As a member of KPFK's Local Station Board, I've been asked repeatedly to explain what's happening at the Los Angeles community radio station. This is my letter to the Pacifica National Board, KPFK's parent organization. I paint the PNB members with a broad brush here, and some individual members were as forthcoming as they could be under the hammer of "breaching confidentiality." What we never got were official explanations.
The meeting mentioned below happened on 14 December 2008. None of the issues were decided, and so will continue to the next meeting at least. The Pacifica National Board can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
To the Pacifica National Board:
For weeks now, I've asked questions of our local PNB members, and they've given me no answers. Not surprisingly, I'm assuming the worst now: that the threat of bankruptcy is, at bottom, a ruse to shock and awe us into re-making Pacifica into a mainstream radio network.
First, the threat: for a $700K shortfall, the equivalent of one quarter of one larger station's annual donations, first you lay off staff, perhaps a wise fiscal move, but it creates a vacuum that your appointees can fill when times get better.
Then you skip over our usual fundraising methods--direct appeals to listeners--and put the KPFK building at risk with a 30-year mortgage for a third or less of it's value. Locally, we have less than a week's notice, or so we're told. At the same time, two of our PNB members talk openly about, instead, selling the $200M signal of our most radical, and to some, our most pesky, sister station. Our LSB refuses to bite the bait, I'm proud to say.
The loan is for at least $1M, $300K more than the shortfall. Wrapped into this bailout is a plan for national programming that will inevitably bump local shows and standardize the sound across five very different regions of the country. Have you forgotten the Pacifica Mission's mandate "to encourage and provide outlets for the creative skills and energies of the community ... and to promote and aid other creative activities which will serve the cultural welfare of the community"?
For those local shows that are left, that are still based in the community, ten of you have put forward a plan that will move to prime time programs that have the most listenership and bring in the most money during fund drives. Diehard listeners will have to hunt in the wee hours for voices like Eiser Mason and riKu Matsuda, Dedon Kamati, Rodrigo Argueta, and other wonderful, educational, and surprising voices that now grab a fresh radio listener scanning the dial.
It seems now that part of the loan will finance a consulting company to do the job that you were elected to do: generate a recovery and restructuring strategy and a fundraising plan. Apparently, the contractor will serve as interim Executive Director presumably until they have put their scheme for mainstreaming Pacifica in place. The consulting company turns out to be using Pacifica to test out their generic and formulaic "Extreme Makeover" for non-profit restructuring, before they send their manuscript of that name out to publishers. They have no radio experience, and their resumé wouldn't make the first cut for Executive Director under normal circumstances, but they have a friend on the National Board.
They are recommending what several of you are also urging: underwriting. However you package it, underwriting is selling air time for promotion. In some ways, underwriting is worse than direct advertising: with an advertiser, you know they're pushing their product, but when we hear "'Uprising' has been brought to you by the Ford Foundation," we can only wonder what influence was bought and sold, and what programs were cancelled or just never made it to the program grid because they had no sponsor. The Mission was both wise and prescient when it mandated "that the facilities involved shall be as nearly self-sustaining as possible."
The sum of what you're proposing is the Healthy Stations Project, the CPB plan that turned NPR mainstream and will do the same to Pacifica. It was this plan that brought about the Pacifica struggle of the last Democratic Presidency, the one that brought down that National Board in a torrent of listener outrage and instituted our elected Local Station Boards.
That earlier Board operated in secret too, avoiding public scrutiny and public meetings, just as you have squeezed all this in between public meetings and usually in closed sessions. They, too, neither consulted the listeners nor the local station boards, and they whispered among themselves of selling stations.
Tomorrow you might decide to set a course that puts Pacifica on a trajectory for battling Air America and NPR. That's a war that Pacifica has neither the resources nor the will to win.
Pacifica's troubles come and go. The answer has always been our contributors, our volunteers, refusing to succumb to the glamour of Arbitron ratings and mainstream popularity, and the surprising, thought-provoking, and illuminating ideas of community broadcasters. Those are Pacifica's roots and its niche. If you'll look there, you can still save Pacifica.
KPFK Local Station Board member