Which Way Forward for Pacifica Radio?
by Michael Novick
The Pacifica Foundation, license holder for five stations in many of the largest metropolitan areas in the US — WBAI in NY, WPFW in DC, KPFT in Houston, KPFA in Berkeley and KPFK in Los Angeles (where I am interim unpaid General Manager) — is facing a possibly existential crisis. Audiences and membership at all five stations has steadily declined since the mid 2000s, and dropped precipitously at KPFK in 2021. Most of the stations are not covering the full costs of their operation; KPFK has not done so for over a decade. The Foundation is in debt and has fallen into default on two major multi-million dollar loans; many of the stations and the foundation itself also owe a substantial amount of money in “aged payables,” — unpaid bills to vendors for services rendered, goods or utilities — and in unfulfilled “thank-you” premiums owed to donors.
As a stopgap measure, the Foundation is selling the building that houses KPFK, the Pacifica Radio Archives (PRA), and the national office, with the expectation that the new owners will renovate the building and then the station and PRA can move back (in 12-18 months) into a smaller space as tenants, rent free for 10 years. This will require the station to find temporary quarters and to set up broadcast operations with a duplicate studio and control room before the existing facilities must be vacated.
This may buy some time with the creditors, but doesn’t solve the underlying problem — how does non-profit, non-commercial educational Pacifica attract the listeners and donors necessary to sustain itself? How can the stations rebuild their capacity to meet community needs and their impact on the political and cultural discourse? Can Pacifica maintain its independence and regain its cutting edge critical anti-war, anti-oppression and free speech programming, or will it fall victim to forces inside and outside Pacifica who would like it function in 2024 as a platform or vehicle for the Biden-Harris re-election campaign?
Since at least the Clinton administration, there have been those who want to position the stations within the “consensus” of cold war (neo-) liberalism, who have supported so-called “humanitarian wars” and US efforts to maintain its global hegemony. From its birth in the early cold war era, Pacifica has been targeted by politicians and by the intelligence community, who fear its independence from corporate domination and its willingness to air voices questioning and challenging capitalism, militarism, neo-colonialism, and environmental degradation.
Pacifica aired Communists at the height of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, voices from Africa, Asia and Latin America that the US was fighting wars to suppress, creative cultural expression and incisive political analysis arising out of the movements and struggle of Black, Indigenous, Raza, and AAPI people and the ranks of labor. Pacifica aired the first LGBTQ+ content arising from within that community and expressing its concerns; has programmed for language justice, particularly at KPFT in the past and at KPFK, where there is still a significant block of Spanish language programming; Pacifica has aired communiqués from clandestine groups and exposes from whistleblowers like Philip Agee, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. Pacifica transformed itself into a membership organization with democratically-elected delegates of its listener and staff members forming the governance of the stations and the whole national Foundation.
The example and threat of Pacifica in the midst of what one FCC Commissioner termed a “vast wasteland” of commercial broadcasting created the space that allowed for the development of so-called public broadcasting, subsidized radio and TV, most of whose content is tightly controlled and scripted nationally and has come under increasing corporate domination. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting rewrote its rules in 1999 to consider corporate underwriting (advertising) as being “community support”, and around the same time, a US Senator wrote to all commercial radio broadcasters asking them identify who on their staff were or had ever been associated with Pacifica. Independent media are seen as a threat in a system and society where the CIA subsidized or infiltrated academia, journalism, organized labor, book publishing and the print and broadcast media to use as propagandists and agents for US strategies and goals.
Under the Clinton administration, after his deregulation of banking and broadcasting led to a massive wave of centralization and concentration of finance and the media into the hands of a few monopolies, agents of his political machine tried to take over Pacifica directly. This led to a series of struggles, lawsuits, and boycotts, and — after Bush stole the 2000 election — a settlement that created the current elected board model and a kind of federal governance system, where locally elected delegates have limited oversight powers but choose members of the more powerful, fiduciary national board from their own ranks.
There has been a tug of war at each station and within the whole organization nationally about the direction for Pacifica and its stations. Some wanted predominantly national programming controlled from the center and provided to affiliates as NPR does. Those same forces tended to back “humanitarian wars” despite Pacifica’s origins from war-resisting pacifists at its launch during the Cold War. Opposing that are those who uphold the foundation’s express commitment to peace and justice as well as freedom of speech and of the press; who seek space for international content that challenges US militarism and domination, and grassroots voices from local communities, especially of color, that are grappling with issues of poverty, exploitation, and oppression.
Pacifica’s membership and listenership declined steadily during the Obama years, did not recover during Trump’s term, when Pacifica imagined it would reap a harvest of memberships from the so-called “resistance”, but did not in fact attract a new generation of listeners from the science marches, women’s marches, protests of the Muslim ban or separation and incarceration of families at the border, or the reckoning with racism after the police murder of George Floyd. Pacifica has done no better during the Biden years, as the Democrats are reluctant to support media to their left, and would like to see Pacifica and its affiliated stations become de facto mechanisms to spread the gospel of the Biden-Harris re-election campaign.
If you want a Pacifica that lives up to its credo and its best moments, that opposes US militarism, war-mongering and arms sales; that maintains its independence from corporate political parties and the corporations that finance them; that opposes anti-Blackness and provides a platform for the creative cultural expressions and incisive political insights of poor and working people, migrants, freedom struggles and liberation movements, it may be now or never to step up — to help recruit new members, to help provide fresh content, to find new dispersed and diverse funding sources, to bring Pacifica stations into the 21st Century realities of AI and audio visual social media where people can become content providers without gatekeepers, to engage in investigative journalism that exposes malfeasance but that also seeks out the solutions and visions of the future arising from grassroots struggles. Now is the time to step up — become a member yourself and help get others to do the same.
You can learn more at https://pacificafightback.org, a national coalition of listeners and programmers committed to an anti-racist, anti-war, anti-oppression Pacifica. As far as KPFK, we are currently in an on-air member drive — go to https://kpfk.org and click on donate. Follow and share the station’s social media and links to the programming which is archived on-line. It’s now or never — a critical time to prevent Pacifica from being gutted and reduced to a shadow of its former self.
DISCLAIMER: This article is the personal opinion of the author, and is not authorized by nor representing the views od beliefs of the Pacifica Foundation Inc. or any of its radio stations.