Left-Wing Darling Pacifica Radio Is Sliding Into the Abyss
ILLUSTRATION BY IAN KELTIE
On March 13, after weeks of rumors, Pacifica Radio's board of directors voted to fire its executive director, Summer Reese, during what was essentially a conference call. But nothing is as simple as all that in the oldest and oddest public radio network in the country.
Four days later, Reese sent an email to the entire Pacifica staff announcing that she was not recognizing the board's authority: "I want to assure you that I am in possession of a signed and valid contract for three years of employment from the board of directors and that I fully intend to complete that contract."
And so it was that Reese marched to the Pacifica national office in Berkeley on March 17, bolt cutters in hand, removed a padlock placed on the front doors over the weekend, and essentially occupied the building. When newly appointed interim executive director Margy Wilkinson showed up, Reese and 12 of her compatriots — including Reese's mother, a longtime anti-war and civil rights activist — refused to let Wilkinson, her husband and two of her allies pass.
"You're all going to be personally liable — and I'm going to enjoy your houses!" Reese shouted at them, according to former board member Sasha Futran, who backs Wilkinson.
Later Reese read for all the staff, in her deep and booming voice, from the Book of Joshua: "Whosoever he be that doth rebel against thy commandment, and will not hearken unto thy words in all that thou commandest him, he shall be put to death: only be strong and of a good courage."
"I feel like I've ended up in an insane asylum," Futran told L.A. Weekly a few hours later, still in disbelief.
"I'm not leaving the building until this is resolved by either the Attorney General's Office or the court," Reese told the Weekly. "I don't want these people to destroy Pacifica."
The standoff is only the latest in a series of putsches and counter-putsches that have typified the network's last 15 years.
Pacifica has a long and storied history, and still features such leading liberals as Amy Goodman, the widely known host of Democracy Now! (on which journalists Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill are frequent guests), but it has fallen on hard times of late. Listenership, according Reese, is "extraordinarily low." During an average 15-minute period, just 700 people listen to its Los Angeles station, 90.7 FM KPFK, for at least five minutes, according to Nielsen Audio, which monitors radio ratings.
For L.A.'s other public radio stations, KCRW and KPCC, that number is 8,000 and 20,000, respectively. KPFK draws roughly one one-thousandth of all radio listeners in the Metro Los Angeles area.
Pacifica's New York station, WBAI, is even worse off, with too few listeners to register on the Arbitron rankings, and is all but bankrupt. Last year, most of the staff was laid off, including the entire news department.
Making matters worse, the federal government, via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is withholding Pacifica's grant money, thanks to the network's "failure to provide documentation" for a 2012 audit.
Ever since a string of protests and lawsuits led to a new set of bylaws establishing democratic elections for the boards of each of Pacifica's five stations and the national board, a parade of top managers have filed in and out of Pacifica, staying for a year or two before being forced out by whatever bloc happens to have taken power.
Ian Masters, host of Background Briefing, a smart if rather sedate, hourlong public affairs show on KPFK, has been publicly calling for an end to this experiment in democracy, which sees board members elected by both listeners and staff members two out of every three years.
"We're no longer a radio network, we're a sad political glee club," Masters says. "We desperately need adult supervision."
Voters don't seem to have any clue who they're voting for, and turnout is low. Last year's elections were called off due to lack of funding. Termed-out and retiring board members were replaced by the runner-up candidates in the most previous vote, leading, rather perversely, to the board majority flipping to the minority, the removal of Summer Reese and Reese's subsequent sit-in.
The national board is dominated by two factions: the new majority, which Masters calls the "Radio Havana crowd," and the new minority, which Masters dubs the "conspiracy and quackery crowd" — the latter group in 2010 approved a motion calling for all KPFK programs to question the "official story" of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
While board members have so far declined to say why they fired Reese, members of the various groups have made wild claims about one another.
