|Ousted a year ago, Bernard White returns to Pacifica's WBAI as program director. Amy Goodman, at right, catches a comment. (Photo: Chet Gordon.)|
The outsiders are back in
They applaud as Pacifica reverses course
To gauge changes at the Pacifica radio network, look no further than Dan Coughlin's resume.
Not long ago, Coughlin was working for the Pacifica Campaign, a nationwide drive to cripple the network with boycotts and unseat its management and board. Campaign leaders vilified Pacifica officers, including then-Executive Director Bessie Wash.
Wash is gone. Her latest successor? Coughlin himself.
His return to the network where he once served as news director is one of many turnabouts as Pacifica's interim board, dominated since December by political progressives who previously held a minority of seats, revamps the network. As the board rehires fired employees and returns canceled shows to the air, it is undoing years of work by Wash, her helpers and her predecessors.
Last month the board returned to the air Democracy Now!, the morning news show that network managers had taken off the satellite and Pacifica's five stations in August.
Upper levels of management are also churning. At its first in-person meeting in New York, Jan. 11-13 , the board fired Robert Daughtry, g.m. of WBAI, Pacifica's New York station. Garland Ganter, g.m. at KPFT in Houston, also resigned earlier this month. And Coughlin recently told Current that Verna Avery-Brown, the former host of Pacifica Network News who left the network to protest Coughlin's firing, has returned as his deputy executive director.
An audience of hundreds of activists at the New York meeting watched their dream of reforming Pacifica come true, piece by piece.
For years the activists charged that management's streamlining of station schedules and professionalization of its sound undercut its historic commitment to free speech and left-wing politics. They now see evidence that the interim board is getting back in step with those principles.
Addressing the board, activist Frank Wagner noted the promising change of venue for the meeting: a cavernous hotel workers' union hall with weathered wood floors. (A listeners' group furnished organic spelt cookies in the lobby for $2 each.) Pacifica's board previously met in plush hotels, "the symbol of corporate capitalism," Wagner said.
"Now we have some power here," he said. "It's really encouraging."
Board chair Leslie Cagan agreed. "I believe the actions we took this weekend establish us as progressives," she said.
Cagan and her board:
- returned 27 fired and banned employees and volunteers to WBAI. Internal shake-ups have rocked the station since December 2000, when Pacifica management fired then-General Manager Valerie Van Isler and Program Director Bernard White and changed the locks on station doors. Over the next year their replacements sacked numerous hosts and producers. The board returned Van Isler, White and the other employees to the station, much to the delight of activists who deplored the changes.
- recommended that KPFA rehire talk show host Larry Bensky as a paid employee. Cagan also suggested that Pacifica could once again distribute his show nationally. Former Pacifica Executive Director Lynn Chadwick fired Bensky in 1999 for talking about internal network matters on his show.
- declared the Local Advisory Board (LAB) at KPFT, Pacifica's Houston station, out of compliance with network bylaws because it had too few members. It ordered the LAB to merge with a group of community activists who had formed their own LAB, unrecognized by station management.
- accepted the resignations of interim Executive Director Joanne Meredith, who had succeeded Wash, and board member Wendell Johns.
Due to the unusual make-up of the interim board, Johns' departure helped board members push through their resolutions. Control of the board changed hands last month when the previous majority settled four lawsuits pressed by the activists, including Cagan.
Under the settlement, three different factions make up the board. The plaintiffs and like-minded activists appoint five members, the defendant board members appoint five more, and each of the five LABs appoints a member.
But Pacifica's previous rulers had just three votes in New York, since Johns had resigned before the New York meeting and another skipped the meeting.
There was another change: the resignation of Barney Goodman, a Houston listener appointed by KPFT's board. In a December conference call, Goodman sometimes voted with the former majority. His replacement in New York, George Barnstone, voted with the progressives, giving them enough votes to advance their agenda without opposition.
Board members also heard financial reports from Pacifica's five stations. KPFA in Berkeley and KPFK in Los Angeles reported they lacked money to mount and repair new transmitters. Mark Schubb, g.m. of KPFK, said his staff can't afford audio tape or office supplies.
Cagan told Current she plans to give the stations more fiscal autonomy, letting them write their own budgets and give a percentage of their income to Pacifica's national operations. That's how it worked until a few years ago, Cagan said, when Pacifica's national office took charge.
"We're working on turning that around again, so that stations can control their own money," she said.
Pacifica's finances are a shambles. It is $3 million in debt, half owed to lawyers and public relations firms. Coughlin and other officers hope to pay the bills with renewed support from listeners who withheld their pledges in protest.
In a move that surprised some board members, the board voted down a resolution to move Pacifica's national offices back to Berkeley, where Pacifica was born more than 50 years ago. The network's former leaders moved the headquarters to Washington, D.C., two years ago, after thousands of Berkeley listeners surrounded the building to protest the national board's and management's actions.
"Pacifica is not a Beltway organization," said board member Carol Spooner, who served on KPFA's LAB.
But board member Rob Robinson cited the network's precarious finances and called Pacifica "a sick man in an intensive care unit." The resolution failed, 4-6, angering Berkeley stalwarts. Board members said they might consider the move again in the future.
The board next meets in Los Angeles, March 8-10 .
Web page posted Jan. 31,
2002, revised Feb. 11, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Current Publishing Committee