LA Weekly film critic Ella Taylor's story on the situation at KPFK, "The Left Eats Its Own at KPFK," paints a picture of a tiresome conflict seen many times before by long-time participants and observers of political struggles within the Left.
The intensely biased piece is an attempt to get readers who know little of the situation at KPFK to buy into her framework to understand the conflict. An important problem with the story she tells is that it rests on inaccurate facts and misleading assertions and attributions, and it misrepresents both the actions and the intent of those it reports on. At its heart, the story is a thoroughly distorting and trivialized vision of the motivations and goals of the Pacifica reform movement, which is comprised of hundreds and thousands of people nationwide who have struggled against such misleading caricatures for years now.
A common argument promoted by those who have not wanted the progressive community to pay much attention to the inner-workings of Pacifica over the last seven years has been that Pacifica is irrelevant, unimportant, trivial, and that the conflict over the network is a case of much ado about nothing. Ella Taylor continues this fine tradition, indicating her initial intended approach was to describe, "two camps of battle-scarred lefty partisans fighting over very little, yet convinced that the Earth was at stake." She also compares the conflict to a fight, "to the death over the protocol of office supplies." Taylor then goes on to describe Pacifica as, "a tiny network of five stations nationwide."
In fact, Pacifica is anything but tiny. With stations in five of the major metropolitan areas of the U.S., Pacifica's transmitters can reach one in five American homes. The Berkeley (KPFA) and New York (WBAI) stations' broadcast frequencies are located in the commercial part of the radio spectrum, and in the aggregate, the value of the station licenses may exceed half a billion dollars. KPFK's licensed power of 112,000 watts is the second strongest FM signal, including commercial signals, west of the Mississippi and, given Southland's population density, can reach more people than any other signal in the West. Each of the five Pacifica stations rates between the 85th and 95th percentile of all radio stations, as indicated in Audience Research Analysis' "Station Rankings of National Importance." Pacifica is the largest independent, non-state non-corporate controlled broadcaster in the country if not the world, and its influence extends beyond its own stations to dozens of affiliate stations nationwide. So much for tiny.
In addition to its vast size, Pacifica is of immense political importance, both actual and potential. Broadcast media, in addition to possessing extraordinary reach, have the very powerful effect of legitimizing those opinions that they project. It's hard to underestimate the power of the perception that if it's on the radio (or TV), it must be significant, while if it isn't, it must be marginal. Pacifica has long been one of the few places in broadcasting open to political ideas and expression that find a hostile reception in the corporate media and the corporate-supported public media, and where the information supporting divergent opinions can be presented at adequate length to make sense. Thus, the question of what ideas and information will be deemed legitimate or worthy by those who call the shots at Pacifica matters a lot. And just as Ella Taylor's piece drips with disdain for the political views of a straw-man opposition off her creation, so too did the prior administration and its supporters marginalize wide swaths of those with whom they disagreed politically. The important questions in the struggle concerning Pacifica have been about who has decision-making authority, by what right is it granted, and how non-market (democratic) values are treated in relation to market (fundraising and ratings) values.
In thinking about the nature of the Pacifica struggle, it must not be overlooked that part of what was going on was essentially a corporate hijacking of a broadcast network worth on the order of a half a billion dollars, and as part of which the Board of Directors illegally changed the Foundation's by-laws to give itself complete control over its own membership. This triggered .four lawsuits, brought by members of station Local Advisory Boards (LABs), two groups of directors of the foundation, and listeners given standing to sue on behalf of the Attorney General of the State of California.
What is She Talking About?
Ms. Taylor opens her description of the conflicts by describing those whom she regards highly as"60's activists who have become intellectual," and those whom she does not as: "On the other [side] are 60s activists, mostly hard-line Marxists or self-appointed guardians of minority identity, who believe that any contact with corporate capitalism and white elites contaminates and dilutes the cause." It's a vivid picture, but it does not correspond to reality. Who is she talking about?
