Battle over US community radio

Issue 

By Lyn Gerry

LOS ANGELES — Pacifica Radio, also known as "Free Speech Radio", was founded in 1948 by journalist Lewis Hill and a group of anarcho-pacifist war resisters who wanted to counter the rising repression and militarism of the Cold War. It is now fighting for its life.

Pacifica's KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, was the world's first community radio station, funded directly by small donations from listener-subscribers. It was unique, not under the control of any institution, corporate or government entity. Its example sparked the community radio movement, now worldwide.

Because it has consistently spoken truth to power, the non-profit radio network has been under attack by government and reactionary social forces since its inception. It is now fighting a hostile takeover by its own board of directors, who are being helped by the Clinton administration. The outcome will determine whether the last free media network in the US will be brought to heel.

Pacifica's five powerful FM transmitters in major population centres have the potential to reach one in five US households, and may be worth as much as $400 million if sold on the open market.

The crisis, which has been building for the past five years, came to a head last (northern) summer. On its 50th anniversary, KPFA-FM became the site of open battle.

Broadcasters defied gag orders to report news that the Pacifica Foundation's directors were involved in secret discussions to sell KPFA's frequency to the highest bidder. In response, the broadcasters were arrested and management shut down the station. More than 10,000 people marched in protest; this time almost 100 were arrested.

In an effort to contain the rebellion, Pacifica's management censored reporting of the uprising in Berkeley from its other stations, and later fired its national news director for reporting on a solidarity boycott staged by some of Pacifica's affiliated community radio stations.

While international news wires, such as Reuters and Associated Press, were carrying stories on the Pacifica conflict, listeners to other Pacifica stations weren't hearing about it on their local station.

'Responsible'

In the late '80s and early '90s, Pacifica came under attack by the government: first for its airing of a gay radio drama, then, a few years later, for its black nationalist programming. Pacifica Foundation's ambitious executive director at the time, David Salniker, persuaded a number of influential people in the organisation and the progressive movement that Pacifica could be a force on the US political scene if "responsible" people took control of the "infantile disorder".

Pat Scott, Salniker's anointed successor, was dispatched to Washington, DC, to meet with members of Congress. It would seem that a deal was struck; the attacks from government quarters ceased. Pacifica's national administration, previously a loose umbrella over the five autonomous stations, began to aggressively centralise control over finances and policy.

"Vast changes" were announced, and dissenters were told to obey or get out. Massive purges began. More than 200 community programmers were booted off the network, especially those with radical or controversial perspectives.

They were gradually replaced with a few paid "professionals" who were either willing to accept direction from the management regarding the political content of their programs, or whose views were safe enough not to require direction.

Union-busting consultants were brought in to smash collective bargaining agreements that had given workers the right to participate in decision making and to examine the organisation's books. Station staff were threatened with dismissal if they tried to go public in opposition to the new regime.

Pacifica was being remade as a corporate-style hierarchy, autocratic and secretive.

Favours returned

Behind the scenes, in an abandonment of Pacifica's tradition, broadcasters were told by management not to criticise the Clinton administration. The administration returned the favour; when the rebellion broke out at KPFA, the Berkeley chief of police received an unprecedented call from an official at the US Department of Justice inquiring why police were not dealing more aggressively with the demonstrators, who included members of the Berkeley City Council.

Pacifica's brass consolidated its power over a period of several years by turning to the liberal mainstream for support. In 1998, Clinton appointee Mary Frances Berry, chair of the US Commission on Civil Rights, was brought in to chair the Pacifica board. Berry presided over the realisation of one part of a controversial "five year plan" the board had been trying to ram through for several years: a change in the organisation's by-laws giving the board power to select itself.

The community opposed this move and began extensive efforts to pressure wavering board members to reject it. The US government stepped in again.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which disburses government funds to non-profit media outlets, obliged Pacifica's management by supporting the power grab. At the behest of Pacifica, the CPB sent a letter claiming Pacifica's organisational structure was out of compliance with its regulations and threatened to cut off the $1.5 million funds. The board's action is now the subject of two lawsuits by disenfranchised donors and their representatives.

What has happened to Pacifica is part of a systematic enclosure of the mass media by government. At the behest of media conglomerates, the US Congress has enacted legislation that has enabled a frenzy of consolidation in the commercial media.

Non-commercial media have also been subjected to pressure through new government grant requirements that have made funding contingent on the use of commercial ratings service benchmarks, and by demands that stations rapidly expand their audiences or their revenues.

In order to accomplish this, stations are forced to commercialise and mainstream their formats to attract wealthier, more conservative donors. A phalanx of government-funded consultants has encouraged stations to abandon their grassroots focus and to "professionalise" by applying market principles. Once they are hooked, the screws are tightened.

The rebellion at Pacifica is not an isolated phenomenon. Many community radio stations, and a burgeoning movement of unlicensed micro-power community radio stations, are fighting back. Joined by the new possibilities of the internet, grassroots media with a progressive agenda are fighting the corporate gatekeepers. Stay tuned.

[Lyn Gerry is a former staff member and union steward from KPFK-FM, Pacifica's station in Los Angeles, California. She has been an active resister against the Pacifica takeover for five years, and maintains a web site on Pacifica issues <www.radio4all.org/freepacifica>. She is also active in the micro-power radio movement.]