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NYC Indymedia center article on Pacifica


Radio Free America by Chris Anderson

Pacifica Network at Odds Over Diversity and Democracy

Eighteen months after scoring a landmark legal victory in California Superior Court and reclaiming five of the only progressive radio stations in the United States, Pacifica Radio supporters and board members are attempting to formulate a new set of national bylaws. But talks collapsed in late July amid waves of bitter recrimination.

Three out of five Local Station Advisory Boards (LABs) rejected the proposed bylaw draft, known as "Draft B." The climactic vote came Monday night in Los Angeles, with the KPFK LAB voting down the draft by a margin of 12 to 11.

The next evening's meeting of the WBAI-LAB provided the final nail in the coffin to Draft B. WBAI (99.5-FM) listeners who spoke out at the meeting voiced support of the draft by a margin of 15 to 3; the Local Advisory Board rejected it 2 to 12, with one member abstaining.

Opponents of the draft were ecstatic. Calling the defeat of Draft B a "stunning victory for affirmative action," Sheila Hamanaka, co-chair of Rockland County Friends of Pacifica, wrote in an email that "taking a short time to resolve [Draft B diversity] concerns... will result in a set of bylaws which will hopefully contain meaningful affirmative action remedies and allow for full development of empowered local boards."

Draft B supporters were gloomy. In a response to Hamanaka, WBAI listener Paul Surovell claimed that the failure of Draft B marked a victory for the old corporate Pacifica Board majority and their "allies on the [interim board] who want Pacifica put into receivership based on the failure of the [interim board] and LABs to adopt bylaws."

The gloom stands in sharp contrast to the hope engendered in the winter of 2001- 2002, when the "re-taking" of the five Pacifica Radio Stations by community activists and former station employees was hailed as a rare triumph for the left. On Jan. 13, 2002, Miguel Maldonado, chairman of New York's WBAI Local Advisory Board, called the developments at Pacifica "a historic event in independent media history," but added that "we look forward to the full democratization of the network."

When asked in July how the democratization at WBAI was proceeding, a year and a half after the settlement that ended the decade-old conflict, Maldonado chuckled ruefully. "Ugly," he said. "It's ugly."

Democratization at Pacifica

Founded in the late 1940s by a small group of radical pacifists, listener-sponsored Pacifica operates high-powered FM stations in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston, Washington, D.C., and New York that can reach approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population. Located in the middle of the FM dial, WBAI's 50,000-watt signal alone has a potential audience of more than 20 million people in the tri-state area.

Throughout most of the 1990s, the network was engulfed in a power struggle between community-minded activists and a politically centrist corporate-backed elite who had seized control of the Pacifica National Board (PNB) and fired or banned many Pacifica employees. In January 2002 the long struggle seemed to come to a dramatic end, with a combination of political and monetary pressure, listener lawsuits and protest marches forcing out the corporate PNB members.

In handing down the settlement that ended the activists' lawsuit against the PNB, Alameda Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw ordered that an Interim Pacifica National Board and Local Advisory Boards be created to revise the Pacifica bylaws and supervise elections for Local Station Boards in each of the five station areas. Once formed, the station boards will select a new Pacifica National Board.

For the last 18 months, though, attempts by the interim board to formulate a set of bylaws and election rules for the station boards have come to naught. In its most recent board meeting on June 26, the interim board was unable to agree on a formal bylaw proposal, and the matter was referred back to Judge Sabraw. On July 8, Sabraw ruled that one potential draft of the bylaws, "Draft B," had made sufficient progress to be voted upon by all five LABs. The resulting rejection by the listener boards on Draft B moves the bylaws drafting process into uncertain territory.

Despite its seemingly technical nature, this disagreement exposes fundamental rifts within the Pacifica community.

The main point of contention is over racial representation: namely, how to ensure that local stations, their station boards and the national board include the full spectrum of historically under-represented minority groups.

The two primary drafts, A and B, both contain language mandating the creation of committees of inclusion that will "monitor the diversity of both station programming and staffing in consultation with the Local station Boards." The difference between the proposals is that Draft A gives the committees of inclusion additional powers, such as permission to add up to five unelected members to station boards if elections do not produce an "adequately diverse" board.

Supporters of Draft A contend that strong diversity remedies are necessary to ensure adequate minority input into the Pacifica governance process. Hamanaka says, "I think this issue of institutional racism is a serious problem at Pacifica." She goes on to argue that it is "absolutely vital that there be a serious and aggressive program of affirmative action" for the station boards. In the view of Draft A supporters, the diversity guarantees contained in Draft B do little to promote diversity.

Supporters of Draft B, for their part, argue that the committees of inclusion proposals in Draft A subvert the democratic process. While Draft B supporters acknowledge the importance of diversity, some claim that Draft A's proposal to allow unelected representatives is a power play on the part of long-time producers and hosts rather than a genuine solution to promote racial diversity.

Patty Heffley, a plaintiff to the original listener lawsuit, expresses the view of many disgruntled Pacifica activists. "There are a lot of people using race to muddle up things, because they don't want to relinquish power.... They don't want to have democratic Pacifica elections in New York City."

Maldonado agrees. "This whole conflict is about power, basically. The fight at WBAI is all about who has the power, and who does not. And no one has been willing to talk about that during this entire process."

Bob Lederer, a longtime WBAI staffer and active member of the Pacifica reform movement since December 2000, takes issue with activists who see manipulation as the primary motivation of Draft A supporters. The claim "that Draft A would assign discretion to this committee of inclusion to pick and choose who should sit on the local boards ... is completely untrue," he says.

According to Lederer, in Draft A demographic goals are set for an election area, and if they are not met in an election, a formula comes into play to determine who is added to the board.

Supporters of Draft B remain skeptical. "The main sticking point is that people in control now want to remain in control," argues Heffley. "And over a period of time, elections will change that."

Diversity in New York

Maldonado supports Draft B. "Not," he says, "because it's a perfect draft, but because I think that it addresses some of my main concerns, which is the fact that it allows the people more freedom to vote, and elect whomever they feel like."

As an advocate for greater inclusion of Latinos in WBAI, Maldonado believes that a fair, honest election will "give New York's Latino community a chance to play a role in WBAI that it never has before."

Despite claims by Draft A supporters that their diversity language does the most to ensure a representative board, Maldonado feels that these advocates are missing the point. "At WBAI we have to depend on people feeling sorry for the Latino community in order for us to get anything. I want... minority groups in New York to have power at Pacifica because their communities support them, not because some power at WBAI feels they need an extra board seat."

Supporters of Draft A contend that placing so much faith in the listenership and the democratic process is misguided. They contend that years of corporatization at Pacifica have created a listener base that is unrepresentative of the diversity the stations are trying to achieve. Lederer explains, "While we're not saying our listeners are reactionary, it's a problem to say that the voters will be inherently progressive and that they'll vote in a progressive way across the spectrum."

Regardless of how listeners might vote, both sides see developing a stronger connection to the listener base as crucial to preserving the network. Maldonado says, "We'll have to move beyond this conflict, and we'll have to get the community more involved. Because if we don't, you can say bye-bye to Pacifica as a functioning network. Pacifica will be gone."

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