***Please see the two crucial UPDATES at the bottom of this post***
Everything in me screams to NOT write this posting. It’s just not worth the pain such endeavors normally evoke. When I’ve done it before, I’ve been slandered, muddied, slashed, booed down, accused of everything short of being Jack Abramoff’s secret lover. I've even been accused of having a hand in the death of Chilean President Salvador Allende, who I had the privilege of working for before the 1973 coup. But here goes, anyway. I can’t help myself:
The potentially biggest media resource – and really one of the largest institutions of any sort—on the American Left has taken one more giant and voluntary step toward oblivion.The five-station, listener-sponsored, half-billion dollar Pacifica Radio network has just named a new executive director. Predictable enough that the new guy, Greg Guma, comes straight out of the pwogwessive bubble of Burlington. But what catches the eye is how Guma – who will now oversee the five stations—has written with enthusiasm about truly off-kilter conspiracy theorists like David Ray Griffin who argue that 9/11 was NOT caused by the four Al Qaeda—commandeered planes. Instead, Guma asks us to take seriously the proposition that the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were the product of a Reichstag-like plot engineered by the Bush Administration.
That proposition was described as “monstrous” by former CIA agent Bob Baer writing in The Nation magazine a couple of years ago (Baer's story was the basis of the movie Syriana). Baer’s reaction to the same loon praised by Guma is the proper one: The Bushies may be liars but that is no reason to lie to ourselves and swoon over preposterous conspiracy theories.Unless, of course you are the new Executive Director of the Pacifica network. To be frank, for those of us who actually pay some attention to this matter, the selection of a non-credible fringie like Guma is hardly a surprise. Pacifica has been in accelerating decline for two decades – especially in the last five years (disclaimer: I did a daily drive-time show on Pacifica’s KPFK in Los Angeles from 1998-2001. I quit when an extreme know-nothing faction who believed that I and others were engaged in a dark "corporatist" conspiracy to -gasp!- "mainstream" the programming took over the entire organization. My Radio Nation show, which was made available for free to hundreds of public radio stations and therefore to Pacifica, was also carried on KPFK until last month when the program moved –without me—to Air America).
Five years ago, also writing in The Nation, veteran journalist and former NPR news manager John Dinges came the closest to best explaining the downward spiral of Pacifica. Since then, things have only gotten worse. Much worse.
I don’t think anyone would or should care very much about any of this, if it were not for the gross squandering of an historic opportunity. Started by Bay Area pacifists, anarchists and liberals in 1949, Pacifica eventually opened stations in L.A., New York, Washington D.C. and Houston.Are you ready for this? The estimated value of those frequencies today – that is to say the market value of the five Pacifica stations operating today—is conservatively estimated to be $300-$500 million. You read that right. A half-billion dollars? Do you know of any other institution on the American Left that can compare in value?
Yet, the network’s growth – its real listenership-- stunted and atrophied a long time ago. So just when media is more important than ever in the political fight, just when cheap digital technology makes radio production immediately doable and accessible, Pacifica has marooned itself on the margin. The network is so shoddily managed that it’s nigh impossible to secure any reliable numbers. But industry experts estimate the total weekly cumulative audience of the five Pacifica radio stations to be less than a million. Maybe a lot less. That’s in five signal areas that envelope as many as 50-60 million people.
Instead of producing, as it should and could, a satellite or web-fed daily schedule of 12, 18 or even 24 hrs of solid, listenable national programming, the “network” remains, instead, a rag-tag hodgepodge of stations with tiny listenerships and all held hostage to self-serving programmers more interested in hearing themselves talk than in building a real audience. It’s a half-billion dollars rotting away.The “flagship” New York station, WBAI, which in the 70’s was a hothouse that produced a generation of able journalists who later took their skills and their liberal or lefty politics into the mainstream media, is today an irrelevancy that teeters on bankruptcy. The programming is dominated by a toxic brew of crude race-politics.
The Pacifica outlet in Washington D.C., WPFW, which, in the age of Bush, ought to be a mighty bastion of on-air political pushback, continues to be – as has been the case for two decades—primarily a black jazz station. White guilt, and a veritable PC-cult that permeates the internal Pacifica culture, has constrained the network from turning that station into what it ought to be -- a powerful and massively listened-to alternative in the heart of the nation’s capital.
