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Saving Pacifica Network

July 22, 2013
By

Finding Common Ground and Effectively Promoting Are Key

News Item: July 1, 2013: Current, a publication “for people in public media,” reported that “The Pacifica Foundation will lay off 75 percent of the staff at WBAI, its station in New York, in an effort to put the foundering station on steady financial footing.” “If Pacifica lays off any paid hosts or producers, it may have to determine how to fill airtime left vacant by the departures. ‘We have to evaluate all the programming,’ [Pacifica Interim Executive Director Summer] Reese said. ‘We wouldn’t be in this state if the programming were reaching a wider audience.’ ”

For many reasons, the Pacifica Network has been in financial trouble for a very long time. I worked for the News and Operations Departments of KPFA, the Pacifica flagship in Berkeley, California, from March 1999 to July 2010, always as a part-timer whose employment was defined under the union contract as “occasional” although I worked every week. I quit when cutbacks imposed by the interim GM at KPFA, under orders from the Pacifica National Board, reduced my paid hours from 11 per week to 6 while the station and the network were spending thousands of dollars on local station board elections that most listeners did not care about.

Programming and the loss of listenership were frequent topics of discussion among the staff over the years I was there. There are myriad reasons why Pacifica stations are losing listenership. Some matters are beyond their control. For instance, the election of Barack Obama brought a decline in listenership and donations as progressives mistakenly thought our long national nightmare was over. The issue is how they can reverse the trend. I think they can do it by stopping their attempts to represent as many of the disparate groups in their audience as they can cram into 168 hours a week. Instead they should focus on bringing those groups together to talk about problems that cross racial, ethnic and other ID politics lines.

Consider the much troubled WBAI. It is in New York City, which means it faces an extraordinary amount of competition, including from media outlets devoted to particular language groups. Why, for example, would a Spanish-speaking listener leave one of the 4 all-Spanish language New York area stations (5 if you count ESPN Deportes, Spanish language sports radio) to listen to a few Spanish language/Latino culture offerings on WBAI? According to the programming guide, WBAI offers La Nueva Alternativa Latina on Mondays from 1-3 in the morning, and La Voz Latina from 6-7 a.m. on Saturdays. If you are not a morning person, Adios!

Fans of all things Irish would be better off turning to the Internet, where they can get an entire listing of radio stations in Ireland that are also webcasting everything from Gaelic to Top 40. WBAI has one Irish program, Radio Free Eirann, from 1-2 p.m. on Saturdays.

Then there is the way that certain time slots are split up. The Wednesday 2-3 p.m. slot is shared by Real World/Light Show/Women in the Making and CCCP. Ten to 11 p.m. on Wednesday nights is shared by the Women’s Collective/The Open Center Show/Ethics on the Air, and CUNY (the City University of New York.) How do you build a following for your show when you are on only once a month? The answer is that you don’t. WBAI has the distinction of being the least listened-to radio station of any bandwidth (over 1000 watts) in NYC, with a 0.1 rating.

With the advent of Internet radio, which offers stations specializing in all types of music, politics, literary discussion, sports, languages, etc., Pacifica can no longer say to those not represented by the mainstream broadcast stations that Pacifica stations are the place to go if you want to hear something that represents your culture or your interests. Satellite radio, and apps such as I Heart Radio only further complicate matters for networks such as Pacifica.

The time for balkanized programming in a general audience radio station and network is long over. The answer for the growth of Pacifica and other progressive media is to focus on issues common to us all, with diverse voices addressing how each group is affected by them. Issues such as climate change, US military involvements, labor issues, health care, and government spending and taxes are just some of the issues about which we should all be concerned. Progressive news and public affairs programmers should be looking to air diverse voices who can explain how these common issues affect their communities. Even issues that seem to be specific to a certain group, such as abortion or gay rights, can be including in a larger discussion of health care or civil liberties. These issues can be broadcast throughout the day, not just at the hour dedicated to women or gays. The growing surveillance society/police state affects us all, albeit differently from group to group. But progressive whites in New York City should pay attention to what people of color have to say about the City’s “stop and frisk” policies. Whites, especially the poor, are merely riding in the back of the bus to surveillance hell.

Progressive stations should also expand their lists of expert commentators. At the KPFA news department, we had our stable of “go to” guys and gals as assuredly as the mainstream media did. Sometimes that is a matter of convenience, especially on the weekends. When you knew that Dr. So and So deliberately makes herself available for the Sunday night newscast when others do not, and you are on a deadline, you call Dr. So and So for the sixth time in the last nine weeks. Is this really any different than the mainstream news program that always calls General This and That for military analysis, or Professor Thus and Such of Ivy League University for business commentary?

