Outwardly Progressive, Internally Corporate: Pacifica’s Next Challenge

Published on Znet online (www.zmag.org) in September 2002

In an article on Pacifica entitled “Gloves Off”, Michael Albert wrote: “progressive organizations should employ participatory and self-managing rather than corporate structures … advocating self-managing structures has not only long-run but also short-run relevance to Pacifica, because Pacifica activism will grow quicker and be stronger and wiser if it pursues positive aims.”

As a listener and subscriber to KPFK, Pacifica’s Los Angeles station, I kept a close watch on the campaign to “save Pacifica” and wrote letters, and supported efforts to reclaim Pacifica. At the height of the crisis I heard Juan Gonzalez resign on the air on Democracy Now! and began withholding my donations from KPFK.

Today, I find myself in a unique position: from a listener/subscriber to a worker at KPFK. Since March 2002, soon after the lawsuit was won and the “old regime” replaced, I began hosting and co-producing KPFKs Morning Show on weekday mornings. As the months have passed, I have grown into my new job and have fallen in love with journalism, radio, and production for the purposes of raising progressive awareness and motivating to action. I have seen and continue to see Pacifica as not simply reporting on the movement for social and political justice, but as an integral part of the movement. I have grown to appreciate my fellow workers who are as passionate as I am to be a part of this station. Excited as everyone else was about the changes heralding a new era at KPFK, I embraced our new General Manager and new Local Advisory Board (LAB) with enthusiasm.

Before I go further, I want to emphasize that there are several aspects of KPFK and Pacifica that have changed for the better. Listeners have more power and input into station policies, new bylaws are being debated by listeners, there are plans for elections to the Local Advisory Board, etc. But, where working conditions and internal management structures are concerned, KPFK retains the structures that were designed to “corporatize” the stations in the first place.

While the players changed, the game remained the same. I should have been wary from the start about an essentially hierarchical structure working for progressive goals. Hence, the realization that KPFK, in my opinion, is replicating the very structures it replaced saddens me. A progressive organization like KPFK must reject corporate structures and “employ participatory and self-managing” ones. But that has never been the case. If anything, in the last seven months that I have been employed at KPFK, I have seen only a reaffirming of corporate structures. When I first came into the station, I was assigned an “executive producer”, a “professional” who, I was told, was ultimately responsible for the show I hosted and would be the one responsible for the show. This executive producer was hired after the lawsuit was won, and was not a product of the previous management. This acceptance of mainstream media power roles came as rather a surprise to me. I imagined that as the person on the air, the words I spoke were my responsibility. I spent months battling the philosophy that I thought died with the previous regime. Egalitarian in theory, authoritarian in practice.

Eventually the executive producer finally had enough of my resistance to this philosophy and asked to be taken off the show, much to my relief. The Morning Show is now run by myself and one other producer and newsreader. We make every attempt to share power and decision making on the show. About half our stories are pitched to us by members of the community whose lives are affected by the prevailing power structures in our society.

The experience with “professionalism” was only a taste of things to come. One of the actions by our new General Manager only weeks after her arrival at KPFK was to fire a beloved and dedicated staff member on impulse as a result of a dispute over a financial transaction. I have gathered that the official reason given was “insubordination”. The staff at KPFK was shocked. The event galvanized us and, over the course of several long meetings, collectively decided upon a course of action. The attack on one staff member empowered the rest of us to collectively demand that the fired staff member be immediately re-instated and that financial transactions be made transparent. It was this part of my tenure at KPFK that has been the most exciting. We were exercising workplace democracy and cooperation based on consensus-based decision making! Our solidarity reaped rewards: the fired worker was immediately re-instated. However, closed-door mediated sessions between the GM and that worker ensured that eventually no blame was assigned to either party even though one had the power to fire and used it, and the other had no say in the matter. We, the staff, were told to move on.

In 4 short weeks, an atmosphere of intimidation and harassment has returned to KPFK when the GM suspended the same worker. This time “for her own good” as the worker was apparently too stressed to work – a fact that was not supported by her or anyone else’s observations on the staff. We’re back to business as usual and old timers on the staff are reminded of the striking parallels between then and now.

When KPFKs new GM came on board, as part of her speech at the National Board Meeting in Berkeley she said her goal was to “take the hierarchy out of management”. Unfortunately her actions are vastly different. Staff members at KPFK have been derided for having unauthorized meetings to plot against the GM and for showing disrespect to the GM. Lately the GM has asked that she be informed when staff members have lunch together outside of the station premises. Even a small gathering of staff members in the parking lot for 15 minute breaks is questioned. When management meets without larger staff permission and summarily fires and suspends highly respected and hard working staff members, somehow that is not “disrespectful”. Staff has been told that the GM “does not report to them”. Of course, what she means is that staff reports to the GM and the GM reports to the National Board – that is how it works within a hierarchical system.

