Tuning Out the Static
"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.
"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.
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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 groupswithin 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.
In the 1950s, fueled by the reaction to McCarthyism, Pacifica shifted away from pacifist dialogue and toward the free expression of unpopular ideas. The station would no longer be the vehicle for a debate between different perspectives; it would be the dissenting voice in a larger dialogue with mainstream America. It was not a smooth transition. There were petitions and purges, firings and resignations, and charges from all sides of mismanagement and censorship. Hill committed suicide in 1957 at the age of 38. He was suffering from painful arthritis, but also years of Pacifica strife. At the time of his death, Hill was in a conflict with his board over the firings of several employees, and one former employee was picketing outside the station.
While Pacifica was able to unite around the antiwar and Berkeley free speech movements in the 1960s, the network became more fragmented than ever when the war ended. An attempt to serve diverse cultural "communities" degenerated into individualistic programming turf wars. From feminists to labor organizers to Chicano activists, every faction of the left wanted its piece of the Pacifica pie. Without a common cause, Pacifica once again turned on itself.
Today, supporters and critics of Pacifica's five stations can point to a myriad of missions: pacifism, dialogue, ethnic diversity, liberalism, resistance, dissent or various community interests. Even the network's most basic tenet of maintaining an independent funding base hasn't always been a part of its purpose; Pacifica's earliest documents do not preclude commercial advertisements, and Hill sought out large amounts of money from the Ford Foundation. Pacifica has no clearly defined goal, no consistent historical tradition, no commonality. As Hill himself lamented, "A majority of the members, like very ideological people everywhere, are so much committed to a particular tree that the forest is obscure and frightening."
Rafael Renteria gives the impression that he will defend his tree to the death. He is a gnomish man, but when he speaks it is with a big and deep and melodic voice, perfect for radio. He wears guerrilla-green clothes, long graying hair and a scarf draped around his neck. A self-described poet and Marxist-Leninist-Maoist, he views leadership as his "spiritual path" and signs his e-mails with amor y lucha, love and struggle.
Clearly cultivating his revolutionary persona, Renteria paints his life with broad strokes. He is half-white and half-Mexican, "born in the barrio, grew up in the ghetto." He refuses to give his original name, the name his father gave him when they were passing as white. Renteria was radicalized as a teenager by Pacifica's Houston station KPFT as well as by the Black Panthers and underground newspapers. He was shot at. His car was burned. And he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault on a police officer while attempting to check the citizenship papers of delegates to the Republican National Convention. The charges, he says, eventually were dropped. He has since moved from Houston to Los Angeles, where he teaches English as a second language part-time. Full-time, he is the national spokesman for the Pacifica Listeners Union, perhaps the most radical of the many movements against the present Pacifica. "I'm a doctor," he says, "and this patient requires surgery."
Renteria worked and volunteered at KPFT in the late '70s and early '80s, when the station was young, when the 1970 KKK bombings of the transmitter were still fresh in everyone's memory, when they had to go into emergency fund drives just to pay the light bill, when people slept in the lobby. A 24-year-old Renteria became KPFT's program director under then-general manager and current Prison Show host Ray Hill. Renteria says that they expanded or introduced programming for feminists, gays and lesbians, atheists, black nationalists, Latin Americans, Iranians, Palestinians, Muslims, Native Americans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Pakistanis The list goes on and on. At one point KPFT broadcast in 11 different languages.
The diversity may have been a good thing in its own right, but Hill says it also helped KPFT get through some rough financial times. "We were good at launching movements, and we were about doing radio that was radical and persuasive," says Hill, "but we damn sure were not good at managing a noncommercial broadcast facility in such a way that it was a lucrative effort." Appealing to underserved ethnic communities, Hill says, "pedaled the bicycle until we got somebody who actually knew something about radio."
Eventually KPFT did get somebody who knew about radio. In 1986 Garland Ganter was hired as the station's news director. He had studied radio and television at the University of Houston and had worked at several local stations. In 1990 Ganter advanced to program director and began an effort to streamline what he calls a "balkanized" schedule. "It used to be you had to be a very hard-core radio listener to ever get a grasp on when something was going to be on the air on KPFT. And people just don't use radio that way," says Ganter. "We wanted to make the station more accessible, and that's why we did the big blocks of programming: music during the day, news and information in the evening."