Reese accuses her enemies of plotting to cover up financial malfeasance and even embezzlement. Reese's opponents accuse her of incompetence and scheming to turn over control of the organization to Gary Null, an alternative-medicine guru and longtime Pacifica host, who sells his own vitamins and nutritional supplements during pledge drives — for which he takes a healthy cut, according to several board members and managers who spoke to the Weekly.
Reese also has been castigated for some of her fringe beliefs — her résumé includes stints working for the lawyer of Sirhan Sirhan, and for a man named Peymon Mottahedeh, a non-lawyer who nevertheless founded the Freedom Law School, which claims to help clients avoid taxes.
Reese admits to having no Social Security number, saying she is legally exempt because of a "religious objection." When asked her religion, she says only that she's a Christian; when asked whether she pays income taxes, she says only, "I don't think that's relevant to the article."
The recent internal strife at Pacifica underlines a depressing truth for liberals, for whom the radio network is — or at least was — an important voice in an increasingly homogenized broadcast media landscape.
"If this goes under, anyone to the left of NPR will have nowhere to go," Masters says.
Others say that ship has sunk.
"What you're seeing right now is the death rattle, because there's no way it can be viable," says Marc Cooper, a former host and news director at KPFK, now a professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. "You think you can build up a radio audience like this after you've discredited it for 10 years? Forget it."
For Ian Masters, the fund drives are always a struggle.
"This place is criminal," he says, weeks ago, in the middle of a pledge drive and before Reese was fired. "So fucking criminal. I don't know if I can continue."
A National Public Radio fund drive, such as those heard in Los Angeles on much bigger KCRW and KPCC, is a mix of cloying boosterism, promises of tote bags and begging. A Pacifica fund drive, meanwhile, sounds like a never-ending infomercial for products created by a street-corner lunatic.
Take, for example, a five-DVD set titled "The Great Lies of History," which includes five documentaries by Italian filmmaker Massimo Mazzucco: The Second Dallas; The New American Century; UFOs and the Military Elite; The True History of Marijuana; and Cancer: The Forbidden Cures. Cancer features Dr. Tullio Simoncini, an Italian doctor who claims to treat cancer, which he says originates with a fungus, with sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda.
"There was a woman [diagnosed with] cancer of the uterus," Mazzucco recently explained to KPFK producer Christine Blosdale on air. "She tried the Simoncini method. She healed by herself by simply doing douches, washing with sodium bicarbonate. The cancer's gone, and now she can have babies. Of course, that's one less patient the cancer industry had to milk from."
Minutes later, Mazzucco said: "A new discovery that has been made in the last two years, and is seen at a laboratory level, [is] that marijuana actually cures cancer."
Blosdale then informed the listener, "If you got all the DVDs individually, yes, it would cost $500, but you get all five together for a $250 pledge." (A quick search on Amazon shows "The Great Lies of History" multi-DVD package selling for $49.90.)
Pacifica has become addicted to these pledge drives, which repel listeners looking for news and analysis from a left-wing perspective.
"People that have relied on Pacifica as the bastion of progressive news have slowly turned away," says Sonali Kolhatkar, host of KPFK's Uprising. "People looking for inner peace or nirvana are more and more of our listenership, and they shell out hundreds of dollars. We have successful pledge drives because we're selling this stuff."
Unlike NPR, Pacifica doesn't have corporate sponsorship (or underwriting, in public-radio speak). While listener sponsorship counts for not quite 40 percent of NPR's funding, it counts for about 80 percent of Pacifica's. While KCRW holds two nine-day-long fund drives each year, KPFK holds a monthlong fund drive every three months — meaning one out of every three days is a pledge drive, days full of DVDs and nutritional supplements and get-rich-quick schemes such as the "Wealth Propulsion Challenge," an online course that promotes "how to get rich holistically" — and quickly — via "subconscious reprogramming."
"Meanwhile, I'm supposed to talk all this happy talk — 'We're a great station! We don't take corporate money!' " Ian Masters says glumly. "It's a moral issue. We're ripping off the public."
