Tuning Out the Static

Protesters scream about censorship. The board denounces potentially crippling boycotts. Will the two sides in the Pacifica conflict ever learn that, beneath their shrill cries, they're on the same team?

"Something big is about to happen," says Edwin Johnston. Tall and lanky, with a mop of curly hair, Johnston seems kindhearted but crazy -- the latter impression aided in part by one plastic eye and in part by a demeanor akin to a ten-year-old gone off his Ritalin. Johnston had been one of the biggest troublemakers at Montrose's troubled pirate radio station. Now he's busy waging a "countercoup" against our nation's illegitimate president and fighting Pacifica Radio's takeover by corporate vultures. At the Pacifica national board meeting the day before, Johnston had mistakenly screamed at his own supporters, presented his comments from behind a red bandanna worn "Zapatista-style" and, mouthing off to a black hotel security guard, likened the hotel to a plantation. "Something big is about to happen." There is simply no telling what he means.

On this early March morning, the Pacifica national board members sit, some with their heads in their hands, listening to the impassioned and angry pleas and condemnations of the many New Yorkers who have traveled to Houston's Doubletree Hotel on Post Oak to protest what has happened at their Pacifica station, WBAI. The day after Christmas, Pacifica management fired three longtime employees, banned several volunteers, brought in security guards and changed the locks at the station. The activists called it the Christmas Coup. The board called it a management decision.

Actually, the WBAI firings are only part of the complaints loudly lodged by Pacifica's critics. As banned WBAI producer Janice K. Bryant takes the microphone to present the activists' "Houston Declaration," she lists, among many of the board's offenses, censorship, a reduction of diversity, union-busting and heavy-handed tactics like the "armed occupation" of Berkeley's KPFA in 1999, which brought 10,000 people to the streets in protest. To hear the activists tell it, these crimes against progressivism are the result of an undemocratic board full of businessmen who care more about increased listenership and the funding that comes with it than they do about Pacifica's left-leaning mission and history.

Edwin Johnston: Pirate programmer, Pacifica protester and bandit.
Deron Neblett
Edwin Johnston: Pirate programmer, Pacifica protester and bandit.

"Our differences are irreconcilable, ir-re-con-cilable," said Bryant. "The only thing we will negotiate with you are the terms of your departure. We are tired of petitioning you to do what is right."

As Bryant finished her statement, the entire audience stood up on cue, turned their backs on the board and began chanting "Resign now!" then "Sha-na-na-na, sha-na-na-na, hey, hey, hey, good-bye!" The frustrated board members left in a huff out the back door; the chanting protesters filed out the front; and the police cleared the ballroom of the few remaining confused observers. There would be no debate, no discussion of differences, no resolution of problems. The last listener-sponsored, progressive, independent, community radio network would continue to be torn apart from within, and not for the first time. Pacificans have been fighting with one another over the mission and operation of their network virtually since its inception. This latest internecine battle has been touted as the one that might disband the network and take Pacifica down. That would be a crime, perhaps a larger crime than anything alleged from either camp, because beneath all the misinformation and management blunders, the charges and countercharges, the posturing and grandstanding, these two sides simply don't seem so far apart.

The ironic thing about the drama at the national board meeting is that Pacifica was founded on the principle of dialogue. Lewis Hill was a pacifist and World War II conscientious objector who held the somewhat naive belief that a radio station could act as a "living room," where people could get together and talk through their conflicts, thus precluding the need to resort to war. The Pacifica charter of 1949 promised to "contribute to a lasting understanding between nations and between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors."

According to historian Matthew Lasar's book Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network, the Pacificans planned to demonstrate pacifism in action, and to broadcast folk and popular music, for the ethnically and economically diverse working-class community of Richmond, California. But the FCC denied Pacifica an AM license, and FM receivers were rare back then, the province of the elite and the educated. So Hill and his associates launched Pacifica's first station, KPFA, on the FM dial in Berkeley. Its first subscribers were largely white, middle-class liberals; 70 percent of them had gone to graduate school. These intellectuals listened to debates with such titles as "Is the Atomic Age Destroying Our Civil Liberties?" and to the "authentic" music of the economically disinherited, like jazz and blues.

This is only the first of many compromises in Pacifica's often misquoted, murky history, a history that lays the groundwork for much of the current controversy. Hill painted the station's mission differently to appeal to different funding sources. For the vast majority of Pacifica's liberal donors, for instance, he played up not anarcho-pacifism but the liberal ideals of social justice, personal liberty, balance and fairness.

Later compromises would come as a result of Pacifica's lack of structure. "The language of the foundation's by-laws empowered everybody and nobody to do everything and nothing," writes Lasar. "It gave someone who regularly answered the phone at the station the right to object to how the next fiscal quarter's debts were amortized." The foundation did have a handful of officers and a five-person committee of directors, but ultimate authority lay with the "executive members," i.e., anyone who worked for Pacifica. A director's decision could be overruled by a group of employees. Because there was no real hierarchy of governance, it was easy for different groups within the organization to fight Hill over its guiding philosophy. And Hill couldn't appeal to a democratic mandate; like most nonprofits, Pacifica excluded its subscribers from a formal voice in the foundation.

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