The art of the deal is a media dream: Savvy achievers get to the top. Guile and artifice — even outright deception — may well be part of the game, but there’s nothing like success. One way or another, money and centralized power end up calling the tunes. Or so the media script often goes.
From its beginnings a half-century ago, the Pacifica radio network set out to be quite different. Listeners tuned in for something else — a much more inclusive embrace of human creativity and political dissent. Like most endeavors, there were failures and crises along the way. But even with Pacifica’s tumultuous history, the last three years have been times of extraordinary upheaval.
Two words — "censorship" and "democracy" — summarize much of what has been at stake in the national battle over Pacifica.
Now, some very good news: Democracy is winning.
As the owner of noncommercial radio stations based in five metropolitan areas — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, New York and Washington — the nonprofit Pacifica Foundation operates with a national board of directors. During the 1990s, a succession of power grabs enabled a board majority to emerge with ill-disguised contempt for the progressive principles and grassroots innovation that had long enlivened the Pacifica airwaves.
In 1999, turmoil reached a boiling point at the Pacifica station headquartered in Berkeley, Calif. — the nation’s oldest listener-sponsored radio outlet, KPFA. Long-simmering conflicts erupted after Pacifica’s national management tried to prevent KPFA from airing news reports about firings at the station.
People at KPFA refused to knuckle under. They resisted in ways that journalists and activists have resisted for hundreds of years — by speaking out and by organizing. Apparently baffled that so many employees would take principled positions at the risk of losing their jobs, the Pacifica management called in police, even ordering the arrest of longtime reporters in the KPFA newsroom.
During a lockout that lasted several weeks, the outpouring of support for KPFA included a series of large demonstrations. One afternoon, more than 10,000 people marched by the boarded-up station. Pacifica management felt compelled to relent. The station reopened.
The Pacifica picture turned bleaker at the end of 2000 when a "Christmas coup" at WBAI in New York City resulted in the firing and banning of dozens of longtime staffers and programmers. Opponents of the crackdown mobilized to resist the takeover while the station’s new management retaliated against critical voices. Producers for Pacifica’s hard-hitting "Democracy Now" program, the most popular in the network’s history, were harassed until they moved out of the WBAI studios. At that point, the Pacifica-owned stations — except for KPFA in Berkeley — stopped broadcasting the program.
At KPFK in Los Angeles, KPFT in Houston, WPFW in Washington and WBAI, station managers went along with a national Pacifica regime eager to censor criticism of their own censorial policies. Hundreds of program hosts and other volunteers were purged from the four stations because they refused to remain silent about the suppression.
In contrast to the self-selecting power consolidation by Pacifica’s board majority, KPFA moved ahead with a democratizing process that initiated regular elections — so that thousands of supporters, as members of listener-funded KPFA Radio, could vote for a "local advisory board" to represent them.
For years, the corporate-minded new regime atop Pacifica had a grip on the network. Along the way, it was sometimes grim to see the responses from left-leaning institutions that had for decades been among key constituencies of the Pacifica network. Some accommodated themselves to the network’s new regime.
But a lot of other organizations protested the new censorship and thereby risked being frozen off Pacifica’s airwaves. Nationwide, dozens of community radio stations helped by condemning Pacifica actions and boycotting its news show. Across the nation, countless listeners became media activists as they devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to a movement aimed at recreating Pacifica as an unabashedly progressive grassroots network.
Because of such efforts, ranging from lawsuits and picket lines to boycotts and public education campaigns, the pressure became too much for the corporate-minded majority on the Pacifica national board. In late December, a legal settlement reconstituted the board. And now, for the first time in many years, the board’s majority is committed to progressive principles.
Many challenges are ahead. The ousted regime left the network with massive debt, largely due to sky-high bills from law firms, security services and public-relations outfits. Managers who’ve been in place at four Pacifica stations have clear records of censorship that suited the network’s former board majority. As those managers update their resumes and look for jobs elsewhere, they can boast of extensive experience at opportunism.
For understandable reasons, many people are cynical about media these days. But we shouldn’t succumb to defeatism. "Democratic media" is not necessarily an oxymoron.