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Community Broadcaster: Pacifica’s Teaching Moment

Community media can learn a lot from failure as well as success

This week, Pacifica Radio was handed down a nearly $2 million judgment, stemming from a lawsuit filed by Empire State Realty Trust, owner of broadcast facilities leased by Pacifica’s WBAI in New York. At issue are more than three years of unpaid tower rent and interest. While not the full amount of ESRT’s claim, the penalty is a stiff rebuke of Pacifica’s contention the company had agreed to lower rates and was now price gouging the noncommercial broadcaster.

The decision by Judge Gerald Lebovits certainly endangers the longtime nonprofit radio network, which has been in financial freefall for years. Truthdig reports Pacifica is looking at bankruptcy among its options.

As a former program director at a Pacifica-owned station, KPFT, and someone touched as a youth by its programming, I am surely one of many in the public media space saddened by the current dilemma at what has been formally known as the Pacifica Foundation. The National Federation of Community Broadcasters went on record last year expressing concern about Pacifica’s historic recording collection. Today, those precious assets alongside many more are players in what may be Pacifica’s final chapter.

Although loved in the space, Pacifica is not community radio in the purest sense. Michael Huntsberger is just one of many who have explored the enduring splits between community radio advocates and Pacifica activists, who saw their role as partisans rather than those who present diverse ideas from the wider community. Indeed, its content has seemingly been chosen with that provocation in mind, for better or worse. Longtime chronicler Matthew Lasar has covered Pacifica’s many other legacy challenges — lack of commitment to respond to the changing media landscape, beleaguered management, governance that came across more as ideological exercise than nonprofit leadership and more.

Regardless, Pacifica’s impact on community radio cannot be denied. Most famously, it was a launch pad for progressive media juggernaut Democracy Now, now its own nonprofit and carried by radio and television nationwide. Pacifica’s five licenses are in major metropolitan markets, most assuredly inspiring others for generations to create grassroots media. In addition, its archive of recordings features some of the nation’s most influential voices and struggles, including the ecology movement, the Black Panther Party and feminist pioneers like Germaine Greer. Pacifica provides content at incredibly low (and questionable) rates that boost up many community radio stations. And lastly, you do not have to look too hard for community radio stations that have messaged themselves as liberal, “Fight-the-Power” bulwarks, much like Pacifica has presented itself for at least 50 years.

The downfall of Pacifica is a cautionary tale for all community radio, for several reasons.

The basis of the ESRT case, rental fees that proved untenable to Pacifica, should remind every station securing long-term arrangements for tower space to read their contracts prudently and to weigh the impact years down the road. What was signed in 2005, ostensibly when finances may have been better, is now potentially the organization’s undoing. How are you vetting contracts? Are you forecasting your financial future? Community radio stations would be smart to review such huge contractual agreements.

How community radio stations offer their voices and content in the current era might be worthy of consideration. Moreover, in the oftentimes freewheeling community media ecosystem, it is valuable to have an internal understanding of what your content means to your community, how to represent issues and how to avoid marginal content, by which your station may be judged for years to come. Decades ago, Pacifica’s spirit of inquiry was evident in the magical on-air reading of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and the stunning 1963 debate between Malcolm X and James Baldwin at a crucial period for the Civil Rights Movement. However, that energy has dissolved at points into an almost dazzling anti-intellectual goulash of 9/11 conspiracy theories, dubious HIV/AIDS positions and claims African genital size made Greeks homosexual. You might believe such a firmly contrarian identity would make Pacifica Radio wildly successful in an era of social media and culture wars. It hasn’t. Community radio, which is often situated in far smaller cities, would be wise to think through its content strategy.

The Pacifica story may be a good example of the importance of unity. Pacifica has been dogged by internal conflicts for decades that have only been amplified by the internet’s emergence. The last few years have included Pacifica board members suing each other and bickering over cronyism. At the heart of these feuds appears to be a failure to find or make compromises for the betterment of the organization. Such extremism is aided by the fact Pacifica’s bylaws have virtually no standards for governance conduct or ethics. In times of crisis, such disunity can be a deathblow. Community radio stations experiencing their own differences might consider engaging in a discourse about conflict resolution and organizational discipline.

While community radio remains strong, whether there will be another 50 years for Pacifica remains to be seen. Through diligence and compassion may it, and all of community radio, find the best ways possible to prosper in a changing environment.