Much of the money raised in a recent WBAI fund drive came from Gary Null and Monique Guild, a so-called "business intuitive and wealth builder," who was hawking "prosperity workshops." Various sources estimate that Guild and Null take between 30 and 50 percent of the money paid for these "premiums" — the gifts and items they sell to listener-supporters. Many suggest this may actually be illegal, since Pacifica is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.
"Gary Null is a for-profit operation," Masters says, but "we're only supposed to educate and advocate. We're not supposed to be a private home shopping network for Gary Null."
Just shy of his 70th birthday, Masters left Australia when he was young, going to Paris to work on newsreels, then to London to work for the BBC as an editor and producer. He segued into movies, working for renowned British director Tony Richardson, and then moved to L.A., where he tried his hand at screenwriting and got involved in documentaries. He began doing his show in 1980, first as a volunteer, eventually as a poorly paid staff member — he claims to be KPFK's lowest-paid employee.
And so it is with a certain amount of risk that Masters accuses Null of being a charlatan, although he's hardly the first to make the claim. Null used to appear on PBS pledge drives, raising more than $4 million across 24 different stations with a segment called "How to Live Forever." He's also author of "AIDS: A Second Opinion," in which he argues that HIV doesn't cause AIDS and can be treated with dietary supplements.
In 1999, then–PBS president Ervin Duggan said, "What does it profit us to honor science in Nova, only to open the door to quacks and charlatans?"
But Pacifica is very much Null's home turf, and he has threatened to sue Masters for defamation. Null's lawyer recently sent KPFK general manager Richard Pirodsky a letter demanding that Masters make an "on-air apology once a day for 14 days." (Null did not respond to the Weekly's emailed requests for an interview.) Null refused to participate in KPFK's last fund drive, after general manager Bernard Duncan declined his request for a regular time slot (Duncan resigned soon thereafter).
According to emails obtained by the Weekly, three Pacifica stations — WBAI, KPFT in Houston and WPFW in Washington, D.C. — owe Null $74,000 as his cut of premiums he's sold. And according to Bob Hennelly, recently fired program director of WBAI, Null claims that up to 3,000 premiums purchased by listeners were never mailed, going as far back as 2009. If true, it's unclear whether that's due to incompetence (the mail is largely run by volunteers) or because the stations are funding past premiums with payments for recent premiums — a kind of public-radio Ponzi scheme.
Reese says she was aware of the problem but isn't quite sure of its scope. "It's something I've been working on addressing," she says. "This board doesn't want that. They don't want someone to fix problems. They don't want professionalism."
The same sort of infighting also has infected the staff. According to interim news director Ernesto Arce, the staff at KPFK has broken into cliques, one of which favors the so-called health and spirituality programming and disdains the news department, which doesn't raise nearly as much money as people like Blosdale do.
"It's created such a hostile work environment," Arce says. "People make it very clear with facial expressions that they don't like us and don't want us here. Which is preposterous. There's no place where this would be tolerated."
The feeling is largely mutual.
"If you fired half the staff around here, it would work better," Masters says. "They're just useless people with no work ethic — they don't give a fuck about anything. They act like they're doing you a favor if they get the program up without glitches. It's surreal."
Before there was NPR, there was Pacifica.
Its founder was Lewis Hill, a pacifist and conscientious objector in World War II (during which he was assigned to a work camp "moving rocks from one side of the road to the other," as he later put it), along with his friends Eleanor McKinney and Richard Moore, a married couple. Their first application for an AM-band radio license in working-class Richmond was rejected by the FCC. And so it was that the first station, KPFA, was launched as an FM station in 1949 in the university town of Berkeley.
"They wanted it to be more of a popular station than what it became," says Matthew Lasar, a former Pacifica volunteer, who has written two books about the network. "It became sort of a station for people around UC Berkeley."
FM was so new that KPFA had to give subscribers FM radios in order to be heard at all.
