Pacifica, the embattled progressive radio network, has been the recipient of bad press and suggestions that it should simply be allowed to go into bankruptcy. This first-ever internal look by a high-level insider puts Pacifica’s troubles in the context of public media facing challenges from digital, funding cuts and declining revenue. Pacifica leaders contend the network is still important and must be supported.
The in-house bouts of Pacifica Radio spilled into the proverbial street recently, when the California Attorney General was asked to audit the oldest non-commercial independent radio network in the US. Truthout is one of many outlets that has featured Pacifica’s arguments, recriminations and sordid dramas. One can’t help but read with interest.
As Pacifica’s longest tenured program director, I have had a ringside seat since 2005. Pacifica may find itself special in its pugnaciousness, but the reality is we are witnessing a bigger story, as well, where Pacifica’s survival says something about the soul of independent public media.
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Non-commercial media is having its moment of truth. Our country’s economic, technological, and political climate has changed dramatically since the inception of public media. Lawmakers promise to chop funds for educational broadcasting at the same time that Americans have less disposable income to donate to such outlets.
Public media’s pressures are compounded by how Americans use technology. How we work, play, engage with each other and our communities – and consume media – has changed in just the past 20 years. Radio’s relevance is an open question. In examining its latest troubles, some of the toughest in its history, the LA Weekly and Pacifica historian Matthew Lasar imply it may just be best for everyone to allow Pacifica to dissolve.
To contemplate a post-Pacifica world is to forecast significant implications for all non-commercial media. Pacifica aired decades of interviews and news reports documenting music, movements and voices such as those of Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy and Chris Hedges. For Katea Stitt, interim program director at Pacifica’s Washington, DC radio station WPFW, Pacifica broadcasts mean more than ancient history. “We have several programs that are extensively covering the Black Lives Matter movement. [There is a new] partnership between WPFW and the Metro Council AFL-CIO.” Stitt says. “WPFW has become the go-to media right now.”
In addition, Pacifica’s archive documents American history, including items like a 1963 debate between Malcolm X and James Baldwin on the character of the Civil Rights Movement, and scores of similar historical recordings, made available free to schools and the public.
Margy Wilkinson, chair of Pacifica’s board who has led the organization through its latest difficulties, says the Pacifica tradition is synonymous with the inception of community radio and independent media in the United States. It has stood for the open door where important news stories have been broken, and important artists found their first break. Pacifica was the first radio home for artists like Bob Dylan, and journalists such as Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. “This past December, Pacifica decided to do a fundraising mailing,” Wilkinson reflects. “Ralph Nadar readily agreed to sign the letter and Amy Goodman gave us a quote that said in part, ‘The Pacifica Network is a vital cornerstone of our independent media landscape.’ The community-powered voice of Pacifica is needed now, more than ever.”
Public Radio and the Economy
Pacifica’s current plight may seem extremely stark, but must be understood in the frame of the economic shifts affecting all public media.
The Station Resource Group remarks audience giving and listening for non-commercial radio has been on a downward trend since 2003. One estimate notes listeners on average will listen to a radio station for 300 hours before they make a contribution. Gimmicks from pet-centered pledge drives to celebrity pitches may turn heads, but listener data indicates times are getting tougher. Even where the work outlook is rosier, notes theWashington Post, people are opting to hold on to their money.
Pacifica’s cutbacks and precarious finances are well publicized, but sadly, almost all public media organizations – from tiny community radio stations to the public radio stronghold – are facing hardships. As a member of the board of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, the country’s original network for public media, I hear about the financial challenges coast to coast. NFCB’s Sally Kane has led media organizations, advocated for them and guided them through difficult situations. She indicates there are system-wide challenges for everyone in public media fundraising right now.
“Part of the issue is that the economic downturn of 2008 put pressure on people so they still give to their favorite station, but they have less money to give. Similarly, underwriters were pinched as their businesses got pinched, so they had less money to spend on underwriting,” she explains. “Many foundations view public media as a luxury or an industry that already has resources through CPB [the Corporation for Public Broadcasting]. Their philanthropic dollars have shrunk, yet competition for the funds has increased, so public media was a fairly easy industry to disqualify for their various programs.”
In addition to fewer funds for public media from granting groups, state and federal funding are often scrutinized. Wisconsin has introduced cuts that threaten public media in the state. CPB, which withheld Pacifica’s funding, has faced complete defunding itself before. National Public Radio, the gold standard for public media, is a perennial lightning rod for cuts by lawmakers. While the next two years seem reliably funded, Kane says, public media has not gained ground at all in many years,
“CPB is a major funder and they are always challenged in a polarized political environment like our country has going on,” Kane acknowledges. “I believe that our system is vulnerable. I wouldn’t say that stations need to worry exactly because worry is not terribly productive, but I think any station leader who expects to make an average effort in fundraising and call it good will be painfully surprised at how quickly things start to circle the drain.”
Kane adds system stress was compounded when the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, a grant program that helped public broadcasting stations and others construct facilities, was shuttered in 2011, taking another $40 million from the system.
