The Pacifica radio network, the nation’s only listener-sponsored community radio network, has recently emerged from a period of unprecedented turmoil, one that threatened its very survival as an oasis of free speech and dissent, a forum for news and radical analysis, and a venue for serious music and art.
When one surveys the overall landscape of the mass media in American society, where a handful of giant corporations like AOL-Time Warner, Disney/ABC, Murdoch’s News Corp., and Viacom/CBS, dominate the global dissemination of news and entertainment, and where mergers and alliances between media firms are everyday occurrences, a tiny five-station non-commercial network’s fight for survival may seem to some a trivial footnote within a drama of epic proportions–namely, the battle to control the flow of information in the modern world. But don’t believe for a moment that Pacifica is some relic of the forgotten age of radical protest as claimed by the media spinmasters and radio consultants.
The battle to save Pacifica, the victory won by the network’s listeners, was much more than the resolution of another internal squabble at a marginal left wing radio institution. Rather, it was a pivotal accomplishment for a new and fast-growing movement within American society–the movement for democracy in the mass media.
Thanks to the hard work, sacrifice, and dedication of thousands of loyal Pacifica listeners, a loosely coordinated movement arose throughout the U.S., which in alliance with scores of employees at the five stations, and activists from hundreds of different progressive and civic groups, managed to beat back the efforts of a small clique that had illegally seized control of Pacifica’s board of directors and national office.
A little more than a year ago, I resigned as co-host of Pacifica’s morning news magazine, Democracy Now!, to openly challenge the actions of the board of directors and the management, which was either muzzling or firing producers who dared to dissent; and the constant harassment of my colleague, Democracy Now! host, Amy Goodman. Announcing my resignation in an on-air broadcast, I called for a national boycott of listener donations, a campaign to force the resignation of the national board, and listener support of several law suits underway in the California courts challenging the legality of the takeover. I vowed not to return to Pacifica until those directors had been removed and a system of democratic accountability to listeners, employees, and local communities had been established. Needless to say, my announcement caught Pacifica’s management by surprise. The national program director at the time, Steven Yasko, claimed in an interview later that day that he had no idea I was unhappy with Pacifica policies. “We wish Juan success in his future endeavors,” Yasko said in a prepared statement.
One year later, Yasko is history. So is Bessie Wash, Pacifica’s former executive director. And so are virtually all of the board members who engineered the move to mainstream the network. Gone also are the four station managers from WBAI New York, KPFK Los Angeles, KPFT Houston, and WPFW Washington, D.C., who carried out the authoritarian policies of those directors. Control of the network was transferred to a new group of directors representing the Pacifica reform movement, including some former board dissenters.
Think about the significance of this for a moment.
For perhaps the first time in U.S. history, a listener/employee movement forced a complete reversal of policies and practices at a broadcast network.
As many of you know, this was no easy victory. Early last year there were many in our own movement who questioned the wisdom of either a listener boycott or a direct action campaign to force out individual board members. What if the boycott hastens the board’s plans to sell a station? some asked. So what if we force out these board members and they find others to replace them? others wondered. But I and others in the Pacifica Campaign were convinced that the only way to save Pacifica was to involve every single listener in a national referendum, and that the only vehicle available for such a referendum was the individual listener’s decision to give or not give money to the network.
As for the tactic of applying direct pressure on individual board members–commonly known as a corporate campaign in labor circles–the reasoning for it was simple. All institutions in a society, no matter how revolutionary or reactionary, are run by human beings. Those human beings, however, are rarely required to take personal responsibility for the policies and actions they formulate or carry out in the name of their institution. In the case of Pacifica, the board had not yet experienced directly the wrath and the pressure of Pacifica’s listeners. We believed that with enough peaceful but persistent pressure those board members could be made to see that they faced far more emotional and financial pain and loss of public prestige by remaining on the board than they would by simply leaving it.
And we were right. One by one, those board members, unable to withstand the pressure from listeners, chose to resign during the past year.
The problem for our movement at that point was in recognizing that we had won. The left in America is so accustomed to losing that some of us don’t even know what winning looks like. Even a victorious reform movement, however, must negotiate the terms of victory with its opponents. Sometimes, in order to dissuade those defeated opponents from engaging in desperate and destructive last-minute resistance, the reform movement must offer them a dignified and orderly way to retreat. That process of recognition and of negotiation took several more months.
It led, in January of this year, to the transfer of effective control of the network to representatives of the reform movement. It was, however, a costly victory. The network was literally looted by the old guard on its way out the door. The new management discovered a debt of more than $5 million–much of it owed to more than half-a-dozen high-priced legal firms the old guard had used to stay in power. Some $500,000 was wasted on a top Washington public relations firm. More than $250,000 was given to a private security firm hired to conduct surveillance and compile intelligence dossiers on members of the dissident movement. And more than $500,000 was turned into golden parachute severance packages for a slew of departing Pacifica executives.
Pacifica listeners and staff, however, have not been paralyzed by the financial mess. They immediately jumped in to save the network from bankruptcy. Fundraising drives at the local stations during the past few weeks have been enormously successful, a few even setting all-time records.
