The Pacification of Public Radio

NPR, Pacifica, and community radio: crises and prospects

By David Barsamian

Pacification is a U.S. military Vietnam War euphemism. Areas of resistance were to be pacified. The population was to be herded into strategic hamlets and then reeducated by being carpet-bombed with propaganda. A similar campaign is being conducted in public broadcasting, obviously with different methods but with the same outcome. It is not that public radio and TV are radical, far from it. It is what they represent. They are outside of corporate control and as a result have potential for independence. Public space in all spheres is to be eliminated. Any alternative model to the market one has to go. So the right-wing strategy is to starve them for morsels, attack them politically, and drive them into the market. The result has been largely successful. Underwriting is more and more common. In some cases they are out and out commercials.

What are the communications needs of a democratic society? I think they were well articulated in the 1967 Carnegie Commission Report which was the founding document for public broadcasting. An establishment group led by MIT head James Killian with such members as Harvard president James Conant and Polaroid’s top executive Edwin Lamb, formulated the guidelines. The Commission’s vision stated that programming "can help us see America whole, in all its diversity," serve as "a forum for controversy and debate," and "provide a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard." It is interesting to note that commercial broadcasters mostly welcomed the creation of a public network because they saw it as a way of getting nettlesome public service commitments off their backs and onto the new system. CBS gave an upfront gift of $1 million to the fledgling Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB was the non-profit, private entity formed to funnel money to the public stations.

Public TV and radio, to a large extent, have fallen far short of the Carnegie goals. Part of the reason is embedded in the enabling legislation, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. The Carnegie Commission proposed that funding be insulated from the political process. Lyndon Johnson, along with the powerful House Appropriations chair Wilbur Mills, would not agree, thus creating a structure that has an Achilles heel. One didn’t have long to wait to see the consequences. In 1972 Nixon, in a fury over so-called liberal bias in programming, vetoed the CPB budget. The attacks on public broadcasting have steadily continued, ebbing and flowing with each political season.

Is the system in place meeting the communications needs of a democratic society? In my view, the private commercial model is a disaster. The public one is in a murkier area.

The taming of public broadcasting takes place in a broader political context. The popular movements of the 1960s and 1970s were very threatening to corporate/state interests. The "serfs" were seen to be out of control in making heretofore unimaginable demands. The anti-war movement, feminists, blacks, Latinos, Native Americans. environmentalists, gays and lesbians and others were challenging the existing order. The legitimacy of plantation life, even the manor itself, were being questioned.

The 1975 publication of The Crisis of Democracy<D> by the Trilateral Commission was part of the attempt to throttle and rollback the gains of the popular movements. Internationally, in the wake of the U.S. defeat in Indochina, the book pointed to the reconstruction of imperial ideology. But the real crisis and threat was at home. The domestic population had to be re-colonized. This is where the media perform their key role.

Media were seen by the right as a major battleground to be contested and won. Money was to be dedicated to finance and drive new ideological institutions. The three main cash conduits were and continue to be Olin, Scaife Mellon, and Bradley. The principle beneficiaries of their largesse are the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. Both are one-stop/full service pundit suppliers to all media, particularly NPR and the Public Broadcasting Service-TV. The most recent wave of attacks on public broadcasting was sparked by a 1992 Heritage Foundation report which argued for its privatization. David Horowitz runs the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in LA, which has received millions of dollars in foundation money. His newsletter is COMINT, the Committee for Media Integrity. He has been crusading against public TV as being a forum for "the discredited pro-Soviet left." He must be thinking of William F. Buckley. Horowitz has been ballistic when it comes to KPFK, Pacifica’s Los Angeles station. As a former Dole speechwriter he pushed the former Senator’s vituperative tirade against public radio and TV at the 1993 Public Radio Conference in Washington. Dole railed against the "unrelenting liberal cheerleading on the public airwaves." He called Pacifica "hate radio" and "anti-Semitic." I doubt Dole, much like that other Pacifica-basher, Representative Joel Hefley of Colorado, has ever heard a Pacifica broadcast in his life. I was sitting in the audience during Dole’s speech. The effect on station managers and program directors, the gatekeepers of public radio, was palpable.