Pledge drive challenges are prompting fresh looks at the fundraising model itself.
Melody Kramer is one of non-commercial media’s foremost public intellectuals. In addition to her work with NPR, WHYY’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and extensive writings on public media, Kramer’s Twitter and newsletter chronicle innovations in audio, podcasting and non-profit application of technology. Kramer says, while she does not advocate ending fund drives, she encourages public media to evaluate and expand its model of radio and listener relationships.
A key to fostering new connections may be finding ways that create lifelong associations that don’t start with money, she remarks. Inevitably new listeners may give, but there has to be a hook that gets them interested. Self-identifying with non-commercial media listening creates its own form of community, Kramer points out, and social experiences with others have many appeals. “For people not into the bar scene and who aren’t religious, there are not a lot of options,” Kramer adds. “Public broadcasters can make spaces where listeners can be involved, almost as cruise ship directors, connecting people and extracting themselves.”
The only negative Kramer says she has heard to such ideas is about scarce resources. It is hard for stations strongly focused on content and often short staffed to allocate what is needed. However, she notes the digital space is drawing in so many listeners that public media can potentially benefit, both in terms of new audiences and new memberships. “When it comes to things like mobile, a lot of people are listening to audio, but maybe just not public broadcasting,” Kramer says. “They’re listening to podcasts and independent productions, but there are still opportunities for public media.”
At Pacifica station WBAI in New York City, limited resources have been the name of the game since 2013, when it laid off most of its staff. Berthold Reimers, general manager of WBAI, monitors programming, membership and fulfillment among his tasks as the iconic radio station seeks to rebound from publicized financial tumult. WBAI, he adds, has reduced its fund drive thank-you gift costs, which have helped it pay some debts. However, Reimers says audiences are still accustomed to premiums and pledge for them.
“At the end of the day for us, it’s still the pitch,” Reimers says. “Conversations about arts, community, politics and what happens in New York City are still part of our programming even during a pledge drive, but you ultimately need someone and something to fire up people.”
Scapegoats and Solutions
Critiques such as Lasar’s article in The Nation blame Pacifica’s problems on counter-culture programs, free-form radio and alternative health and spirituality premiums. An unfortunate consequence of this is that large areas of good programming and work at Pacifica stations are overlooked. Pacifica continues to provide a platform for talented and dedicated radio production on a daily basis.
If detractors see Pacifica as a museum of old-school radio, Duane Bradley’s office could be that museum’s basement.
The general manager of Pacifica’s Houston station KPFT sits among neat piles of paper, stacks of books and old vinyl records, musical and radio gear and wall charts of meetings gone by. Bradley volunteered as a youth in the 1970s, oversaw KPFT’s multilingual, multi-tendency programming in the 1980s and was a leader in the 1990s of the Take Back Movement, a national struggle over Pacifica’s direction that resulted in a lawsuit and sweeping changes, including his appointment in 2002. Bradley helmed a change of KPFT’s Americana format instituted by previous management into a plethora of special-interest and musical programs, only to shift into a slightly more conventional radio mix a decade into his tenure. He says he’s familiar with that which others fault Pacifica, and believes a more pedestrian issue is at root, related in part to Pacifica’s contrarian perception.
“In my now 13 year tenure, I have seen an outpouring of support initially, followed by peaks of both financial support and membership during the latter years of the Bush administration,” Bradley says. “This plateaued in 2008-2009 and has been in a slow decline since, mirroring the general decline in the radio universe, but perhaps exacerbated in our case by the malaise of the post-Obama election.”
With similar declines across the public media spectrum, efforts to capture fresh interest should be expected. Although blasted for odd premiums, Pacifica is hardly alone. Colorado Public Television/KBDI’s airing of 9/11 pledge-drive programs is but one example of what has been an enduring public media debate over standards, fundraising and limits. Bradley states singling out Pacifica can be counterproductive. “Rather than ascribe blame and point fingers, it behooves us to look for ways Pacifica can address its problems of decreased funding and increased costs,” he says. “We represent some of the smartest and most creative voices America has produced; certainly we can look at this enormous resource we have and reconfigure it in a way that is sustainable.”
Niche programming, a part of the Pacifica experience for decades, is often criticized and is, in fact, part of an internal culture that I have seen firsthand. It can be limiting or alienating and even self-referential, but it also does reflect a cultural devotion to hearing many diverse voices, including the marginal ones. While providing space for diverse voices within a democracy, especially for those who do not have any other platform, is not always a popular stance, it is still a central reason why many people still feel Pacifica is meaningful.
WBAI’s Reimers suggests niche programming can be a strategy to attract listeners, especially in markets where public media is competitive and digital is wooing audiences. “The Internet provides a lot of great things, but Pacifica provides community,” he adds. He relates the story of WBAI’s gospel program on Sundays, which appeals to listeners who may not believe anything on WBAI is for them, but find other faith communities and what they’re doing in New York City. In a market where public media is scrambling for new audiences, Reimers remarks, offering something specific is not always the bad practice some make it out to be, and, in fact, can welcome a whole new demographic.