Although Hill's goal was to promote pacifism and civil liberties, the concept was to give both sides time — and foster robust debate. Emerging conservative leaders such as National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. and then–young Republican Caspar Weinberger were heard often. That changed when the McCarthy era set in, and Pacifica's board of directors was dragged in front of a U.S. Senate subcommittee on subversive activities.
"They barely survived it, but once they did, their public justification was no longer 'free speech for everyone,' it was 'the place where you hear the point of view you wouldn't otherwise hear,' " Lasar says.
Pacifica flourished: KPFK launched in L.A. in 1959 (its 110,000-watt transmitter, perched atop Mount Wilson, is the most powerful antenna west of the Mississippi River; it can be heard to the Mexican border), followed by WBAI in New York in 1960, KPFT in Houston in 1970, and WPFW (devoted mostly to jazz) in Washington, D.C. in 1977.
Film critic Pauline Kael got her start at Pacifica, and philosopher Alan Watts had a show for two decades. Bob Dylan appeared frequently on WBAI, which became hugely influential.
"Much of what you hear on talk radio today, certainly Howard Stern, stems from the experiments and from the pioneering of WBAI," Lasar says.
Pacifica pushed boundaries: In 1957 it broadcast a recording of Allan Ginsburg's profane Beat Generation poem "Howl," albeit in an awkwardly edited version. In 1973, WBAI broadcast George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" routine and was censured by the FCC. The dispute was resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Carlin's sketch was indecent — but not obscene. A year later, the Symbionese Liberation Army delivered tape recordings of the kidnapped Patty Hearst to KPFA and KPFK. The FBI demanded that KPFK turn over the tapes, but general manager Will Lewis refused and was thrown in jail.
No other event shaped and galvanized Pacifica in the 1960s more than the Vietnam War. It opposed the war long before Walter Cronkite or any other mainstream media outlet. WBAI's Chris Koch became the first American to cover the war from Hanoi in 1965, and the station later broadcast the Senate's Watergate hearings gavel to gavel.
Pacifica's decline in the late 1970s can be attributed to the end of the Vietnam war and the rise of NPR.
"National Public Radio was kind of a body blow to Pacifica," Lasar says. "It was a more professional and less strident alternative."
In Los Angeles, ousted KPFK program director Ruth Hirschman (now Ruth Seymour) built KCRW into a powerhouse. Many of Pacifica's volunteer programmers were happy to let "corporate" NPR surpass them in listenership; Pacifica was "community radio."
"The central underlying problem at Pacifica," Marc Cooper says, "is that in the end, what dictates everything is the individual programmer's desire to hold onto his or her airtime. Management has always been weak."
Volunteer hosts with half-hour or hourlong weekly shows viewed them as their personal property. According to legend, one elderly activist tried to will away his time slot when he died.
But most paid news staff, like Cooper, as well as upper management, wanted to professionalize Pacifica and unite in one network. Satellites were becoming affordable enough for Pacifica to produce a network show and beam it to its stations and affiliates, as NPR was doing with All Things Considered.
Pacifica launched Pacifica National News, a national, half-hour newscast, and despite resistance from some stations, especially Berkeley, modernizers pushed ahead in 1996, launching Democracy Now!, an hourlong, guest-oriented show. First designed with a preposterously unwieldy structure, co-hosted by four anchors in four cities, it eventually was consolidated to its two current hosts: Juan González, a New York Daily News columnist, and WBAI's talented news director, Amy Goodman.
Cooper has plenty of bitterness about Pacifica but saves his real vitriol for Goodman: "Amy's an evil bitch. Amy would be perfect in the [New Jersey governor Chris] Christie administration. She's a brass-knuckles fighter."
The revolution began innocently enough. In the 1980s, tension grew between the modernizers and the local programmers, some of whom had been pushed out for new shows. Others feared they'd be next. It was NIMBY-ism, but with microphones.
