Some see decentralization as salve to Pacifica’s fiscal, leadership woes

By Ben Mook

As Pacifica Radio marked its 65th anniversary of broadcasting, foundation and station leaders are talking publicly about governance reforms that involve “decentralizing” control of its five stations.

Pacifica National Board Chair Margy Wilkinson, who is battling for control of the Foundation with former executive director Summer Reese, discussed the proposal April 9 on KPFK-FM, the Pacifica station in Los Angeles.

“There are real governance issues,” Wilkinson said during an appearance on the KPFK show Truthdig. “I think the way the foundation is put together does not make for a very highly functioning organization.”

Though she didn’t wade into specifics, Wilkinson called for “some decentralization and some greater autonomy at the local stations.”

“I see a role for Pacifica, but I think right now, the way national is functioning is not particularly helpful to the stations,” Wilkinson said.

The proposal to reduce Pacifica’s control over local stations has support in Houston, where leaders of Pacifica’s KPFT have called for greater independence.

Leo Gold, chair of KPFT-FM’s local station board, devoted an hourlong April 11 broadcast to Pacifica’s governance. Emphasizing that he was speaking as an individual and not in his official capacity as board chair, he called for Pacifica to let the stations go their own way.

“In my judgment, the Pacifica Foundation has failed as an operating entity,” Gold said. “It has failed as an operating entity because it essentially forces five radio stations that are very different – located in five different places with different listenerships, different needs, different places in life – to exist together under the same sets of rules and requirements.”

Gold called on the national board, which will consider a motion to explore restructuring during its meeting on Thursday, to reorganize.

“I have come to the conclusion that Pacifica should undertake a voluntary reorganization,” Gold said. “I think it should do this before involuntary reorganization is forced on it.”

Nancy Hentschel, a KPFT LSB member who recently left the national board when her term ended, proposed the motion on governance reform last fall. It calls on the board to create a task force on restructuring the Pacifica Foundation.

The motion languished as Hentschel’s term on the national board ended, but Wilkinson added it to the agenda for the April 17 meeting.

Delays in bringing the motion up for board consideration point to deeper problems in Pacifica’s operations, according to Hentschel.

“We never get to these things because of the chaos that happens at these meetings, and if we don’t [act now], we’re going to have a judge somewhere making these decisions,” she said.

Sniping and infighting among Pacifica’s leaders is a turn-off for potential board members, listeners and donors, Hentschel said. Governance reform is key to any effort to attract talent that’s capable of turning Pacifica around.

“We need to save Pacifica, even from itself,” Hentschel said.

Pacifica is mired in deep financial problems and an employment dispute with Reese, who is contesting the Pacifica national board’s March 14 vote to dismiss her in court. Reese is occupying Pacifica’s national office in Berkeley, Calif., and has barred Wilkinson and other Pacifica officials from entering the building.

The agenda for Thursday’s meeting includes another item that could dramatically change Pacifica’s broadcast service and viability: The board is scheduled to discuss bids from a recent request for proposals for another broadcaster to operate WBAI in New York, Pacifica’s most financially troubled station.

A separate motion proposed by Richard Uzzell, a national board member from KPFT, describes Pacifica as “suffering from great financial problems,” and “very near bankruptcy.” He calls for Pacifica to cease payments for publication of board minutes because the foundation can’t afford the administrative expense.

Questions, comments, tips? mook@current.org

  • http://www.SaveKPFA.org SaveKPFA

    Background on this important discussion can be found at http://www.SaveKPFA.org.

  • ECJLA

    http://la.indymedia.org/news/2014/04/263659.php

    I covered some of the points in this comment in an op-ed article found at the link above. And accurate, frequently updated information about Pacifica’s current crisis is located at http://2014.supportkpfa.org/

    The Pacifica Foundation’s 1946 founding mission statement commits it to (in a small nutshell) delivering educational radio programming oriented to peace, social justice and conflict resolution, wide-ranging political, cultural and artistic expression, and to “the full distribution of public information”.

