Posted by: Doug Henwood | August 30, 2010

More Pacifica: Marc Cooper writes…

My old friend Marc Cooper has a long post on Pacifica that concludes with some comments on my own recent rant on The state of WBAI (dire). Since it’s always nice to be noticed, I’ll overlook the rather patronizing tone of his “means well” and just respond to his conclusion that it’s all too late—the game’s over. If the game is really over, Marc, why did you devote 1,247 words to the topic before you get to that point?

Me, I think the situation is, as I said, dire, but not necessarily terminal. But almost every other word he writes in this post is true. Too much of the programming on KPFK (where Marc did a show for many years) and WBAI (where I’ve done a show for many years) sounds like it beamed from one of the smaller moons of Jupiter. The governance system of the network, with boards elected by staff and listeners, may sound nice in theory but has proved disastrous in practice. People run for the boards based on their political resumes, not their qualifications for running a radio station. (And, on second thought, the system doesn’t make sense in theory either: why should a board elected by a fraction of these eligible to vote, which is itself a fraction of the listeners, produce any coherent or admirable results?) Marc is also right about the silence and/or complicity of the left media and left media watchdogs on the devolution of Pacifica. As he points out, The Nation once editorially endorsed having the programming done by elected councils (something considerably worse than the current governance system), even though the magazine itself is edited by small professional staff, the chief of which is also one of the publication’s owners.

The network continues to bleed money. WBAI’s latest fundraiser, which took up much of August, was a flop, falling about 25% short of its goal. The flogging of sensational premiums, featuring conspiracy theories and health quackery, was at least supposed to bring in some quick cash, even if it did risk ruining our reputation and driving away sane listeners. But it’s not even bringing in the cash. To compensate for this failure, there’s going to be another mini-fundraiser on September 9 and 10, which will no doubt feature more chips-in-the-head and herbal magic stuff. The next day’s programming will be a commemoration of 9/11, one hour of which is supposed to be devoted to refuting Truther nonsense. One can only hope that the other twenty-three hours don’t promote it.

And one can only hope that Marc isn’t right, and it isn’t too late. Pacifica is a precious resource, with strong signals in the most important metro areas in the USA. It still carries lots of fine programming amidst the stuff that sounds like it originates from Eurydome or Pasithee. To save itself, Pacifica has to stop flogging nonsense in its fundraisers and try a dignified, quiet approach. The quantity of begging has to come down: we can’t fundraise for more than a quarter of the year—it’s suicidal. The moons of Jupiter stuff has to go. And so too does the governance system. The stations and the network need to be run by people who know what they’re doing and have some authority to do it. We need to do some serious research to find out where all our listeners have gone and why—and what might bring them back.

The nutters denounce this sort of agenda as “corporatization.” Against it, they proffer some notion of programming of, by, and for The Community, whatever that is. I’ve asked a lot of them to define The Community. They can’t, because it’s a figment of their imaginations.

So it’s either something like what I’ve just outlined, or Pacifica will have a date with the bankruptcy court. Its licenses are extremely valuable, probably worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Which makes me wonder: should it come to bankruptcy and the licenses are put up for auction, who would get the money? Hmmm. Any lawyers out there with some ideas?

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Responses

  1. I recently sent an email to WBAI outlining why I would not be contributing this time around. There are several reasons for this, but I’d like to point out one here. WBAI ended its podcast streams in June. Why is this a problem? Obviously, many people like myself aren’t around when our favorite shows are on. A larger issue is that WBAI refuses to be a relevant media content company. Forgive me for throwing these corporate phrases around, but I work for three major cable networks. The internal staff and a phalanx of consultants spend a great deal of time figuring out what the networks are, what their competition is, what the parent company is and ways for the “consumer” to access all of them. WBAI needs to do likewise. The first argument I always get is “but BAI doesn’t have deep pockets.” To this knee-jerk reaction, I have two answers. The first is WBAI has spent a great deal of money on elections. This seems to be a self-centered endeavor. The listeners, frankly, don’t care. Spend a small portion of it on an up-and-coming marketing consultant rather than a full service firm. I’ve got a “Rolodex” full of them. The second issue is the leadership will need to learn how to market in the Facebook age. They then must be committed to sticking with it. The alternative is not pretty.