Public radio is in three streams. The first is the NPR type, two-thirds of which is institutionally based. A typical one is WBUR, the Boston University station. BU has the license. WBUR programming is heavy on NPR. Its own on-air voices are few and are almost all paid. The NPR category is, by far, the largest of the streams. NPR is not a station. It provides programs such as "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" that its 300-plus member stations pay for and broadcast. The second stream is community, e.g., WORT in Madison. The third is Pacifica. The latter two have a more diverse mix of programming along with much volunteer participation. I give Pacifica separate status because it is a network of five stations and it syndicates programming to affiliates. A recent addition to the stream is micro radio, a potentially important development that deserves its own article.

There are lots of paradoxes in this picture, particularly in the second category. KCFR in Denver, WHYY in Philadelphia, and WGBH in Boston are all community radio stations in terms of their license. However their programming and the acute lack of citizen access and participation make them identical to stream one types. KUVO in Denver is another community station with first group characteristics. It differs in that there is more citizen participation. It schedules mostly music and has very little in the way of public affairs except for the grotesque daily business program "Marketplace," sponsored by GE.

There are successful models of community radio, e.g., WERU in East Orland, Maine; KGNU in Boulder, Colorado; and WMNF in Tampa, Florida. They are in radically different demographic markets. They share a solid base of listener support. All three have strong mission statements reflecting some of the original goals of the Carnegie Report. They have regular training programs. There is a good balance between local and national programming. Based on visits to all three, I noticed a sense of elan and cooperation between staff and volunteers.

@PAR SUB = Why are some community radio stations splintered and fragmented? Some of it can be attributed to the well-financed external assault and lack of resources. But concomitant is their own internal disease and dysfunction expressed in the debilitating left pastime: The small savaging the tiny in order to become infinitesimal. There’s a wonderful passage in Howard Zinn’s play Marx in Soho<D> that captures this tendency. The happy couple, Jenny and Karl, are at the dinner table. Jenny asks Karl, Why is it that every revolutionary organization with only six members is always trying to expel five of them? He had no answer.

Other factors contributing to an eviscerated left radio scene are the usual ones: competition, envy, and lack of solidarity. Some of us have been colonized by the avalanche of propaganda and have internalized the dominant ideology. We are further hindered by the lack of a movement to adhere to. As Vivian Stromberg of Madre says, "There are lots of motions in the country but no movement."

An old community radio issue is dealing with "deadwood," i.e., programmers, usually volunteers, who have had their own show forever. The problem this presents is not only staleness and small audiences, but newcomers who want to get on the air, become discouraged, and drift away. Systems need to be designed and put in place to provide program review and critical feedback. There should be signed contracts that are reviewed and renewed based on performance not tenure. There is a critical need for training, not only for volunteers, but for managers. The latter is often overlooked because managers set up the programs for others and don’t recognize their own needs. Dealing with people and conflict is very stressful. It is important to develop mechanisms for dissent and debate with built-in closure and resolution. Running a meeting is an art form. It should be organized and structured with attention to and respect for people’s time. Like a good radio program a meeting should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

@PAR SUB = No discussion of radio can be complete without mention of the much-beleaguered and maligned Pacifica. I should state that I have had my own roller coaster ride with Pacifica. I’ve been to the top and also the very bottom. Today, the only Pacifica station that airs my Alternative Radio program on a regular basis is KPFK. All the promises and perils of community radio are magnified at the only left electronic network established in 1949, with stations in five of the country’s largest cities. Pacifica has produced, in its almost five decades of broadcasting, many memorable programs. It has turned out some of the country’s finest producers. Currently, its daily hour-long morning show "Democracy Now," hosted by Amy Goodman, is being carried by 20 stations, including the 5 Pacifica ones. That such a quality program is carried by so few is emblematic of the tension and antipathy that exists at some community stations toward outside programming.

The turmoil at Pacifica should be seen within the larger political context alluded to, and the divisions within the left. Pacifica is a lightning rod for criticism because of expectations to deliver the audio promised land. One longtime KPFKer, writing in Current<D> magazine, even framed her discontent in loss-of-faith terms. A couple of years ago, Pacifica implemented some major programming changes at KPFA, its flagship Berkeley station. Changes would ensue at the other four as well. A group of KPFA volunteers and listeners was concerned that the new programming, as well as new management policies, signaled Pacifica’s abandonment of its traditional progressive stance. They said that the network was headed for the mainstream. Kindred opposition groups formed at KPFK and WBAI in New York. Pat Scott, Pacifica’s executive director, defended the changes as necessary to the network’s survival. She said, "We had a lot of balkanization in our programming," and the result was "people were not listening." Some ugly things followed: gag rules to prevent any on-air discussion of the issues, banishment from stations, public meetings that excluded the public, picket lines, angry letters, and articles.