    Such a small progressive non-profit national NETWORK of a 5 radio stations and
    some 180 affiliated community radio stations (that carry some Pacifica programming) is an extremely valuable thing. It exists and cannot in the current American media landscape be recreated for generations (if ever) if it were to be broken up via re-structuring or disappear altogether. Most of Pacifica’s 80,000 listener sponsors (donors) morally support not just their own station but the network as a whole.

    It’s true that Pacifica’s impact on the national scene thus far (especially since the 1970s) has been rather small (although at certain times, such as during the run-up to the infernal Iraq War, it is virtually the only broadcast media outlet in the country where the truth can be heard). But there’s no reason whatsoever to give up on something as significant as the Pacifica 5-station national union just because we’re having some trouble “getting along”. If we’ve “failed” (in some way), then, as Samuel Beckett said, we just have to keep trying and “fail better” over time.

    Leo Gold’s contention that Pacifica’s “five radio stations that are very different…” is simply false. Each Pacifica station is committed to serving the Pacifica Foundation’s founding non-profit, non-commercial educational mission and cannot materially deviate from it. Indeed, it’s clear that a network of stations each producing and sharing one or more programs that bear on national issues can better fulfill the Pacifica mission than 5 near or wholly autonomous stations.

    Moreover, a small radio network’s national office, such as the one the highly capable Summer Reese runs in Berkeley, can keep the business affairs of a national organization ship-shape better than the local stations have ever been able to do throughout Pacifica’s history. Eg. Pacifica’s national office handled WBAI last FCC broadcast license application because the local station lacked personnel to do so. And the Houston station has been running its transmitter on low power for so long it is jeopardizing its ability to renew its FCC license. Leo Gold’s silence on that important “bread and butter” subject while he has time to pompously pontificate about radically restructuring the entire Pacifica network is telling.

    And the idea being floated to alienate all or part of WBAI from the Pacifica Foundation’s union, is (or certainly should be regarded as) a complete non-starter. In 1959 New York philanthropist Louis Schweitzer gave his commercial FM station
    WBAI to Pacifica (as a charitable gift) because he admired the programming on
    Pacifica’s Berkeley and Los Angeles stations. He made clear at the time that (i) he wanted WBAI to remain a public broadcasting (ie. non-commercial) station in perpetuity; and (ii) that he wanted it to be run by the Pacifica Foundation (and no one else). The law insists that a charitable donor’s wishes be respected in such circumstances.

    In sum, the talk about decentralization and local control is simply the way some involved with Pacifica choose to present their radical (and obtuse) and unpopular desires to dissolve the Pacifica union (ie. network), cannibalize WBAI and distribute the proceeds (from a sale or lease) to the other Pacifica stations. Such a politically and legally impossible agenda only serves to distract Pacifica from its mission to light a candle of reason, civilization and humanity against the darkness of the prevailing “neo-liberal inferno” (in the late great Alexander Cockburn’s phrase). Who benefits?

    Eric C. Jacobson
    Public Interest Lawyer
    Los Angeles, California

    • MarkJeffries

      There’s just a little problem here–the Pacifica programming that Louis Schweitzer admired enough in 1959 to give WBAI to Pacifica is not–repeat, NOT–what Pacifica is doing today. The Pacifica Schweitzer admired was a refined, highbrow station that programmed classical music you would not hear on the commercial FM stations (in an era when FM stations either simulcasted the AM, were commercial classical, easy listening or some combination of all of these), folk and jazz music that was not being heard elsewhere and civil discussions and speeches on a variety of topics from different viewpoints (William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” began at WBAI). If Schweitzer turned on today’s WBAI or the other Pacifica stations and heard the conspiracy theory-mongering, fringe statements and perpetual pledge drives with wacky nostrum peddling, he would be on the phone asking for his station back.

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