I have been following the recent events of the Pacifica radio network with great interest and even greater concern — even sadness. I am reading far too much misinformation — a thousand sparks, a million splinters, far too much “me-me-me,” no “we.”
I was the Executive Director of Pacifica before the latest appointee, Summer Reese. Though I had years of experience in radio in various capacities, I came to Pacifica as an outsider, and it is from that perspective, as an outsider turned insider, that I am writing.
Pacifica is not only failing, it is nearly moribund. The most recent episode unfortunately illustrates this point only too well. The recently hired executive director, Reese, was fired at a March 13 Pacifica National Board meeting. The current Chair of the Board padlocked the national office to lock out the fired ED and her staff. Using bolt cutters, the former ED gained access to the office and barred the Board Chair from entering. To date she has occupied the office 24/7, keeping the Board Chair at bay.
Not only does this represent an embarrassing and humiliating communication failure (totally unacceptable for any organization, let alone a radio network), but in a sense it underscores the utter dysfunctionality of the governance structure of Pacifica.
The Pacifica National Board has utterly failed its fiduciary duty. Embedded in the structure of the network is an even deeper problem, that of vision and commitment for the very existence of Pacifica. There is a lack of respect within the organization that is undermining and challenging the very existence of Pacifica.
I have spent many hours thinking about the keys to the future of Pacifica. I feel there is a need for a national network that represents the voices and ideas that Pacifica was founded on: to provide radio stations that promote peace and social and economic justice, to bring news and information not commonly covered, and to provide access to the local community.
In these very serious, difficult times, people must have outlets to challenge and address the very real excesses of institutional power. The media power deck is stacked against people now and Pacifica needs to be heard. One reason I was proud to be associated with Pacifica was its commitment to the voices of people, peace and challenging ideas, and its refusal to bow to abusive power. The history of this country would not be the same if Pacifica had not been there during the civil rights marches, the antiwar demonstrations, the Iran/Contra hearings, women’s liberation, and so many other moments.
Pacifica has been the voice of the people, and I believe we need her even more today. There are definite advantages for a national network that extend beyond any local station. I feel that is what we must examine now — do people want a national Pacifica? What is the consensus of values that can be reached? Can there be respect and value for a national collective as well as for local stations? How do we approach this with the changes in media and technology? These are serious questions. If a national vision does not have life, then there is no national network. Frank, open dialogue by all who are concerned is necessary, with the goal of reaching a consensus on how to move forward.
In order for Pacifica to survive, the dysfunctionality of the “core,” the structure must be addressed. I am not going to go through the complex and convoluted history of Pacifica — it is much too long for this article — but suffice it to say that Pacifica, after a period of strife, dissatisfaction and lawsuits, went from a self-appointed board to a democratically elected board (20 representatives from the five Pacifica stations and two from affiliate stations).
As I understand it, the goal was to prevent anything like the coup of 1999-2001 from happening again. Obviously, this change resulted in an imbalance of power. As with the dissolution of any power base, government or otherwise, reorganization can become political and factionalized. New bylaws were written under court order. Unfortunately bylaws can be rigid, unwieldy and inappropriate, and in this case very difficult to change.
When I became Executive Director of Pacifica, I quickly realized that every station seemed to have two major factions and probably many other splinters that vied for representation. The differences among these factions were never entirely clear, but they were real and intense. I suspect they grew out of many old rivalries and disagreements, but regardless of the cause, they represented the past and usurped the energy necessary to deal with the issues of the present and the future. It was apparent that this system gave wondrous opportunities for factionalism and political bartering. Not all, but far too many members of the board represented their local station’s/faction’s interests and their personal agendas at the expense of national interests.
The Pacifica National Board is large and unwieldy. Many members seemed to be unaware of their fiduciary responsibility and their duty to set policy, while allowing staff to manage day-to-day operations and carry out their directives. I remember too many board meetings in which most of the meeting was spent arguing over the agenda, leaving no time for discussion of important issues. I then had to postpone necessary action or implement solutions, which were then subject to revision or rejection by the board. All in all, it was extremely difficult to accomplish necessary business in such a system.
In addition to the unwieldiness of the board, the expense of holding elections two out of every three years and the cost of four in-person board meetings each year were prohibitive. Many members of the board were aware of the dysfunctionality of the structure, but the bylaws are so rigid that change from within is nearly impossible. Thus we come back to the present impasses. Under the present governance system, such dysfunctionality is inevitable.
If Pacifica is to survive, it must change its structural governance system, and that change cannot be affected from within. The revolving door of executive directors — nine in the last 10 years, and I served for three of those years — destroys any continuity. In my opinion, having the Chair of the Board serve as Executive Director for any length of time, as two of the last three EDs have done, creates a conflict of interest. The Executive Director does not have the power to make the necessary changes — and probably should not. The Executive Director’s job is to manage the operation of the network.
As I stated above, even if the PNB agrees on necessary reorganization, it is almost impossible to implement under the current bylaws. In the past, a concerned public — people who really cared about Pacifica’s survival — got involved and initiated lawsuits and other measures that affected change. So too, listeners and people from the communities served by Pacifica stations must now demand changes to Pacifica’s governance. The impasse at Pacifica is an expected result of this dysfunctionality and will continue if not changed from the outside.
Arlene Engelhardt served as executive director of Pacifica from 2009 to 2012.
Copyright 2014 American University