Eating Its Own
by Paul DeRienzo
The Pacifica crisis is a complex series of events with various facets and numerous players. At the heart of the problem are years of erroneous assumptions about the future of public radio and a lack of strong competent leadership. Thats allowed many individual Pacifica programmers to gain power in the organization without being held accountable for their decisions and actions. The result has been a near disaster that threatens the very existence of the nations only progressive broadcast network. Here is a timeline of events at the Pacifica Foundation and the actors responsible according to former and current members of the Pacifica National Board.
Some quick background for the Pacifica challenged who might not be following the internecine feuding within the nations largest and oldest listener sponsored radio network. Pacifica was founded in 1949 in Berkley by World War 2 conscientious objector and visionary Lew Hill. The network added New York radio station WBAI in 1960 and stations in Los Angeles, Washington DC and Houston in the 60s and 70s. Pacifica reached its peak in listeners and influence during the Vietnam War era. Besides peaks in listeners during the Gulf War and the Iran-Contra scandal hearings the network has been a shadow of itself ever since.
In the mid 90s a new Board of Directors tried to influence the stations towards building an audience running into stiff opposition from long entrenched power groupings within the Foundation. As usual with Pacifica the fights began under cover, but soon spilled out onto the air through various disgruntled programmers. There was no single dispute, rather a collection of disputes that eventually congealed into two irreconcilable camps of former friends and colleagues. Attempts by the PNB to control the airing of "dirty laundry" were soon characterized by their opponents as "censorship" beginning a long very public slide by the Foundation into chaos.
In New York a popular local host Utrice Leid was appointed interim General Manager of WBAI replacing Valerie Van Isler. Although many WBAI programmers had been lobbying for Van Islers removal when it happened the New York liberal establishment went ballistic. Van Isler and her team were close associates of major financial donors who had been supporting WBAI for years. Leid was also not beholden to the white liberal New York establishment who consider Democracy Nows Amy Goodman a "saint."
Also WBAI had an unusual arrangement with its former union, the leftist United Electrical workers which allowed WBAIs 200 unpaid volunteers to be union members along with the stations 25-30 regular employees. WBAI management under Van Isler had challenged the idea of a union for volunteers. Eventually Pacifica won a National Labor Relations Board decision banning unpaid people from the union. When WBAI employees reached out to the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists (AFTRA) this caused panic among programmers fearing that those shows that couldnt raise money for the station would now be in danger. But WBAI employees were also upset that under UE they hadnt gotten a raise or a new contract since 1992. These events set the stage for the internal dispute at WBAI.
Leids hiring and the lock out of several WBAI managers and some of their close associates in December 2000 set in motion the protest movement that eventually forced the resignation of the PNB more than a year later. It was a fight marked by invective, threats and some violence as a national movement spearheaded by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez gained momentum. Eventually several lawsuits against Pacifica were settled in a California state court. The settlement agreement formed an interim Pacifica National Board with members from each faction. It wasnt long before the Goodman faction was in power, electing New York activist Leslie Cagan chair of the iPNB. Some say a "bloodbath" of managers and anyone who supported the old regime is continuing. More than 20 people, including managers and employees have been fired or laid off at Pacifica so far this year including the entire Pacifica Network News, the only other national Pacifica program besides Democracy Now. One former PNN staffer, Patricia Guadalupe calls it "21st Century McCarthyism*," and many agree that there has been a purge at Pacifica. The following is the story in the words of those who believe they are the victims of the purge.
*Pacifica Fires 9, Drops National
Is Its Own Worst Enemy
AFTRA UNION LETTER TO BOARD CHAIR LESLIE CAGAN