In her article, the people mentioned derided as this "other side" are myself, National Board representative David Fertig, Andrea Buffa (former executive director of the Bay Area-based Media Alliance), and interim general manager Steven Starr. Buffa was in diapers during the '68 Summer of Love, while I was five. Neither Starr nor Fertig had reached puberty. None of us self-identify as Marxists nor as guardians of minority identity. But I do admit that one of our immediate priorities is to confront the pervasive and complex race issues within Pacifica, which includes the reality that in some of the signal areas, including KPFK's, the existing leadership is predominantly white. If this concern is equivalent to being a "guardian of minority identity" -- a label I take is meant as an epithet -- then I suppose I must stand accused. It should be noted, however, that dealing with issues of race and particularly racial conflict is an explicit component of the Pacifica mission is, "through any and all means compatible with the purposes of this corporation to promote the study of political and economic problems and of the causes of religious, philosophical and racial antagonisms." As for the contaminating contact with white elites and corporate capitalism, well, before Starr became involved with work around democratic media, particularly the Freenet project and the Independent Media Centers, he was head of features at the New York office of William Morris. In my career as a neuroscientist, I occasionally consult for pharmaceutical companies (an issue about which I do, admittedly, have some ethical concerns). It is true that Fertig does sue corporations for violating worker rights. But on the whole, Ella must be thinking of someone else.
Kidding aside, I am certain that we could indeed find some people in the Pacifica reform movement who would correspond more or less to Taylor's straw-man opponent. Bbut in my experience this movement has been quite diverse, and those who I know to be the leaders of this movement do not resemble her cartoon-like characterization. Bundling all of the thousands of people involved into this narrow and dismissive caricature is merely an attempt to discredit people whose views Taylor has no intention of reasonably representing. Moreover it is an attempt to get readers to want to stay the hell away from Pacifica, and not get close enough to understand the conflict. This type of exaggeration is typical of not just Ms. Taylor's entire piece but, in my experience, with many of the "intellectuals" with whom she sides. They vehemently disparage the Pacifica reform movement that successfully fought off the takeover of Pacifica and won a guarantee of listener-elections for Local Boards that had been self-selecting throughout Pacifica's history. To be fair, however, the caricaturing and exaggeration has not been the sole province of any one of the many sides of this struggle. I have always felt that usually when such hyperbole was used, the damage to our ability to communicate the issues to those not familiar with the struggle outweighed whatever political gain was achieved. The reason for the heat, however, was at least in part the difficulty of getting an honest hearing in the media.
That the Taylor piece wasn't going to be an honest hearing, and in fact was going to be a smear campaign against the current leadership of the station, was clear early on. KPFK Interim General Manager Steven Starr put it well in a letter he sent to LA Weekly editor Laurie Ochoa prior to the publication of the piece. His analysis of the situation was prescient:
"I am writing to express my urgent concern that the LA Weekly is planning to run a hit piece on KPFK, rather than a thoughtful article that will educate your readers about some of the important issues regarding KPFK, Pacifica, and independent media.
"Ella Taylor, the reporter you've assigned to this story, has interviewed an imbalanced list of sources, largely reflecting past managements' hostility to the current efforts, and has offered only the most impoverished opportunity for current management to offer perspective. I ask you, is this what alternative, independent media has come to?
"When I first received Ms. Taylor's narrow list of questions concerning Ron Wilkins' appearance on the Lawyer's Guild show, I answered her questions immediately, and invited her to broaden the discussion. Further, in an effort to support her inquiry, I invited Ms. Taylor numerous times over the last four weeks to visit KPFK, to get to know me, the staff, the changes that are underway here at the station. She repeatedly demurred, claiming 'deadline pressures'.
"In that time period, the station has had a record breaking fund drive, a historic, network-wide "Save the KPFK Transmitter" fundraiser, and a spectrum of other initiatives that hold the promise of a positive future. KPFK's phone lines are now open, allowing unscreened calls for the first time in years. We are developing intense outreach efforts to bring community back into the station, forming programming collectives, building out remote broadcast facilities, etc.