In 1999, Pacifica CEO Lynn Chadwick fired KPFA Berkeley general manager Nicole Sawaya. When KPFA staffers asked Chadwick who was in charge, she replied, "I guess I will be for now."
KPFA was the most insular and provincial station, highly resistant to change or centralization. "The Berkeley station is like an ethnic radio station," Cooper says. "It speaks Berkeley to everybody with a ponytail and long hair."
On the air, programmers openly revolted against Chadwick's maneuver: Every hour they read a one-page statement denouncing Pacifica and calling for the rehire of Sawaya and another host.
Groups of dissident listeners began to form, and disgruntled ex-programmers sprang out of the woodwork, dubbing themselves the "banned and fired."
Chadwick, to everyone's amazement, shut down KPFA in Berkeley, had the staff removed by armed guards, cut the live transmitter feed and replaced it with archived shows from Pacifica. The first substituted content was Bus Riders Union founder Eric Mann giving a Marxist analysis of the 1960s.
Protests erupted. No fewer than three lawsuits were filed against the Pacifica board. Ten thousand people marched in Berkeley. Left-wing activists and commentators nationwide, including Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore, rushed to KPFA's defense.
"They create this sweeping narrative: 'They're going to corporatize Pacifica and sell off KPFA!' " Cooper says. "It's really science fiction, and the left is so stupid that they bought into it."
Lasar, however, says otherwise, citing an email that Pacifica National Board member Michael Palmer accidentally sent to an outside group, speculating about the sale of KPFA's powerful radio signal and estimating it could net up to $75 million.
By now the revolution had spread. Cooper remembers walking up to the KPFK offices on Cahuenga Boulevard near Universal Studios, past a crowd of elderly protesters — "professional bottom-door activists with no life and nothing to do," he calls them — who accused Cooper of being an agent for the CIA. One sign read, "More activists, less authors." Cooper says: "That's about one step removed from Pol Pot. It's like, 'Let's kill everyone with glasses.' "
Websites sprang up like wildflowers — Save Pacifica, Save KPFA — three or four at some stations. The just-emerging Internet helped dissidents organize and raise money. They hired a campaign consultant, started a boycott that urged listeners to not pledge money to Pacifica — a threat to the network's very survival — and demanded that the board resign, to be replaced by a democratically elected board.
Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman joined the fray, siding on the air with the revolutionaries, signing petitions and giving an open microphone to the boycott of the network that was paying her comparatively handsome salary. She essentially became the public face of a movement that was targeting board members and posting leaflets in their neighborhoods, which read: "Wanted for criminal theft of a radio station."
"These [were] brownshirts," Cooper says. "And Amy was their leader and she knew it. And I told that to her face: She can fool a lot of people a lot of the time, but I know she's a thug." (Goodman did not return several calls for comment.)
On Dec. 12, 2001, three months after the World Trade Center towers fell in New York City, the Pacifica board resigned and cut a deal with the revolutionaries — a legal settlement Lasar says led to "the most excruciatingly democratic bylaws in the history of broadcasting."
The rebels now had control of an organization mired in chaos and millions of dollars in debt, much of it to lawyers. Bills would pile up higher as the new guard purged many old managers, who had to be given sizable settlements (according to one source, the KPFK general manager's severance amounted to several hundred thousand dollars).
Hours before the settlement was approved, one of the plaintiffs called Lasar and said, "Matthew, the second-worst thing that could possibly happen has happened: We won."
Within a few months, Democracy Now! was privatized. In what may have been a reward for Goodman's support of the revolution, she was handed complete ownership of the show. For free. In fact, they paid her to take it, handing Goodman a contract worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year — and gave her an automatic 4 percent raise every year, regardless of the size of her listenership or the money she raised.
According to former board member Tracy Rosenberg, Goodman now gets fees of around $650,000 for the right to air her show and for her fundraising services. Rosenberg says: "When you go to business school, they tell you that's how not to sign a contract."