By the time Ganter became KPFT's general manager in 1994, the idea of "professionalizing" Pacifica stations was beginning to catch on. In a series of board and management meetings in 1996, Pacifica set out to create a strategic five-year plan, and Ganter's success in Houston was duly noted. "It showed us that we could change something and increase the listenership," Ganter says. "As part of the strategic plan, we decided, 'This is really working. We need to do more of it.' "
Renteria considers Ganter his nemesis. To him, Ganter's rise through the ranks at KPFT is a result of Pacifica's timid, apologetic and backpedaling reaction to the "Kulturkampf," a term adopted from the Nazis that Renteria uses to refer to the ruling class's war against the left. Ganter has overseen an end to the diverse programming that Renteria helped to produce. "What is the difference between English-only and whites-only?" Renteria asks. "KPFT is a direct appeal to a middle-aged white audience."
Renteria did not realize the implications of the changes in the mid-'90s. KPFT had always been the financial weak link in the Pacifica chain, and management was often experimenting with programming. "We didn't grasp that this was a systematic approach to taking down the whole network," he says. Now that he does grasp this, he's got bigger fish to fry than Garland Ganter, namely the Pacifica national board and the federal agency, theCorporation for Public Broadcasting.
The conspiracy theory goes something like this: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting funds between 14 and 20 percent, depending on whose numbers you believe, of Pacifica's budget. The CPB is run by Robert Coonrad, formerly of Voice of America and Radio Marti, the American government's propaganda broadcast in Cuba. Coonrad is therefore a bad guy, representing the interests of the powers that be who would like to see Pacifica's politics tamed. In 1994 Pacifica's then-executive director worked on a CPB task force that recommended making CPB funding for community stations contingent on Arbitron ratings and higher fund-raising goals. Pacifica then crafted a strategic five-year plan based on these goals.
Critics contend that these maneuvers result in a dumbed-down Pacifica that neutralizes its leftist politics in the name of market share and to appease the government elite that controls the purse strings."Pacifica is a thorn in the side of the powers that be," says Renteria. "They prefer to take that thorn out of their side."
Renteria points to the treatment of Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman as proof that Pacifica's leadership is more interested in taming politics than increasing audience and funding numbers. Goodman is an aggressive, award-winning journalist who covers police brutality, global corporatization, East Timor and death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. She attacked former president Clinton when she got him on the air and brought Ralph Nader onto the floor of the Republican National Convention. Goodman has complained of harassment and censorship by Pacifica management. Democracy Now!, one of Pacifica's two national programs, is the network's flagship show. If the real interest is in increasing audience, why would Pacifica mess with such a popular program? The board says that management was just trying to give Goodman collaborative input on the program and relieve time stresses by asking her to plan three shows a week in advance.
Back to the conspiracy theory: In order to safeguard the execution of the five-year plan and the continuation of such political censorship, the CPB helped to make the Pacifica national board self-selecting. Activists say that the local station advisory boards used to elect two members to the national board from within their own ranks. In 1999 the CPB found a problem with this practice, saying that in the interest of organizational clarity, members couldn't serve on both an advisory board and a governing board at the same time. The CPB threatened to withhold funding if changes were not made. Now, the local boards are allowed only to nominate national board members; sitting national board members then have the choice to elect them or not.
So, the conspiratists theorize, these board members are the puppets of some higher ambiguous but sinister force that would defang the network. They are drawn from corporations rather than progressive movements. They are "power brokers, wheeler-dealers and union-busters." They operate in secrecy, use heavy-handed tactics and seek nothing less than the destruction of Pacifica from the inside. Two of the most villainized are Houstonians David Acosta and Michael Palmer. Acosta, the board's chair, is a self-employed certified public accountant. Renteria has called him a tio taco, the Hispanic equivalent of an Uncle Tom. Palmer, Pacifica's treasurer and finance committee chair, works for the multinational commercial real estate firm of C.B. Richard Ellis, a company that, as the protesters like to point out, helps corporations take advantage of poor labor in factories south of the border.
Both Acosta and Palmer have been linked to proposals to sell the licenses of Berkeley's KPFA and New York's WBAI. Even though Pacifica is a noncommercial network, both of these stations have frequencies grandfathered in to the commercial part of the dial. Their licenses have estimated values of $80 million and $50 million, respectively. The idea behind a potential sale was to buy another cheaper noncommercial frequency in those markets or elsewhere and use the rest of the windfall to bolster the network.
Acosta also served on the national board's executive committee during the 1999 KPFA lockdown. Executive director Lynn Chadwick had fired KPFA's popular general manager, then several other KPFA employees who protested thedismissal on the air. Pacifica, like most media outlets, has a rule against broadcasting the network's own dirty laundry. Ostensibly, the idea is that there are much better uses of the public airwaves, and Pacifica listeners generally don't want to hear about personnel ax-grinding. But the policy has been unevenly enforced at Pacifica, and the network's "free-speech radio" advocates have christened it the "gag rule" and called for its elimination.