"One might imagine these are relevant facts to a story that's been researched for more than four weeks. But after four weeks of avoiding my entreaties to experience these things for herself, Ms. Taylor appeared at KPFK to research her story for the first time this past Friday to interview two employees: one seeking employment elsewhere, and Marc Cooper's ex-producer.
"When she finally made her way to my office, she declared she had very little time, that her story was 'basically finished', and that she simply wanted to ask me a couple of follow up questions. My associate Andrea Buffa, former exec. director of Media Alliance, was in my office, and we both tried to engage Ms. Taylor in an informed discussion about developments at the station with no success.
"Ms. Taylor asked why I'd not responded to the Ron Wilkins 'paint job' comment on the Lawyer's Guild show. I told her that I had, on the very next KPFK Report To The Listener, stating publicly that there was no room for personal attacks or hate speech on KPFK. Ms. Taylor said that in her view, I should have named Mr. Wilkins in that public statement. I indicated that had I'd been interested in naming names, I'd have mentioned escalatory on-air comments made by another programmer the following day, painting Lawyer's Guild Show participants as 'anti-semitic thugs'.
"Ms. Taylor then asked how I could put someone as 'disreputable' as Mike Ruppert on the KPFK airwaves during the Fund Drive, offering his tape (Truth And Lies About 9/11) as a premium. She indicated that she'd not actually listened to the show. Fascinating. If she had, she'd have discovered that Mr. Ruppert was invited into a vigorous debate I'd organized with Norman Solomon of FAIR, who spent the entire show disputing Mr. Ruppert's journalistic methodology. His tape was then offered to our audience for them to form their own conclusions. Unlike Ms. Taylor, we have enough respect for our audience to give them both sides of the story.
"Further, Ms. Taylor took no notes in the less than 30 minutes we spent together, with the singular exception of jotting down my phrase "Forget the LAB", in response to her repetitious query as to whether the Local Advisory Board was 'running' KPFK. With that, she again expressed her need to leave. So I hurriedly asked various members of the staff to drop everything, so they could spend a few moments alone with Ms. Taylor, in a last ditch effort to try and give her a broader view.
"A very few members of my staff were granted brief interactions with her, but then she left, avoiding an interview with Armando GudiÃ±o, a new staff member, among others that were eager to speak with her. So I encouraged other staffers to reach out to Ms. Taylor over the weekend, but she's not interviewed them, despite their efforts to contact her. She's not interviewed Esther Manilla, or Terry Guy (who's tried to contact her), both staff members here of long-standing. And she's avoided an interview with Michael Zinzun (who's been trying to contact her for weeks), a member of our Local Advisory Board.
"And yes, perhaps they would challenge the picture Ms. Taylor plans to present of KPFK, as apparently Ms. Taylor prefers to limit her sources to former manager Marc Schubb, former paid host Marc Cooper, and a variety of staff members who support these two men's perspectives."
For those interested in knowing more, the entire letter is available online, along with Starr's report to the interim Pacifica National Board, which describes the programming and administrative changes underway at the station.
So What Are the Issues?
Pacifica's National Board dictated a massive restructuring of programming in the mid-1990's (not the late 1980's as Taylor suggests -- see http://www.radio4all.org/fp/myway.htm). The essence of the reconfiguration was a move from a volunteer-driven, decentralized institution -- more or less open to community participation, featuring a wide diversity of voices speaking from and to a wide diversity of audiences -- to a "professionalized" and more centralized institution. The goal was to engage in target-market programming to increase revenues and audience share by cultivating increased listening times from a larger core audience. In order to effect this change, literally hundreds of people network-wide had to be removed, in part because the changes in format dictated a move from monthly programming and a large number of programmers to more consistent daily programming with fewer voices. Again, this raises the question of whose will be among those fewer voices, and more importantly, who will get to make that decision, on what basis, and what channels of redress will be available to the listener-sponsors who support the network? (An excellent history and critique of the transformation of Pacifica is available online.)
