RADICAL RADIO AND ITS REBELLIOUS LISTENERS
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, California
LOS ANGELES -- The Pacifica Foundation runs five radio stations that are on the leading edge of dissent in the United States. Strategically located in Berkeley, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Houston, the Pacifica stations like to think of themselves as free speech radio. By this they mean radio that allows for the expression of ideas that are not broadcast, much less discussed seriously, on mainstream radio or television.
As discussed in my last column (http://www.american-reporter.com/2,236W/19.html), Pacifica is a mixture of thoughtful discussion, old-leftist cant and new-age chatter wrapped up in an inconsistent package that runs from the fairly professional sounding to the utterly amateurish to the truly novel.
Robert Farrell recently retired as Chairman of the National Board of Directors of Pacifica Radio. Earlier in his career he was a four-term Los Angeles City Councilman (1974 - 1991), later a member of the advisory board to Pacifica Radio KPFK (FM 90.7, Los Angeles), and then a Los Angeles representative to the National Board of Pacifica.
Bob, like myself, is a San Pedro resident who has been working with many others in creating and operating the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council (part of the newly created neighborhood council system of the City of Los Angeles). Farrell was willing to speak to The American Reporter about Pacifica - its storied past, its current state, and what he imagines the network's future to be.
At the time Bob Farrell became national chairman, Pacifica Radio was the defendant in a lawsuit brought by listeners who were seeking to have more say over programming. It is a strange concept. I may object to what goes out over KFI or KABC, but I don't own them and have no legal standing to order them to change their ways.
Pacifica is different, being organized as a tax-free corporation which is subject to all the state and federal laws that apply to all such bodies. The Oakland, California court under which the action was brought agreed that dues paying subscribers to Pacifica Radio have legal standing to sue, much as stockholders in a corporation have legal standing to sue their Board of Directors.
The lawsuit basically involved the right of the National Board to run the radio network with or without the consent of its subscribers. One might describe it as a fight over local democracy for each of the five stations vs a more centralized corporate style of control.
When we sat down to discuss this issue, Bob referred repeatedly to the Pacifica stations, management and listeners as "the Pacifica family." The analogy seems apt - it is a group of people with traits and beliefs in common who agree, disagree, join forces and join feuds, in short a family with functional and dysfunctional characteristics intertwined. It is a group who feel a sense of belonging and ownership where it comes to Pacifica.
It is also, as Farrell pointed out, a group that contains many people who are fundamentally antiauthoritarian. They almost reflexively support rebellions and insurgencies, so when a group of insurgents went after the management of Pacifica, there were many joiners.
The result was a family fight among the Left. It was nasty and expensive as only such fights can be. In a group with at least the usual amount of paranoia and paranoiacs (if not seriously more), charges and accusations were tossed around wholesale. For example, an attempt by management to ascertain the monetary value of Pacifica holdings (buildings, property, licenses, etc.) led to charges that the Board was going to sell Pacifica assets.
Farrell vigorously disputes the accusation. Listeners organized themselves into groups which passed out fliers asking other listeners to boycott Pacifica fundraising drives. Letter writing campaigns were organized.
Farrell's vow was to end the bleeding by settling the lawsuit and bringing peace to the feuding parties. The lawsuit was taken to mediation, a settlement was reached, and the judge presiding over the lawsuit approved it.
The parties to the lawsuit have been engaged in a process of drafting new bylaws, electing new local advisory boards, reconstituting the National Board, and trying to rebuild lost camaraderie. It is not yet finished, but Farrell sounded confident that it will succeed.
A usual question regarding any television or radio station is what audience share it claims. The data for Pacifica remain a bit mysterious. The previous board discussed using the Arbitron rating system to attempt to learn about its market share, but there were objections coming from within and without the Board and the study never was agreed to. In essence, there are no data for Pacifica listenership based on accepted industrywide standards.
We discussed my impression that programming on Pacifica is more and more of the hard Left, with little room for competing viewpoints. Farrell responded at length, which I will attempt to distill here:
Farrell points out that in the old days, KPFA (Berkeley, California) had a schedule containing real Communists such as Dorothy Healey alongside real conservatives such as Casper Weinberger. The description "free speech radio" obviously represented the intent and the product. His view is that as the right has coalesced and narrowed its acceptable range of viewpoints, so too has the Pacifica Radio family narrowed its scope to the extent that only leftist "politically correct" positions are welcome.
As Farrell explains, the Pacifica listenership includes a strong representation of those who view corporations as being the genesis of all the ills in the world, detest the idea of the market and feel that President Bush is truly evil. Farrell himself obviously comes from a different tradition, one we might think of as practical politics. At the same time, he accepts the idea that there is going to be a certain amount of tension among people with related but non-identical views and argues that out of this tension progress can evolve.
He points proudly to past accomplishments as proof that Pacifica has contributed to our civilization, among these that Pacifica stations played a leadership role during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and led protests against the Viet Nam War.
We discussed the fact that KPFK programs include many attacks on Israeli policies, attacks that come without what I would view as any reasonable balance. After all, where else in the United States but Pacifica Radio can you hear a weekly program titled "Radio Intifada?" Farrell agreed that there is a substantial pro-Palestinian sentiment among the creators of Pacifica programming and that to them (but not necessarily to him, or so it sounded), "There is not much the Israelis can do right."
I asked whether there might ever be a program on Pacifica defending the Zionist ideal. Farrell responded that among Pacifica listeners, the idea of Zionism is somehow associated with the Right Wing. Farrell did suggest somewhat diplomatically that to his mind, being American is to be pro-Israel in terms of our devotion to democracy and western values. In other words, the question of Israel seems to be just one more family fight among the Left and not to be taken as seriously as we might first think.
There was much more that Bob Farrell had to say, some of which may be brought up in a future column. His overall view is that where there was once only Pacifica, today there are a large number of alternative media sources. Many of these are on the Internet. He argues that Pacifica has the resources and the listener interest to continue to run its five stations but he does not envision any increase in that number any time soon. So far, Pacifica has failed to expand effectively onto the Internet in the way that many other politically active groups have done.
I have gone on at some length about this family fight among the Left, a fight which most of us remained blissfully unaware of. Why this may be important is that Pacifica represents the ultimate American expression of certain values, among them freedom of expression, and in this way it may be important to our future. The fact that Pacifica programming has been allowed to become so politically narrow is cause for concern, but this may merely be the reflection of the increased polarization among society in general, both for the Left and the Right.
Let's give Bob Farrell the last word. At the beginning of our conversation, I mentioned that the KPFK listeners act like they own the station. Bob's response: "They do."