The Houston outlet, KPFT, remains a peanut-whistle station. KPFA in Berkeley, whose core paid staff has been the same for 25 years, is but an echo-chamber of its pony-tailed, core community. Listening to the station for more than five minutes is like tuning into a clandestine ethnic radio narrow-casting in an obscure tongue to some tiny Balkan enclave.
The Los Angeles station, KPFK, whose drive-time is dominated by an combination of screamers and, believe it or not, a couple of followers of the maoist Revolutionary Communist Party, finds itself in a similar sorry state. With a signal area that encompasses 25 million people, its average listenership during any given quarter hour is under 10,000. Over a seven day period, the 110,000 watt station collects a cumulative audience of barely 175,000. That’s less than the number of unique visitors that a big blog – like Daily Kos—gets in one single day.
This is a long, long, long way from the origins of the network. In its heyday – from the late 60’s and into the early 80’s—the bigger Pacifica stations were exciting and refreshing meeting points for artists, poets, musicians and free-thinkers. The air would be filled with live drama performances, poetry happenings, literary readings, world-class public affairs interviews, and quality music that ranged from the avant-garde to classical. While the programming always leaned decidedly left, you’d nevertheless find libertarians and Buddhists mixed in back to back with Communists, radicals, and liberals and even some odd conservatives (Caspar Weinberger was once a Pacifica commentator. Pauline Kael got her start reviewing movies for KPFA).When Pacifica was once a magical place that taught you how to think it is now a dreary drumbeat telling you what to think. Its air is filled with shrill, clumsy and dogmatic denunciations of “fascism.” Any trace of high culture, meanwhile, has been ruthlessly rooted out and expunged. The program schedule is divvied up among self-appointed “community leaders” and paid staff who – for the most part—could never dream of earning a paycheck from any other media entity in the world. What paid and volunteer programmers have in common is a death-grip on their personal slice of air time. Try to take it away and you became the target of a virulent campaign accusing you of being a sexist, racist, and corporatist nazi.
For more than a decade now the rickety internal structure of Pacifica has been wholly dominated by a small ultra-activist crust that knows little to nothing about journalism, radio programming or non-profit management. After they took over the network in 2001 and proceeded to fire three of the five sitting General Managers, they did so in such a blatantly abusive and improper manner that, in any other circumstance, it would have elicited cries of anti-labor policies from its own constituencies. Resulting successful lawsuits cost the network literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial settlements – a dirty little detail that has never been fully disclosed to an audience that is regularly milked for donations. And that would be shocked if it ever learned the truth.
The success the current management group had in taking over the organization derives not at all from talent or intelligence but principally from its immeasurable tenacity – a super-human capacity to outlast everyone else in endless rounds of meetings and to shout down its opponents. That, along with a fervent belief that they, alone and against all odds, are saving the world by making sure air time is given to only fellow true-believers who meet some sort of bizarre political litmus test.
I begrudge them nothing. They perform exactly as one would expect. Instead, our recriminations should center on those who know better, or at least, ought to know better. Whether it is in Los Angeles, or New York or Washington, serious, otherwise intelligent liberals and progressives have sat back and quietly watched this half-billion dollar network slowly slip into the sea. In their worst moments, these liberals and lefties have signed onto idiotic crusades aimed at “saving” Pacifica by cleansing it of any trace of nuance, ideological diversity and, for that matter, debate and dialogue. And even in their better moments, these same supposed political grown-ups, even when they can sense that the network is being squandered, and after the umpteenth time that they have heard their local station raise money by pitching crank videos “exposing” 911 as a White House-engineered hoax, they bite their tongues, shrug their shoulders and remain silent lest they be publicly heard criticizing “our own side.”
Well, nice work, folks. The nesting chickies have indeed come home to roost. Your network, as you would have it, is now officially run by someone who thinks we ought to seriously consider that something other than those airplanes took down the towers. Look forward, if you can, to more programming and fund-raising that would be better suited for a UFO cult than for a serious or credible political and cultural opposition. And all at the cost of only a cool half-billion.
