The fight for independent, non-corporate radio flares up again

Here we go again. Listener democracy at the Pacifica radio network is in deep jeopardy again because the same people who violently shut down WBAI in 2019 and forced an expensive referendum that was soundly defeated in 2020 have forced a second bylaws referendum.

Having lost last year’s referendum by a 2-to-1 margin — losing by lopsided majorities in both staff and listener balloting — that should have been the end of it. Especially as the 2019/2020 escapades cost Pacifica and its five stations hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal and other expenses and in lost fundraising.

Instead of accepting that listeners of Pacifica’s five stations were not interested in a corporate-style takeover that would have placed uncontested power in the hands of coupsters, the same people are attempting another takeover. The tactics are different this time and they’ve adopted a new name (“New Day Pacifica”) but make no mistake, the goal is the same. Listeners didn’t fall for it last time and we shouldn’t this time, either.

(Graphic by Seth Tobocman)

We’ll get to some of the details below, but the summation of this latest takeover attempt is this: If the “New Day Pacifica” bylaws referendum were to pass, a small self-selected elite would assume unaccountable power for three years with the ability to control a majority of the National Board. Each of the five station’s local station boards would be stripped of all power, reduced to toothless advisory committees, and diversity would potentially cease to exist on the National Board. The coupsters have advanced no plans for how they will miraculously reverse Pacifica’s difficult financial situation, simply insisting that power be centralized in their hands (while denying that is what they are asking for).

That New Day Pacifica has been less than forthcoming in promoting its referendum doesn’t lead to confidence. Nor does a parallel December 2020 lawsuit attempting to take over Pacifica through the courts — once again diverting listeners’ donations to defending frivolous legal maneuvers — inspire confidence that they have the interests of Pacifica at heart. Put simply, based on the actions of the past two years, there is ample reason to believe the goal is to either take over the Pacifica radio network or destroy it.

Unaccountable boards have led to disastrous results

The past history of self-selecting board members at Pacifica is instructive. Two decades ago, the national board of Pacifica had become unaccountable, with board members with corporate backgrounds selecting like-minded people to fill board seats and trying to rewrite the bylaws to not only sell off one or more Pacifica stations but to be able to personally pocket some of the proceeds. That unaccountable National Board led to crises that culminated in the lockout of KPFA in 1999 and the Christmas Coup at WBAI in 2000, triggering a long struggle that culminated in the current democratic bylaws structure. 

Flash forward to 2019, and a rogue minority faction on the National Board, intent on selling the New York station, WBAI, and use the proceeds to benefit the Western stations in the network, launched a coup. Farcically insisting they were attempting to “save” WBAI, coup mongers, led by since fired Interim Executive Director John Vernile (then on the job for all of two months!) and National Board Secretary Bill Crosier, removed WBAI from the air in the midst of a fund drive. 

The fund drive was stopped, the web site at which listeners could make donations was disabled and all local programming was taken off the air, replaced with canned programming from California with no local content. The team led by Mr. Vernile that descended on WBAI the morning of October 7, 2019, dismantled the equipment, rendering it impossible to broadcast; immediately fired all employees; confiscated the station bank account; took checks left in the office; put padlocks on the doors; and told the station’s landlord she should find a new tenant while cutting off rent payments. The WBAI web site, including all archives of past shows, was wiped clean and replaced with a one-page site with a propaganda message justifying the coup. Not the actions of people with the interests of listeners at heart.

That coup would be reversed a month later, but the other half of the coup attempt, a referendum on bylaws proposed by those behind the WBAI shutdown, remained to be contested. It was defeated by a nearly 2-to-1 margin by both listeners and staff a year ago.