But even more important than the enormous victory are the challenges ahead. The settlement agreement that created the new board stipulates a transition period during the next 18 months, after which Pacifica will emerge as the most democratically run broadcast operation in American history. Within a year, all five stations will have listener elections to local advisory boards, and those boards will have a decisive say in the rewriting of Pacifica’s bylaws, including the structure of its permanent board of directors. Thus, at a time when top-down centralization of power is the norm in the mass media, Pacifica is heading in the opposite direction, toward more local autonomy and listener control of its five stations.
However, although the old clique that seized control of Pacifica was wrong, not every criticism they raised was incorrect. There are indeed remnants of unconscious racial bigotry and paternalism within the Pacifica family. We would be foolish to believe that any part of American society, even the left, could be inoculated from the historic disease of racism that has plagued this nation from its inception. There continues to be resistance at several Pacifica stations to developing programs that reflect and speak to the changing ethnic and racial composition of our society.
Moreover, some within the Pacifica family are not bothered by the network’s inability, over the past few decades, to qualitatively expand its audience so that the news and information it produces can have a more substantial impact on the American public, thus sparking social change. These people are content being the mosquitoes swirling around the elephant of monopoly capitalism.
Which brings me to the larger picture–the relationship between the Pacifica battle and the rest of the mass media.
Quite simply, the media today is the second most powerful American institution after the U.S. military. It is more powerful than political parties or governmental superstructures. As gatekeepers to the flow of information at a time when information itself has become the most critical of commodities, the corporate mass media are able to determine the parameters of acceptable thought and recognizable “facts” and “events” for most of society.
Recently, the Los Angeles Times did an in-depth report on the rise of Clear Channel Communications, a Texas-based firm that only a few years ago owned a dozen radio stations but today owns more than 1,200. The report documented how the rise of Clear Channel was very similar to that of Enron–executives throwing millions of dollars at politicians, mostly Republicans, to pave the way for government deregulation so their firm could expand exponentially, creating phantom operations along the way. [See Clear Channel story on page 3.]
Clear Channel is so centralized that some of its disc jockeys play the same songs for hundreds of stations. KISS-FM audiences may believe that they are listening to a phantom local jock’s favorite tunes, but it’s the same guy in Los Angeles or Houston being piped into stations around the country.
The recent federal court decision that is paving the way for a new wave of mergers between television networks, newspapers, and cable companies will further accelerate such consolidation.
So where is the left in all of this? In my opinion, progressive movements for social change in the United States have not sufficiently grasped the need to establish viable nationwide alternatives to the growing monopolization of information flow by the corporate media.
Yes, we have Harper’s and In These Times, and, the Nation–sometimes–and Pacifica, and scores of community radio stations, and IndyMedia centers and Common Dreams web sites and Free Speech TV, and lots of excellent local efforts at public access television, but we have not yet succeeded in marshalling the forces of the progressive movement to establish a national alternative platform that can reach millions of Americans with quality news, information, radical analysis, and, yes, even entertainment.
It is my hope that the success of the battle for Pacifica will spark some of us to dream bigger dreams for the future. As someone who has spent the past 25 years battling within the corporate print media of this country, I am painfully aware of how the concentration of capital in mega media–something journalistic visionaries like Ben Bagdikian warned about a quarter century ago–is becoming more pronounced each day. This concentration, and the drive for ever-larger profit margins that inevitably accompanies it, make increasingly difficult the task of those ethical journalists battling to accomplish anything important within the corporate media today. In other words, the mass media is moving to the right even faster than our political superstructure and, since September 11, has become more intolerant of divergent views than Attorney General John Aschroft. In this new age of intolerance, it is especially important for radical and progressive journalists and advocates of media democracy to develop a long-term, proactive strategy.
It is my belief that a critical component of such a strategy must be a concerted effort to establish an independent people’s television network in the United States in the immediate future.
A century ago, Vladimir Lenin and other Russian revolutionaries responded to their situation by creating a national newspaper that would help unite the scattered movements of revolutionary workers in Czarist Russia. In the advanced capitalist world of today, television has become the main form of social control of the working people. A great frustration for the American people is turning on the television every evening when they get home from work, surfing through 150 channels and finding, once again, that there is nothing worthwhile to watch.
Until progressive and radical movements respond to this frustration by developing a full-service news, information, and entertainment network–one that directly challenges the captains of mega media for the viewership and allegiance of the American people–our movements will not advance in any qualitative way. To be successful, such a network would have to enlist the resources of the two social movements in this nation that have the greatest resources and the greatest need for an alternative network–the trade union and environmental movements. Every two-year election cycle, American unions spend $500 million backing political candidates at all levels of government. Most of those candidates end up betraying the interests of working people. This waste of workers’ money must end.
Is it too much to dream that the coalition of labor, environmental, feminist, third world liberation, and other progressive movements that managed to strike a tenuous alliance in Seattle against the WTO (and continue resisting other forms of corporate globalization) would, in the not too distant future, pool their efforts to create a pro-labor, pro-environment alternative network to challenge the hegemony of international mega media and spark a rebirth of the voices of dissent across the land? I think not. What is needed is a vision, a strategy, the willingness to be flexible and unitary in our approach, and a commitment to work hard. As the Pacifica struggle proved to those who had forgotten the words of a famous 20th century Chinese revolutionary: When the people are united, they can move mountains.
Juan Gonzalez is the founder of the Pacifica Campaign, co-host of the daily radio program Democracy Now!, and a columnist for the New York.