The search for new voices is not easy, and sometimes it is not advisable; if the person you go to regularly is a top expert in the field, he or she should not be replaced just to get another voice on the air. But the development of sources is an ongoing process and a news or public affairs department should never rest on its laurels. Progressive media is truly doing its job when it is searching for those voices even if the search is not always successful. Building your source list is something that needs to be worked on constantly, not just in the hour or two before deadline. At KPFA, we used to have a database that was supposed to be updated by field reporters coming in from assignment. Just leave a name and phone number or email address, or better yet, a business card – there is usually at least one in every press kit—for someone to enter into the database. Alas, the database fell into disuse. Updating it would have been a great task for an intern or as we called them at KPFA, an apprentice.

So far, I have discussed issues relating to news and public affairs, but there are other scheduling issues that pertain to the general programming, in particular, the issue of block programming. If you are going to be eclectic, at least have programs of a similar type running next to each other, so that people who like that type of programming will come and stay a while. Some people think that this is somehow putting certain types of programming into a “ghetto”. Others wonder if the people who don’t like that genre of programming will come back. But if, for example, all the Spanish shows were put into a block and promoted together, you would have a better chance of getting new listeners for them who might come over from a Spanish station for a while, if the programming itself is interesting enough. The non-Spanish speakers will come back later as long as they know where their programs are.

Promotion is another issue that programmers have to take seriously at times other than the quarterly “beg-a-thons” that all public radio stations do. All programmers have to make promotional carts for their program. There should be a department in the station that gives technical assistance for this. Programmers on the air must play the promotional carts assigned to them on the programming log. Just because you are not playing standard commercials doesn’t mean you can stint on playing promotional carts for other shows. The person who makes up the programming logs cannot discriminate against certain shows when scheduling carts. All programmers should learn to forward-promote the next two shows on the schedule.

Some public stations cannot afford much of an advertising budget for things like bench ads at bus stops to heighten the visibility of the station. But abandonment of the emphasis on ID politics, development of a broadly diverse group of experts, and stronger in-house promotional efforts do not cost any money and will encourage word-of-mouth advertising. It is a waste that they are not used more advantageously.

 

Kellia Ramares-Watson is an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of the e-book Eating Poison: Food, Drugs and Health. Her next major project will be an e-book called Demonetization: Ending the Cult of Commodity. She can be reached at theendofmoney[at]gmail.com.

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4 Responses to Saving Pacifica Network

  1. Kellia on July 25, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    Mitchel,

    Yes, I do think that most people think in an ID politics manner, at least on the left, if not by ethnicity, then by race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, economic status, etc. That’s why Pacifica stations have had shows geared to particular groups. (Pacifica is not alone in this, when I visited KBOO in 2002, I found shows geared to ethnic minorities we do not serve in Berkeley). We have a show in KPFA called Rock en Rebellion that is doing what you say Radio Free Eirann is now doing. But if I am a new listener and I see that it is a bilingual Spanish program, I may not be interested if I am a member of the largest Afghani community outside of Afghanistam, which I located in the Fremont area of the SF East Bay.

    When I see Radio Free Eirann on the schedule, I think Irish. How do you attract the non Irish to listen to it? There are the promotions issues I wrote about.

    A Taxi Cab Show? Sounds interesting, but again it is balkanized by occupation, time of work, and even ethnicity, if you propose doing it from a late-night Pakistani or Indian restaurant. In “the city that never sleeps”, I would rather hear a show called “Working Late” that provides music, news and radical politics to cabbies, janitors, bakers who are up in the wee hours baking our morning breads, cops on stake out, and writers and artists who prefer working after midnight, when the city has quieted down some. Why should cabbies have a show and not the other late night workers? But you just can’t fit everybody into the schedule if you are going to split them up into so many individual groups. That’s what I mean by finding common ground.

    I agree wholehearted that getting rid of your news department is a big mistake. But your news doesn’t have to be network wide. The New York Metro area is huge and has huge news needs. I can’t stand the thought that the newscast that is run out of Berkeley covers all of California and KPFK in LA no longer has a real news department. They have a few journalists who contribute to the cast run from Berkeley. For crying out loud, can’t a station in Los Angeles have its own news department and newscast?