I don’t know the details of who said what to whom. Rumors and accusations abound, all laced with a good deal of vitriol. One thing is clear: Pacifica generates passion. People care. That’s a positive starting point. However, when passion and caring are distorted by rage and hurt feelings then rational discourse is difficult. Some of those let go at Pacifica stations had, for better or worse, served the network for many years. I cannot speak to the quality of their work. No one likes being removed from the airwaves. But it seems that there must be a graceful way to usher out veterans and bring in new voices. Volunteers and staff should be honored and treated with respect. The burden is on management. Every effort should be made to extend hands and be generous. If offers are not accepted then let the record show that. If offers are not made let the record reflect that as well. My sense is that many of those involved, on both sides, feel wounded and victimized. This is not unique to Pacifica. It is often typical of community organizations that people work long hours under stressful conditions, are underpaid, and sometimes unpaid. Worse, their efforts go unrecognized. There is no culture of appreciation.

As I write in early September, the latest news from Pacifica is that it is offering downlink equipment free of charge to its affiliates. In exchange, according to the contract, "Pacifica may terminate this agreement ... if a station dilutes the goodwill associated with Pacifica’s name." Excuse me? Aside from sheer vagueness, how does Pacifica impose a priori dictates and limits on what stations may say?

It is deeply troubling for me to write about Pacifica. It has a rich heritage and a still enormous unrealized potential. At the same time things are happening in the control tower that are disheartening and dangerous. There is the possibility that the network will become so internally divided and weakened that it will be forced to sell off its greatest asset: its frequencies.

@PAR SUB = How to solve the Pacifica conundrum? Mike Albert in Z<D> suggested a panel of left luminaries convene to weigh the issues and offer recommendations, but ultimately, Pacifica controls its own licenses and its own destiny. Without listeners and listener support it will attenuate. Building audiences and having good programs are not synonymous with selling out. Part of the left is afflicted with a poverty mentality. My program, Alternative Radio, is doing very well on some major NPR stations. Does that mean I’ve compromised? To some: Yes. For myself, I want to reach as wide an audience as possible. For those unhappy with the turn of events at Pacifica it will be difficult to recreate the status quo ante. The majority of listeners, outside the core, are channel surfers. They want to hear good radio. If they hear something that grabs them they stay tuned. If not, they move on. I suspect that Pacifica will muddle along with occasional flashes of brilliance. Meanwhile, there is much to do. Perhaps someone would like to create an all-progressive 24-hour, year-round channel on the public radio satellite. Sounds farfetched? It would only cost $100,000 a year for the channel rental.

To build and root a movement we need to shift from politics which focuses on the leaf to the politics of the forest. We must resist what Todd Gitlin calls "the narcissism of small differences." What we have now, to some extent, is the left-handed piccolo player syndrome, e.g., I only associate with other left-handed piccolo players. We are unique and oh so cool. And the other members of the orchestra? You’re on your own. What I’m proposing is not, as Urvashi Vaid fears, a recreation of patriarchy. We can honor our individual and group identities, the leaf. But we must keep the larger ecosystem in view. For the leaf to thrive, the branch and the tree it’s connected to must be healthy. And that wider forest must be able to sustain diverse foliage.

I think something to strive for is getting from the choir to the congregation. Let’s find voices and issues that will resonate in pickup trucks and in subdivisions. Some are doing just that, like Paul Klite of Rocky Mountain Media Watch and Danny Schechter of Globalvision TV. And, of course, Michael Moore. The success and reach of Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower, Barbara Ehrenreich, Moore, and others can partly be attributed to the fact that they are very funny. Humor is a wonderful way to reach people.

Keep in mind that the U.S. has the strongest and most extensive community radio network in the world. The stations range from the truly remarkable to the mediocre but the base is there to build on. Let’s rekindle the spirit of community radio. To do that we need dialogues not monologues and a willingness to transcend sectarian differences and reach common ground. This process will be expedited if the idiocy of holier-than-thou correctness is overcome.

None of what I’ve outlined precludes dissent, debate, and discussion. However, constructive criticism can only be heard when people are listening. Pacification can be reversed. It is essential for psychological and political reasons to project and produce positive alternatives. It will serve and expand democracy. Community radio offers such an opportunity. As the Cole Porter song goes, "Let’s Do It."