Protecting Pacifica, Saving Independent Radio

This article was originally published on CounterPunch, “Tells the Facts and Names the Names” – check them out!

by Zack Kaldveer – Sherry Gendelman

“We are in a battle for the heart and soul of Pacifica…At stake is whether Pacifica represents the highest standards of journalistic integrity, or a mix of snake oil quackery and fake radicalism.” –Sonali Kolhatkar, Host of “Rising Up with Sonali

The past two decades of incompetent leadership has left Pacifica Radio on life support. Despite growing audiences for publicly funded stations, progressive podcasts, and online news, Pacifica is fracturing, its listenership is nosediving, its credibility is deteriorating, and it is in danger of insolvency.

Pacifica Foundation was created 75 years ago to foster peace through informed dialogue, serving as a commercial free venue for progressive ideas and providing a model for future public broadcasters. Unflinching, unapologetic coverage of the most important issues of the 20th century – including the House Un-American Activities Committee/McCarthy, the Iran-Contra hearings, and the Women’s, LGBTQ, Environmental, Civil Rights, and Anti-Vietnam War movements – helped reshape America’s political landscape. Pacifica’slegacy has been defined by not just informing the public and speaking truth to power but speaking truth ABOUT power.

Pacifica’s broadcast signal can still reach over 60 million daily potential listeners – giving it the capacity to have an enormously positive impact on our country and world. But if we fail to address the multipronged crises facing it, odds are it will be acquired by right wing extremist groups or evangelical Christian stations. Such a tragedy could threaten American democracy itself.

Failed Bylaws and A Two Decade Orchestrated Decline

Pacifica’s decline began when a series of well-meaning but failed reforms were instituted in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a result of contentious fights over programming and governance. Unfortunately, the victors of this struggle were largely unqualified and ill-equipped to run Pacifica, let alone keep pace with the emerging communications technologies of the digital age. Rather than adapting to this new world, Pacifica chose to drastically change programming, compromise Pacifica’s mission statement, and squander its integrity by implementing new bylaws that defied common sense, and elected unqualified Board Members that have brought the network close to collapse.

No one understands the cost incurred as a result of these failed reforms better than their architect – Carol Spooner. Now seeking to undo the changes she led the fight to institute, she argues:

“We thought that the best way to protect Pacifica from any type of political or corporate interference was to write by-laws that incorporated the ideas of a Foundation run by super democracy. I am saddened to report that the exact opposite has occurred. The by-laws have resulted in nearly self-perpetuating boards, with the same people and their chosen successors reelected in factional slates year after year since 2003. The Foundation has been on the brink of financial collapse for several years due to mismanagement and self-serving and/or incompetent board members who just keep kicking the can down the road.”

Warring Splinter Groups. Offensive and Uncredible Programming.

As Spooner rightly indicates, these bylaws have enabled sectarian splinter groups to take control of local station boards. The painful truth is years of gross mismanagement, disinformation and infighting among this handful of controlling interests – including conspiracy theorists, Green Party disruptors, and the Workers’ World Party – have resulted in programming that often sounds like something you might hear from Alex Jones or read in a QAnon chat room.

Holocaust deniers, conspiracy shills calling the children of Sandy Hook “crisis actors”, nuclear war proponents, and snake oil salesmen promoting quack cures for cancer and AIDS (that have cost listeners their lives) regularly suck up precious air time that should be dedicated to credible, fact checked news about the issues that matter.

Pacifica’s “Democracy”: Dark Money. Deception. Intimidation.

