News Item: The Pacifica National Board (PNB) unceremoniously fired executive director Summer Reese via telephone conference call in mid-March under circumstances pointing to a complete lack of due process. Ms. Reese, claiming she was in possession of a validly signed 3-year employment contract, went to work the next business day, cut the lock off the door and has been occupying the Pacifica National Office in Berkeley, California, with her mother and several supporters ever since. Both her side and her opponents state that the other workers in the office are not being interfered with. There has been no disruption to the operations of KPFA, the network’s flagship station, next door. An Alameda County judge has refused to issue a temporary restraining order that would have reinstated Ms. Reese pending resolution of a lawsuit filed by her supporters on the board. The PNB has hired a new interim executive director, Bernard Duncan, “while a search is underway for a permanent replacement.”
Why am I reminded of the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church had rival popes in Rome and Avignon, France?
Here we go again! Fifteen years ago, I found myself caught up in “The Struggles”. Pacifica attempted a takeover of KPFA that resulted in a demonstration in the street in front of the station, and the arrest of numerous demonstrators outside the station as well as news and public affairs staff in the building, including me. A three week shut-down of the station ensued.
One of the results of ‘The Struggles” was the development of an election system for local station boards which then elected members of the national board. This was supposed to democratize Pacifica. The real result was a very expensive, fractious, overly complex and time-consuming election system that few listeners cared about. Former Pacifica National Elections Supervisor Terry Bouricius issued a final report in January 2013 saying the election system should be dropped. He suggested replacing it with one in which board members are chosen by lot. I favor such a system. If lots were good enough for Ancient Athens, the Greek city-state that founded Western Democracy, it is good enough for Pacifica.
Pacifica’s election system drew so few voters in some places that, according to the Foundation’s bylaws, the results could not be considered valid. As terms ended, members were replaced with the person who had finished second in the most recent valid election. The result was a change in the faction controlling the national board. Summer Reese’s enemies took over and they booted her (or tried to boot her) and claimed they were not responsible for the employment contract signed by the previous board.
Pacifica has served a very valuable purpose in spawning listener-supported radio. There are not only 5 main Pacifica stations but about 180 affiliates. There are now other listener-supported stations not affiliated with Pacifica, as well as viewer supported television. PBS and NPR are Pacifica’s progeny. The low power FM, (and lesser known AM and TV) movement can claim descent from Pacifica as well. With traditional business models for newspapers and magazines collapsing, emerging reader-supported journalism models can also claim descent from Pacifica. But all the energy and money spent on these political machinations is no longer worth it. Corporate centralization is so Gilded Age. Modern technology has a better answer.
Smaller independent news outlets have serious shortcomings: They are often short-staffed and must rely on much volunteer labor. This cuts down on the type of work or the frequency of work they can do because of the limits of volunteer time and experience. Additionally, the sheer number of them, all with their donate buttons displayed prominently on their websites and newsletters make readers feel like they are constantly being panhandled.
An Internet portal may be the answer to keeping the independent media free and relevant without the Pacifica Foundation soap-opera.
Some of you are thinking that not everyone has Internet access so it would not be fair, especially to the poor and people of color who are still affected by the “Digital Divide”. But when KPFA started back in 1949, so few people had access to FM radio — the band was still new — that the station sold FM radios tuned to KPFA on the streets and gave them away with subscriptions to raise money.
I am not suggesting that we do away with terrestrial radio altogether. I am just saying that small stations can unify their web presences so that technical administration (and online fundraising) becomes more efficient and less costly; people wouldn’t be hit with a barrage of fundraising requests whenever they open their email or turn on radio or TV. More small outlets would find a larger national audience because they would be easier to find by checking the portal.
The portal members: radio, TV and print, would be progressive independent media who have proven that only individuals, local businesses, non-profit advocacy groups and smaller, specialized foundations dealing with specific subjects, such as the environment, women’s or ethnic media, honest government, etc contribute to them; they accept no funding from government, major corporations, or major foundations that are the non-profit equivalent of a major corporation. Members would pay an annual fee to be part of the portal. The fee would be sliding scale, based on their budgets.
Membership in the portal would be the only way the stations would be formally tied together. There would be no national board unless it were legally required and then it would only be of the size and meeting frequency required by law.
A page listing all the members alphabetically, geographically, and by media, would be easily accessible from the portal’s front page.
People could contribute to the portal and thus be helping everybody. They still would be able to help individual members by earmarking a contribution. In this way, the portal would be similar to a fiscal sponsor. It could take a small percentage of each earmarked contribution to cover administrative costs of handling the contributions. The portal would have a conspicuous but not dominating “Contribute” button and a graphic to show donation levels, thus maintaining transparency. Member organizations could still raise funds independently. But they could afford to be more subtle in their direct approaches to the public. Perhaps, in time, the on-air “begathon” could be eliminated altogether.
The portal publisher would hire a tech guru and a small web team, no more than 5, to handle the technical aspects of the portal itself and to give technical advice to member organizations. The members would still have their own editorial and tech staff to handle their own day-to-day operations. Members may keep the look and feel of their sites, or ask for one to be designed for them by the portal tech team. The members would consolidate their back ends into a common content management system. (This will take time, discussion, training and the active assistance of the portal tech team). The portal CMS would include audio and video players on the front page of the portal so that work by any member organization such coverage of extraordinary events like a major flood or mass shooting, could be broadcast in rotation on the portal. The back end would feature an exchange system much like the current Pacifica Audio Port, where stations and independent producers could upload programming for use by any other portal member that wants it. (Payment methods could be arranged).
There would be no national brand-building for the portal. There would be no national programming produced by a central office and handed down with a must-carry order. There would be no centralized owner of stations or print outlets like Clear Channel or News Corporation. The portal would be run by a publisher, an assistant publisher, each with an administrative assistants, the head of the tech team and his/her 5 helpers, and two bookkeepers who would share an assistant. Their mission would be to help the members, not to aggrandize themselves.
The entire portal team could be distributed around the country. Given today’s email, phone and teleconferencing technologies, no money need be wasted for a central office. Everyone would get the same modest base salary because all work is needed, and all people have certain basic needs to be met. A publisher is not more or less important that a tech guru, who is not more or less important than a bookkeeper. However, there would also be a cost of living allowance paid to staffers residing in the more expensive places such as New York and Los Angeles so that the pay of all staffers is functionally equivalent in purchasing power.
Instead of using technology to replace workers, let’s use it to replace bulky organizations that have devolved into places where personal power is the only thing administrators seek to maintain.
Kellia Ramares-Watson was a paid worker at KPFA from 1999-2010. She can be followed on Twitter @endofmoney. Her email address is theendofmoney[at]gmail.com.