Nonetheless, we have to go through this again, instead of putting energy into tackling Pacifica’s problems. This time the proposed bylaws, while still undemocratic, are written a little more subtly to better disguise the intentions. Once again, those wishing to put an end to listener accountability at Pacifica cite the network’s financial difficulties and point to questionable fundraising premiums. Financial problems do exist and some fundraising programming should be condemned. Those are real issues, although the current National Board has reported progress in stabilizing the finances. New Day Pacifica claims that centralizing power in its leaders will magically solve the network’s problems but have not offered any specifics. Three of the four New Day leaders who would be given the top four positions on the National Board should the bylaws referendum pass are current or former members of the Pacifica National Board and/or local station boards, so it is reasonable to ask why they haven’t already used their superpowers to help solve the network’s problems.

Plan would eliminate local control

One subtle difference with last year’s proposed bylaws is that instead of outright eliminating each of the five Pacifica stations’ local station boards, which currently are democratically elected by members through ranked-choice voting, which ensures that different factions and perspectives are represented, this time the LSBs would be retained, but stripped of all powers. Instead, they would become advisory bodies with no responsibilities. All power would be centralized in a new National Board, which the New Day coupsters have designed to virtually guarantee their dominance.

New Day’s early tactic was to claim that the four leading positions on their proposed board would be elected by a direct vote of listeners. What they conveniently “forgot” to say was that those four positions would be handed to four pre-selected faction leaders for three years before there would be any elections. This would be a profoundly undemocratic board, and not only for the preceding reason. Each station is currently represented by four board members, each of which was elected to their local station board, and seated in such a way that major voting blocs earn at least one seat. Under the New Day proposal, each station would have only one representative, putting an end to diversity. Affiliated stations — those that aren’t part of the network but which carry programs originating on Pacifica stations — would have their representation cut in half to one seat. Paid and unpaid staff would each get one seat — again assuring that there won’t be a diversity of viewpoints. Finally, in an echo of the 1990s self-selecting board, three seats would be appointed by a board majority.

That’s a total of 15 seats. Each of the self-selected people for the four top seats are from the three Western stations, where this coup attempt is originating, and given that the two California stations have by far the biggest staffs, they would likely fill the two staff seats. If pro-New Day people win those seats — or even one of the two — then they would have a board majority before selecting the appointees, and would be able to pack the board with their allies. Thus New Day’s proposed bylaws changes would install the coupsters as an unaccountable management for three years, an amount of time in which the entire character of Pacifica could be altered. The two East Coast stations, WBAI and WPFW in Washington, could be reduced to having only two of 15 seats on the National Board, a drastic change from the current system of equal representation of all five stations.

Once again, it must be asked: What do those behind New Day propose to do with their centralized power? Ann Garrison, writing for Black Agenda Report and CounterPunch, suggests that erasing anti-imperialist voices may be on the agenda. She is far from alone in raising that issue. She writes:

“In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Pacifica was a radical, antiwar, anti-imperialist network, perhaps most admired when WBAI sent the first American reporter to broadcast from North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Today, however, much of Pacifica has—like the rest of what now passes for the left—given way to identity politics, Democratic Party politics, Trump Derangement Syndrome, and even national security state narratives. … The network still has an anti-imperialist wing and I’m on it, but the list of Pacifica staff endorsers makes me think that our days will be numbered if the New Day Pacifica bylaws proposal passes. … Many Pacifica programmers wouldn’t sound out of place on NPR, and some have moved on to NPR employment.”

Contrasting those for and against democracy

Among those endorsing a “no” vote on the bylaws referendum are Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Oscar Lopez Rivera, Danny Glover, John Samuelsen (International President of the 150,000-member Transportation Workers Union), Medea Benjamin, Cindy Sheehan, Abby Martin, Michael Parenti, Sharonne Salaam and Fernando Velázquez. One of the leading “yes” proponents, backing New Day, is KPFK’s Ian Masters, one of those hosts who would indeed be right at home at NPR; he would actually be one of the relatively more conservative voices on NPR were he a host there. He stands shoulder to shoulder with the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, declaring Mr. Abu-Jamal guilty despite the massive evidence of innocence and well-documented decades of legal railroading. And that tells us what we need to know about who and what are behind New Day.