Some might say, so what? She is the General Manager; someone has got to have the power to make decisions unilaterally for the good of the station, for “practical purposes”. If I have learned anything from my six month tenure here, it is that many progressive thinkers find it disturbingly easy to separate political ideals of workplace democracy, egalitarian thinking and non-hierarchical decision making, from the actual workings of their own institutions.

Sadly our new General Manager not only has problems with challenges to her authority, but also seems to be bearing the weight of previous workplace conflicts. Various people have raised numerous questions about her background and the National Board promised to review any findings from an investigation. A month ago, the Pacifica Executive Director Dan Coughlin visited KPFK and happened to be in town when our fellow worker was first fired. As he tried to quell the staff over the firing, I asked Coughlin about this investigation. His response was that it had revealed nothing of concern. However, a few days ago, the person who conducted the investigation revealed to a few other staff members and me that this was a lie. This person’s inquiries, which were thorough and came from a geographically diverse array of sources, were a devastating indictment of the suitability, skills and honesty of our new GM. A pattern of mismanagement, quite consistent with her current behavior at KPFK also emerged – enough to raise red flags. I was more shocked to realize that the top management at Pacifica was protecting their political investment in this GM on whom their reputation was staked. We, the staff, and the listeners were lied to.

There seems to be growing participation between listener activists and management on a national level, and this is indeed a step in the right direction. More needs to be done, however, to engage the larger listening community who may not be activists. On the station level, a replacement of the General Manager seems to be the length to which reform has gone. A search committee that was representative and democratic picked the current GM. But, once she was picked, the functioning of the station was left up to her, just like it was left up to her predecessor. The figurehead has changed; the system has stayed the same. It is akin to imagining that the state of our country will change if a Democrat replaces George W. Bush. Predictably the same abuses of power are being seen today. Staff members who stand up to the General Manager are being fired or have their hours reduced. Staff meetings are conducted by the GM through intimidation and authority.

So remarkable is the parallel between what is currently happening and the previous struggle to reclaim Pacifica, that sometimes the same language is being used that the previous regime used in trying to undermine the “save Pacifica” campaign. A February 2000 letter by Saul Landau was entitled “An Appeal to All Progressives: Stop the Pacifica Bashing!” In a GM’s report to the listeners at KPFK, a caller began criticizing the station’s output saying that nothing had changed. The GM’s response was to berate the caller for “bashing Pacifica” and dismiss him without hearing him out. The parallels are clear.

Additionally, a few listener activists who are involved in rebuilding the station are vehemently opposed to airing dirty laundry and assert that it would only serve to prove the previous regime correct. It would just “play into their hands”.

If Pacifica and its network stations are to recover from this very difficult period, the most destructive path it can take is to follow in the footsteps of the previous management. And it seems to be doing just that. Have things really changed?

One can imagine a major corporation undergoing internal upheavals where the top brass has an embarrassing closet of secrets, which, if exposed, would require an entire re-organization of structures and a re-evaluation of transparency and accountability. The corporate world is based on hierarchical top-down style management of workers that is geared toward maximizing production and minimizing risks at the expense of workers rights and human rights. Why are Pacifica stations continuing to adopt structures where a lone person at the top makes decisions? Don’t we need to honestly assess our progress and risk exposing mistakes so that a truly revolutionary media institution can be rebuilt?

An excellent example of bottom-up structures is the Indymedia movement. The Independent Media Centers that span the globe first began in 1999 in Seattle, Washington when tens of thousands demonstrated against the World Trade Organization. Since then, there has been an explosion of these Indymedia Centers throughout the world from Los Angeles to Jerusalem. While I’m not suggesting that Pacifica needs to emulate this structure in order to be a truly progressive institution, I think many lessons can be learned. Namely that decision-making among those who create the output can be horizontally rather than vertically designed.

Ultimately internal honesty and a bottom-up structure are the only things that can build a station resistant to outside attacks. We need to move toward the “participatory and self-managing structures” that Michael Albert spoke of. Mimicking the very structures we criticize in our political analysis should never be an option. Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and co-producer of KPFKs The Morning Show, a daily drive time public affairs and political show on global and local issues. She was one of KPFKs Union stewards when she wrote this piece and subsequently resigned as steward.

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