasp!- "mainstream" the programming took over the entire organization. My Radio Nation show, which was made available for free to hundreds of public radio stations and therefore to Pacifica, was also carried on KPFK until last month when the program moved –without me—to Air America).

Five years ago, also writing in The Nation, veteran journalist and former NPR news manager John Dinges came the closest to best explaining the downward spiral of Pacifica. Since then, things have only gotten worse. Much worse.

I don’t think anyone would or should care very much about any of this, if it were not for the gross squandering of an historic opportunity. Started by Bay Area pacifists, anarchists and liberals in 1949, Pacifica eventually opened stations in L.A., New York, Washington D.C. and Houston.

Are you ready for this? The estimated value of those frequencies today – that is to say the market value of the five Pacifica stations operating today—is conservatively estimated to be $300-$500 million. You read that right. A half-billion dollars? Do you know of any other institution on the American Left that can compare in value?

Yet, the network’s growth – its real listenership– stunted and atrophied a long time ago. So just when media is more important than ever in the political fight, just when cheap digital technology makes radio production immediately doable and accessible, Pacifica has marooned itself on the margin. The network is so shoddily managed that it’s nigh impossible to secure any reliable numbers. But industry experts estimate the total weekly cumulative audience of the five Pacifica radio stations to be less than a million. Maybe a lot less. That’s in five signal areas that envelope as many as 50-60 million people.

Instead of producing, as it should and could, a satellite or web-fed daily schedule of 12, 18 or even 24 hrs of solid, listenable national programming, the “network” remains, instead, a rag-tag hodgepodge of stations with tiny listenerships and all held hostage to self-serving programmers more interested in hearing themselves talk than in building a real audience. It’s a half-billion dollars rotting away.

The “flagship” New York station, WBAI, which in the 70’s was a hothouse that produced a generation of able journalists who later took their skills and their liberal or lefty politics into the mainstream media, is today an irrelevancy that teeters on bankruptcy. The programming is domianted by a toxic brew of crude race-politics.

The Pacifica outlet in Washington D.C., WPFW, which, in the age of Bush, ought to be a mighty bastion of on-air political pushback, continues to be – as has been the case for two decades—primarily a black jazz station. White guilt, and a veritable PC-cult that permeates the internal Pacifica culture, has constrained the network from turning that station into what it ought to be – a powerful and massively listened-to alternative in the heart of the nation’s capital.

The Houston outlet, KPFT, remains a peanut-whistle station. KPFA in Berkeley, whose core paid staff has been the same for 25 years, is but an echo-chamber of its pony-tailed, core community. Listening to the station for more than five minutes is like tuning into a clandestine ethnic radio narrow-casting in an obscure tongue to some tiny Balkan enclave.

The Los Angeles station, KPFK, whose drive-time is dominated by an combination of screamers and, believe it or not, a couple of followers of the maoist Revolutionary Communist Party, finds itself in a similar sorry state. With a signal area that encompasses 25 million people, its average listenership during any given quarter hour is under 10,000. Over a seven day period, the 110,000 watt station collects a cumulative audience of barely 175,000. That’s less than the number of unique visitors that a big blog – like Daily Kos—gets in one single day.

This is a long, long, long way from the origins of the network. In its heyday – from the late 60’s and into the early 80’s—the bigger Pacifica stations were exciting and refreshing meeting points for artists, poets, musicians and free-thinkers. The air would be filled with live drama performances, poetry happenings, literary readings, world-class public affairs interviews, and quality music that ranged from the avant-garde to classical. While the programming always leaned decidedly left, you’d nevertheless find libertarians and Buddhists mixed in back to back with Communists, radicals, and liberals and even some odd conservatives (Caspar Weinberger was once a Pacifica commentator. Pauline Kael got her start reviewing movies for KPFA).

When Pacifica was once a magical place that taught you how to think it is now a dreary drumbeat telling you what to think. Its air is filled with shrill, clumsy and dogmatic denunciations of “fascism.” Any trace of high culture, meanwhile, has been ruthlessly rooted out and expunged. The program schedule is divvied up among self-appointed “community leaders” and paid staff who – for the most part—could never dream of earning a paycheck from any other media entity in the world. What paid and volunteer programmers have in common is a death-grip on their personal slice of air time. Try to take it away and you became the target of a virulent campaign accusing you of being a sexist, racist, and corporatist nazi.

For more than a decade now the rickety internal structure of Pacifica has been wholly dominated by a small ultra-activist crust that knows little to nothing about journalism, radio programming or non-profit management. After they took over the network in 2001 and proceeded to fire three of the five sitting General Managers, they did so in such a blatantly abusive and improper manner that, in any other circumstance, it would have elicited cries of anti-labor policies from its own constituencies. Resulting successful lawsuits cost the network literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial settlements – a dirty little detail that has never been fully disclosed to an audience that is regularly milked for donations. And that would be shocked if it ever learned the truth.

The success the current management group had in taking over the organization derives not at all from talent or intelligence but principally from its immeasurable tenacity – a super-human capacity to outlast everyone else in endless rounds of meetings and to shout down its opponents. That, along with a fervent belief that they, alone and against all odds, are saving the world by making sure air time is given to only fellow true-believers who meet some sort of bizarre political litmus test.

I begrudge them nothing. They perform exactly as one would expect. Instead, our recriminations should center on those who know better, or at least, ought to know better. Whether it is in Los Angeles, or New York or Washington, serious, otherwise intelligent liberals and progressives have sat back and quietly watched this half-billion dollar network slowly slip into the sea. In their worst moments, these liberals and lefties have signed onto idiotic crusades aimed at “saving” Pacifica by cleansing it of any trace of nuance, ideological diversity and, for that matter, debate and dialogue. And even in their better moments, these same supposed political grown-ups, even when they can sense that the network is being squandered, and after the umpteenth time that they have heard their local station raise money by pitching crank videos “exposing” 911 as a White House-engineered hoax, they bite their tongues, shrug their shoulders and remain silent lest they be publicly heard criticizing “our own side.”

Well, nice work, folks. The nesting chickies have indeed come home to roost. Your network, as you would have it, is now officially run by someone who thinks we ought to seriously consider that something other than those airplanes took down the towers. Look forward, if you can, to more programming and fund-raising that would be better suited for a UFO cult than for a serious or credible political and cultural opposition. And all at the cost of only a cool half-billion.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 24th, 2006 at 1:27 am and is filed under Main. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.