That the New Day faction is a minority intent on hijacking the network can be seen in the repeated advisory board votes opposing their referendum. The Pacifica National Board voted 16-4 against it, with one abstention — even a majority of the representatives of the Western stations voted against. The local stations boards of WBAI and WPFW both voted unanimously against it; it is a rare day when the WBAI board, composed of three distinct factions, votes unanimously on anything. KPFK in Los Angeles voted against it, 14-7. KPFT’s vote fell short of the necessary majority and thus failed. Out of six boards, only one, KPFA, voted in favor.

(photo by The City Project)

Alex Steinberg, chair of the National Board (but here stressing he is speaking only in a personal capacity) and a long-time activist, notes that New Day’s leaders have refused to work with others to tackle Pacifica’s problems. He writes:

“What has New Day proposed to solve our problems? Nothing at all really except the vague promise that unknown ‘Professionals’ will be hired to fix everything. This is either a deliberate fantasy or delusional thinking. Will the ‘Professionals’ that New Day wants to hire be people like former iED John Vernile, who was responsible for the illegal shutdown of WBAI? There is no way to know since they are not saying, but one has to be a little suspicious since two of the named officers who will be running things, Aki Tanaka and Jan Goodman, were enthusiastic supporters of Vernile and his illegal shutdown of WBAI. 

If New Day was working in good faith they would have worked with the PNB to come up with a few well crafted amendments that we could all have agreed on. But instead they went behind our backs and in secrecy rewrote the entire bylaws which they are trying to impose on us through a well funded propaganda campaign. That is the height of arrogance and elitism.”

The lawsuit paralleling the bylaws referendum

It also shouldn’t be forgotten that there is an active lawsuit also seeking control of Pacifica, part of a “good cop/bad cop strategy” as Building Bridges host Mimi Rosenberg succinctly puts it. Three KPFA board members — Christina Huggins, Andrea Turner and Donald Goldmacher — along with a former KPFA board member, Craig Alderson, sued Pacifica in Los Angeles Superior Court, demanding all of the network’s assets be placed in the hands of an independent party appointed by the court, a process known as “receivership” in which the court-appointed party can dispose of assets at will. The filing made a series of wild, factually incorrect assertions in an attempt to claim Pacifica is irretrievably riddled with “malfeasance and breach of fiduciary duties by directors.”

The lawyer for these four, Stephen Jaffe, issued a press release repeating the wild accusations contained in the lawsuit and added a few more, including wrongly asserting that Pacifica is “at an immediate risk of loss to foreclosure by one or more creditors,” an allegation incessantly put forth by New Day. A large loan that was to have been due in 2021 was well in the process of a renegotiation postponing payment for 18 months, a fact well known at the time. So what we have here is a naked attempt at a takeover, through different means. The immediate bid for a receivership was swiftly denied by the court but legal proceedings will continue and will cost the network money to defend.

Ms. Rosenberg notes the “contempt for democracy” behind these actions.

“Whether adherents of New Day Pacifica’s principles proceed by ‘hook or crook,’ either to imposing a costly second referendum in less than two years to dismantle Pacifica’s governance structure, or by court action to impose receiver over the network, they are antagonists of inclusive governance, radio by the people and for the people. They reject the principle that elected representatives from the gorgeous mosaic of listeners, who with their sweat and finances, along with the workers, drawn from Pacifica’s 5 stations, and hundreds of affiliates across the country, with their unique cultures should govern the network they created. NDPers reject the idea of inclusive democracy, where the marginalized, disenfranchised, discriminated against and historically locked out of power from the multi-racial working class get to speak for themselves and together formulate the policies and practices that make real radio by the people for the people.”

A lack of transparency also raises questions about New Day. One of the four to be handed a National Board seat without election should the referendum pass recently penned an article promoting New Day, but conveniently “forgot” to mention his self-interest. Later, New Day refused to participate in a WPFW broadcast debating the proposed bylaws, but another one of the four self-selectees called in and spoke in favor without identifying herself; several people listening, however, recognized her voice. (In the spirit of transparency, I have never held any position within Pacifica but I am active with WBAI Fightback and was also active in the fight to undo the 2000 Christmas Coup.) 