The vaunted “democracy” proponents of the status quo incessantly repeat like Republican’s talk about “liberty” and “freedom” is bought and paid for by multi-millionaire-backed 501c4’s. These dark money groups are the driving force behind the current anti-democratic system that allows such inherently unpopular, disorganized, and dysfunctional political and pro-corporate underwriting interests to seize and maintain power over Pacifica radio. For example, much like the current defective U.S. politics, two dark money groups controlled by multimillionaires fund most election slate card mailings that Pacifica donor members receive. Pacifica members are encouraged to vote for slates with names such as Justice and Unity, and Rescue Pacifica, among others, when they are, in fact, fronts for both Workers’ World and Green Party members. As a result, these fat cat funded groups control a slight majority of the Pacifica National Board. The same Big Money interests protect many of the producers who personally profit from broadcasting highly questionable programming – evidenced by increasing alternative health and beauty product pledge programming instead of the vital news and analysis that draws audience and support.

Beneficiaries of Big Money’s largesse then use social media platforms to disseminate a fantasy picture of the state of the foundation, ignoring independent auditors and attorneys who have repeatedly warned that the future of the network is not viable. Utilizing Goebbels tactics and Scientology-inspired methods, they viciously attack the staff or anyone that gets in their way. Like some right-wing groups, they hide behind the banner of “free speech” to support programming filled with hate speech, fringe conspiracies and quack cures.

Board Malfeasance. Unlawful Conduct. Financial Mismanagement.

This toxic brew of corporate underwriting, incompetent and unhinged leadership, and unmanageable bylaws has resulted in the severe loss of multiple sources of Pacifica’s income, the imminent danger of insolvency, and the impending sell-off of its assets. Among the Board’s most damning failures in recent years include losing over $12 million in federal support over eight years due to their failure to comply with public broadcasting regulations (with a growing likelihood of never receiving public funding again); allowing the Network’s non-profit’s broadcast stations to be used for personal financial gain; ignoring a chorus of warnings and advice from the California Attorney General’s (CAG) office and their own lawyers, auditors and Chief Financial Officer the Board – thereby endangering the Network’s tax-exempt status; and violating federal law by failing to make pension payments for staff for over four years – triggering a current investigation by the United States Department of Labor.

No amount of spin can cover the damage this has all wrought: Despite having stations in five of the largest media markets in the country, listenership hovers under one quarter of one percent. Its donor base has cratered from over 120,000 donors in 2007 to less than 35,000 today. Pacifica’s New York station WBAI, in the largest media market in the U.S. with a potential audience of 20 million now has less than 7,000 donors.

So, who, you may ask, would oppose reform?

“Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them”

Proponents of Pacifica Radio’s broken status quo are prone to utilizing ad hominem personal attacks against those who dare attempt to save the once venerable network. Terms like ‘coup’, ‘corporate takeover’, and ‘attack on democracy’ are typically trotted out to instill fear and confusion among voting Pacifica members.

A recent article in Counterpunch by Peter Dolack arguing against reform and in favor of “business as usual” must have left readers with the impression that Monsanto and Blackwater were teaming up to violently overthrow benign Pacifica Board members rather than the simpler, albeit less sensational headline of “longtime Pacifica supporters and progressive activists seek to institute more democratic bylaws to save the network.”

Contrary to Dolack’s claims, there is no “coup”, no “corporate takeover”, and no “attack on democracy”. Only an inherently democratic effort to address the financial failures brought about by, ironically, the current, profoundly undemocratic and pro-corporate underwriting governance structure.

But buried deep inside the article, as if it were a throwaway line, Mr. Dolack correctly admits, “Financial problems do exist, and some fundraising programming should be condemned.” Exactly! Finances and programming are at the heart of the Network’s current crisis. The question is how do we effectively remedy them? In two important ways: One legal, one democratic.

The Legal Remedy: The Lawsuit Against The Board

While Mr. Dolack decries the assertions being made in the lawsuit against two members of the Pacifica Radio Foundation Board of Directors for alleged misfeasance and malfeasance, gross negligence, unlawful conduct, and financial mismanagement, he fails to mention that the court continues to rule in the Plaintiff’s favor. Not surprising, considering the treasure trove of damning records, documents, internal communications, audio recordings, independent audits, and CAG admonishments submitted by the network supporters, listeners, and the Pacifica Director that filed the complaint.