This reconfiguration was not unique to Pacifica but in fact had been sweeping through community stations throughout the country for many years, fundamentally altering the nature of that communications medium. (For an excellent description of the process and its implications, see Rachel Anne Goodman's 1992 Why Public Radio Isn't). This thrust, championed by an initiative of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters called the Healthy Station Project, essentially imposes upon non-commercial radio the same model of broadcasting relevance as that present in the rest of media. Pacifica, and listener-sponsorship, were created specifically to create a different dynamic than that found in the rest of the media. Space does not permit a discussion of the very important issues involved, but interested readers can read more at RingNebula.com.
It is of course natural that the smaller staff given more airtime and paid more, along with the management given authority over the operation, would argue that these changes were positive, and argue -- as they have -- that all those kicked out deserved it. Those remaining would -- and did -- argue that they had a more legitimate claim on the space than those removed. But if indeed they thought listeners would agree, why was a gag rule necessary? Since the recent change of administration, the gag rule has been lifted, as have all bans of former programmers and volunteers, and discussions about the future of the network and the station have been conducted on-air with open phones. Those who previously argued that discussion of internal policy on-air was not of interest to their listeners have repeatedly used the new freedom to discuss the policy now that they dislike it, which in my opinion is entirely appropriate.
In Los Angeles, the upshot of the reconfiguration by the prior administration was a drive-time program schedule dominated by journalists from The Nation and The LA Weekly. For an extended period prior to Jon BeauprÃ©'s arrival as the morning show host, LA Weekly contributors hosted 17 of the 20 hours of locally-produced drive-time public affairs programming (which may explain why the Weekly was willing to publish such a slanted, haphazard piece, but has not covered the conflict at Pacifica since the KPFA lockout of 1999, in contrast to, for example, the LA Times). The fare frequently consisted of journalists interviewing other journalists, as well as re-runs of the same. While the view from The Nation and the LA Weekly are certainly within the legitimate ambit of Pacifica programming, the overwhelming preponderance of those views and politics -- to the exclusion of views and politics that challenge their position -- was to many entirely inappropriate. In particular, to return to the issue of race, for years there have been no people of color among the weekday drive-time public-affairs programmers, in stark contrast to the situation prior to the reconfiguration that began in 1995. This in a city more than half black and Latino. The station doubled (not tripled, as Taylor claims) the money it raised, while its subscriber figures remained, as they have for two decades, between just under 12,000 to approximately 14,000 subscribers. While doubling revenues, the station's apprenticeship program -- the channel by which new people from a variety of communities entered the station and were trained in how to do radio -- was decimated, as was local news reporting. The station was without a news director at one point for approximately a year. During this time the local newscast was replaced by re-running the half hour Pacifica Network News back-to-back. The station nearly completely eliminated broadcasting of local events and speeches. When programmers attempted to notify listeners of crucial changes to the institution they support, the response was to remove them, claiming that they have violated standards of responsible journalism.
Taylor quotes Schubb regarding the prior program schedule eliminated by the reconfiguration: "I'm sure," he says dryly, "that if you're a janitor working a 10-hour job and then another in some fast-food place, you want to come home and listen to the Marxist Struggle Hour or the Latvian Accordion Hour on KPFK." Pacifica has allowed such programming to go on, he says, "out of some bogus liberalism, some bullshit permissiveness that I think is one of the core problems of the left in America."
It is interesting that Schubb chooses to make up program examples rather than referring to actual programs on the air. Obviously, there was no such thing as the Latvian Accordian Hour. And also interestingly, the show that most frequently dealt with Marxist perspectives and politics, Suzi Weissman's, is still on the air and is one of the examples Taylor uses of what was right about the programming. Some of the actual examples of shows that were removed are: an environmental justice show, a program on the homeless by a formally homeless man, an excellent program on Chicano issues and perspectives, shows of Pan-Africanist perspectives (some of which were the subject of intense controversy regarding black-jewish relations and statements. But this is too important and too sensitive a subject to be dealt with in this limited space), an opera show, a program on nuclear issues put together by nuclear physicists and leaders of the California Federation of Scientists, and a Caribbean culture and politics show. This last one was specifically targeted by LA Weekly journalist Joe Domanick as an example of the irrelevance of prior programming in his cover story of some years ago, "Left For Dead." Domanick would later host two hours of drive-time programming a week.