“New Day has deep pockets, slick propaganda, and is trying to buy this election on a ‘rule or ruin’ basis,” an analysis of the bylaws referendum published by Pacifica Fightback notes. “Centralization of power will lead to gentrification of the airwaves, marginalizing the voices from communities in struggle that are shaping the future and developing solutions to inequality and injustice! Don’t buy the hype — it’s more democracy, stronger ties to the communities we serve, and developing multi-media and social media platforms that will save Pacifica, not ‘white-knight’ progressive investors or management appropriate to commercial radio or commercially-underwritten ‘public’ radio.”

Listener-members and staff of the five stations can vote from June 7 to July 7. Both listeners and staff must each vote “yes” for New Day’s bylaws to take effect, and the numbers of those voting must reach a quorum. If you are a Pacifica listener or staff member who values community radio, hearing alternative voices and democratic accountability, please vote “no” on the bylaws referendum.

9 comments on “The fight for independent, non-corporate radio flares up again

  1. Thomas Prentice says:

    Regime Change, destabilization, hostile takeover, Michigan local democracy, uber alles. The Iraq War comes home.

  2. Thanks for the breakdown. I’ve watched coups, corporatization, and corporate takeovers happen all over left media for decades. Do you know of any sources that detail this?
    I’ve felt for a long time that there is a larger story to be told here – that needs to be told. One that needs a serious investigative journalist or researcher to do it. I know it’s part of neoliberal capitalist corporatization, but a lot of these takeovers look very similar to each other. I wonder, at the very least, if some of the people could be connected to each other, to foundations, corporations, etc…If I were doing the investigation, that is where I would start.
    Anyway, I’m not the person to do it, but I have wondered if anyone has ever done anything that you know of. Thanks again for writing this.

    • That’s a good question. Unfortunately, I don’t immediately know of any such resource but it’d be valuable if somebody did produce one. The book Manufacturing Consent is an outstanding source for how the corporate media works, but that’s a different, even if related, topic.

  3. […] The fight for independent, non-corporate radio flares up again […]

  4. I’ll give you that this is well-written but I disagree. First, WBAI is corrupt. They get much of their funding from a snake oil salesman named Gary Null and have for years.

    Not only is he a grifter selling worthless health products but he’s also an antivaxxer, which has deleterious health consequences for listeners who may be convinced by that viewpoint. I bet if you look at the other stations you will find similar scams although maybe not anything quite as corrosive. How could this be seen as a superior funding source to underwriting? You say that you’re not corporate but the actual sources of funding are worse than the majority of corporations, even from a left-wing point of view.

    You must get funding from somewhere. Right now you won’t get funding from any normal source, so the actual method becomes awful! What could disrupt that bargain? I’m not a leftist but I’ll try to consider it from a leftist viewpoint. If you move to underwriting then I guess the rationale for Pacifica might end, for what then is your comparative advantage with NPR? Maybe it’s best that this network does end. Or maybe you should break in half so the East Coast can go its own way. How does the funding work at a national level? People at Pacifica have claimed they had to bail out WBAI. If you split the network in half then maybe the pieces would be small enough where governance can function and the profiteers are unable to worm their way in. I know little about the other stations but I would be surprised if the situation there was as bad as at WBAI so if the West is making a power grab over the East it might help if anything!

    • “News Consumer,” you using the tactics of New Day — pointing out a real problem with the Pacifica network and then offering no solution to it and, in fact, preventing people of good will from dealing with the problem.

      Yes, I agree that Gary Null’s anti-vaccine propaganda is dangerous and irresponsible. I would add that he might well get somebody killed given that he has a large audience that hangs on his every word. But because he has a large audience, that audience provides a significant fraction of the funds raised to sustain the station and network. There is only one solution to this problem and it is this: Growing substantially the listening audience and thus growing substantially the base from which donations can be secured. That would eliminate the dependency on any one programmer and would enable station management to put an end to snake oil and right-wing conspiracy theories that also sometimes are heard during fundraising.