    How to be local without being parochial, how to realize we are in one large community when we are not all dealing with something like Superstorm Sandy, are the big challenges in an age with so many media choices, especially in major metropolitan areas where the Pacifica Network has its stations,

    Above all in the short run, Pacifica has got to stop wasting its money on damned LSB elections and put its money into what goes on the air! Pacifica is a radio network, not a graduate seminar in political science. Judging by the level of participation in these elections, most listeners don’t care about who is running the stations, they care about what is ON THEIR STATIONS. Rather than trying to make the listeners care about LSB elections, Pacifica should be paying attention to what the listeners really care about: RADIO! The best thing the network can do for its fiscal health going forward is to amend its bylaws ASAP to ditch these expensive elections. People are getting laid off. Payrolls are going unmet. Rents and other bills are not being paid. But hey! Pacifica has elections! That’s hardly a ringing endorsement for democracy.

    Kellia Ramares-Watson

    http://endingthecultbook.wordpress.com

    • Mitchel Cohen on July 26, 2013 at 2:26 am

      Well, I agree and disagree with your last point, Kellia, about Local Station Board elections. I agree that they cost too much money, and last year the election supervisor wrote a detailed plan for conducting elections that would cut the costs by 2/3rds, by using electronic balloting where possible. (For the record, I have long proposed drawing the names of listener-members to fill seats on the Local Boards out of a hat.)

      But I disagree with your main thrust in that final paragraph, one often found among staff members but NOT listeners. Listeners DO care about who is running the station (and, consequently, what ends up on the air). The elections really play a very small part in the huge debts that Pacifica is drowning in.

      The largest of WBAI’s expenses goes to paying staff; then to the antenna on the Empire State Building; and third, until recently, to the studio rent on Wall Street (we finally moved out of those expensive digs in February). Staffing expenses came to $120,000 per month; antenna rent is now approaching $58,000 per month; and studio rent was $38,000 per month. Add it up …. $216,000 per month (conservative estimate) before addressing other expenses, like the legal costs and payouts by Pacifica in a number of lawsuits by former staff (yikes!) and debts approaching $2 million dollars to Democracy Now! (I love Amy and DN!, but in my view she should simply write off the entire remainder of that debt and provide DN for no charge to Pacifica, after all those years of Pacifica’s launching and funding for her great show). That alone would go a long way to meeting payroll and other bills.

      The question of how to make WBAI sustainable is now — finally — being discussed every week in joint local board-staff-management meetings, which will present a short-range and long-range plan to the Local Board and then to National. The changing nature of the technology, and the way people now listen to music and gather news, is quite challenging for a network pretty much stuck in the stone age, and whose websites barely work at all. There’s great potential, but resistance to technological change is huge, and it crosses into every faction.

      WBAI already broadcasts many excellent programs — but no one knows about them, there’s no budget for promoting them! And, yes, some of the programming needs improvement, but even that won’t matter unless we double the listenership immediately, and then do so again within two years or so. Otherwise, we cannot sustain the costs incurred.

      It’s not that members of the Board haven’t offered quite a few excellent and well-worked-out proposals; it’s that, from my viewpoint, we’ve had an array of incompetent managers at every level who’ve actually prevented them from being put into effect. The Boards need to be STRONGER, not weakened, so that they can put in place competent management.

      Imagine what a real network of 5 primary stations and almost 200 affiliated stations could accomplish, under the right management. It’s astounding! And it’s also being thwarted at every turn by those who guard their own air-time like petty fiefdoms, and have no sense of “the whole”, of being in this fight to transform this society TOGETHER (artistically, politically, consciousnesswise, and so forth). THAT is what is holding us back. And so we trip over our shoelaces on the way to the horizon ….

      Mitchel Cohen
      former Chair, WBAI Local Station Board

  2. Mitchel Cohen on July 25, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    This is a very thoughtful commentary by Kellia Ramares-Watson, an analysis that I mostly agree with, but I’d like to add some additional thoughts pertaining to WBAI, which I know something about.

    It’s not that we shouldn’t have our own “Irish show” — Radio Free Eirann; there’s nothing else like it, not even on the web. mixing music and RADICAL politics specific to a New York audience, which may not be appreciated by Berkeley’s different audience. Kellie errs in assuming that everyone (or even most people) think in terms of “their own” ethnic bloc or identity, but a good show like Radio Free Eirann transcends that.