  2. […] Update: Doug Henwood, who I mention later in this piece, has responded with his own new post. […]

  3. of course, marc cooper is also clearly delusional – his many delusions, though, are of the ‘decent left’ type.

    i can recall when the pacifica stations were in danger of being turned into ‘popular’ npr-lite and cooper cheering it on; a minor subplot in the three-decade long retreat of the ‘left,’ currently mired in today’s obama fascination. war is peace.

    cooper’s back-when support for the abdication of pacifica would have left us in the same place as we are now (will the stations be sold off?) but without the strangeness.

    back to reality: your show, doug henwood, is an excellent resource and your comments about the need to efficiently manage the place are on target.

  4. Yo as what would happen with the money if any or all of the licenses were sold, which i assume would happen in bankruptcy since even if this were the rational non-bankruptcy decision, Pacifica has tied its hands in this regard.

    Assuming further that, at least initially, the filing is done with the intent of reorganization, presumably Pacifica would present a plan of reorganization that was funded by such a sale. In other words, the funds would stay in Pacifica.

    However, if there were no viable plan of reorganization, and the bankruptcy were converted to a liquidation, the proceeds would (a) go to the estate, which would (b) pay off the creditors. It is likely there would be a surplus after paying off the creditors. At this point the California AG would certainly intervene because the assets of a not-for-profit have to be transferred to one or more other not-for-profits in an approved transaction.

  5. Well, Pacifica has debts, but they’re nothing next to the nine figures a license sale could get. So, that’s a big pot of money to allocate.

  6. Interesting recommendations that will go nowhere because anyone daring to implement them would be hounded by zombie mobs, just as 10, 15 and 20 years ago. Your question about where the cash will end up after the inevitable bankruptcy is an excellent one.

  7. There were mobs around KPFA in Berkeley a decade ago, yes. I’d be surprised if you could get 100 people in front of WBAI’s studios, though.

  8. I appreciate your show, Doug. I have listened by download for some years and am glad with my move to NYC I can now tune in as a paying member of WBAI.
    Your position that elections are at best nice, however, misses the mark. Without being held accountable to the least powerful communities, professional journalists cannot produce what those communities need. Elections seem like a necessary means to bring professional journalists and marginal communities into the kind of relationship where the needs from below inform high quality news production. News, in turn, is more relevant to those communities.
    I can understand the point that the way elections are carried out today has many problems but to simply eliminate listener governance implies that professional journalists know best what the rest of us need. Now that is a fundamentally anti-democratic position that I hope you too reject.

  9. James Owens, you use the “community” word that I maintain is slippery and undefined as if it were unproblematic. And the elections have done none of what you claim – they’ve wasted time and resources to produce a truly pathological situation.

  10. Out of my area of expertise but doesn’t the government just auction off the licenses again?

    However, my big question is: does the audience want to hear truthers and quacks? I know a shocking number of otherwise good leftists who chase their tail over conspiracism, peak-oil-apocolyptics and, even, gold buggery.

  11. Do you think the problems are ones of structure? As not-for-profit corporation, California law requires that Pacifica be governed by a board. The by-laws set forth how the board is composed.

    Should the by-laws should be changed to allow for the board to appoint vacancies and to appoint its successors? I think this was how it was before the reorganization. Many not-for-profits use this method, so I do not reject it out of hand, but that method is vulnerable to cronyism and appointments from an insider group.

    The non-profit world also has numerous, perfectly functional, corporations with elected boards. Consumer co-operatives have elected boards–one person/one vote, usually by the membership–quite similar to the Pacifica set up. We have seen poorly run and well run co-ops over the years.

    There are numerous other examples of elected boards. Right now there is going to be an election in my area for a portion of the board of a community hospital. The board fills vacancies during interim years, but when election time comes, a certain portion of the seats are put before the voters. This is a good mixed model and can be a corrective.

    It is a fact that votes in most corporate board elections tend to be quite low. In part, this is due to the other fact that hotly contested board elections are rare. Usually, there is a slate of candidates put together by a process (nominating committee or whatever, also set forth in the by-laws.) It would be interesting to compare the voter participation in the Pacifica elections to participation in other hotly contested elections in other not-for-profits.

    My two cents on the problem is that 1. whoever in on the Pacifica board is faced with overwhelming financial problems, which the board, under the law, is responsible for. And 2. media marketing experts need to be brought in, but they are expensive. The board and management are warring over how to use the remaining resources to turn around the financial situation. Management thinks that it understands the business better than the board, and the board thinks that the management is not financially astute.


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