After a KPFA afternoon-talk-show host discussedthe conflict and potential sale of KPFA on his program, interim manager Ganter, known by protesters as the Pacifica board's henchman, told the host that he was being put on paid leave. Thanks to a sympathetic staffer, the exchange was heard on the air, and thousands of Berkeleyans began to descend on the station. Ganter switched the station to archive tapes and called in the cops.
"I wish it hadn't happened. I didn't want it to happen," Ganter says. "But at the same time there were literally people in the street storming into the radio station .We were at risk of losing the license for KPFA if we couldn't show that we could maintain control of the radio station."
Acosta, too, admits that things got out of control in Berkeley. But he also maintains that managers, not board members, are in charge of personnel and security issues at the stations. "You gotta let managers manage," he says. Still, it is unlikely that Chadwick and Ganter did not consult with their superiors on the governing board before taking the actions that led to the disaster at KPFA. Therefore, in the eyes of the protesters, much of the fault lies with the board's executive committee.
Renteria's Pacifica Listeners Union is not the only group calling for the board to "Resign now!" Former Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzales has launched a campaign encouraging listener-sponsors to boycott the network, hoping that a lack of funds eventually will cripple Pacifica's leadership. And a plethora of Web sites purport to chronicle the board's atrocities. There are even pending lawsuits: One woman is suing the board on behalf of the listeners; all of the local advisory boards, save KPFT's, are suing for their right to elect national board members; and two dissident national board members are suing for the removal of the members of their own executive committee.
The Pacifica Listeners Union is not the only antiboard movement, but it is the most nationally organized, with chapters in Los Angeles, Berkeley, New York and now Houston. Renteria hopes to make Houston the PLU's strong fourth leg. Pacifica's fifth station, in Washington, D.C., is the youngest in the network, and he considers it to be the least consolidated around Pacifica's mission. Houston holds more potential, especially after March's national board meeting here. About 300 people attended a rally at MECA that weekend; around 250 came to a "super teach-in" at the Unitarian church the next night. "The movement here in Texas heretofore has been very small," says Renteria. "We probably increased its membership at least tenfold just over the weekend."
The PLU has 15 demands, five goals, one plan of action and numerous tactics and strategies. Boiled down, they are for the following: a governance structure that puts power in the hands of listener-sponsors and workers (paid and unpaid), a reconstitution of local and national boards based on democratic elections, the popularization of the process of selecting general managers and program directors, and airtime distribution that reflects the ethnic compositions of the signal areas. They are against the following: CPB funding, the gag rule, the strategic five-year plan, outside programming consultants, Arbitron ratings, many national management positions, all foundation moneys and, of course, Pacifica national board members.
Acosta and Palmer don't exactly live up to their reputations. Acosta's CPA office is in an old house that he shares with his attorney brothers just blocks from where their grandmother used to live on the Hispanic east side. His clients are a who's who of Latino and local musicians: South Park Mexican, Carolyn Wonderland, Norma Zenteno, Raul Rekow from Santana, Grupo Ka-che, Mango Punch. Acosta himself was once a musician; his band, Sol y Luna, won Best Latin Band from the Houston Press in 1994. His music, in fact, was what brought him to Pacifica in the first place.
Acosta wanted to get Sol y Luna's CD played on the radio. When he met KPFT programmer Rick Heysquierdo, he got his chance. "He played my music, we interviewed, and then he said, 'Hey, how would you like to be on the board?' " Heysquierdo knew that Acosta already was involved in the Houston Music Council, Mexican-American Democrats and the League of United Latin American Citizens. Politically and musically, he seemed like a good fit for KPFT.
Acosta was eventually elected chair of the local board, then onto the national board, then up through the ranks to chair of the foundation. Palmer's ascension was similarly random. A KPFT listener, he met local board members through meditation groups and a Buddhist retreat center; they encouraged him to get involved with the radio station. Dissident board members say that in the late '80s and early '90s, the left let down its guard at Pacifica. "Corporate" types were elected more by default than anything else. They were simply interested and willing to do the often unglamorous work.
Palmer cautions against drawing too much from the board members' professional jobs. "I'm in real estate, but I'm completely supportive of having as little editorial control as possible across the network," he says. His career does influence his opinion that the foundation must operate in a fiscally sound manner. "It is clear from old records," says Palmer, "that at some time all of the stations, but more frequently a few of the stations were in deficit operations year after year after year." And in the world of Pacifica, where corporate underwriting is shunned and 80 percent of funding comes from listener-sponsors, the only way to increase revenue and balance budgets is to attract more listeners and their donations.