*** UPDATE -- UPDATE ***
A public radio insider, whose bona fides I have checked out before entering, the update below has written in to correct me on one crucial point. I actually overstated -- by twice-- my educated estimate of the current size of KPFK's (Los Angeles) audience and therefore understated its relative decline. The average quarter hour of listenership of the state turns out to be about 5,000 people -- not 10,000. The numbers provided below also clearly indicate that the audience decline has been steady since the network was "saved" by the current management. More alarming, while Pacifica's Los Angeles audience has stagnated over the past decade, the listenership of the competing NPR stations has skyrocketed. This is what I mean about squandering an opportunity. Dissatisfaction with the MSM has generated a boom in public radio -- but the new listeners ignore Pacifica. Here's the note I got from "the insider:"
Marc, you're far too generous in your guestimate of KPFK’s small audience. Your blog prompted me to find KPFK’s latest numbers at http://www.rrconline.org/arbitron/. I also dug out an old spreadsheet from the 1990's showing LA public radio audience. KPFK’s latest metro listenership – as measured Fall 2005 – shows an Average Quarter Hour (AQH) of 5200 and CUME of 159,300. Roughly half of your imagined 10,000!
For non-radio people, imagine you run a store. AQH is how many people, on average, might be inside at any time. The CUME (cumulative) is how many visited for at least five minutes during an average week. So AQH is a measurement of listening, versus a gross head count of who stuck their nose in.
Before the KPFK idiots crippled their transmitter in 1994, KPFK’s metro AQH averaged 3825, a small number indeed for a 112,000 watt station. Afterwards it dropped dramatically, dipping as low as 2300 in one period. Then after 1995, when you and others came in and started making changes, the average rose steadily to roughly 7000 AQH. There was even a peak of 8200 before the suicidal "Pacifica Wars" erupted into a daily feature on the national programming. Although still small, these numbers represented a decent growth trend, especially given the compromised transmitter – and programming during a Democratic administration.
After 2001, the faction that took over didn’t pay the fees, so Pacifica's audience research was not published for several years. Just as they took control, the transmitter restoration project was completed, Bush was president, and the Patriot Act and Iraq war soon followed. KPFK’s audience numbers should have blown through the roof! We’ll never know exactly, but even if they did, they quickly fell right back down.
For comparison, other LA public stations are booming. During the Fall of 1999, the AQH for KPCC was 8300. This past Fall it was 20,600. KCRW’s numbers grew even higher. They've more than doubled, while the "new" KPFK has fallen – or at best stagnated – despite a much, much stronger transmitter and what should be it’s political salad days made possible by a disastrous Bush presidency. Very sad indeed.
*** UPDATE #2*** ***UPDATE #2 ***
Flash! What timing. Word has just come in that the General Manager of Berkeley's KPFA resigned today. Under duress, of course. His stepping down has nothing to do with my post above i.e. with the naming of the new network director. Instead, Gen Mgr Roy Campanella Jr. (son of the legendary Dodger baseball player) quit after one more months-long drama of internal conflict in which he was accused, apparently, of sexual harrassment.
Read deep into the linked piece, however, and you find two nuggets. You get a glimpse of the ultra-activist internal culture I alluded to above. Imagine dozens of people spending their Sunday in a marathon "town hall" meeting to discuss the internal management of a radio station whose core programming really hasn't changed in 25 years (in spite of hundreds or perhaps thousands of oh-so-serious similar meetings during that same period). And, more importantly, you see a suggestion of what might be the real story behind Campanella's departure. The crustacean-like programmers and staff who cling to their air time and their jobs for dear life and at all costs, resist any managment whatsover and don't hesitate to brand anyone with authority over them as some sort of horrible villain. What they fear most is any accountability for their failed and prolonged tenure on the air and are quick to smear those who threaten them as some sort of political criminal. In the pc-Pacifica culture, of course, the capital crimes are the usual allegations of sexism, racism, or, my God, liberalism (as opposed to radicalism). Campanella now joins a long list of former Pacifica managers driven out of the network by similar staff-driven campaigns. Now, back to watching The Crucible...