The Pacifica Wars: A Debate

Photo by David Bacon
BACK IN THE EARLY '70S, WHEN I WORKED AS A translator for Chilean President Salvador Allende and his democratic socialist government was under fierce attack from an outraged right wing, there was one slogan that became a favorite. In the last days before the 1973 military coup, when Allende supporters would rally in the streets to defend him, their banners read: "This Government Is Full of Shit. But It Is Our Government." That's pretty much how I feel today about embattled Pacifica Radio, on whose local affiliate KPFK I host two programs: The organization is full of shit, but it's our organization.

That's not also to imply that those who today dissent from, criticize or attack Pacifica share some moral symmetry with the Pinochet right. On the contrary. What boggles the mind is that some of these protestors accuse Pacifica, the country's only progressive media network, of itself being some sort of nefarious conservative conspiracy.

We are to believe that this collection of five radio stations, founded 50 years ago by anarchists and pacifists, has magically and without clear motivation acquired a "secret agenda," a "corporate agenda," a "plan to become a new NPR." The do-gooder -- and often muddle-headed -- liberals who make up its national board have been accused of plotting to "steal the network," or of outright being "Pinochetistas."

When I recently wrote a piece in the L.A. Times revealing some ambivalence toward the current conflict around Pacifica station KPFA in Berkeley, it elicited a barrage of e-mails informing me that the reason I was not by President Allende's side in the National Palace the day he died in the 1973 coup was surely that I had been given advance warning of it by my supposed contacts in the CIA. That sort of rubbish can be forwarded to the Black Helicopter File. Less amusing, indeed downright nauseating, were the placards held aloft in last week's anti-Pacifica march in Berkeley, where network board chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry -- a veteran African-American activist who also heads the U.S. Civil Rights Commission -- was compared to the legendary Mississippi racist Bull Connors.

CAN ALL THOSE EMBROILED IN THE PACIFICA CONTROversy please catch their breath for a moment before we go any further? It's crossing a very important line when those who run Pacifica are satanized. What a sad but revealing spectacle it was a couple of weeks ago when, at a Valley meeting of those who claim to want to "save" Pacifica, a rambling Helen Caldicott -- who once had something insightful to say about nuclear arms -- suggested that Pacifica's leadership had become entwined in a conspiracy masterminded by the CIA itself.

Is this what debate on the left has come to?

There is plenty wrong with Pacifica. Like many public-service nonprofits, it is underfunded, undermanaged and maddeningly inefficient. Working inside Pacifica often feels like searching for a customer-care rep at the Havana phone exchange. Historically, its national governing board, as well as each station's local advisory board, has been dysfunctional. Policy has always been vaguely articulated and haphazardly enforced. Honest debate, scrutiny and accountability on the board, between board and staff, among staff itself, often take a back seat to politically correct bromides.

But we can live with all this. We have for 50 years.

Pacifica cannot prosper into the next century, however, if the current bogus mythology being constructed around it is allowed to stand. Let's take a look, charge by charge:

MYTH: Current Pacifica management is embarked on a "secret agenda" to centralize programming control and disempower the local stations. Pacifica wants to "mainstream" and "NPR-ize" programming to make the network attractive for future "corporate funding."

REALITY: Of the 24 hours of available daily programming, Pacifica mandates that exactly 90 minutes of national programming be carried by local stations: an hour a day of Democracy Now! and the 30-minute Pacifica National News. Ironically, both of these programs are managed by staff least sympathetic to the national board and often contain what many consider the most radical material. By any measure, Pacifica's national programming is about as far from NPR as you can get short of Radio Tirana.

What Pacifica has done in the last two years is to build the backbone of what could become a broad-based progressive radio network through its own KU-band satellite system. At its own cost, Pacifica has donated KU receiver equipment to more than 50 community radio stations in exchange for a subscription to Pacifica's national programming stream. What's provided on that KU stream? Programming from The Progresssive magazine, from the media-watch group FAIR, from lefty professor and author Saul Landau, as well as Democracy Now!, Pacifica National News and my own RadioNation, among others.

Plans for corporate funding? How can I say this, other than it's just a filthy, execrable lie. There is no evidence of any such plan. And if some knucklehead came up with such a plan, isn't it just a bit obvious he or she would be flayed and fileted by Pacifica staff? Anyone who propagates that rumor begs a vigorous examination of conscience.

MYTH: Pacifica staff labors under an extraordinary muzzle known as the "gag rule."

REALITY: Pacifica has precisely the same policy -- though much more liberally enforced -- as any other broadcaster or publisher. Staffers are not allowed to use their access to airwaves to take internal, factional disputes to the audience. Do newspapers, the Weekly included, let writers use the white space around the edge of the page to pen invitations to readers to come down to the offices and protest against the latest management memo?

MYTH: But KPFA's Dennis Bernstein was yanked from the air and arrested for trespassing because he broadcast something management didn't like.

REALITY: After Bernstein aired a program on July 13 that management alleged had broadcast internal disputes, he was asked to come to the manager's office so he could be placed on "administrative leave." Instead of using KPFA's ample union protections to protest what he thought an unjust attack, Bernstein went running through the station claiming he was in physical peril and lodged himself under an equipment console in the news studio. The Evening News was on the air, but it was being interrupted by a jostling of the tape machine under which Bernstein was nesting. The news anchor then switched his own news broadcast off the air, and Bernstein was given a mike. A startled Berkeley audience then heard Bernstein literally scream that he feared he was going to be hurt by station rent-a-cops.

KPFA's acting manager then did what any responsible person would do in his place: He shut down Bernstein's histrionics by shutting down the station signal. Alarmed listeners, responding to Bernstein's shrieks, quickly flooded to the station, and a staff member allowed about 50 of them inside to occupy the first floor. When they wouldn't leave, police were called to make trespassing arrests. Some four hours later, Bernstein -- unmolested -- was still lurking in the news studio. At any time he could have freely left. Instead, he waited until he had to be arrested. None of this is very pretty. Perhaps the acting manager could have solved this without police. But to believe that Bernstein was anything more than a reckless provocateur is a delusion. The rest is history.

HERE AT KPFK FOR THE PAST SEVERAL MONDAYS, A few dozen protestors have milled in front of the North Hollywood studios carrying signs and wearing gags. (Ironically, these same free-speech advocates let me know they were "outraged" that I had given airtime to a scholar who criticized Fidel Castro's 40-year, one-man rule of Cuba.) The dissenters are free to tell themselves the fairy tale that the "mainstreaming" of KPFK is underway.

Sure -- in the last five years a handful of progressive programs have been canceled. I would hope there would be a constant shuffle and renewal of programming. It's also true that twice as many hours have been put on the air with programming more challenging, alternative and radical than the shows taken off. And despite small protests, the response from the audience has made these past two years at KPFK among the best in its history. Where four years ago an average day of fund-raising netted $14,000, today that figure has climbed to $40,000. Cumulative listenership is up as much as 75 percent since 1994. And no, Virginia, the on-air success derives not from "pandering to politically moderate Westside yuppies." Our most popular fund-raisers continue to be the most radical voices: Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal and our recent -- and politically unpopular -- teach-in against the war in Kosovo.

Let those who wish to bring down this network think twice. Be advised: The audience is listening.


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