The question of what the program schedule should look like, whom it should serve, how best to structure it effectively, and how to ensure rigor and quality are obviously all crucial questions. They are presently under discussion and development, not just within Pacifica stations, but throughout the Pacifica listening community. It is my hope that readers of Taylor's hit piece will choose not to abandon or vilify Pacifica, but to engage it and to participate in its future directions.
Getting It Wrong
I have referred repeatedly to the slanted, inaccurate nature of Taylor's piece. The errors, distortions, falsehoods and confusions are numerous. Some are trivial, such as referring to the classic program "Firesign Theatre" as "Fireside Theater" (possibly a confusion with Fireside Chats). Others have more content.
In disparaging Democracy Now! Host Amy Goodman, Taylor writes, "So diligently has Goodman internalized her identification with the oppressed that she has come to believe herself to be one of them. When it comes to the Pacifica wars, Goodman is hobbled by a whopping martyr complex that plays on the air as the irritating whine of the career victim. Thus WBAI, from which she was exiled for five months in a dispute with the old Pacifica board, became "the station of the banned and the fired."
In fact, Goodman began referring to WBAI as "the station of the banned and the fired" over eight months prior to her exile from WBAI, in protest over the midnight changing of the locks at WBAI in December of 2000 (the so-called Christmas Coup) and the subsequent banning and/or firing of 27 hosts, producers and volunteer programmers -- many in violation of policy or contracts regarding termination. This had nothing to do with Amy martyring herself and everything to do with standing in solidarity with those removed by the prior administration. A number of KPFK's programmers at the time, including LA Weekly contributors Joe Domanick and Marc Cooper, along with other "intellectuals" cited by Taylor, wrote a letter to Goodman demanding the following: "We are convinced that for you to continue signing off in this manner during our up-coming fund drive, would not only be antithetical to our money raising efforts, but put you squarely in the camp of those seeking to sabotage those efforts. We ask therefore, that you stop discussing Pacifica' problems on-air, and do nothing detrimental to our fund drive."
Taylor fabricates a claim that I "leaped to interrupt a Grateful Dead show and excoriate programmer Barbara Osborn for the crime of paying tribute to Cooper and asking listeners to call in their response to his suspension," during the most recent, record-shattering fund-drive. I did indeed go on the air for a couple of minutes to allay concerns of listeners, but not only did I not "excoriate" Osborn, I did not even mention her. Instead, I explained to listeners that the days of purging people for discussing what was happening at Pacifica with the listeners were over. And I explained that Cooper was not on the air during the fund-drive because "he's repeatedly expressed reservations about being able to support the station and we don'tâ€¦think anybody should be pitching and arguing for people to send in their money if they don't feel really clearly positive about what's going on." I also indicated that there would be further on-air discussion about the issues after the fund-drive. When I submitted the complete transcript of my brief on-air comments to the LA Weekly and requested a retraction of the false statements, Articles Editor Alan Mittelstaedt indicated that he didn't think the statement clearly said that I had gone on the air to excoriate Osborn. I did not excoriate her off air either and how one interrupts a Grateful Dead Show off the air from twenty miles away is also beyond me.
Taylor writes that during Schubb's tenure, "The station doubled its audience, tripled its fund-raising, and rebuilt its studio and its transmitters." In fact the data do not support this claim. There is no statistically significant difference in total audience size between the four years before Schubb's arrival at KPFK, the first three years after his arrival, and the last three years of his tenure.
