“Is Pacifica Worth Saving?” – Commentary by Mitchel Cohen

This commentary was provided in response to an article “Is Pacifica Worth Saving” written by former KPFA news volunteer Matthew Lasar and printed in the Nation Magazine. The original article can be found here.

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Matthew Lasar has penned a self-contradictory, historically confused (especially when it comes to WBAI radio), and slippery* op-ed in the current issue of The Nation magazine. Because it was published in The Nation, that ensures that it will unfortunately have prominence in the same milieu on which WBAI radio relies for much of its funding.

Lasar’s article has already received some interesting discussion on various listserves. Some of us will be discussing the essay this Sunday, Feb. 22, at 1 pm in WBAI’s conference room at 388 Atlantic Avenue, 3rd floor, Brooklyn. If you’re in town, feel free to join us. Note: This is an informal meeting, not an official meeting of any body. Also please note: the elevator is not accessible for a few weeks longer, while the ground floor is being re-modeled to put in a coffee and wine bar, performance space, and an audio booth.

I and others will be writing commentary on this piece, and if you want to receive them please drop me a line.

*I write the word “slippery” to embody my frustration with Matthew Lasar’s slipping and sliding — sort of a bait and switch — from one allegation to his conclusions, such as they are, that really have nothing to do with what he’d just alleged.

I’ll give one minor example here of “slipperyness”, where Matthew jams together different criticisms as though there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between them, and let it go for now:

Matthew writes that “the network has for the most part financially abandoned Free Speech Radio News, a crucial daily news service for community radio stations across the country.”

I certainly appreciate FSRN. But if that really is such a “crucial daily news service for radio stations across the country”, then why is Lasar blaming Pacifica for causing FSRN to flounder and almost go under? What about all those hundreds of stations for which FSRN is, according to Lasar, so “crucial”? You mean those hundreds are not sustaining it?

And how about at least mentioning that “the network” repeatedly bailed out FSRN over the years, instead of framing FSRN’s difficulties as Pacifica having “abandoned” it? A little history, please.

One has to unfortunately read through Lasar’s commentary stopping and thinking about every word, because, as in the case above, he’s sliding in emotionally charged terminology along with some pretty obvious (and often wrong) “facts”.

For example, Lasar makes confusing pronouncements about “community radio” throughout his piece. He’s against it. He’s for it. If we don’t break out of that model we’ll get no funds. But we need to serve the community. But not the issues of interest to that community. Which is it? Look at NPR’s success, Lasar says — shockingly, without mentioning at all WNYC’s (NPR’s outlet in NYC) recent $11 million grant, or PBS’s funding from Exxon and the oil industry. Is that what he wants for Pacifica? Well, no. And then “yes”. And then “no” again.

One more quick example here. More loaded slipperyness. Lasar writes that “the politicized chaos led to lawsuits galore. According to one audit, in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2011, “legal fees” ran to $466,676 and “settlement fees” ran to over $71,000. For 2006, settlement fees came to $131,000; add another $150,000 for 2007.”

Yes, there are large legal fees. But what are they actually about, and are they the result of “politicized chaos” as Lasar claims? They’re not. Some of them are legitimate sexual harassment suits, brought on by extremely poor management and human resources supervision by the side that Lasar had endorsed over the years, and that began to be rectified under Grace Aaron, Arlene Engelhardt, and Summer Reese — much as I strongly disagree with other of their decisions. Then there are other legal expenses, like defending against the vile lawsuit filed by WBAI’s former Program Director Bernard White against Pacifica (which is being billed incorrectly and unfairly to WBAI, which did everything right, here). That one has cost over $200,000 for Pacifica to defend against — even though Pacifica’s defense prevailed and White’s lawsuit was thrown out of court in a VERY strongly worded judicial decision ripping Bernard White’s claims  to shreds.

To carefully review Lasar’s historical mish-mash, his running together of things that have little or no relation to each other, and his “solution-free” approach is an exercise in tedium.

My own view? Pacifica’s bylaws need to be revised but not discarded, and that can be done rather simply. Directors should serve terms of 3 or 4 years each, and not completely turnover every year (and the fighting that goes along with it). Lasar correctly compares that “process” to the film Groundhog Day, but in despair he offers no way to fix it, when it really is so easy — a formal amendment to the bylaws to do that, to make every Director’s term 4 years instead of one year. (It’s amazing to me that not a single Director to the national board in all these years has introduced that straightforward amendment, which should receive support across factional lines.)

He also posts wrong information here about the Directors themselves, but I’ll leave that aside ….