Today, Pacifica's debts amount to roughly $3 million; $2 million of that is owed to Democracy Now!, which is also the name of an independent nonprofit run by Goodman.
"Honestly, I get where she's coming from," says Uprising host Sonali Kolhatkar. "Every journalist fantasizes about having their own media institution, and she pulled it off." She adds that Goodman "fundraises tirelessly for Pacifica, for all five stations — sometimes simultaneously — on top of doing her own show. I have great admiration for her."
Today, Democracy Now! is a worldwide brand; it has far more listeners via podcasting and syndication than Pacifica itself, which no longer produces any regular national programming.
Goodman may be Pacifica's biggest creditor, but she's far from the only drain on its finances. Board elections cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000 — no small price for a network with a $13 million annual budget. The meetings themselves cost about $20,000 each to fly in 20-plus people and put them up for the weekend, and they're dominated by bickering. Members regularly invoke Robert's Rules of Order, and can take half an hour simply to approve the minutes of a previous meeting.
"All sorts of machinations come with that," says elections supervisor Terry Bouricius. "Rather than seeking common ground, the goal is to embarrass and show up the other side rather than to accomplish something."
Not even the board members can muster anything more than a tepid defense of Pacifica's bizarre elections. "I'm 50-50 on that one," influential board member Lydia Brazon says. "They're costly. But it's kind of a safety valve for [avoiding] a lawsuit."
"The concept was noble," says Bob Hennelly, but "governance is increasingly Byzantine and inward. Right at the time where Pacifica could be more globally relevant, it's inwardly focused on itself."
The station's legal bills are prodigious. According to former board member Tracy Rosenberg, so many wrongful-termination claims have been filed against Pacifica over the last two decades that it pays $250,000 a year to insure against them, a staggering amount for an entity with just 130 employees. And then there's WBAI, whose transmitter sits high atop the Empire State Building's spire, at a cost of $50,000 a month.
Yet opportunities abound for Pacifica, probably the single most valuable asset the left has. Its five broadcasting licenses alone could be worth $50 million to $100 million, according to Lasar, and it owns a studio in Berkeley and another on an increasingly pricey stretch of Cahuenga Boulevard in Studio City. WBAI's license is said to be particularly valuable, since it sits smack dab in the center of the dial at 99.5 FM — choice real estate in the radio industry.
"Right at the moment where satellite radio is booming, where the web is booming, where Pacifica has to worry about the future of terrestrial radio, all of this is lost," Cooper says. "They're consumed with eating themselves over a political fight, which in most cases is about continuing the status quo."
Perhaps the most ominous hurdle lies with Pacifica's listenership: It's old.
"You must develop an audience on the other side of 50, or you won't have a station," Rosenberg says. "That's a difficult thing for many Pacificans to get their head around. I get told all the time, 'Young people don't have any money, so don't worry about them.' I say, 'Guys, you're gonna care in 20 years!' "
Pacifica is still far to the left of anything else in mass media, and still gives voice to beliefs and ideas found outside the mainstream. It hasn't changed; the world has.
Decades ago, the left called for Lyndon Johnson's head. It was against Nixon, but also against Hubert Humphrey.
Today, those to the left of the Democratic Party have been relegated to the fringes — or perhaps they've relegated themselves, favoring new-age beliefs over science, seemingly invested in the idea that society is as bad off as it's ever been.
Pacifica is only a reflection of that shift. It's still far to the left of anything else in mass media, and still gives voice to beliefs and ideas found outside the mainstream (way outside).
That core ideology hasn't changed; America has.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Sasha Futran as Sasha Sutran.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.
- Labor Day DUI Crackdown Peaks This Weekend
Sun., Sep. 6, 12:35pm
Sun., Sep. 6, 1:00pm
Sun., Sep. 6, 7:00pm
Mon., Sep. 7, 6:05pm
- Moving Company Will Help You Leave an Abusive Partner for Free
- Wildlife Freeway Overpass Is Awesome, but Don't Hold Your Breath