      What I need to stress here is this: The people opposed to the New Day takeover attempt of Pacifica (and that includes almost everyone at WBAI and WPFW in Washington, and substantial numbers of people at the other stations) would like to tackle the network’s problems. Most of us would like to eliminate the irresponsible fundraising programs. But we can’t do that until we are free to tackle head-on the network’s problems. And we can’t do that because we have to repeatedly drop everything to defeat these repeated coup attempts.

      The New Day coupsters have no answers for Pacifica. They say give us total control and we’ll magically solve the problems. Three of the four who would be installed on the National Board as uncontested leaders have been on the National Board and/or local station boards without presenting any tangible solution. It does not escape our notice that New Day has never presented any plans of what they would do with their absolute power. Because New Day’s leaders have long advocated selling WBAI so that the proceeds could be used to subsidize the California stations and that they enthusiastically backed the 2019 violent shutdown of WBAI — in the middle of a fund drive — it can only be concluded that the “solution” New Day would impose should they gain control would be to sell WBAI. And maybe sell WPFW as well.

      Add to this that New Day’s propaganda has been a ceaseless cascade of lies and red-baiting, and that New Day backers at KPFT in Houston just purged Black and Latinx programming, speaks volumes. After the purge, KPFT now has 95 percent White producers — Houston is not a 95 percent White city! It is quite obvious that New Day wants to either control Pacifica, and turn it into a NPR or NPR-lite network purged of progressive and BIPOC voices, or to destroy it if they can’t control it. Open your eyes, “News Consumer,” and see what’s clearly in front of you.

      Voting on the Pacifica bylaws referendum continues until July 7. All producers and listeners are urged to vote NO and keep democracy alive at Pacifica. That is the only way we will be able to solve Pacifica’s problems and put it on a sounder financial footing.

      • Gary Null is not a recent addition to WBAI. That link I included was from 2011. So the bylaws change attempts are not why they rely on him. He’s been there many years.

        A big change is needed! To be clear I don’t think New Day Pacifica is going anywhere, at least not this year. In addition to what you’ve said, on Twitter the balance is more opposition than support for New Day.

        What’s your opinion on whether WBAI or Pacifica should accept underwriting for funding? Is there a Pacifica rule against it? I didn’t even know what it was, by the way, a week ago. Apparently it’s the radio station staff reading a message from an outside group in exchange for money.
        This guy tried to accept it one year from a labor union then he got fired. So I guess WBAI can do it if they want. I’d say they should immediately accept it to get Gary Null and the scams off the air. If they want to frame it as an emergency funding source and try to reduce it over time, that’s fine.

        • Gary Null has a daily program that has aired on WBAI for many years; that is in part why he has built a large following. I myself have been a WBAI listener for 30 years, and my partner has a weekly show on it, a few hosts are friends and I have been a guest on several shows over the years, so I am very familiar with the station’s strengths and weaknesses.

          Actually, the New Day people, despite their opportunistic pointing to questionable fundraising programming, are in the aggregate more favorable toward Null than are those of us opposed to the New Day bylaws referendum. Plenty of New Day opponents have loudly protested the use of fundraising gimmicks that are by no means limited to the offerings of Gary Null. The complaints about fundraising practices are a smokescreen — what New Day wants is control of the network and they will use any means to get it. That’s why we have to keep fighting off these coup attempts, which keeps everybody from being able to concentrate on solving problems.

          As to underwriting, I and most others at WBAI would say a firm no. Once you start taking corporate money, you are beholden to your corporate funders and you are no longer independent or a community voice. Underwriting is what sustains PBS and although there is some good programming on PBS, there is also a lot of programming with a corporate viewpoint similar to what is heard across the mass media. WBAI and Pacifica must maintain being voices of people and therefore must continue to refuse underwriting. It is very likely the New Day people, were they to gain control, would accept corporate money — that would be the end of Pacifica’s mission. Can’t we have one radio station not controlled by money?

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