Finally, Lasar bemoans Pacifica’s current operating deficit of $2.17 million, “with liabilities leading assets by over $4 million. Much of this money is owed to Democracy Now!” Wow, sounds like a lot, especially to us poor and working class folks who measure such debts in individual personal terms. (Wring hands here!). Well, here’s what I say:

THAT’S CHICKENFEED when it comes to owning a radio network in the United States, and good management could easily reverse that debt in two years (on the outside) by advertising and promoting the stations’ best shows, especially WBAI, and expanding the listenership.

Throw in the fact that $2.5 million or so is owed to Democracy Now! according to Pacifica’s (expired) contract with DN! Amy Goodman has thus far been exemplary in not pressuring payment of that debt, no doubt appreciating the $550,000 the network provides to DN annually for the last 13 years for that great show. So, if Amy continues to not call in her chips (thank you, Amy!), Pacifica’s debt comes to under $1.5 million, a re-negotiable amount, despite the way that Lasar rather maliciously portrays interim Executive Director Margy Wilkinson’s comment that Pacifica owes debts to lots of people. (I’m sure Margy said a lot more than that about stabilizing Pacifica, but that’s the only thing that a biased Lasar chose to quote from her.)

What Lasar avoids is presenting solutions. I admit, it’s probably difficult for him to do that when he has such a confused analysis. And those solutions are, as I’ve said, really not difficult.

1) Advertize to promote the stations’ best shows, with an aim of doubling the listenership and membership, especially in New York City where WBAI’s signal atop the Empire State Building has the potential to reach 17.3 million people more who simply never heard of us!

2) Bring Pacifica’s internet and social media presence into 2015. Use the webpages to generate revenue. (There are many good proposals out there for doing this, including ads and underwriting on the websites (but not on the air!).)

Lasar writes: “There are too many people within Pacifica right now who cannot remember a day when they did not post a Facebook comment or send an e-mail attacking someone.” I think the problem is the opposite — there are too many producers who refuse to use the modern tools to build audience, and weak managements that don’t either require the producers to do this properly or provide someone on staff at the stations (and network) to guide them in promoting their shows, and the station.

3) Bring MORE community voices into programming, not fewer. Expand into large niche audiences like high schools, taxi cabs (especially in NYC). Restore the vibrant volunteer culture, the community, that has been indeed thwarted by all the fighting and that Lasar denounces because, he says, volunteers are “difficult to supervise”. No we’re not, if our supervisors have any smarts. (Lasar’s argument is used today to outsource some of the key community-building projects of the stations. And yet, he contradicts himself (again) by bemoaning the funds spent on doing that!)

4) Put resources into rebuilding the award-winning WBAI News Department, which NATIONAL (not local, as Matthew infers) tore to shreds, laying off the entire paid staff at WBAI. (WBAI used to have 35 or thereabouts paid staff members. It now has seven, including engineers.)

5) Introduce cross-faction amendments to the bylaws to improve the structure and governance.

6) Develop even further the good work of the Affiliates program. There are over 180 affiliated stations right now. That’s a HUGE national footprint for alternative, non-commercial coverage.

I could list a dozen more. My problem with Lasar’s piece is that he doesn’t do so. He ends with an admonition, to “pay attention”. Duh!, like no one has been doing that? Where’s he been? Oh yea, he himself chose a side in the faction wars. He needs to re-think his participation there, especially if he’s going to present “the” history of the Pacifica network.

Pacifica is incredibly important to hold onto and build, especially in this time of resistance to global capitalism, fascism, and the destruction of our planet.

To conclude (thank god!) ….

Matthew Lasar offers the dismantling of the network as one option in defining “success”, even though he doesn’t favor it (I think. Can’t tell for sure from his article.)

There are zillions of separate radio stations all over the map being podcast as well as broadcast over the airwaves. What makes the Pacifica network so important and different is the context in which it is operating, the capitalist-imperialist-planet destroying system, which invariably enters into the network in various ways, and we have to keep pushing it out and rescuing it from those forces, some intentional and some not. It’s the difference between an organ in the body — say, a liver — and the entire organism. While a body cannot live without a liver, the body (network) is far greater (in actuality, as well as in potential) than the sum of its parts.

For Matthew Lasar to pose the “creative disassembly” of the organism as a possible way to save the individual stations belies an utter failure to appreciate the reasons for why we spend so much time participating in the network, regardless of faction. When disassembly becomes part of a definition of “success”, it is both obscene and intellectually bankrupt. It shows absolutely zero understanding of the importance of the total organism, thinking that “well, at least we saved the stomach” — as though that would mean much of anything in this current world.

The thing to do is to do the opposite of what is expected within the rules of capitalism, just as Syriza is doing (thus far) in Greece. And that is, we should concentrate on aggregating more and more independent radio stations into the totality, more and more listeners, and not chop up that totality and trick ourselves into believing that that is doing anything worthwhile.

Mitchel Cohen
former Chair, WBAI radio Local Station Board (2008-2012)
and currently Coordinating Volunteers for WBAI

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