Sadly, it did not have to come to this. To save the Network, Pacifica Safety Net was forced to make the hard choices and act. If the Pacifica Board had agreed to arbitration, accepted a modicum of responsibility for their integral role in causing the current crises, or been more receptive to needed reforms, the lawsuit could have been avoided. If successful, the CAG division of charitable trusts could intervene, or a court ordered receiver could be appointed, thereby forcing the Board to account for all of Pacifica’s financial transactions since 2009 and requiring defendants to reimburse the Network for the loss of revenue it has incurred as a result of their failed management.

The Board has chosen to take money from its flagship station, KPFA, to pay the defendant’s legal fees – something akin to having the guy who mugs someone demanding his victim pay for his defense lawyer. This highly improper use of Bay area donor funds may lead to further legal action by the plaintiffs.

Clearly, the legal remedy alone is not sufficient. Defiant as always, the Pacifica Board recently terminated Los Angeles’s KPFK’s entire management team. This led to the subsequent resignation of its respected General Manager, Anyel Fields, and the loss of key programmers like The Jimmy Dore Show and Rising Up with Sonali – two of the station’s most highly rated shows. Unsurprisingly, the station’s recent May 2021 fund drive raised barely half of its goal.

It is time to take a stand and pick a side – which leads us to the second remedy: new Bylaws.

The Democratic Remedy: Vote “Yes” On New Bylaws

From June 7th to July 7th listener-members and staff of the five Pacifica stations will have the opportunity to help chart a new course by voting “yes” on the Bylaws referendum.

At an unwieldy 22 members, the current Pacifica Board is too large to function effectively. The board is divided, year after year, into opposing factions who see their jobs as blocking and obstructing the “other side” from getting anything done. This happens no matter which faction is in the majority, and majority control shifts from year to year. This results in a virtual game of “musical chairs”, with Executive Directors and/or the Chief Financial Officers constantly being replaced with new ones, and the inability to establish and carry out plans to solve Pacifica’s problems and challenges with any continuity.

It is the very definition of insanity to do nothing and expect a different outcome year after year. The responsibility to break this cycle befalls on Pacifica members. The New Day Pacifica Bylaws propose a smaller, more functional national board with 12 Directors being directly elected by the listeners, the paid and unpaid staff, and the affiliates. These 12 Directors will appoint three at large directors with broadcasting management expertise who can help stabilize the finances and improve programming. The Local Station Boards will focus on outreach, community engagement and fundraising.

We need fundamental, transformational change. It is time for Pacifica-wide direct member representation and an end to perpetual mismanagement, dysfunction, and disorganization.

Saving Pacifica and Maximizing the Power of Radio

Pacifica must return to its original mission to report on and analyze the political, social, and cultural challenges facing this country and planet. It was never intended to be a vehicle for individuals shilling their questionable health and beauty products or advancing personal or political party’s politics. In an era dominated by giant media monopolies and right-wing power brokers, it depends on us to return Pacifica to its former self as one of the nation’s most respected, objective, and most of all, independent sources of news that covers what the corporate media ignore.

If we want to effectively counter the relentless spread of hard-right ideology we cannot lose this invaluable resource. Write to your state senator and assembly person and ask them to contact the CAG office to complete their investigation of Pacifica and vote YES to create a viable governing structure for the Pacifica Foundation.

Zack Kaldveer is a communications specialist for a broad range of social, economic, and environmental justice causes and issues. Zack has a master’s degree in Telecommunications Policy from San Diego State University and a bachelor’s degree in Mass Media from the University of California San Diego. He is currently running for a seat on the KPFA Local Station Board. Sherry Gendelman is the President of Pacifica Safety Net, a California non-profit organization formed by Pacifica radio listeners, volunteers and donors to protect the Foundation’s five local stations from the immediate dangers they face. Sherry is former interim Executive Director of Pacifica and Chair of the Pacifica National Board and a practicing criminal defense attorney.