Board members point out that increasing the audience is important in its own right as well. Acosta quotes the old adage about the tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it: Does it make a sound? More than 800,000 people listen to Pacifica each week; 40,000 people are listening at any given moment. But 40 million people live within the range of a Pacifica signal. Needless to say, the network's audience share is miniscule. A Pacifica consultant wrote in a memo last year that the network has crossed the line from "under-performance" to "irrelevance." "Significant radio programming without a significant audience," he wrote, "is not a significant public service."
Hence Pacifica's strategic plan, which, if it is the product of a conspiracy, certainly doesn't read like one. The plan in fact cites many of the activists' own concerns: five global, vertically integrated media empires dominating the information and entertainment economies, thus reducing political discourse and imperiling democracy; Republican congressmen using Pacifica as a wedge issue to sever support for public broadcasting; major public broadcasting players like National Public Radio, Public Radio International and PBS turning more and more to corporate underwriting; and the Christian right pursuing radio licenses wherever they remain available.
The plan proposes that the dangers facing truly independent public programming paradoxically may provide Pacifica with an opportunity. If people truly care about "public information, reliable investigative journalism, democratic debate, social and political intelligence, and cultural programming excellence," Pacifica may be the last place to turn. "Public radio may have a fresh opportunity to define its market niche and control it," the plan states, if it can provide programming "to inspire and mobilize listeners toward positive social change" and increase its audience. But the network has to seize this opportunity. To do this, it needs money, professional management and to rid itself of "anarchic or bureaucratic systems that are simply dysfunctional in today's fierce competition."
Renteria and the other activists charge that this document is an attempt to reorganize the network into a hierarchical, top-down system to pursue a market niche and the almighty dollar -- a pursuit antithetical to their version of Pacifica's mission. But a more sensible question is whether Pacifica is achieving its lofty goals.
Since the strategic plan, KPFT has increased its cumulative weekly audience from 85,800 to 145,900, its donor base from 4,272 to 7,916, and its annual fund-raising from $396,861 to $818,272. KPFT has seen the largest amount of growth of any of the Pacifica stations. At one time, the station operated at a deficit of $150,000 to $250,000 a year. Last year was the first time in more than ten years that KPFT met its operating budget; it was the first time in 20 years that all of the Pacifica stations met their budgets at the same time. But has the station achieved these impressive numbers by providing the kind of informational, political and cultural programming that is so scarce on the airwaves now, or has KPFT given up its political and minority programming in order to attract a white, wealthy audience?
"It's the same programming," Ganter says. "We've just scheduled it differently. That's all." News and public affairs programming has made up five to six hours of KPFT's schedule since he came to KPFT 15 years ago, Ganter says. And minority listenership is higher than it was ten years ago, with 8 percent Hispanic listeners and 15 percent African-Americans. (Asian listeners are not broken out in KPFT's numbers.)
Activists argue that while Ganter's numbers may be technically accurate, the type of public affairs programming on KPFT is quite different from the good old radical days. Two of the five hours of public affairs programming per day are piped in from the BBC and PRI; locally produced news has gone the way of the dinosaur. And while the Prison Show and Wally James's Progressive Forum are still on the air, other current programs like Technology Bytes, a computer problem call-in show, simply don't compare in terms of political content to the canceled Arabic Hour or the black nationalist show Community Dialogue with Cliff Smith.
Ganter acknowledges that KPFT's lack of a locally produced news program is a legitimate complaint. "News is probably the most expensive kind of programming you can do, just because it's very labor-intensive," he says. "Because of the success of the programming changes we've made, we actually have the money now to post a news director's position." The position has been posted since last fall, but they've had trouble getting candidates.
Palmer agrees that now that KPFT is out of the hole, the station should consider additional social and talk programming "to address concerns that are in the community that supports us." A new show for Tony Diaz's reading series "Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say" may be a step in the right direction. Ganter also says that the station is preparing for a town hall meeting to find out what issues are important to the community. Incidentally, a similar town hall meeting took place several years ago. Ganter says the effort then was spearheaded by Acosta and Palmer when they were on KPFT's local board.
