East Bay Express

Bad Blood
by Paul Rauber

     For an organization whose official calling is "to contribute to a lasting understanding between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors," the Pacifica Foundation has done a pretty piss-poor job. A new low may have been reached this weekend, when the non-profit parent of KPFA radio and four other listener-sponsored radio stations around the country held a meeting of its national board in Berkeley. Even so prosaic an issues as the venue of the gathering was cause for fear and suspicion. Originally scheduled for the Bancroft Hotel in
Berkeley, the meeting was moved at the last minute to UC's Clark Kerr Campus after the hotel caught wind of the plans by KPFA dissidents to demonstrate outside the meeting. "Pacifica Radio Runs Away From Its Listener Critics" concluded the dissident-listener group Take Back KPFA: "Since the event will be taking
place on a UC facility on which picketing is not allowed," the group theorized, "UC police will, no doubt make sure that the noise from the picket lines do not disturb the mostly secret deliberations of the Pacifica Board."

     The focus of all the fuss was a seemingly innocuous amendment to Pacifica's bylaws to change the way members of the national board are selected. Such is the state of ill will in listener-sponsored-radioland, however, all hands rushed to the barricades and drew the most heinous possible conclusions. Take Back KPFA called it the "theft of Pacifica radio," claiming that the bylaw change would give the board "total, permanent control of Pacifica and its $300 million of assets. THE NETWORK BUILT OVER 50 YEARS BY HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF US WILL HAVE BEEN STOLEN." (Hysterics in the original.) The ever-excitable Alexander Cockburn concluded, in his CounterPunch newsletter, that Pacifica might try to sell off KPFA, or sister station WBAI in New York City. The San Francisco Bay Guardian warned (in "Pacifica power grab") that the "changes...could put [KPFA's] very existence in jeopardy--and move it further away from its listener-sponsored, community-based roots." There was even a protest from the left's Holy Trinity, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Edward Herman, who issued a statement supporting greater democracy at the network. When the board meeting opened on Saturday, a hundred protestors gathered outside along Warring
Road (safe from the billyclubs of the UC Police), spreading news of the outrage to incoming shoppers from Orinda.

     The proximate cause of the imbroglio was a routine mailing from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to public radio stations last fall, spelling out the requirements they must meet to receive CPB funding. Since Pacifica receives nearly $1.5 million a year from this source, then-foundation executive director Pat Scott wrote asking for clarification. A September 24 letter from CPB President and CEO Robert Coonrod delivered the bad news: that the federal Communications Act clearly stipulates that community advisory boards (such as KPFA's local advisory board) must be "solely advisory in nature" and "in no case have any authority to exercise any control over the daily management or operation of the station." Until last Sunday, Pacifica's national board consisted of sixteen members: two appointees from each stations' local advisory board, plus six at-large members. Under CPB rules, the local board members can not also serve on the national body.

     (Pacifica conspiratorialists place these events in a different light: "This is the letter upon which the puch [sic] to pass the by-laws amendments is based on," says the gloss on Scott's letter on www.radio4all.org/freepacifica. "Please also note that Pacifica has had this structure for 20 years, has
received CPB funding for more than a decade and has not been questioned." The suggestion is that the wily Scott intentionally provoked the warning by making public the open secret of Pacifica's governance structure.)

     Pacifica's attorneys concurred with the CPB analysis, and advised a change in the bylaws. Critics contended--and the CPB confirmed--that alternative arrangements might be possible, such as an elected national board. It was in this atmosphere that last weekend's raucous board meeting took place, with the board
subjected to vitriolic attack from all sides. Several powerful local boards--in Berkeley, New York, and Los Angeles--had instructed their representatives to vote to table the bylaw discussion, hoping that discussions with the CPB could yield an acceptable third way.

     All were trumped, however, by a February 24 letter from CPB Vice President for radio Richard Madden, distributed to board members but unknown to the protesting listeners out on the sidewalk, which explicitly threatened to cut off approximately $750,000 in government funding if the bylaws were not changed by
mid-March. Faced with this ultimatum, even local advisory board members sworn to seek an extension were forced to give in, and the bylaw change passed unanimously. Pacifica Chair Dr. Mary Frances Berry praised the "forward-thinking visions which unified our Board members"--if no one else.

     The upshot is that local boards can now only "nominate" members to the national board, which will henceforth be completely self-perpetuating. While there seems to be little evidence for the more lurid fears of station critics, Pacifica has, by its high-handed and secretive manner, granted them greater legitimacy. It has also, significantly, alienated a number of very well-heeled major donors, who find the hysterics of Take Back KPFA more believable than the paternalistic blandishments of Pacifica. The national board, according to one
local board member, now lumps all critics together, and has "refused to see that a wide variety of people are opposed to the changes for variety of reasons."

     Former KPFA volunteer and now-graduate student Matthew Lasar has just packaged his thesis as Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network (Temple University Press). A thoughtful and admittedly moderate observer (he was recently denounced on the airwaves of WBAI for insufficient anti-Pacifica zeal), even Lasar
was shocked by the show of institutional arrogance at the weekend board meeting.

     "There is now a greater chasm than ever between the national leadership and active listeners and programmers," says Lasar. "I can understand why people who did this did it; I wished they could have put it off. The main issue now is trust, and there certainly wasn't any in that room."

     While most Pacifica critics fear a concentration of power in the hands of the national board, Lasar fears the opposite: the self-delegitimization of the national leadership. "The leadership is taking steps that undermine their own authority, and encourage the most radical elements to assert themselves. Every time that happens, the possibility of leadership and a clear mission is further eradicated."

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