    What the hosts of Radio Free Eirann are doing differently is that they have just begun to broadcast from a wonderful Irish pub in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and turning the show into a living community experience — sort of the way WBAI used to do things in the old (and perhaps not so good) days, when it broadcast from a Community Church Pacifica owned (yes, we owned a property in NYC at one point), and which so-called “progressive” honchos in the Democratic Party (Percy Sutton, et al.) stole from Pacifica at the time 50 years ago!

    We’ll see how that goes. Instead of erasing whole communities from the schedule, we need to deepen those ties physically. Show hosts need to be out there on the street and in community venues physically signing up listeners to their shows by bringing the mountain to Mohammed. Show hosts need to be schooled in how to organize, and not assume that just by putting an OK “product” on the air, that the masses will flock to their radios quivering in anticipation for the show to begin.

    There is a sort of arrogance in that typical approach to radio at WBAI. It also infects much of the liberal-left couch potatoes that New York is no longer as filled with as it was 20 years ago.

    It is different in Berkeley, where there are numerous KPFA-sponsored community events. When I was out there last summer, I attended 3 of them within one month — all relevant, all jam-packed, and all broadcast over KPFA. (I don’t remember if they were all broadcast live, but despite the difficulties, well-hosted live broadcasts generate large listening audiences, IF AND ONLY IF PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT THEM TO BEGIN WITH.

    So I look forward to participating in the Radio Free Eirann weekly EVENTS (and not just stay-home-and-listen radio shows).

    We did something similar a few years ago when I helped to organize a “Phil Ochs night” at a lower east side venue, beginning at MIDNIGHT. Everyone at WBAI at the time said it was stupid, no one would show, “who’s this guy Phil Ochs, anyway?” etc. But Bob Fass agreed to host it and we arranged for it to be during his 3-1/2 hour slot so we didn’t have to fight to the death with the bureaucrats then running WBAI (and did an end-run around them). Well, it turned out that the transit workers went on strike, the subways and buses were shut down, and some thought that NO ONE would show up and wanted to cancel it. But we persisted, and — wouldn’t you know it — the place was packed to the gills. We arranged free food and drinks in the dead of winter, and it went out live over the air. A huge, huge success. The trick is to do that with every show ALL THE TIME, engage the community, be present IN the community, don’t charge much (or any) money, and don’t lecture AT them. Rebuild the base. Few at WBAI — and possibly at Pacifica — know how to do that.

    Lastly, I wanted to say one more thing. WBAI News is the heart and soul of the station, even if many in governance and/or management don’t realize that. It’s far and away more professional AND radical (meaning, “going to the root”) than anywhere else Pacifica, and management is making a huge error in laying off the News department to save funds, INSTEAD OF, COUNTER-INTUITIVELY, EXPANDING IT. There is a real lack of organizing experience among many at WBAI, of rootedness in the various communities, that underlies the lack of promotion of the various themes that Kellia suggests (and I agree with her about them).

    Our antenna atop the Empire State Building allows us to potentially reach 18 million listeners. Some of us just learned that we even own an already approved repeater signal upstate that is going unused (!).

    We need producers to go more deeply into their stories and know whom to contact. They need to work with affiliates (!) and put flesh and bones onto this network. They need to coordinate activities, learn how to do promotion and organizing, and turn their shows into community experiences — “happenings” — on a regular basis.

    For a while, the Occupy Wall Street show on WBAI was doing that, but it’s gotten stale. Instead of exploring how to revive it, management is letting it dribble away. Same with “Artsy Fartsy” (a terrible name for a potentially fine show, it just needs one or two sharp people to join that production “collective”), and now Radio Free Eirann is trying something new.

    But where is the show for New York’s tens of thousands of taxi-cabs — a built in audience, that could be broadcast live from a late-night Pakistani or Indian restaurant or Taxi-Workers Alliance “union hall”, with workers stopping by?

    There are so many possibilities, if we can only break out of the narrow-casting mindset of what we think radio is, and look to it as a means of cohering communities (with the many different ways of doing that) and overcoming the alienation that the technology imposes by the way it’s being used.

    Mitchel Cohen
    former Chair, WBAI Local Station Board

  3. occupy space on July 25, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    I’m on the LSB at KPFT in Houston, TX. We send more time arguing about the elections than we do making real change in the world on the LSB. I see so much potential in the Pacifica Network. I definitely take what you wrote to heart.

    Thank you for your words of wisdom. I look forward to reading Demonetization.

    Ingrid Turner —–> Occupy Space@twitter

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