"I can see both sides, where people are coming from," says Nathalie Paravicini. Don't misunderstand. Paravicini and her husband head up the Green Party of Texas. She thinks corporations are running our country, has her own government conspiracy theories, says the Pacifica national board has made some horrible mistakes and does an occasional yoga stretch as she talks in her bohemian house. As a community organizer, border activist and the coordinator of a support program for low-income pregnant teenagers, she has impeccable lefty cred. And when it comes to sides, she clearly stands with Pacifica's critics. Still, she says, "I think we're at the stage where we really need to evaluate and appreciate what both sides have to offer and come up with a model where you can continue this increased solvency and good management and increasing how many people listen to it, but at the same time to really use Pacifica for what it was designed to be, which was to galvanize our community."
Paravicini's perspective seems like a reasonable and obvious one, but the middle road is perhaps the most controversial of all in the Pacifica debate. Vilified board members like Acosta and Palmer have been making some motions toward dialogue. They are planning two town hall meetings for each signal area to get community input for Pacifica's bylaw revisions. And board member John Murdock debated Juan Gonzales on a recent segment of Democracy Now!. But most activists claim they have gotten nothing but disrespect from the board for years; some even say that Palmer ripped up a list of their demands right in front of them. Now, they say, the board is playing nice because they are being sued; they just want to look like reasonable people before a judge. Besides, as Renteria says, "a prison warden may sit down and have a meeting with inmates, but that doesn't give the prisoners any power."
Paravicini has been criticized for falling into the PR trap, and for fraternizing with the enemy. She and Palmer are personal friends who met through meditation groups and silent retreats. Paravicini says that people are not good or bad, just complex. And like most people engaged in the business of saving the world, she has an unending faith in a person's ability to see the light.
She says the board is acting out of a siege mentality and doesn't fully understand the larger implications of the conflict. By the same turn, the protesters, denied representation in the network, are expressing themselves in the only ways they have left: civil disobedience, direct political action, lawsuits and a nasty PR campaign against the board members. The board needs to understand the importance of Pacifica's journalistic independence, its potential impact on the political discourse of five major cities, its relationship to the community, its need for a more democratic structure and its dependence on the activists to get the network through the tough times. And the protesters should realize that good management and financial integrity are not in and of themselves bad things. Then maybe, just maybe, they could talk about Pacifica's future in a creative and constructive way. Lew Hill certainly would have been impressed.
Paravicini has been involved in the Pacifica struggle since 1999. This February, through the Green Party and a relatively inactive group called the Houston Committee for People's Radio, she organized a series of "teach-ins" in an attempt to inform the public about Pacifica, its issues and its importance in an era of global corporate media and disjointed communities. In a bold move, she attempted to bring both sides to the table, offering the teach-ins as an opportunity for dialogue between Palmer and activist Larry Bensky, who was fired from his job as a national correspondent for breaking the gag rule. It seemed for a moment that Houston was not ground zero in a corporate takeover or the fourth leg of a radical movement, but a place where Pacifica's factions might actually begin to talk to one another.
But a letter circulated through the movement nationwide asserting that the teach-ins were being co-opted by "friends of Michael Palmer." Paravicini had trouble bringing the Houston activists to a consensus, and there were scheduling misunderstandings with Palmer. Ultimately, the debate fell apart.
Now that the Pacifica Listeners Union has taken over where Paravicini's organizational efforts left off in Houston, a dialogue seems even less likely. The PLU has issued a statement denouncing the board's upcoming town hall meetings, calling them another attempt to impress judges, divide the movement and redefine the issues on their own terms. The PLU policy committee called for local advisory boards to refuse to cooperate in the meetings and for listener groups to "decisively intervene."
And just when it seemed like Pacifica's problems couldn't get worse, the debate degenerated into a physical fight at a recent four-person protest outside a KPFT donor party. As usual, both sides have remarkably different versions of the story, but the chain of unfortunate events seems to have been sparked when a female KPFT employee grabbed some boycott pamphlets from a female protester. Edwin Johnston, this time without his red Zapatista-style bandanna, yelled, "Assault!" When he tried to grab the pamphlets back, the employee yelled, "Rape!" The official story is that Johnston pushed the employee; Johnston says the only violence that day was at the hands of Ganter and another KPFT volunteer, who beat him up. Johnston was arrested on class C misdemeanor assault charges, a ticketable offense.
Whatever the truth behind the who-hit-whom argument, it is clear that the fever pitch of the battle is causing both supporters and critics to overreact. And the scuffle will serve only to further polarize them. Pacifica's executive director Bessie Wash broke into national programming to relay her version of the incident and decry the violence of the protesters. Rafael Renteria charges that Johnston was set up specifically to provide the board and management with PR ammunition. The scene and its aftermath have become yet another rallying cry for activists.
Once again, there will be no debate, no discussion of differences, no resolution of problems. Charges and countercharges have won the day, and Pacifica has lost.
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