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Dialogue oriented programming at Pacifica

The following post by Matthew Lasar from the Alliance list is posted with permission


Sent: Tuesday, December 31, 2002 4:38 PM
Subject: [alliance] impediments to roundtable, dialogue oriented discussions at Pacifica

At 01:02 PM 12/31/02 Tuesday -0500, orlando2k@earthlink.net wrote:
> Why is it that the regular roundatable is not a feature at Pacifica..it
> always seems that shows are detemined by either the line the host holds or
> the control of the show by an organisation with a line...there are
> collectives at BAI, but not enough- and not enough of the kind of thing
> that Evan advocated here.


When Lewis Hill and his friends started KPFA in 1949, roundtable discussions were central to the station schedule. They happened almost every weekday. Pacifica invited people from the far left to the far right to debate each other over questions like "Is Atomic Energy Destroying Our Civil Liberties?" or "Is World Government Possible in Our Lifetime?" Dialogue oriented programs were central to Lewis Hill's vision of pacifist resolution of conflict.

But by the mid-1950s these programs had become rare. By the late 1950s the typical roundtable show consisted of a group of people who agreed with each other on some issue. Many of these shows were of historic significance, especially Elsa Knight Thompson's 1958 roundtable on gay rights. But they set the pattern for the next 40 years of Pacifica programming: dissent oriented public affairs shows in which the host and her/his guests emphasized agreement, rather than counterpoint, on some issue.

The reasons why dialogue oriented programming has so rarely succeeded at Pacifica are many. Before offering a few thoughts, I think it's important to explain what I mean by "dialogue." My definition is as follows: Different people with different ideas speaking to each other in the same place at the same time. That said, a couple of reasons surface as to why dialogue oriented programming so rarely happens at Pacifica.

Dialogue is more expensive to produce. It's cheap and easy to pack your public affairs schedule with ideologues who'll voluntarily come in and interview their friends (or friends of their friends) each week on some issue. You don't have to pay them. They'll take their pay by promoting their agendas to the exclusion of any other version of reality.

But if you want real dialogue--round tables, town hall meetings, etc, it's a lot of work. Someone has to call all the antagonists on some issue and convince them to come in and face off against each other. That means you need a producer. It also means you need someone with the skill to fairly moderate the discussion, make sure everybody gets their say, and make sure the conversation flows in a way that allows the audience to understand what is going on. Those tasks require someone who has the self-discipline to treat everyone fairly, even if they feel strongly about the issue themselves.

Rarely will you find volunteers who can put in the hours and the energy towards furthering dialogue oriented programming on a regular basis. What usually motivates volunteers is the furthering of some cause, or group of causes, rather than promoting something as seemingly abstract to many people as dialogue.

So economics and the motives of individual producers tend to discourage dialogue at the Pacifica stations. In addition, the activist audience tends to react very negatively to dialogue. While most listeners appreciate it, the feedback producers get, tends, for the most part, to consist of outrage that some specific voice someone deems undesirable managed to get on the air. This can really spiral out of control during periods when a serious disagreement has wracked the left, such as the feminist anti-pornography debate of the early 1980s. In these instances, listener feedback is usually completely hostile. The penalties for dialogue oriented programming become far more concrete to station producers than the rewards.

Probably the single individual who has best succeeded at dialogue oriented programming in recent years at Pacifica has been Amy Goodman, who regularly includes people from the government and the Right on her show. Goodman succeeds in this by making it very clear where she stands on an issue, even while the dialogue is taking place. But Goodman has a staff--paid producers and engineers--and that makes all the difference.

So if you want dialogue, you have to come up with the resources and the will. And those things are often rare at Pacifica. If I had to make one rule for volunteer producers, it would be that all public affairs staff must interview individuals on a noticeably regular basis with whom they disagree. That would result in a very different air sound at Pacifica very quickly. But to expect more from volunteer producers would be unfair unless the station provided various kinds of support for them, especially help with production and finding guests, and that has rarely been forthcoming at any Pacifica station that I know.


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