The weekly audience size for the total survey area for Fall Quarters were 162,550 +/- 5,962 before Schubb, 155,200 +/- 16,921 for the first three years after Schubb, and 176,433 +/- 2,477 for the last three years. (All values are mean +/- S.E.M.). There is no statistically significant difference between these values (one-way ANOVA, p>0.37). The justification for the claim of doubling audience size comes from comparing the peak value in a single quarter and comparing it to a nadir in the prior data set. The claim of doubled audience is statistically unjustified, but it makes for good PR. What is disturbing about Taylor's reporting of this non-fact as fact is that I emailed her prior to the publication of her piece and provided data to explain the falsity of the claim. It was only since the administration was replaced that we have been able to get these data. I do not have the audience data for the late 1980's, when Taylor asserts the audience numbers were in "free fall," but I seriously doubt that Taylor has any idea whatsoever what the actual numbers were or whether she checked them out any way. And I question whether the data will support the claim.
As for the money, cumulative income for 1992-93 was $791,374 and for 1993-1994 was $874,463 (Schubb became manager in 1995). In 1999-2000, it was $1,572,961 and $1,758,703 in 2000-2001. That's a doubling not a tripling. It makes one wonder why the exaggeration? Shouldn't a doubling be enough? In the fund-drive conducted since the change in administration, KPFK raised approximately $80,000 per day of local fund-raising, and $180,000 in less than a day of national fund-raising. Certainly an increase of more than fifty percent in local fund-raising above the previous record doesn't need any embellishment.
Taylor quotes Marc Cooper calling the Local Advisory Board (LAB), "an unelected, unrepresentative lump group of eight people whose opinions are no more valid than the opinions of the first eight people you get out of the phone book." In fact, I think she dis not even get the insults right. I've read many of Cooper's invectives about the LAB and he has always referred to us as a "rump" group. I'm not sure whether I'd rather be a rump or a lump, but I don't suppose it matters much. As for the statement, it too is erroneous and seemingly quoted without checking the facts.
The LAB is an unelected rump (or lump) group of fourteen people, not eight. It includes: the executive director of the Humanitarian Law Project, an NGO that consults with the United Nations and specializes in human rights issues associated with armed conflicts around the world; one of the founders of the LA Coalition Against Police Abuse and Community In Support of the Gang Truce; a civil rights attorney practicing employment discrimination law; a leader of Youth Organizing Community, one of the largest activist youth organizations in the country; a Muslim minister, wo is also a small businessman and longtime Compton area activist; a union organizer of the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers, who is also a former national coordinator of the Green Party and former Co-Vice Chair of the Alliance for Democracy; an adjunct faculty member of Women's Studies at Glendale Community College; a lecturer in Chicano Studies at Cal State Northridge; a teaching associate in the same department who also is an FM hip-hop DJ and micro radio activist; a documentary filmmaker and media/fundraising consultant; the clerk of the Los Angeles Friends (Quakers) Monthly Meeting; the head of the Los Angeles Chapter of C.I.S.P.E.S; a longtime labor activist and former labor show programmer; and a neurobiologist.
Taylor's statement -- based on her research which consisted of "a casual trawl of Web sites" -- that "the LAB and ousted programmers constantly disrupted the daily conduct of business at the station and held meetings in which Schubb and his staff were shouted down and harassed" is also a distortion. Those interested in "the other side" of this story can read LAB Vice-Chair Julie Thompson's letter to the Weekly on these points.
The editors of the Los Angeles Indy Media Center described Taylor's article thus: "The Ella Taylor...piece in the LA Weekly was flawed to the point of irresponsibility. That a sycophantic journalist trying to make friends would bend over backwards to please is understandable. That the Weekly would print such an unabashed smear is unconscionable."
Alan Mittelstaedt, the LA Weekly Articles Editor, told me that film critic Ella Taylor was chosen for the piece because, "she had some strong viewpoints that we wanted to see expressed." He said that they were looking not for reportage but for an opinion piece, and that Taylor had excellent views that needed to be shared. The Weekly has indicated it will publish a 300-word response by the interim GM and has extended the same offer to me. As for the possibility of a piece of credible reporting on the issues in the Weekly, nothing is planned at this moment.
David Adelson is a member of KPFK's Local Advisory Board.