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Back On The Air At Pacifica

BY Juan Gonzalez
A growing movement to make the American mass media more accountable to the public they are supposed to serve has won an enormous victory.

At a three-day meeting on January 11 to 13, which drew hundreds of political activists and radio producers from throughout the nation, a newly installed interim board of directors of the five-station Pacifica Radio network ordered the reinstatement of nearly 40 producers who had been fired during a political struggle that consumed the network. The new board also immediately replaced several key executives who had sought to transform the 50-year-old progressive radio network into a mini-version of National Public Radio.

A year ago, as readers of this column know, I resigned as co-host of Democracy Now!, Pacifica’s daily morning news show, to protest repeated acts of censorship at the network and a rash of unjustified firings at WBAI, the network’s New York flagship. I broadcast my resignation on-air, announcing that I was joining those fired workers and thousands of Pacifica listeners around the country in a national campaign to boycott the network until the board of directors and the Pacifica executives who were responsible for those policies had been removed.

Journalists are normally expected just to report the news. But when your own employer engages in flagrant censorship, illegal acts and political purges, each of us must choose between keeping quiet and collaborating or exposing those acts and resisting.

As the country’s oldest and largest listener-sponsored community radio network, Pacifica depends on the generous contributions of its listeners for more than 80 percent of its $12 million annual budget. If the listeners could be convinced to halt their donations, we figured it was possible to force the network into crisis.

Since its founding by American pacifists after World War II, Pacifica has had a reputation as a broadcast outlet where unpopular and radical views could always be heard. While some of its programming was occasionally strident and one-sided, its best reporters often broke critical stories ignored by the corporate media.

As the power and influence of the mass media expanded in recent decades, the tiny Pacifica network, with stations in five of the biggest radio markets in the country (New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Washington and the San Francisco Bay Area), also grew in value. With the stations estimated to be worth as much as $500 million on the open market, Pacifica is arguably the single most valuable asset of the American left.

Several years ago, a new group of directors took control of the Pacifica Foundation, the nonprofit entity that runs the stations. The new board promptly did away with the autonomy of the five stations and eliminated any role for listeners who had participated in long-standing community advisory boards. The executives installed by the national board began redirecting the programming toward a more mainstream audience and firing or censoring anyone who opposed those changes.

These actions led to several lawsuits by listeners, dissident board members, and the network’s local advisory boards. But not until listeners openly rebelled through a national boycott that began in February 2001 did the tide begin to turn. The network lost hundreds of thousands of dollars because of the boycott. Picketing outside each of the stations became commonplace, and board members and top network executives found themselves flooded with phone calls and e-mails, even protests outside their jobs and homes demanding their resignations.

As the mass movement around Pacifica spread, many of us were surprised at how some prominent individuals on the left, even some of the country’s most respected left publications, sought to steer a neutral course above the fray, or even backed the policies of the national board. It is always easier to expose injustices that are far away, much harder to stand against them when they are practiced by fellow “progressives.”

By September, more than half of that board had been forced to resign, including its chairman and most of its top officers; so had the network’s executive director and national program director. Months of court-supervised negotiations between the two sides followed, until a legal settlement was reached in December. The new board that emerged ended up with a clear majority of its members from the reform movement. At the first face-to-face public meeting of the new board in January, it became apparent how complete the reform movement’s victory had been.

As an overflow crowd of hundreds looked on, the new directors completely reversed the old Pacifica policies. They ordered an end to all censorship on the network. They reinstated many employees who had been fired to their previous posts. They fired the station manager at WBAI who had been involved in some of the purges and accepted the resignation of the station manager at Houston’s KPFT. In addition, they appointed Dan Coughlin, one of the key activists who led the national listener boycott, as interim executive director of the entire network. As part of the court settlement, during the next 18 months, the interim board must rewrite Pacifica’s by-laws and oversee the first-ever listener elections of local advisory boards at all stations.

Perhaps never before in American history has a popular movement so completely turned around a media institution. On January 14, I returned to my old job as co-host of Democracy Now! alongside Amy Goodman. We came back to a network that is exhausted from a bitter internal war, and that is perhaps $4 million in debt—the old board having virtually bankrupted Pacifica on their way out the door. But we returned to one of the few places in the American media where free speech and democratic accountability are not just slogans, but hard-fought realities.

Juan Gonzalez is a columnist for New York’s Daily News and In These Times. The winner of a 1998 George Polk journalism award, he is the author of Roll Down Your Window: Stories of a Forgotten America and Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America.

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