In other cases, what may seem to go against the grain can find itself in the mainstream. Dean Becker is a Pacifica radio host specializing on the Drug War. Back when he started a program in 2001, Becker, a former police officer, was a rare media personality talking about decriminalizing marijuana. In 2015, state ballot measures and criminal justice reform are popular, and his program is syndicated on 90 radio stations, virtually all Pacifica affiliates. Becker is insistent that what some call narrow programming is necessary to thoroughly educate listeners about matters of public policy.
“Pacifica was a door to the possible, a means to awaken the United States to the failure of our nation’s war on certain plant products,” Becker says. “Pacifica was, is and will be my main point of leverage, education and in making progress towards ending this 100 year exercise in futility.”
NFCB’s Kane says the debate over formats and programming amid financial pressures is very serious. More importantly, the digital space makes it easy to listen to whatever you want whenever you want, making the notion of tuning in at a particular time “pretty much dead.”
“Holding to the notion that a patchwork of programs can provide ‘a little something for everyone’ is proving to be perilous in the current ‘on demand’ space we operate in,” she adds. “The connection to fundraising is simple: great content leads to listening which leads to listener support financially. Losing and/or misunderstanding the audience sets off an avalanche of negative consequences that are very real.”
Despite the morass of Pacifica’s bad press and financial storm clouds, author and sports journalist Dave Zirin, and consumer advocate Nader recently launched programs with Pacifica. Why? According to Pacifica’s Affiliate Network Manager Ursula Ruedenberg, Pacifica’s value is as a national institution, and the financial, programming, staff and technical resources provided by the foundation for Pacifica’s 180-station affiliate network, which extends throughout the United States, and as far as Canada and Europe.
Programs from Pacifica’s stations are distributed across the country and are highly valued, she says, for their production levels and for providing news, culture, and public information often not available elsewhere. “Not only does Pacifica have long-standing relationships with community radio stations and independent production groups, currently many new stations and production groups are being built and Pacifica’s services can be crucial to them,” Ruedenberg says.
How Pacifica is viewed is as important as its services, says Ruedenberg, “Pacifica is a national tradition with the momentum of almost 70 years that stands for the courage to pioneer alternatives to mainstream culture,” she says. “In my work, I see how all this activity and tradition bolsters the day-to-day effort building and maintaining community media in many different places. In some cases it is hard, and if Pacifica were absent, impossible.”
Pacifica staffers interviewed all claimed radio still has much to offer. Nielsen notes radio listenership is still immense, with millennials making up a sizeable portion of the audience. Interest in public media remains high, in part due to bold experiments like Serial, which mix journalism and social commentary. However, though podcasts, Youtube and Twitter are remaking the media experience, the credibility audiences give outlets like radio remains strong. Alan Minsky, interim program director at Pacifica’s Los Angeles radio station KPFK, comments that, even with podcasting, people increasingly turn to established outlets. “While KPFK’s Arbetron Arbitron ratings remained roughly stable during the last five years, its digital listenership expanded tenfold,” Minsky says. “More people are listening to KPFK content than any time in recent memory. Shows that are very popular in Southern California are now popular globally, through syndication and digital distribution.”
Pacifica has its problems. Redundancy, bottlenecks and a need for a coherent digital strategy will require national Pacifica leadership to take a clear and assertive role in steering stations in the right direction. In addition, the public’s reassessment of radio’s place in civil society is underway. Pacifica must more nimbly respond. Pacifica needs to be more open to change.
But Pacifica also has to learn to ask for recognition for the valued service it provides, the culture enrichment if offers, the thought leaders whom it brings to the air, and the hope it still gives. Pacifica’s story is not just the history of movements and a narrative of cultural criticism, but the arc of public media and independent journalism. On a daily basis, Pacifica continues to facilitate the airing of remarkable arts and journalism, and for offering an energetic learning environment, a space that gave some of public media’s best and brightest their first start.
Of the criticism fired at Pacifica, Bradley puts it bluntly. “Does the community have a right to expect there to be a platform for otherwise non-represented points of view? Is there going to be forum for cultural expression that is not driven by market-based financial profit motivations? Can we allow political postures that challenge the status quo to speak their truth? Are we willing to allow Pacifica, which began and modeled this very roots-based, people-powered alternative form of democratic radio media expression to disappear from the landscape? With all its obvious troubles, it would be too easy to say yes,” he says, “but from my point of view, as a citizen of America whose world view and appreciation for diversity was shaped by the fortuitous blessing of having KPFT in my Houston, I have to continue in the struggle to save Pacifica. It has meant too much to let it go; it means too much to our collective futures to allow it to away.”
Indeed the argument that an institution like Pacifica, hobbled by conflict and market forces, should simply be scrapped for parts is terribly short-sighted. The public still needs non-commercial media. Major-market FM licenses are out of reach for the average American, in spite of the hunger for independent media. One doesn’t have to agree with Pacifica’s predicament or politics to know there are a lot of reasons to not simply abandon it to the free-market winds, which increasingly don’t blow the way of the public interest.